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York Region uses open data for digital transformation and public engagement

In my previous blog posts, I shared how releasing open data can help municipalities drive digital transformation. You also learned about how Ottawa and Parkland County created their Open Data portals. In this blog post, I’d like to share with you York Region’s Open Data platform, which received the Open Data for Innovation award at the Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS18) in November 2018. It is perhaps one of the most exciting wins at CODS18 because their program really gives us a glimpse into the future of how a municipality can creatively use open data.

With about 1.2 million residents and growing, the Regional Municipality of York stretches from Toronto to Lake Simcoe and includes nine local municipalities, each with diverse economies, geography, and populations. But here’s the amazing part: they take their data to the people instead of waiting for people to find it. This proactive and inspirational approach is likely the primary reason that they won.

Governments need their communities to be informed and onboard with proposed projects, policy decisions and new initiatives. To achieve this effectively, they need their community to participate in these decisions, contribute data, ideas and information so that they can work together and better align resources and efforts.

Using personas to easily navigate open data

Rather than just publishing raw datasets for people to download, York Region engages staff, residents and visitors through personas, partnerships, social media and stories, deepening their digital engagement with the Region’s data. For example, the ‘Professional’ persona helps people navigate the site for data they want for their work-based projects. The ‘Resident’ persona offers pre-packaged data insights or a map to people looking for childcare services or other simple residential needs. This approach of using personas to help people find what they want has led to a significant increase in the use of the Region’s data.

York Region has created seven online personas representing groups of researchers interested in similar information and products. Whether you’re a professional or student, realtor or teacher, you can access secure, trusted data through York Region’s Open Data platform.

The innovation of using personas, partnerships and stories allows the Region to leverage tools that people are already using, provides real value from the Region’s data, and adds significant value to the users’ open data experience, but most importantly, it helps the Region improve the site and the availability of their data and information. How did they do it?

Giving access to open data via popular apps

York Region has integrated their open data with popular social media applications like Yelp, which people use to find local restaurants. Now, when they look up a restaurant in York Region, they can also see the latest health inspection results. York Region is getting their authoritative data in the hands of an average of 35 million Yelp app users per month. (This number is as of March 2019.) That’s exactly what residents want: easy-to-understand and relevant information in places where they can find it.

Putting authoritative data easily into the hands of people in a way that’s not cumbersome or technically daunting to find and use, while making it available to those who want to access and download it from the municipality’s open data site is a modern method of sharing open data.

Every municipality wants that, and Esri’s ArcGIS Open Data service easily accommodates this new approach of pushing data to commonly used apps that are being used daily.

Here’s another example. The Waze application offers a free, two-way data exchange for municipalities that includes closures, incidents and other data (like parking, school zones, business listings via open data). If a municipality shares these types of data on their Open Data site, Waze can make this information live in their application to improve the navigation experience for their users – it’s a perfect two-way data exchange. Currently, the Region houses the data coming in from Waze but are in the process of integrating this information into the Regional Traffic Operation Centre to help with traffic management. The more data they receive, the better the application becomes and it’s easier for drivers to avoid real-time issues.

Waze users also benefit from a real-time connection with the Region’s transportation hub, because it incorporates data from hundreds of traffic cameras, incident reports and all the Region’s authoritative planned road closures and lane reductions. By sharing this real-time data with Waze, York Region ensures that their data effectively helps reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as making more space on the roads for cycles and public transit.

Google Maps users can also get the latest road and address data directly from the Region. Need directions to a home in that new subdivision? No problem!

Open Data in York Region is much more than a website. It’s part of a data stewardship ethic that’s driving innovation and adding value to the residents, visitors and business owners of the Region.

If you are thinking of getting started with open data for your community, learn more about ArcGIS Open Data. We also have an upcoming webinar happening July 30 that we invite you to attend: Enhancing your Open Data Portal for Increased Public Engagement.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at or comment below.