The Power of Open Civic Data

Free, open and user-driven access to public information is the first step for citizens to become well-informed and properly engaged in the public policy decision-making process. Being able to access information about the communities we live in empowers us to hold governments accountable and participate fully in the democratic process.

The City of New Westminster is modernizing how it engages with residents. They’ve implemented a social media presence, are about to launch a completely revamped and more user-friendly website, have developed an app for the New West Police that includes fairly real time data on crimes in the city, and have jumped on board with use of issue-reporting app See Click Fix

The latest step is the launch of its Open Data website, providing residents and businesses with better access to a wealth of information and data sets. Municipal data is released with an open licence, and is free of charge for anyone to use and reuse. From emergency incidents to the commuting patterns of New Westminster residents, anyone can visit the website and gain insights into the city’s workings.

Despite the availability of information, open data can be daunting. For the average citizen, there are persistent challenges around accessing, understanding, and being able to use the data effectively. People care about civic issues, but at the end of the day they still need to make dinner.

The good news is, open data means that all of this information can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. In 2014, Open Data BC conducted a survey of the the 10 Most Wanted Municipal Datasets in Canada. They found that people were the most interested in learning about rezoning permit applications, land use changes, development permit applications, and transit data.

Several organizations in New Westminster, including the School District, have been working with PlaceSpeak — the Vancouver-based startup where I work — to consult with residents on important issues. With the launch of the City’s Open Data website, we’ve made the city’s data about rezoning and development applications easier to access by monitoring changes and delivering relevant updates to residents based on their location.

Residents who are interested in keeping up with new developments can stay updated by signing up for PlaceSpeak. Once they have provided their home address, notifications about proposed land-use changes in their area are automatically delivered to their inbox. Residents can also indicate their interest in certain proposed projects. If a threshold of 25 interested parties is reached, the City is notified, with the option to turn it into a formal public consultation.

However, that is just one use of the uses of New Westminster’s open data. There is huge potential for open data to benefit the lives of residents — either through apps that enterprising residents of New Westminster may build, or as part of existing apps or programs.

For example, the open data that has been released includes a data set of wheelchair ramps available in New Westminster. Such data, on its own, may be clunky and not necessarily the most helpful or efficient way for people who use wheelchairs to find an accessible route. However, this open data can be made into an app that maps the most accessible routes, or be incorporated into an existing app such as Wheelmap.

Given the many benefits of open data, companies such as Socrata are building tools to make open data integration easy for municipalities of all sizes to adopt. However, residents can also do their part by encouraging the city to open up more data sets to the public.

In New York, an assistant professor at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning is using data on traffic accidents to map traffic fatality hotspots. Such data, which is currently not available in New Westminster, can help to illustrate road safety concerns in a visual and easily comprehensible manner. Residents can also then use this data to request improved traffic safety features, such as speed bumps or traffic calming circles, in trouble areas.

Finally, an increasing number of municipalities, including the City of Vancouver, are not only opening up their data, but also hosting hackathons for citizens to create tools and apps which make use of open data in a useful, creative, and effective way. In addition, the City of Toronto showcases groups who have made use of their open data for research, advocacy, visualizations, and apps.

Building on the success of its new Open Data website, New Westminster can continue to encourage innovation amongst citizens by empowering everyone — not just data geeks or researchers — to use the city’s open data to find solutions to issues in the community.