Openness and Crowdsourcing Combine To Change Government

The August long weekend goes by many names in Canada – Simcoe Day in Toronto, Colonel By Day in Ottawa, and British Columbia Day in B.C. – but the most common is simply Civic Day.  On the week Canadians enjoyed Civic Day, my weekly technology column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes how our civic institutions are rapidly being transformed by open government mandates that leverage the power of the Internet to foster greater transparency and public engagement.   

The City of Vancouver has led the way with the adoption of a resolution in May that endorsed open and accessible data, open standards, and open source software.  The open data component states, "the City of Vancouver will freely share with citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns."

Since the resolution’s passage, the possibilities around open data have begun to emerge.  For example, David Eaves, who has been a leading local advocate of open government, speculated about the possibility of a new application that would capture garbage collection data and provide automated email reminders to residents.  Within days, two programmers began to develop just such an application.  While garbage collection notices won’t change the world (those in Toronto weary of the garbage strike would settle for collection), it highlights how open data can be used to enhance public services at no additional cost to the public.

Vancouver may be leading the way, but other cities are scrambling to catch up.  The City of Calgary has launched a study on the feasibility of opening its data to the public, while Toronto Mayor David Miller promised an open city initiative earlier this year.  

In many respects, all of these cities are using Washington, DC as their model.  The District provides citizens with the access to 295 datasets from multiple agencies.  The data can be used, manipulated, and mapped as the public desires. In fact, by leveraging the interest of thousands of people, governments are finding the public represents a new, efficient way to collect and manage data.  

For example, Industry Canada recently wanted to know more about high-speed Internet services in rural communities in order to identify the places that would qualify for a new broadband infrastructure finance program.  Using a simple Google Map, the department invited both the public and Internet service providers to catalogue their services right down to the street corner.

This "crowdsourcing" can also prove remarkably effective at distributing huge volumes of data review into manageable chunks.  Earlier this year, Britain was rocked by a scandal involving expense reports by Members of Parliament.  The Guardian newspaper collected more than 458,000 pages of documents – far too many for any single organization to review in a short period of time.

Its solution was to invite the public to review individual documents to identify the kind of document (expense form, receipt, etc.) and whether it merited further investigation.  Weeks after launching the experiment, some 20,000 people have reviewed more than 200,000 documents.

As the move toward open government continues to percolate, Canadian groups such as Visible Government are working to roll out a wide range of new sites and services.  They have started with, a site that has captured years worth of publicly-reported government contracts and made the data searchable across all departments, thereby allowing the public to better identify regular recipients.

With governments looking to do more with less, adopting open government strategies mark an ideal way to better deliver public services and foster increased confidence in government institutions through greater transparency.

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