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!

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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 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.