NEWS: Opening Up the Digital Vaults

By Think City Staff

Vancouver city council passed a motion in May that could be of great interest to residents who hunger for information on how their city is working. But will it prove to be a digital firecracker or just a damp squib?


The motion, put forward by Councillor Andrea Reimer, undertakes to:
  • freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns;
  • move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media;
  • place open source software on an equal footing with commercial systems during procurement cycles when replacing existing software or considering new applications.

With this motion Vancouver is beginning to follow in the footsteps of other municipalities in North America, including Toronto, Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon. Those cities have put maps, statistics and other information on line in various formats. This allows citizens to have free access to a wealth of data about transit, crime, income levels, schools and other area of interest. 

Routine disclosure of the vast amounts of information collected by the city could be an important supplement to freedom of information laws. If large amounts of relevant information are made available with the click of a mouse, it could open up new avenues for informed citizen engagement. 

Once citizens have access to the same information as bureaucrats and policy makers, new approaches to policy development, neighbourhood action or public consultation become possible. Of course, only a tiny minority will seek out such information, but for these activists it could be a powerful new tool. Will future citizens who have reliable, easily accessible Information be so easily ignored or bullied by city hall?

The motion also predisposes the city to the use of open source software, specifically to:
  • index, publish and syndicate its data to the internet using prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats;
  • develop appropriate agreements to share its data with the Integrated Cadastral Information Society (ICIS) and encourage the ICIS to in turn share its data with the public at large
  • develop a plan to digitize and freely distribute suitable archival data to the public;
  • ensure that data supplied to the City by third parties (developers, contractors, consultants) are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations;
  • license any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver so that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. A committee of the city clerk’s office is working on how to implement this very wide-ranging motion. The danger is that bureaucracies have a tendency to resist the disclosure of information outside the walls of government, and we may end up with some nice pictures from the archives on line, and not a lot else.  

Let us know your thoughts below in the comments section. Are you in favour of the broadest possible standards for open data and open government? What do you think about the use of open software?

This is unheard of...

What?! You mean remove "behind closed door" antics from politics? Making politicians more accountable and allowing citizens to make informed decisions?! This is absurd... NOT! It's about time for Vancouver to move in the right direction!

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