Canadian Open Data Summit in Vancouver February 21, 2014

I wait with great anticipation for the Canadian Open Data Summit this year. Day off work, check. Approved training request, check. Interesting and varied line up of speakers, check. Engaging MC, check. Opportunities for networking, check. Reconnecting with friends and open data enthusiasts, check.

This year I’m particularly looking forward to the presentation from Jeni Tennison. Jeni is the Technical Director for the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI catalyzes the evolution of open data to create economic, environmental and social value. Jeni is an engineer, developer and pragmatist. She digs into how open data can bring economic growth, demographic engagement, and public sector efficiency. Jeni works on open data projects with a specific, practical goal and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

Besides Jeni, Chad Skelton from the Vancouver Sun will discuss how he uses open data in reporting and how the The Sun has become more transparent about the process of journalism. Emma Irwin from Mozilla will show how kids can have fun with open data and create awesome projects while learning how data and the web work.

The Canadian Open Data Summit will build on the success of the BC Open Data Summit last yearwith help from volunteers from across Canada. Jeni, Chad, and Emma are but a few speakers in a day jam-packed with open data and open government specialists from organizations including the Province of BC, Government of CanadaOpen North, Montréal and Québec OuvertCity of Vancouver, Mozilla, ResiderMount Royal UniversityWorld Bank and the Open Institute.

So what are you waiting for? You can sign up to Canada’s premiere open data event of the year at

Maybe you are already registered. If so, let us know who you are looking forward to seeing in the comments.

Capstone Project for MBA – Machine-Readable Financial Statements

In my final Capstone project for my MBA, I’ve been trying to get a few municipal governments in Western Canada to open up their yearly financial statements in a machine readable format.

This was surprisingly hard. I spoke with people from the City of Vancouver, the City of Edmonton and the City of Victoria. I also presented the idea at the February Open Data Summit in Vancouver. At the same event, we discussed the idea at a round table, getting good suggestions and ideas from participants from the open data community. I’ve also blogged about the idea here and there.

In the end, I did get some traction at the City of Victoria. Right from the beginning Marianne Alto was supportive of the idea. In fact, it was something that she had already been thinking about. The data is not available yet, but it should be coming soon.

Looking forward to it!

Government of Canada Open Data Roundtable in Vancouver

Today, I attended the Government of Canada Open Data roundtable consultation in Vancouver. What struck me was the brain power, innovative thinking and open data expertise from a wide variety of viewpoints and backgrounds.

The session was led by David Eaves who, by the way, is an excellent facilitator. Even though he has forgotten more about open data than many of us will ever know, he did not dominate the conversation with his views, but facilitated great participation from the group.

The main themes from the roundtable were: data standardization, user-centric design, search-ability (really difficulty to search) data, registries of data (open or not), and quality of data.

On the theme of data standardization, there was a discussion about whether the Government of Canada would be suitable to provide the governance, guidance, and/or facilitation for the collaborative standardization of open data standards for other levels of government in Canada. Many agreed that this would be a vital role for the Government of Canada to play because data standardization is so important to increase the scalability and value of open data.

Someone commented that standardization should not become a barrier for the release of data, an important point.

Another view is that disruptive innovation that begins with one or two municipalities is, historically at least, the most effective catalyst for open data standardization, citing examples of standardized transit data (GTFS) and Open311.

I tend to agree with the micro-to-macro approach to driving out standardization. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Two municipalities can come up with a standard for reporting on high-level financial statements in a machine-readable format, for example. This standard will evolve over time with adoption of other interested municipalities and more financial detail becoming standardized and openly available.

This brings me to a Capstone Project that I’m working on to complete my MBA. I’m looking for one or two municipalities who would be interested in participating in an open data standardization pilot by  releasing their financial statements in an machine-readable format.  This information is already available in a PDF format, but PDF makes it difficult to do any comparative analysis between municipalities, which would provide value for public administrators and interested citizens. If you, or anyone you know, would be interested in participating in this open data standardization pilot, please let me know.


