If you care about vibrant public debate, then you have to care about open public data

David Eaves, open data activist and adviser to municipal and federal governments. – David Eaves is a negotiator, public policy adviser, author and open data activist. He’s advised the mayor of Vancouver, the government of Australia and has been consulted by Hamilton’s city managers as they wrestle with the benefits and pitfalls of civic open data policies.

We reached him at his West Coast home to get answers to five questions about open data.

• What’s the difference between open data and simple openness on the part of a city?

“We talk about three different things. There’s open data, open documents and open government. Open government is: can you access the machinery of government and how decisions get made? Open documents refer to: can I find and read the documents the government is producing and using in making decisions? Open data is what techies call structured data — think spreadsheets. It’s not writing, it’s data, it’s machine readable, something you can graph or map.”

• What do you think are the benefits to a city adopting Open Data principles?

“One of the first benefits, and one most people don’t see, goes to the city — the biggest consumers of open data are public servants. People have this notion that government is this big machine, self-aware almost. But it’s not. (Different city departments) don’t know what others are doing. (Post open data and) you’ve finally allowed them to access data sets without going through a bureaucracy. You reduce the transaction costs of government. And, once we can separate data from specific applications, you achieve a liberty in the applications the city uses — you rebalance the relationship between the city and the vendor.

• Providing access to public data and information in machine- and human-readable formats will often require restructuring and reformatting that information. At a time when cities are hard-pressed to meet their budgets, why is it worth spending money on open data?

“There are costs but I think cities could get way more creative in how they make their data open. They should band together by application (i.e. those who use a particular program), get smart, organize and push the market around a little — demand open data. Once the data is open, new vendors will emerge.”

• Is anyone (any city) doing this well yet?

We’re still in early days but Edmonton and Vancouver come to mind. Vancouver has got more data sets “up” (in the open on the web) than anyone else, about 130 data sets. Edmonton has got their community involved in so many ways. But many cities don’t understand. How is it that cities aren’t notifying citizens of events (garbage pickup as an example) or making it easy to ask to be notified. And why do you have to fight to get food inspection information when the whole point of that data is to gather information about food risks?

• Is open data about more than just pretty maps or cool mobile apps that tell me when my next bus is arriving? Advocates — including Hamilton city manager Chris Murray — say it can be transformative. Can you point to any examples?

“Transformation. That’s not an easy metric. The answer is yes, it’s transformative but in small ways that are hard to see. The fact that there are six open data portals in Canada now is an indication that there has been a transformation. It’s small but it’s a beginning.

You can read more of David Eaves ideas at his blog