Open Data and the City of Hamilton - getting there?

Are we making progress on open data at City Hall?

Looking at the City website’s open data page, the answer is a resounding no. The policy was suppose to be sent to Council this week, but it is now delayed again – this time until June 10, 2013.

Behind the scene, the answer is yes, albeit slowly.

We will have open data this fall, and with continuing public advocacy at City Hall, we can have encourage City Hall to properly launch open data with an apps contest and dedicated open data office focused upon supporting Hamiltonians in building a better city.

Slow change at City Hall

Internally at City Hall, staff are buying into the concept of open data. Social media workshops are occurring – open data is grouped into these workshops. City Council is supportive of open data, the City Manager continues to make statements of support for open data, and importantly, Mayor Bratina has begun championing the cause.

The foundation for open data success is being built – slowly, successfully.

Open Data can’t exist in isolation

Open data cannot exist in isolation from other open government concepts. Our municipal government is significantly deficient with its online presence and its open government practices.

The city is finally hiring its first ever dedicated web staff. Until now, City Hall treatment of the internet as a platform seemed to reflect a belief that the web was a fad that would somehow go away. Only last month, the city finally posted for a web coordinator to help manage the redesign of the city’s embarrassing website.

The Hamilton Street Railway is promising to release real-time transit location data in an open format this year. The importance of this shift cannot be understated, the HSR represented the greatest opposition to open data within City Hall.

These are good first steps. Council could’ve passed open data in January 2011. Without the cultural changes underway at City Hall, the policy would’ve been a false promise. The bureaucracy would ignore a policy and no implementation would occur.

Steps taken during the past two years mean that when Council – finally – passes open data, it would be another dust-collecting policy, there will be implementation.

Advocating for open data – at City Hall and Police Headquarters

During the past few weeks, I spoke to both City Council and to the Police Services Board to encourage them to adopt open data.

I presented to the Police Services Board asking them to release crime data as open data. Hamilton City Council asked the Police Services Board to implement a public crime map after the Halton Police Service signed a deal with to show activity.

CrimeReports data harvests information about citizens viewing crime information and sells that data to make its profits – the service is not the crime map, it’s anonymized data about citizens. Hence, Halton Police only pay $2,000 a year for the “service”. I outlined this in a letter to Hamilton City Council in February.

I delivered the same message to the Police Services Board. The Board and Police Chief DeCaire were receptive to the message. Meetings will be held between the Board, Chief, and Open Data community to move forward with police open data.

Later in the week, I made a public budget delegation presentation calling on City Council to budget for open data in 2013. I spoke for five minutes calling on City Council to invest in an open data license to drive transparency, engagement, and encourage economic growth by implementing a “City as a Platform” concept to its new website and online services.

During my presentation, I used Gavin Schulz’s Bus Ticker app to show City Council what is possible with open data. (Unfortunately, the city is spending an undisclosed amount of money to build their own bus schedule app to compete with Bus Ticker instead of investing in citizen engagement)

Councillors asked numerous insightful questions about open data implementation and expressed support for creating an open data office. There is support for holding an open data contest similar to Ottawa’s Apps4Ottawa initiative.

Mayor Bratina impressed me with his question about data standards, noting the current state of open data is similar to the early railroads – we need to create standards to ensure communities can exchange data and developers can easily adapt their applications in other jurisdictions.

City Manager Chris Murray confirmed that his office is committed to open data and the city’s Senior Management Team will find the resources within the current budget for an open data office.

How Hamilton fits into Provincial and Federal Open Data initiatives

The province is moving forward with their open data plans. Many of the province’s major municipalities – with the exception of Hamilton – have staff dedicated to open data. These municipalities and the province have been meeting on a regular basis to plan joint initiatives and share resources.

Federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement met with municipal open data staff and citizen advocates in Toronto a few weeks ago to launch the federal governments public consultation on open data. I attended to represent Open Hamilton.

I made two requests of Minister Clement.

The first is for the federal government implement a cloud-infrastructure for their open data initiative and offer this infrastructure to municipalities at or below cost. The second request is for the federal government to provide grants to smaller municipalities (population of 125,000 or less) to assist them with creating open data offices and grants for summer employment of students by municipal governments.

The Minister was receptive to both.

Hamilton needs to hire an open data coordinator to be at the table provincially. We are the fifth largest municipality in Ontario, our absence is noticeable and unacceptable. It should not be left to private citizens to fill this void.

Next Steps for Open Data in Hamilton

Hamilton City Council needs to ensure the City Manager’s office has the resources need to complete the open data policy for June. Open data is delayed each time the City Manager must manage a crisis. If these resources include more staff, then the city should hire its open data coordinator now.

Citizens can assist by emailing their Councillor stating you support open data and want to see it passed in June. RaiseTheHammer provides a handy list of Council email addresses to make it easy to email all of Council.

Most importantly, start thinking about what data you want from the City and what you want to see done with it.