Nitobi’s VanGuide, Microsoft’s OGDI, and musings on open data in advocacy

Last week, I was graciously invited to an event at the very swanky Goldfish Kitchen in Yaletown to view a demo of Nitobi’s VanGuide as well as to see some apps built using data from Vancouver’s open data catalogue by employees at Microsoft.

VanGuide is an iPhone app as well as a web app integrated with Twitter for annotating landmarks. It’s intended to serve as a platform on top of which other things can be developed. I’m much more likely to be a fan of the iPhone parts than the web parts, given I run Tiger on a rapidly decaying Powerbook that’s not so happy using SilverLight…

Nik Garkusha, Microsoft Canada’s Open Source Strategy Lead, walked us through a good-parts version of what Microsoft is up to in this space, like the Open Government Data Initiative. This was followed by some show-and-tell from the developers of a few apps based on Vancouver’s data, like:

  • FreeFinder, a mashup plotting free meetups organized on Meetup.com
  • VanPark2010, a mashup for people looking for parking on the downtown peninsula during the Olympics.
  • MapWay, a public data and points of interest curation application targeted to tourists.
  • TaxiCab (not deployed), a game by some Great Northern Way Campus students about driving a taxi-cab in downtown Vancouver. The map tiles on which the game is play are generated using block outline data from the catalogue.

Many of the apps are a bit rough-around-the-edges, befitting what I’m assuming is most likely side-of-the-desk work. The app that was not on the agenda but which I think is probably striking to most people is the Georgia Straight’s recent article about the work of BTA Works, the research arm of Bing Thom Architects, in projecting what parts of Vancouver would be affected by projected rises in sea water levels — work that was made possible by data released in the catalogue. (I’m already hearing at least one call for other parts of the region and other municipalities to follow suit in broadening the scope of this research work beyond just the City of Vancouver.)

It’s exciting and commendable to see Microsoft get in on the focus around cities and open data. But there was a little rabble-rousing too, and I think it gets at the heart of some growing anxieties around the word open, which is rapidly in dire need of clarifiers the way free got “free as in beer,” versus “free as in speech.” I recently read Aaron Swartz’s article, “When Is Transparency Useful?” which sketches the outlines of this anxiety: open data doesn’t guarantee more people caring, because that’s what is always in short supply, and data plotted on maps starts, but doesn’t do gobs, to change this. As Aaron writes,

It’s through people coming together—not websites analyzing data—that real political progress can be made. […] Technologists can’t depend on journalists to use their stuff; journalists can’t depend on political activists to fix the problems they uncover. Change doesn’t come from thousands of people, all going their separate ways. Change requires bringing people together to work on a common goal. That’s hard for technologists to do by themselves.

While it was great to meet the people trying to create new things out of the data, it was the lack of feeling of people coming together that made the evening fall slightly short for me. That said, this is through no fault of the folks at Microsoft or Nitobi — they’re only getting started in this, and I’m looking forward to seeing them get down and dirty with the rest of us on making the data meaningful as a tool of reflection, and in service of advocacy and change. And I hope to see them at the next Hackathon! There is likely to be significantly less seafood involved.

I’m also grateful that there are many people thinking more and harder on technology than I do are ensuring that the technical underpinnings keep the fruits of our efforts reuseable, standardized, and, well, free.

One Comment

  1. Karen – thanks for coming out, it was a great opportunity to get some good ideas and facilitated a lot of great discsusions, which IMHO is even better than app demos :) We’re asked some of the dev’s who came out to participate in the next Hackathon and bring their open sourced app code to the table — helping build something more Meaningful!

    Nik

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

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