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What Open Data Changes: Sustainability and Knowledge Creation

In May, I spoke to Vancouver City Council in support of the motion on open data. One of my beliefs that I stated at that presentation, and which I still believe, is that open data creates the possibility of citizens being able to have conversations based on fact. With the challenges of peak oil and climate change weighing upon us, there isn’t a more vital or important time for us to come to a consensus on what our city actually is, in order for us to start thinking hard and creatively about what we want to be.

My reading into this subject has made me very interested in the process of creating knowledge — from initial collection of data, to interpreting and analysing it to reveal insights about causes and effects. More specifically, I’m fascinated by the way that involving people in this way engages people, so that they feel more invested in the broader process and outcomes of what our governments do, but more important, how we as citizens are affecting our neighbours and surroundings when we go about our daily lives. The idea of participatory urbanism has been a strong influence in my thinking in this regard.

What open data really means is not obvious; in fact, it’s probably anything but. I think it has to do the way we contextualize the goals we want to achieve and what we think are our best practices as achieving them. Here’s a case in point: last week, I learned of a task the City of Vancouver wants some help with. Without naming names, here’s a brief description of what they wanted:

  • develop and establish a web-based resource centre for [ city department ].
  • this project will have an organizational element – i.e. how best to structure the resource centre – and a graphic communication component
  • the first task would be to be to enhance/reformat existing data charts, graphs, and modeling information to make more graphically legible for program documents and web.
  • While I think the person who would end up helping the City with this might get a great experience flexing their Photoshop and Illustrator muscles, as well as learn a lot about data analysis, the project that I think would be even more innovative and experimental for the City of Vancouver would be to make the data public and let citizens decide what views of the data are most interesting and useful to them, instead of relying on one person’s opinion. No matter how well-trained or well-meaning they are, what they make can never outweigh the value of a process that unfolds in the open.

    Instead of carrying on with the project above, I could see someone at the city developing relationships with the organizations and community groups that could start talking about the implications of the data, then helping them to undertake the analysis by making it available in formats that are easy to work with.

    As a neophyte urban planning student, one of the most terrifying aspects of entering this field is how strongly things are professionalized. The language and the posturing are all hugely intimidating, and this conceptual distance takes away from the sense of empowerment and ownership I think all citizens should feel when it comes to their contributions to the feel and function of a city. By letting people participate in the process as neighbours and fellow citizens and giving everyone access to the data, it puts people on a level playing field when it comes to participating in the conversation about what we want to do next.

    Doing this, however, is not at the front of mind for the person tasked with help to establish this web-based resource centre. I understand that, and maybe this isn’t the project where this actually happens, because perhaps their resource centre has goals that aren’t outlined in this e-mail. My hope, however, is that for initiatives surrounding sustainability — especially in a city like Vancouver, aiming to be the Greenest City in the world — that governments would be able to trust their citizens to come to useful conclusions about where we could do better, and what successes we can celebrate, in making the data open.

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