Enabling your ArcGIS Open Data: A Tale of Two Data Portals

May 22, 2019 Matt Pietryszyn

Open Data can enable municipalities, their staff, residents and private sector organizations to develop better insights, make more informed decisions and implement innovative ideas that can generate social and economic benefits to help improve the lives of people in the community. Open data is a core element of a Smart City and enabling open data has become easier than ever. Any municipality with an ArcGIS Online Subscription can use ArcGIS Hub to enable open data and create an open data site for no additional cost. Find out what the City of Ottawa and Parkland County in Alberta have to share about their experience releasing their Open Data portals, and what their future plans are for open data.

Darrell Bridge is a senior data analytics strategist and Open Data lead at the City of Ottawa. In his role, he focuses primarily on open data–releasing data that is machine readable without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. Stacey Corbett is the GIS manager for Parkland County, which is also a 2019 Smart City Challenge finalist. Stacey manages the County’s geospatial applications and enterprise data including program development, app implementation and client relationship management.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with these municipal Open Data Leads exploring how they leveraged Esri technology, specifically ArcGIS Open Data, to launch impressive Open Data portals for their cities.

Matt Pietryszyn (MP): Darrell and Stacey, both of your teams spent about one year to develop your Open Data portal. Can you walk us briefly through your journey for initiating the open data program?

Darrell Bridge (DB): The work started in 2009. The City of Ottawa City Council recognized the value and importance of open data and the Mayor’s eGovernment Task Force brought forward a recommendation to consider options to share data and leverage local companies and people. Council adopted the principles of “Open Government” on May 12, 2010 and declared the City of Ottawa’s data to be “open”. The original Open Data portal was built using open source software. In 2018, we conducted a technology platform options analysis and decided to beta test the ArcGIS Open Data solution. It took us about a year to go from ideation to implementation. We were able to build a prototype fairly quickly.

Stacey Corbett (SC): At Parkland County, we only started in 2017, wrote our open data policy the same year and had it approved by Council in Jan 2018. Within a few months, we started developing the Open Data portal layout. After getting the Mayor and the Executive Committee’s approval, we launched the site on November 14, which also happens to be GIS Day.

MP: Darrell, what has been the major challenge that your team faced during the implementation?

DB: Our biggest challenge to date has been to meet the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which legislates accessibility standards for new online offerings. Under the legislation, websites need to conform to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 at Level A. The City of Ottawa’s Web Accessibility Policy states that all web assets shall conform to re WCAG 2.0 Level AA unless not practicable to do so, and where not practicable to do so, that it meets as many success criteria as is practicable. Meeting these web standards can be a challenge when working with dynamic web mapping solutions. Designing for Accessibility post on Esri’s ArcGIS blog turned out to be a great resource for us.

The beta version of Ottawa Open Data Portal was launched on April 2, 2019.

MP: A question to both of you––what made you choose Esri Open Data platform, versus other commercial or open source products?

DB: We wanted to expand the current functionalities of our open data platform to provide more data visualization tools (charts, maps and graphs) to make it more inclusive to a broader group of residents who have an interest in data. Open data isn’t just for technical specialists. With the right functionalities, it can be very useful to residents to learn more about City services and programs using charts, maps, apps and stories. And at the same time, we were already licensed for the Esri ArcGIS Hub suite of tools and it made sense to leverage Esri’s strength in handling the new spatial data functionalities.

SC: We have a small municipality Enterprise License Agreement, so there were no additional costs and it was easy to use & implement.

MP: Stacey, Parkland County is a relatively small organization. How difficult was it to influence the internal stakeholders to support the program, and especially, the use of Esri technology?

SC: For initial buy-in, we did an ROI analysis on having an Open Data portal versus having a full-time employee send a data sharing request to be signed, packaged and sent out. The cost savings in having the portal vis-a-vis doing the data sharing manually are significant. Moreover, we included various departments in the process and gradually gained their trust in this new offering. Certain departments, such as Engineering or Planning, were able to see the benefit in directing their contractors, who were constantly asking for data, to the open data portal. Around 70% of the contractor data requests are now satisfied with our current dataset inventory on the portal. As far as the choice of technology or vendor goes, our leadership team trusts us to make fiscally responsible decisions for the tax payers.