Standardized, Open, Machine-readable Format for Financial Statement Data

At the Open Data Summit in Vancouver yesterday, I gave a 5 minute ‘lightening talk’ about the future of open data and how open data standards will increase the number of people who can use a data set and the impact of code that is written against that data.

Photo credit: Bowen Osoko (@bxmx – Instagram)

At the end of my talk I issued a call to action to consider ways to standardize on financial reporting for public sector organizations, primarily financial statements and budgets. Financial reporting is (hopefully) low hanging fruit. Public sector organizations are already required to publish financial data by adopting the accounting and reporting standards established by the Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB). Unfortunately, for open data enthusiasts like me, this data is almost exclusively in PDF format.

The immediate value proposition of an open, standardized format for publishing financial statements would be for citizens and public administrators to:

  1. Easily compare financial statements between jurisdictions for comparative analysis of revenues and expenditures
  2. Enable civic hacking, essentially free development for the public sector organization, creating value for citizens
  3. Open up the data for other tools and analysis
  4. Facilitate interoperability and data exchange between data sets
  5. Lower the barrier of entry to this information (value realized within and outside of the public sector organization)
  6. Reach a wider audience with open APIs built for these standards. These APIs would be used by any organization using the standard specifications.

Recently, while consulting for a large municipality in British Columbia, the City Manager asked for a comparison of his IT budget to similar sized municipalities providing a similar set of services. He wanted to get an idea of whether his IT spend was below or above average. This comparative analysis was relatively difficult to do because IT spending is reported differently in each municipality and sometimes IT services are centralized and sometimes they are decentralized throughout the service areas such as Engineering, Planning and Development, and Parks and Recreation. Open, standardized, machine-readable municipal financial data would make this cross-jurisdictional analysis much easier.

Citizens would also become more informed. Today, we pay our taxes, but have little understanding on how they are spent. Taxes should be considered an investment. We are investing in public infrastructure, health, education, and other citizens’ services. Citizens should have granular visibility into how our taxes are used. Today, it is a black box (okay, really its a PDF but not easily consumed). With open, standardized data, we could build easily understood dashboards or data visualizations of how our investment (taxes) is being spent.

During breakout sessions we brainstormed possible solutions to my call to action. Philip Ashlock, the co-founder of the Open311 standard had some great suggestions to implementing a standard for financial reporting. Many of these steps are generic to any kind of standards setting.

  1. Research – don’t re-invent the wheel. Check out the Civic Commons Wiki to see what has been done before in other cities across the globe. 
    1. Check out Checkbook New York City
    2. Check out XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) an XML-based computer language for the electronic transmission of business and financial data
  2. Narrow scope – at first we were thinking all financial reporting for public sector. We have narrowed that down to Financial Statements for municipalities in British Columbia.
    1. Ideally, we want to start with one municipality. Demonstrate success and then sign on other interested municipalities.
  3. Develop iteratively – find partners such as civic hackers, vendors, municipalities. Start small, demonstrate value, and continue.
  4. Be flexible – you don’t have to standardize everything.

Philip described a tale of two cities with the standardization of Open311. It started with a more simple standard in Washington D.C. and a more complex standard in San Francisco. Both cities worked cooperatively to create interoperability between the cities (see more here). Philip told us that they did not have to standardize on all data elements, and that flexibility helped with the standard’s adoption.

One of the challenges brought up by the group was that allowing financial statements to stand alone, without the accompanying documentation (i.e., text) in the PDF, would be a violation of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). The solution to this objection is that the documentation could be included in the metadata or in corresponding data fields in the data standard.

Do you work in a municipality would be willing to take on the challenge of open, standardized financial reporting? Have any ideas for action? It would be great to hear from you.

