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It’s time to release your open data and help drive digital transformation

Open Data initiatives are becoming a strategic priority for many municipalities as city leaders look for new and innovative ways to enhance digital service delivery across their organization. In small to medium, and even larger municipalities, staff can find it difficult to balance the tasks of operating their existing business function and taking on the administration and operation of an Open Data program. A common phrase for Open Data initiatives is “running Open Data off of the corner of my desk”. While this isn’t an ideal situation, ArcGIS Open Data is an easy-to-deploy and maintain platform for opening your authoritative data.

Having worked with a Canadian municipality for more than 15 years, I can say one thing with certainty: influencing data owners to share their data with you is not an easy task. Whether it’s due to quality or completion issues, interpretation concerns, sustainable integrations or just plain old risk aversion, there is a challenge to convince a division to share their data across the silos that exist in most municipalities.

I’ve also noticed that it’s increasingly becoming a part of the GIS team’s role to support data owners across the organization –showing them the value of moving their operational business data into a central, enterprise database. As senior leadership and CIOs recognize the importance of centralizing data and connecting people with it across the organization, requiring authoritative data to be made available for analytical purposes and better decision-making, open data initiatives are becoming a strategic priority for many municipalities who are looking for new and innovative ways to enhance digital service delivery across their organization.

Opening data helps

Having an Open Data policy and sharing authoritative municipal data helps to:

  • Build trust and increase transparency.
  • Provide better communication and engagement opportunities with active members of the community.
  • Attract new business through accessible and available city-specific key performance indicators and demographic data.
  • Save time and gain efficiencies in decision-making processes and in delivering public services.
  • Drive innovation by connecting people with data through anytime access and self-service capabilities.
  • Increase “geo-literacy” and “data literacy” across the entire organization and community, when coupled with awareness campaigns and training.

When you release new datasets that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone, and you build awareness around your Open Data portal, you start expanding the reach of your data through data-driven stories and inviting your residents to participate in community engagement activities—thus promoting collaboration, participation and social innovation.

However, not all cities have the resources to manage an Open Data program. For some municipalities, knowing where to start and how to launch a successful Open Data portal with limited resources is often the biggest challenge. Lack of an Open Data policy or existing fee bylaws for data requests are common barriers; but, they’re not insurmountable.  While issues such as lack of confidence in data quality and cross-departmental collaboration are potentially more difficult to overcome, these concerns shouldn’t stop you from proceeding with your mission to build a more open and collaborative environment.

Benefits of ArcGIS Open Data

Esri Canada can help you achieve your goals of becoming an open, data-literate and efficient city. I first heard about ArcGIS Open Data when I was researching an alternate solution, which was made up of multiple, costly components requiring a lengthy project to build the platform. The solution required my team to be regularly moving data around and ensuring that it was always current.

When I discovered that Esri’s Open Data platform was built on ArcGIS Online and that organizations have access to enable it at no additional cost, I knew this was an option that I couldn’t pass up.

By enabling ArcGIS Open Data, you’ll quickly realize the benefits of leveraging your existing GIS platform to share your city’s spatial and non-spatial data. Here are some of them:

Share your open data in minutes

As GIS professionals, you’re already familiar with publishing your data as map services for use in web maps and integrated systems. Using the same processes and patterns of publishing map services or collaborating your data from ArcGIS Enterprise to ArcGIS Online, you can include your existing data within your Open Data site. This means that your open data is connected to the source data! Using hosted layer views, you can filter which attributes are made publicly available.

Organize your data and streamline publishing workflows

Quickly set up your Open Data portal and use Groups to organize the data to share. It’s easy to distribute the administration of your open data. Support for multi-user workflows and approvals exists in the same way you set up groups within ArcGIS Online for sharing secured data.

Organizing your open data is easy and follows familiar, streamlined publishing workflows.