Parkland County Open Data portal launched in 2018.

MP: That’s great to know, Stacey. I’m curious though, what’s next? What datasets are queued up to be released? Where do you see it going?

SC: We have such BIG plans for this site! There are so many more datasets we have on our list to post, and many are just in the departmental (data authority) or FOIP approval process. We have a huge list of apps that we want to create and post; we just need to carve out a bit of time to focus on these and ensure we are releasing apps in the most logical timeframe where they will get used immediately.

MP: Back to you, Darrell. Ottawa’s Open Data portal has a slightly different look and feel from Ottawa.ca. What influenced the design of your portal?

DB: We wanted to give the site a modern look and feel. We branded the site as “Open Ottawa”, to emphasize our goal to make City data more accessible to the average resident. For example, the Vimy Memorial Bridge, located in Ottawa and named after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, is profiled on the landing page. The victory at Vimy Ridge not only helped turn the tide against Germany in the First World War, but also played a significant role in laying the groundwork for Canadian independence. Bridges are symbols of stability, progress and connection, which we felt aligned well with our goals for the new open data portal.

MP: Stacey, same question – also, how did you decide on what data to lead with and what apps to feature with your launch?

SC: Our Communications team was instrumental in helping develop the look and feel of the site. It had to follow our corporate design guidelines and be consistent with the overall County website. Also, we wanted the site to be intuitive. We chose the first open datasets based on what we were constantly being asked for and what we were legally allowed to share.

The way we selected which apps to post first was a bit of a different process. We met with a few departments to chat about what they get the most calls on from the public and started a list of frequently requested data/maps. From there, we started to prioritize based on what time of year makes sense to release that app, how easy is it to create the app they want, what resources do we have available, and so on. We have a massive list of apps we want to create, just need the time and resources!

MP: Darrell, has there been any marketing campaigns around your Open Data portal (still in beta phase though)? How are you planning to increase engagement?

DB: We have developed a stakeholder engagement plan with the goal of getting out in the community more to better understand the needs of the various stakeholder groups. We are hosting and attending many local events in the Ottawa area to promote the site and hear from the community. We are also leveraging the digital public engagement tool Engage Ottawa to listen to residents, understand their data needs, learn how they are using data to solve civic issues and get insights on the usability and inclusiveness of our beta open data website (Open Ottawa).

MP: Finally, can you both share some suggestions for other municipalities planning their open data program?

DB: Get started. If you don’t have an open data program, ArcGIS Hub provides you with the capabilities and functionalities to get started quickly and share data with your residents.

Open data provides an opportunity for municipalities to engage with their community and share data and information about City programs and services, which helps promote the services the municipality offers and provides innovation opportunities to the general public to develop and implement creative solutions leveraging City data.

We have seen many success stories from releasing City data such as the Transit Mobile Apps created to help you know when your bus will arrive or the Recreation, Culture and Facility Services’ JOINOttawa website that helps you navigate and register for City programs in your area. Recently, Bike Ottawa has used the City’s open data to create interactive maps to help you plan your bike route based on the level of traffic stress for every road in the city.

SC: My suggestions are: start the conversation sooner than later because it is a lengthy process! Don’t hesitate to collaborate– borrow as much of the documentation from other municipalities–we are always willing to share. And, getting the buy in from the top will help you in the long run and ensure that you have resources in place to move on the project when you get approval.


Thank you to Stacey Corbett from Parkland County, Alberta and Darrell Bridge from the City of Ottawa, Ontario for sharing their insights into the implementation of their impressive Open Data portals.  

If you would like more information on how to get started with ArcGIS Open Data, don’t hesitate to contact me at mpietryszyn@esri.ca or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Matt Pietryszyn

Matt Pietryszyn is the Municipal Industry Manager for Esri Canada. He has over 15 years experience working in the public sector, helping municipalities unlock the potential in their location platforms. While advising municipalities on modernizing their business processes and building innovative GIS solutions is a passion of Matt's, he is also an advocate for sharing Open Data and promoting active community engagement. Besides working with spatial technology, Matt enjoys spending time outdoors camping, hiking and getting lost in the woods.

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