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Open Data

Report from the Canadian and International Open Data Conferences


Last week PlaceSpeak product manager Hugh Stimson attended the Canadian Open Data Summit and the International Open Data Conference, both of which were held in Ottawa this year.

An attendee adds a note to the mind-map at an unconference session.

An attendee adds a note to the mind-map at an unconference session.

One of the things I’ve come to realize about the open data movement is that it’s composed of a surprisingly small group of people, measured against the excitement and concern it can inspire in practitioners and governments. When a few hundred folks got together in conference rooms in Ottawa last week, that represented a significant fraction of all the open data people in the entire world.

So what was the mood of the room, in 2015? Mixed. Geographically, jurisdictionally, emotionally.

Open data seems to be at something of a middle phase: our hopes for ubiquitous, default openness just aren’t being met yet (except, perhaps, in Finland), and our promises that every new dataset will launch a handy new app aren’t always born out. This was the third year that an international open data conference has been held, and there was a sense of varying optimism in the crowd, and in some cases unmet expectations.

And yet countries like Canada and the US are actively in the process of rolling out federal open-by-default mandates, infrastructures for open data like CKAN and Socrata are raising expectations for smaller governments, and civic groups like Code For America and Maptime are making data-driven application development feel simultaneously hip, virtuous, relevant and accessible.



Our expectations are mixed, and efforts vary considerably across levels of government as well. There is necessarily no single mandate that can apply across Canadian provinces and cities, and the results there vary wildly. Many cities aren’t publishing data to the web in any form, while others are racing ahead implementing purpose-built open data portals. Some of those portals remain pretty barren once built, while others are filling up quickly with timely data. City of Edmonton staff were on hand to receive a well-deserved award for the work they’ve been doing under a young, excited administration. They’re not alone in their efforts.

International divides

Internationally, the experience of open data is even more varied. At the International phase of the conference the dominant faction was Latin American. I met practitioners from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico and Costa Rica. For the most part those voices were frustrated with the lack of progress and openly skeptical about the chances for open governance in countries where basic trust of government is low and democratic practices are fragile. Yet there they were, lots of them, largely young, all excited, and every one with a story of a data-release victory or a well received app.

At a workgroup on open cities, 3 representatives from Finnish municipalities were a bit sheepish in replying that their biggest challenges were finding the appropriate standards to encode the flood of data coming from their civic governments, where transparency is assumed and trust is implicit.


Open standards

Open data standards are boring, tedious, slow-moving, necessary and powerful. Talks about open standards were enthusiastically received and sessions on standards drew relatively large, excitable crowds. I think I heard more sideline conversations about standards than any other topic at the conference. This is a movement laying down foundations, and working towards the long haul. Open data may be privately unsure of itself, but it sure isn’t backing down.


Open data-driven businesses

One set of voices I didn’t hear much from: businesses who actually use the data. PlaceSpeak certainly isn’t the only company in Canada using open data, but perhaps there aren’t yet many of us, yet. My prediction: next year we won’t be alone. This year we tracked 3 businesses joining PlaceSpeak in using municipal data to power civic notifications, and increases in data availability afford plenty of other opportunities.

The arrival of social enterprises and other for-profits will intensify existing debates around the implications of businesses becoming stakeholders in the open data conversation. It will also help make the dollars-and-cents case for open data, and find models for pushing beyond experimental hackathon-style apps and services and into user-centric, dependable interfaces for open data that a broader public will find and use, even if they aren’t interested in “open data” themselves.


Potent coalition

I think this mixture of attitudes and emotions, jurisdictions, non-profits, for-profits, social ventures, administrations looking for accolades, administrations who sincerely care, activists who want to one-up administrations, and bureaucrats who just want to do their jobs more easily will turn out to be a robust combination. Messy, but effective. Open data and open government is still a ways from maturity, but I suspect that our mixed coalition has the potency to take a grand, nerdy, fundamentally humanist idea a long way indeed.


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