My Open Data Christmas Wishlist

Dear Santa,

The Education and Healthcare data sets that I’d like to see exposed in a standard, machine readable format include the following:

  1. K-12 student satisfaction surveys
  2. Emergency room wait times

Student Satisfaction Surveys

As a parent of two boys, I’m interested in know what the student satisfaction survey results are for the schools in my area. Student satisfaction is a good indication of engagement, and engagement is a good indicator of learning. Having worked for the Ministry of Education in the past and seeing the rolled up results of student satisfaction for the Province of British Columbia, I know that data is interesting. I saw, for example, how students on the whole are very engaged from kindergarten to grade 5 or 6 (about 4.5 out of 5). In grade 7 the engagement declines and it bottoms out around grade 10. (Its been a while since I’ve seen this data, but this is my best recollection and it coincides with my own educational experience).

What I envision is the student satisfaction survey mashed up with mapping data so that I have an app that shows the schools in my neighborhood with the student satisfaction for each grade. An even better indication of the school performance would be provided if data from the Fraser Institute’s report card on elementary schools (based on Grade 4 and Grade 7 Foundation Skills Assessment results) is included.

Santa school

Santas at School

Emergency Room Wait Times

The other idea also stems from being a parent. Imagine the unwanted scenario where your your child has somehow hurt themselves playing in the yard. You look at them and realize that you need to take them to emergency. You pull out your smart phone and go to the ER Wait Time app. This app shows all of the hospitals in your area with driving times (maybe even considering traffic data). The app will also show you the wait times. Hospital A has a wait time of 6 hours. Hospital B, although it is 20 minutes further to drive there, has 3 emergency physicians and a wait time of only 20 minutes. I know which one I want to go to. The app can also provide you with a report card on hospital procedures, medical conditions, and medical conditions related to childbirth. The app would be customizable to allow people to evaluate hospitals on quality measures important to them. It may also include patient ratings of hospital performance.

Thanks Santa! Keep up the good work. Every year, we are getting more and more data sets. We sure appreciate all the great work you and your elves do exposing data, stimulating the digital economy and helping government be more transparent and to provide better services outcomes.

Merry Christmas!

Standardized Global Data Structure Common Sense Next Step for Open Data

Throughout the world we have thousands of open data sets being published. A subset of this data is cataloged here. This is a good thing. Data is the next emerging frontier of the democratization of information, possibly as revolutionary as the Internet in bringing information into the hands of people so they can make informed decisions, hold companies, governments, and leaders into account, and drive the new economy into the future with innovative data-driven start ups. Data is the building block of information, and information makes the world go round.

data(Data chaos 3 image by sachynroyalty free)

Wouldn’t it be great to have a common standard that governments and other organizations adhere to when publishing their data? That way data from one company or jurisdiction could be compared with the data from another. Global comparative analysis of local government financial, traffic, or crime data, for example, would reveal the best-run local governments and shed light on best practices that could be shared between jurisdictions.

Common standards vastly increases the number of people who can use a data set and exponentially increases the reach and impact of code that is written against that data for use in other jurisdictions. It also means that linked data can be used for exponentially more uses as more and more data is connected. Like the Internet, connected data becomes more and more useful as a building block for information as its reach and inter-connectivity expand.

Standardization is one of the main reasons that transit data is one of the most leveraged data sets across the globe. In 2005, Google and the City of Portland Tri-Met created the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), a standardized format for transit data. Any transit agency that stores transit data in this specified format can use the open source TimeTable Publisher developed by Tri-Met and Google and many other free applications built on the GTFS data including mobile transit planning apps and trip planners that use text messaging.

The benefits of standardized data structure for open data is clear. The question is how do we bring governments together to standardize the open data structure so we can better leverage open source development based on open data and more effectively link open data for better analysis, transparency and accountability. Perhaps, this is question that is best addressed by the Open Government Partnership or the Open Data Institute. The mandate of the Open Government Partnership is to make governments better by making them more transparent, effective and accountable. A standardized open data structure would go along way towards that goal. The Open Data Institute, which will officially launch on December 4th “will catalyse the evolution of an open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value.” Either organization is well positioned to champion the cross-government open data standard.