Vancouver ahead of the curve on open civic data

The O’Reilly Radar blog speculates on what a city with open data access might look like, in a recent post cleverly entitled How Long Is Your City’s Tail?:

It has all of the familiar city-run departments providing all of the services and assistance they’ve always provided – that’s not going away. Then it also has public services offered by the mega companies, the Google Traffic, IBM’s Smarter Cities, and so forth. Those are huge added value to these open cities – they’re used by a large percentage of residents and make life in those cities better.

But THEN, it also has an insane long tail of services set up and run by anyone with an interest in doing so, just by hooking into city data, distributing it in a new way, improving on it, mashing it up, giving it back to the city, etc. These services each individually get used by a small minority of people, but collectively they get used by more than any other single source in the city.

The post namechecks San Francisco and Washington DC as open data leaders – but with wouldbe-Canadian-immigrant pride, I noted: no Vancouver? Didn’t they hear:

As part of its commitment to enhancing citizen engagement, fostering digital innovation and improving service delivery, the City of Vancouver is taking bold steps to provide more of its data to the public…By freely sharing its data in accessible formats — while respecting privacy and security concerns — Vancouver is joining many government agencies in moving to harness the energy and involvement of citizens, community-based organizations and private businesses in everything from creative community problem-solving to the development of new service delivery ideas and solutions.

That language is from Vancouver’s open data portal, which is enabling all kinds of cool applications for civic data — such as, which will send you email or twitter reminders before garbage pickup day.

So Vancouver is opening itself up. Will the rest of Canada follow Vancouver’s lead? David Eaves, one of the developers and champions of Vancouver’s open data practices, notes that there are deep-seated political differences between US and Canadian views regarding ownership of public data. He writes:

In the United States the burden is on the government to explain why it is withholding that which the people own (a tradition that admittedly is hardly perfect as anyone alive from the years 2000-2008 will attest to). But don’t underestimate the power of this norm. Its manifestations are everywhere, such as in the legal requirement that any document created by the United States government be published in the public domain (e.g. it cannot have any copyright restrictions placed on it) or in America’s vastly superior Freedom of Information laws.

This is very different notion of sovereignty than exists in Canada. This country never deviated from the European context described above. Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III’s descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared. This is the (radically different) context under which our government (both the political and public service), and its expectations around disclosure, have evolved.

Here’s hoping Vancouver’s public servants uphold their enlightened views on data sovereignty, and that Vantrash is just the beginning of Vancouver’s “insane long tail” of open data-driven services!

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