Phillip Smith

Canadian Open Data Experience

Government open data road show hits Vancouver

Last night I dashed out of work and fought rush-hour traffic up Vancouver’s unseasonably dry streets to catch the Canadian Open Data Experience “road show.” The road show is snaking its way across Canada to promote an upcoming government-sponsored open data competition.

Sadly, I arrived too late to enjoy the free nibbles. But it was a good opportunity to put a few faces to names in the open data scene here in “The ‘Couve.” Interesting side note: as a hammer out this post on my iPad mini at the Elysian, the cafe chatter is thick with mentions of “open-source software” and “apps” and so on – this city is buzzing with data enthusiasts it seems.

Open data, represented

“Data should be open by default” — Minister Tony Clement

Minister Tony Clement (President of the Treasury Board), to my surprise, was disarmingly sincere and impressively well informed. He painted a picture of why open data is an important priority for Canada. And David Wrate, Director of DataBC, spoke excitedly about the province’s efforts to share more “APIs, code, and data with the public,” even throwing in an appropriately hip reference to publishing these artifacts on Github.

Vancouver’s Deputy Mayor, Councillor Andrea Reimer, was similarly whip-smart, candid and passionate about open data – an issue that would likely be unappealing to elected officials grasping for issues that resonate with large numbers of their constituents. Meanwhile Sean Simpson, GIS Manager, City of Surrey brought a small-town feel to topic that could have been disastrously dry: how the growing municipality of Surrey got ahead of the curve on open data.

It was a good show day for elected officials.

Getting down to business

“This is serious business” — Minister Tony Clement

Those representing business, industry, and venture capital, however, talked a lot and said little. Vancouver has had its share of recent startup-to-exit successes and I was hoping for more substance to complete the picture that Minister Clement started, specifically where open data connects to commercialization and contributes to the Canadian economy.

The was an odd reference to Wikipedia as “open source software,” which it most certainly is not 1 – a surprising slip. It was also explained that municipal governments don’t trust each other – and, for some unexplained reason, shouldn’t – and hence the need for a non-profit called Urban Opus Society to fill that gap with the Urban Opus Datahub . I’m curious to do some digging here to better understand the hurdles.

By the time that Adam Lerner ambled onto the stage, the 100-person thick room was getting fidgety (or maybe it was just me?). I was keen to hear what Mr. Learner had to say (probably because of his sharp suit!), but all I caught was a recap of the recent Data Leadership Summit in Vancouver, and a solid point about the need to embrace a problem-first approach to open data. Thankfully, Lerner posted his slides online before the event, so you can just get it direct:

The Open Data Narrative: CODE 2015 Vancouver from Solvable - @Solvable

Canada matures on open data

While I’m not sure if attendees in the room walked away realizing that the government’s hackathon is just two weeks away, getting underway February 20th, there were several other interesting take aways worth mentioning:

  • Minister Clement spoke to his “open data by default” policy for federal government, where ministries would be expected to release their data proactively unless there was a clear risk to national security or personal privacy. [Update: a reader rightly pointed out the contradiction here, i.e., this same government killed the long-form census, arguably one of the most important national open data projects.]
  • Councillor Andrea Reimer made an interesting analogy of the challenge for Vancouver’s open data efforts, comparing open data to surface mining rights and underscoring the need for interpretation or augmentation of the data to make it useful to non-technical people.
  • The story of Surrey’s open data efforts demonstrate that a scrappy can-do approach, mixed with a little David Eaves wow factor, can go a long way in the journey toward a successfully bootstrapped municipal open data initiative.

And, as much as I wasn’t left filled with inspiration by the business pitches, I was happy that Ray Sharma, Managing Partner of Extreme Venture Partners, brought up the groundbreaking real estate data provider Zillow as an good example of a data-commercialization undertaking that arguably improves people’s lives. I wish he had gone further to underscore the near-monopoly that The Toronto Real Estate Board has on similar data in Canada, and how that impedes any real innovation on this front.

Perhaps some of the open data enthusiasts that the road show is connecting with across the country will turn their attention to real estate data next.

  1. Wikipedia – while powered by the open-source wiki software called MediaWiki – is an editorial project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation 


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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