Open Data is a Key to Transparency

Open Data is a Key to Transparency

Governments collect and administer a tremendous amount of data. With the advent of the internet it is now easy to share that data. Many governments have started initiatives to allow free use of government data which has no legal, security or privacy concerns. This is commonly known as “open data”.

In July 2011, B.C. launched the first provincial Open Data program in Canada called DataBC. Citizens can now access thousands of government datasets that are open, machine-readable, searchable and free for anyone to use or repurpose.

This is good news for citizens and businesses. It opens up government data to examination by ordinary citizens. This provides more transparency and encourages citizens to hold governments accountable to deliver high quality services efficiently. It also encourages innovation because businesses can use government data to produce new products and services.

Government data can be used to enhance the life of citizens. It has been used in mobile applications to track bus and train schedules, locate free parking spots or show crime rates.

The City of Vancouver offers a web based application called VanMap that lets citizens view data about Vancouver in map form VanMap lets you view property lines, zoning information, sewer mains, water mains, information about addresses, public places and crime data.

Vanmap was initiated in 1999 by Jonathan Mark who led the effort. I was on Vancouver City Council at that time and I remember how impressed we all were by the vision he had. It was so successful that in 2001 we launched the public version which meant citizens would have access to the same information the staff had. At that time the City of Vancouver was pioneering in this area as very few other jurisdictions had anything similar.

HectaresBC merges government of BC data with environmental non-profit data so citizens can search for information about land management and eco-diversity. For example, you can find the answer to a question like “What is the total area covered by each Health Authority and how much of this area is within 800 meters of the coastline and has an average winter temperature below 5 Celsius?” The power of this tool is significant as HectaresBC has simplified a complicated, technical task to make it accessible to ordinary citizens.

Government data which is readily available and easily accessed can also be used by public servants to assess programs and improve services. Good data allows government to create evidence based policies which are more effective and efficient.

In order for open data initiatives to succeed governments must offer license agreements that allow the widest possible use of government data. They must also maintain the data in a way which is easily used and conforms to standards so when applications are built to use the data they can be easily maintained.

Open data creates exciting possibilities for citizen engagement. It allows citizens to demand transparency from government and hold government accountable. It also allows citizens to satisfy their curiosity and exercise their imagination to create revolutionary new products and services.


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