Hamilton Labs: A modest proposal for open data innovation at City Hall

The following is my column from the January 2012 print edition of Urbanicity in which I briefly propose the creation of a new city department – Hamilton Labs – to innovate while improving community assets and skills.

It’s time for Hamilton Labs – a new department within the City of Hamilton solely focused on experimentation with citizen collaboration to build better solutions to the problems facing our city.

Think of Hamilton Labs as a city department that’s measured not by the amount of paperwork completed and the aesthetic appeal of its crossed “t”’s and dotted “i”’s. It would be a city department measured by how much it uncrosses “t”’s in the process of creating disruptive innovation that benefits the city and its citizens.

Disruptive technologies surround us. The mobile phone in your pocket is a disruptive technology – Superman can no longer find a telephone booth to change in. Wikipedia is a disruptive technology – there’s no need to go to the library to find encyclopedic information.

Let me give you an example of a disruptive innovation that could benefit the city’s financial bottom-line while investing in community development and improving civic life.

The Hamilton Street Railway is looking to buy electronic signs for the MacNab Terminal to display real-time next bus arrival information.

The traditional process for purchasing is: pay an expensive consultant to recommend what they think the HSR needs (ensuring to never consult citizens), find a company to supply the signs, hire a software consultant to program the signs, and then finally, after many delays, have by-then-outdated signs installed in the terminal. All at a much higher cost than necessary.

A disruptive innovation solution looks to communities for solutions first.

The local community includes many youth serving agencies looking for opportunities to give socio-economically disadvantaged youth learning opportunities that bridge the gap between them and higher education.

The open-source community provides many examples of signage and programming available at no-charge online.

We have three high-quality post-secondary institutions in Hamilton; two of which have engineering faculties with students looking for local employment.

We have all the ingredients to produce the signs locally at a lower financial cost with the added benefit, immeasurable in budgetary terms, of building capacity in our community.

The City approaches a youth serving agency such as the Downtown Youth Centre which is conveniently enough located beside the MacNab Street Terminal. The City brings Mohawk College to the table and puts a call out to the community for open-source hardware and software ideas.

While bringing together (stirring) these community partners, the City adds a bit of funding (spice) to hire Mohawk College students to coordinate the project and sets simple guidelines for the project. In this case, that the hardware and software be open-source, display next bus information, transit announcements, and be capable of displaying other information as necessary.

The guidelines are the minimal requirements. The students and youth are then set free to create.

For a couple of extra dollars per sign, the signs could have wireless transmitters to create a mesh network in the transit terminal. This provides wifi coverage for waiting passengers and decreases the cost of infrastructure for the signs.

As the signs and hardware are open-source, local businesses can easily afford to offer real-time transit information signs at their businesses. They’ll need to hire someone to configure the signs and that can easily be the local youth that have worked on the project.

Over time, as the City expands the number of signs, we could have wifi coverage throughout the City.

In the end, we create employment for a couple of Mohawk College students, the youth receive honorariums (which could be funding to take Mohawk College evening courses in electronic engineering to grant them advance placement for college studies), the youth build self-esteem and confidence towards pursuing higher education in either engineering or software, and the City receives superior signage that doesn’t require expensive consultants when time changes for daytime savings.

In short, disruptive innovation that replaces the consultant with community building.

Hamilton Labs is the perfect project to fulfill the mandate of our new Director of Neighborhood Development Strategies (Poverty Czar) at City Hall.

What do you say Council, let’s be ambitiously innovative together?