Beyond Open Data – Getting from download to impact

March 23, 2017 Karen Stewart

When considering an Open Data site, the vision must be bigger than just checking off the “we have an Open Data site” box. Impact on your community is the true goal.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been on a speaker circuit espousing the need for government organizations to rethink their vision of Open Data “beyond the download.”  I encourage them to focus on “Applied Open Data” or “Open Data with a Purpose”; this is what my colleague, Matt Lewin, describes in his blog post as creating public value.

I was, therefore, particularly intrigued to review the Public Sector Digest’s (PSD) 2016 Open Cities Index. The results show that municipalities across Canada are continuing to focus effort into developing, deploying and expanding their Open Data offerings regardless of the municipality’s size (as was the case for Strathcona County (Alberta) that was recognized with the Small City, Big Impact Award for attaining the highest ranking among cities with population less than 100,000). 

I was happy to see that the PSD measured both the maturity of the Open Data development, the quality of datasets published and, more importantly, in line with my message, the impact those datasets have on the local economy and community. I suspect as more and more municipalities mature in their Open Data rollout, this “impact” weighing (now only 16%) will in fact become the most significant measure.

We have been working with organizations to publish both spatial and tabular data for viewing, downloading and charting for years. More and more, we are helping them to leverage Open Data in applications, portals, reports and narratives for targeted purposes that serve their constituents, economic development offices and commercial business partners.

One great example of an application extending the value of Open Data is from, Index newcomer and 18th ranked, City of Brampton with their Active Control Reference Index System (ACRIS).  ACRIS enables users (surveyors, engineers, land developers) to access accurate location control for such workflows as topographic mapping; lakes and rivers charting; and surveying required in design and construction of public and private projects. This application brings together data pertaining to active horizontal and vertical control monuments from multiple sources (Peel, MNR, EMR Canada and Toronto Township) as well as triangulated information for the 4 nearest monuments to a project location, which can be displayed on either Esri's Community Mapping base layer or Brampton's 2016 Spring Air Photo. Users can easily navigate from their project to the nearest vertical control points and have the option to select driving or walking directions to those monuments. Not only can users access this information in the field using a mobile device, but they can also view a PDF of the reference sketch for each monument, generate PDF reports and export information as a CSV file. This comprehensive application makes good use of Open Data and brings thoughtful functionality to its users.

In the City of Brampton’s ACRIS application, a user can drop a project site (pink square) and easily locate the nearest monument controls (1-4); pull up the corresponding Reference Sketch (inset); and generate a report or export data to a CSV file.

Another way to deliver additional value and positive community impact is to add context to data. By working with our customers to extract insight from their datasets to address specific strategic initiatives and goals, community facing web pages can be created (and dynamically updated) to communicate with the public while explaining why certain programs exist and how they are progressing. At the same time, these web pages enable bidirectional community feedback.

The City of Mississauga, that jumped 25 spots to rank 15th overall and placed 13th in the “impact” ranking, delivers context to data with their Planning Information Hub that allows a citizen to explore the City’s planning strategy in an easily understood narrative. If there is a subsection that an individual wants to explore, they can easily navigate to that area of interest for more specific information or access the raw dataset to conduct their own analysis or even make recommendations to the City.

The Planning Information Hub features multiple tabs of diverse datasets, including urban design awards, employment density and trends, as well as vacant lands and the environment. The various datasets are from the Policy Planning, Development & Design and Building Divisions within Mississauga’s Planning and Building Department.

Finally, I can’t stress the importance of providing data in multiple formats such as CSV, Excel, and PDF; keeping data current; incorporating external data; and providing ongoing access. Another municipality that significantly climbed the ranks (up 11 spots) in the Index was the City of Kitchener because it exemplifies these positive traits. Aside from the fact that their site provides an extensive array of data and information (including most of the Index’s 32 datasets), they ensure departments, agencies and interested partners can easily access the data in their preferred format while APIs allow a partner to connect with the data going forward. It makes developers confident that their applications will be supported with updates from the authoritative source. Likewise, a team that supports the Open Data program by ensuring the site remains a living, breathing and expanding entity is crucial. Based on their current success and focus, I believe the City and its partner organizations are on the cusp of rolling out several initiatives that will have a dramatic impact on their community and economy in upcoming years.

The City of Kitchener’s Open Data site includes data that spans a variety of focuses, types and sources is provided in a range of formats (incl. CSV, Excel, PDF, DWG, SID, KMZ, SKP, etc.).

I recognize that many organizations are well down the Open Data road while others are still at the start line. Some organizations can benefit from working directly with a team like ours that has experience helping organizations navigate this new paradigm while others have deep, in-house expertise and may prefer to manage their program on their own. Regardless of the route you choose, with the latest functionality Esri has just released in ArcGIS Open Data, I think we will see many unexpected and exciting moves in the 2017 Open Cities Index.

Learn more and join the ArcGIS Open Data Community on GeoNet.

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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