Data co-operative enables collaborative transformation in York Region

October 2, 2019 Chris North

The York Data Co-op is the latest and perhaps the most compelling innovation of the YorkInfo Partnership. Since 1996, this partnership of the Regional Municipality of York (York Region) and its nine municipalities, two district school boards and two conservation authorities has been recognized for its culture of cooperation that enables the partners to collectively benefit from location intelligence. Now, their York Data Co-op is setting that already high bar higher.

The York Data Co-op is connecting the partners in the YorkInfo Partnership in a distributed environment and giving them access to each other’s digital assets (data, applications and tools). Esri’s ArcGIS technology provides the straightforward and secure enterprise platform making it possible. 

John Houweling, Director of the Data, Analytics and Visualization Services Branch at York Region, explains: “Enabling data access and sharing has been our core direction for years. Building trust in the data adds confidence in decision-making and ultimately results in more effective services. The York Data Co-op takes this further by enabling partners to share apps and tools as well; increase collaboration in common business areas; and in so doing, provide a foundation for change.”

As John noted, the partners also leverage each other’s GIS scripts, code and apps, enabling them to build and endorse common data models, realize efficiencies, reduce risk and deploy new spatial applications that empower staff. Not every partner has the internal capability to create many of these tools themselves, so being able to access and use these GIS assets is of immediate impact and benefit.

There’s even a public-facing impact. This project is facilitating a federated Open Data Portal that is increasingly giving York Region residents and businesses truly one-window access to government data.  Although not all the partners’ open data sites are connected yet, once complete, the data exposed by any partner on their own open data site will be seamlessly discoverable and available on any other partner’s site.  

How the Data Co-op works

Participants publish their digital assets by registering them within the Co-op. The asset is then available for others to find and use. Assets aren’t physically copied into a central server but remain managed and stored behind the firewall of each partner’s domain. This way, the assets are ‘live’ and always current, and users do not need to deal with multiple versions on different servers.  As a “federated” solution, no one partner is the main distributor or owner of the collective assets; and, each organization maintains autonomy over its own digital assets. The York Data Co-op is creating a “single source of truth”.

For example, a search for “street trees” will return all information sources for this type of data, apps and code regardless of where they’re stored. The system knows where to find the digital assets and displays all results in a consolidated report on-screen.

Along with enabling easy access to the data, many other digital assets provide insight and added value and may meet an immediate business need as well. These assets include interactive maps, dashboards and information products, along with development tools, APIs and operational business apps.  By using the apps and services that others have developed and shared, partner staff can build their own capacity and capability – i.e., they are learning through sharing.  Also, by leveraging these shared digital assets, they’re then able to deliver solutions that they may not otherwise have had the time or ability to undertake.  

A virtual marketplace for trusted data, apps and tools

The York Data Co-op acts like a “virtual marketplace” and provides a familiar online shopping-like experience for partners to use to search for and acquire the published digital assets.

Digital assets are grouped based on their function and use (such as property services, infrastructure, environment, health and so on) rather than their owner or origin.  Users find assets in the Co-op in the same way a shopper finds groceries at the supermarket – by type, not origin.  As a result, users can scan through and download the latest digital assets quickly without having to trawl through numerous assets unrelated to their search.

Each digital asset has a description (metadata) which includes its source, extent, timeliness and other important information. Metadata is key to the cataloguing and search functionality and provides information that the user needs to fully understand the asset before downloading or using it.

Facilitating collaborative program delivery 

The York Data Co-op is helping make possible the City of Vaughan’s Emergency Management Portal. Led by Vaughan Fire and Rescue, the portal will leverage the Co-op and give emergency management services staff from Vaughan, York Region Emergency Management and York Region Police the ability to share in real time up-to-date situational awareness data, such as incident area boundary and road closures. This will enable them to better communicate, as needed, with the public. Saving time during an emergency is just one example of the portal proving its value.

Increasingly, the partners’ programs are realizing how the York Data Co-op can be an effective infrastructure for the collaborative delivery of municipal services within and across the Region. Services already identified as targets for a common solution include emergency management, municipal comprehensive review, building permits, construction projects, digital plan uploads, open data, zoning, sidewalks and streetlights, trails and parks, street tree management prioritization and road collisions.  

As the “shelves get stocked” with digital assets from the partners, new connections will be made, and opportunities identified.  

Powered by ArcGIS 

The York Data Co-op leverages the ArcGIS platform. ArcGIS Online, Esri’s cloud-based mapping and spatial analytics service, has been a fundamental component and facilitator. It supports a federated architecture and provides partners with a low-cost entry point and the ability to easily develop solutions.

“The ArcGIS Online development environment is so straightforward that we’ve literally been working things out on a whiteboard in the morning and then looking at a prototype online that afternoon,” says Brendan Coles, GIS project specialist, Regional Municipality of York. “Everyone gets excited when they see how quickly we can make things ‘real’.”

The partners have built this federated platform using ArcGIS Enterprise portal and ArcGIS Online, with ArcGIS Hub, the same technology underpinning York Region’s Open Data Portal, providing the virtual marketplace and shopping cart-like experience.

The road forward

The YorkInfo Partnership is already looking ahead at how best to incorporate other municipal service providers, levels of government, consultants, the private sector and the public. Even though doing so would require changes to the Co-op’s legal and administrative framework, there’s little else standing in the way of adding more nodes and participants from the region, the province and beyond.

See the York Data Co-op in action at the Esri Canada User Conference in Toronto on October 8-9. Register today

About the Author

Chris North

Chris North is the Director of Industry Solutions for Esri Canada. With over 20 years of experience in geomatics, Chris is an accomplished GIS professional who brings an in-depth understanding of enterprise GIS and technology trends to the company. He was previously the principal at 43 North GIS Consulting. Prior to starting his firm, Chris was an executive with DMTI Spatial responsible for product strategy and customer advocacy. He has a master's degree in GIS from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and an undergraduate degree in Geography from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Chris is also a graduate of the Cartography Program at Sir Sandford Fleming College, Ontario. He is the recipient of several industry awards and continues to be involved with many industry groups. Chris is currently chair of the GIS and Cartography Advisory Board at Sir Sandford Fleming College.

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