Is your open data 5-star?

May 8, 2018 Karen Stewart

It’s Open Government week, and that’s a great opportunity to review, rank and revisit what it means to be an Open Government and to celebrate our collective progress.  For many, the heart of an Open Government strategy includes an open data program.  With this in mind, I pose these questions: Is your open data worthy of a five-star rating?  Is your open data really open? Is your open data current enough to be useful? Is open data driving efficiency within your municipal organization? Does your open data align with and encourage collaboration in identifying and solving your community goals? Are you able to engage your stakeholders (internal/external partners and/or constituents) in your decision-making processes?

I know that these are just some of the questions keeping municipal leaders up at night. To address these common questions, Esri Canada recently launched a new Open Data for Impact course which focuses on best practices and the process of building open data sites while considering how to create efficiency and synergy between people, data, process and technology. More on that later.

We all know that if we want to make government more accessible, we must give greater access to government data and information to the public and business community. How do we do that exactly? Most municipalities start with open data catalogues as the first step to becoming more transparent. Is this really working though? Let’s first understand what open data is in the municipal context.

What is open data anyway?

Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone. The Government of Canada explains open data as structured data that is machine-readable, freely shared, used and built on without restrictions.

According to the Paris Innovation Review’s ‘A Brief history of Open Data’ the term open data first appeared in a document from an American scientific agency in 1995. It dealt with the disclosure of geophysical and environmental data. Open data was promoted as a transparency tool. To check off the transparency box, government organizations initially worked hard to publish datasets that were readily available digitally and those that didn’t pose any FOIP or other legal ramifications. Because there was no focus or designed purpose, datasets were random with the majority being GIS data.

Fortunately, things are different today. Open and accessible data has a very significant role in today’s knowledge-based economy. On a municipal level, it enhances the relationship between the city and its residents, creates transparency, accountability and promotes entrepreneurship and innovation. Data-savvy individuals and organizations can harness the rich data being produced every second to serve a variety of requirements.

Not all open data sites are created equal. However, all open data sites must be able to help achieve the goals they are designed for. The onus is on municipalities to outline the capabilities that they desire in their open data portal, create benchmarks and proceed from there. If you are looking for a stellar open data site that will meet your municipal goals, we have made it easy for you. Check for the stars and see where you stand!

 How current is your data?

Government organizations worry about the risks associated with opening data. What about the risk of not opening it at all? Are you hiding something? Opening data is not an end, but rather a means to enable data-driven decisions, public input and innovation. This requires current data and more than just a one-time data download. Most municipalities collect and maintain data for every business transaction, which again underpins the relevance of data currency and enables efficient decision-making at all levels.

The City of Maple Ridge, BC uses live data for many purposes.  Its publicly-available Open Government site, which is used both internally and externally is updated every day.  Christina Crabtree, CIO, City of Maple Ridge states, “Our public-facing data is refreshed nightly, anything less would be too outdated.  Data currency is the foundation of a successful open data site and Esri Canada’s ArcGIS Open Data makes this goal highly achievable.”

The City of Maple Ridge’s WHAM Application helps users visualize open data coming from multiple business systems and answers the questions: How does it work? How do I participate? Where is the info?

In addition to the benefit of using current data, all information, data and processes are tied together in the City’s portal (Maple Ridge Open Government). Their WHAM (What’s Happening Around Me) application pulls data directly from other business systems, such as their property tax, permitting, council and document management systems – to name a few. The municipality’s primary goal is to have the ability to answer questions such as – how does it work? How do I participate? And – where is the info?  They have also created the ability to download the data no matter where you move throughout their site.  This is a new trend with open data that I hope will stick. 

 More than a catalogue, context brings understanding

Keep in mind that while you may be intimately knowledgeable about your data and its value, it is difficult for the general public to understand - especially without knowing the story behind it, why it was created in the first place, or its primary municipal use.

Context can be in the form of narratives, which are data-driven stories that are insightful, helpful and provide information about trends, comparisons, relationships or simply more context around the data to help people understand it better. These ‘stories’ must be relevant to your audience (citizens) and in a form they can relate to. 

Some municipalities are doing a great job of creating open data sites that use their data in meaningful ways.  Check out the City of Brampton’s GeoHub, which offers open data and the tools to visualize it – including infographics with various stats. 

Brampton’s City Dashboard provides valuable information on items such as finance, assets, economy, and livability.

The City engaged with each of their departments in the process to identify their business data that could be released as open data.  As part of the Open Government initiative, their open data portal has been able to maximize the value of data by allowing internal as well as external users to access it readily and use it to their benefit. Not only does the City’s open data site provide a single place to view and acquire all datasets currently published by the City of Brampton but its dashboard also allows users to look for and download data right from the dashboard.

 Is your open data creating internal efficiencies?

The exchange of data is increasing at a phenomenal speed. Especially for the government that owns vast amounts of data generated as a result of its transactions, activities and services. A major issue that arises from the enormous volume of data is how to manage its access and sharing between departments and ministries. No doubt, cross-sector sharing of data provides faster access to information. Rather than working with data in departmental silos, when the government goes a step further and opens this data internally as well as externally, it leads to big wins for everyone.