Organizing your open data is easy and follows familiar, streamlined publishing workflows

Part of your existing Location Platform

Your Location Platform is a system of systems. The data that you share is readily available for use in your organization’s web apps, maps, data-driven stories and analyses. It’s also ready to be integrated back into your other enterprise systems. Because you can provide data in many formats, users are able to use it directly in their applications and systems, for instance–business directories, CRM, asset management system, planning and permitting, and community engagement platforms.

Easily share open data in a variety of open formats

An Open Data website makes it easy for users to find and download your authoritative data in a variety of open formats: OGC, WMS, WFS, WCF as well as CSV, KML, Shapefile, File Geodatabase, GeoJSON, GeoServices and so on. To ensure maximum accessibility of your data, make sure you enable the option, “Allow others to export to different formats”.

Easily share your data in multiple open formats

Easily share your data in multiple open formats.

Many Canadian cities are already sharing their open data. For inspiration, visit Esri Canada’s Open Data Hub, where you can explore various data portals and join the growing list of Smart Communities.

Esri Canada's Open Data Hub for exploring Canadian open data portals

Esri Canada's Open Data Hub for exploring Canadian open data portals.

When planning to build your own Open Data portal, it’s important to know who your stakeholders are and what their requirements are. Keeping those in mind, you can work towards creating a useful, engaging and cost-effective portal that goes much further than making data available for download.

7 quick tips for elevating your open data

I’d like to share a few recommendations on how you can elevate your Open Data portal and increase its usefulness and ensure that the content is widely accessible.

  1. Being “as open as possible” is a good step towards maturing your organization and growing your staff’s data literacy while providing ROI for your Open Data initiative. Open your data internally to help grow trust amongst divisions and appreciation for the value of sharing authoritative data across the organization. Show staff inside your organization how to access and share data more often and start to incorporate data into their business processes. Set your organization’s data free!
  2. Use existing content on your government website and open the raw data behind it. Don’t forget to “humanize” the data to make it more accessible to everyone (use views, aliases, include metadata) Include good descriptions of data to help users understand it. Coded field headings are too cryptic and could prevent someone from working with your data. Use plain language for your table names and fields.

"Humanizing" your data by providing field aliases helps users understand your data and makes it more accessible to a wider audience

"Humanizing" your data by providing field aliases helps users understand your data and makes it more accessible to a wider audience.

  1. Consider a Creative Commons license when it comes to sharing. Custom data-sharing licenses can impact who will use your data. It’s difficult for external agencies to read through and agree to various custom licenses, but a Creative Commons license helps to make your data more accessible and available to a wider range of users. Use to define your creative commons license and use the code in your portal to help users find and use data based on creative common licenses.

Providing a Creative Commons license for your open datasets will remove any barriers to potential users that are created by custom open data licenses.

Providing a Creative Commons license for your open datasets will remove any barriers to potential users that are created by custom open data licenses.

  1. Create and share personas to help users understand who is accessing open data and who isn’t. What is it that residents want for their communities, and what can they find in open data portals to help? Personas can help you understand what data could be included to help residents take action and collaborate in city-driven initiatives. Include tutorials and examples of data visualizations to help users connect with the data right away, and of course, promote and build awareness for your data portal using the personas and data visualization examples.
  2. Align the release of datasets with corporate strategic plans and initiatives. Work collaboratively with your Communications team to craft and share data-driven stories that help residents connect with the strategic priorities of your organization.
  3. Publish in open formats (WMS, WFS and WCS) and federate your data with CKAN by providing your data in the DCAT specification to allow for Open Source data portals to harvest and reshare your data for a broader reach. Make sure your metadata is accurate and current. 
  4. Participate in collaborative programs such as the Community Map of Canada– a national web basemap with authoritative and current data. This basemap is updated daily and it can power your enterprise applications with authoritative data that doesn’t end at your city’s boundary. By sharing your spatial data, you can help build this basemap and in return, have access to more and improved quality of data.

These seven tips are just a few among many best practices that you can leverage to build a stellar Open Data portal that helps your organization connect, engage and collaborate within and outside of your organization. Remember that opening your data is one big leap towards achieving your organization’s goal of digital transformation and towards becoming a smart and resilient city.


Here are some resources that can help you along the way:

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