Referring back to Brampton’s GeoHub, it has increased efficiency and enhanced information delivery for internal staff. Having the ability to visualize their data spatially has allowed them to better see patterns and understand the data, adding a whole new dimension to their operations.

Machine-readable data in flexible formats allows everyone to access and use it as they want which can result in time and cost-savings. Opening data and ensuring it is current means that the most updated information is available in real time to everyone across an organization. It saves time for teams working at different locations and ensures accuracy. In an upward progression, data produces information which produces knowledge, which ultimately results in wisdom – exactly what is required for efficient decision-making.

 Will your open data help achieve community goals?

When governments invest in opening their data, they have to keep community goals in mind. It has to be an integral part of their strategy to steer their open data tactics towards inspiring residents for a purposeful engagement with data. Open data can help create transparency and accountability which helps constituents understand their community better, know where their tax dollars are being invested, how the community demographics are changing, monitor economic growth and so on. When stakeholders are empowered with knowledge, it helps them recognize and commit to common development goals faster.

Matthew Pietryszyn, team lead for GIS and Open Data at the City of Brampton explains, “The City brings strategic priorities into focus with data-driven citizenship as a key driver of good governance.  Brampton’s GeoHub, built on ArcGIS Open Data, helps engage government and communities around policy initiatives to tackle pressing issues.”

 Is your open data promoting collaboration and engagement?

If you focus on an initiative and invite participation from a broader community you will enhance and improve all your business processes, as well as, help meet your goals and aspirations.  Collaboration with outside agencies, public, businesses and your staff on a community initiative brings all their talent together to create even more impactful results. Your open data site must be able to generate engagement and collaboration among internal and external stakeholders effortlessly.

Using ArcGIS, the Township of Langley launched its Open Data Portal that makes public information available at the click of a button.

Scott McQuarrie is the geomatics coordinator at the Township of Langley, BC. “Our new open data portal aims to provide Township of Langley information to residents, developers, academics, entrepreneurs and all interested members of our community,” Scott says. “The new platform integrates easily into our existing data infrastructure and enables us to use industry-standard tools to keep the data up to date.  Going forward, it gives us flexibility to engage residents with our data in new and creative ways while providing standard machine-readable API’s for developers.”

Using the capabilities in ArcGIS Hub you can enhance your open data sites even more by opening it up to community engagement and broader collaboration on initiatives.  In addition to using Story Maps to educate and inform the public and Survey 123 to listen to the public by gathering feedback, ArcGIS Open Data is integrated with a host of other engagement tools. One such tool is the Operations Dashboard, which can be used to monitor progress, expose trends and share performance on initiatives. With over 200 applications included in ArcGIS for Local Government to be used seamlessly with your open data platform, you can pull together comprehensive solutions to collaborate with your community on initiatives.  Software developers can use Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS, as well as APIs and platform libraries to build new, innovative solutions that drive economic opportunity and solve important local issues.

Currently, the Hub includes focused initiatives in these six core areas - safe, healthy, sustainable, livable, prosperous and well-run. These initiatives will help you inform, listen, monitor and engage with your community to solve such goals as strengthening your local economy and reducing homelessness.  Talking about this will be a whole new blog post and potentially a whole new course though, so stay tuned. 

In addition, leveraging existing data layers and sharing workflows for updating features such as map services, feature services or image services in near real time - enables collaboration throughout your community. Automating updates of other documents, such as CSVs (comma separated values file) and excel spreadsheets to create efficiency and keep data current is an excellent way of ensuring to stay connected with the public as well as internal departments and external agencies as well as business owners.

Each of the Cities of Maple Ridge and Brampton, as well as the Township of Langley have embraced a 5-star open data program.  They are fine examples of organizations well on the path to making a real difference with open data enabling open government within their communities.

How do I get started?

The Open Data for Impact course was a great success. The inaugural two-day course was hosted by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) and included individuals from more than a dozen municipalities. Participants were introduced to the ArcGIS Open Data platform using our Smart Communities framework combining data, visualization and analytics that enable governments and their citizens to work collaboratively. They left with a completed open data site, including a Story Map narrative, a survey to engage with the public – anonymously – and the knowledge and abilities to collaborate amongst each other and between the municipalities within the Metro Region and other levels of government for that matter.

I am a huge advocate of open data and believe that it is and will continue to change the world and create sustainability. What better place to start than with ArcGIS Open Data – chances are you already have a license for it. 

 To learn about some of the benefits municipalities gain by following these best practices, please join me for the ‘Smart Communities Engage the Public’ webinar on May 17, 2018 @ 1p.m ET. Register today

If you want more information on the ArcGIS Open Data for Impact course or how to get started with ArcGIS Open Data, please contact me at kstewart@esri.ca.

About the Author

Karen Stewart

As the Municipal Solutions Industry Manager at Esri Canada, Karen has helped numerous municipalities across Canada review and improve their smart communities, open data, GIS, asset management and public works strategies. Along with a Bachelor of Technology degree in Geomatics Engineering, she’s a registered AScT in Geomatics through ASTTBC and a Certified GIS Professional (GISP) with nearly three decades of experience. In the community, Karen serves as the Secretary/Treasurer on the board of directors for the Public Works Association BC Chapter (PWABC). Communication and creative expression are important to Karen, and you’ll likely find her out in the serenity of nature sketching or painting in her spare time.

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