A Halton Region Citizen Initiative

We are a group of citizens who believe in transformational power of open data and open government, our mission is to bring Open Data to the Halton region.

10 May 2013 ~ 1 Comment

Open Data forum in Oakville: May 16th 7-9pm

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The Town of Oakville is hosting a forum to hear from the local community about the potential for Open Data in Oakville.

The forum is intended to be an informal exchange of ideas between the Open Data community and Senior Town staff from policy, web and IT teams who are currently in the process of developing the Town’s Online Services strategy.

The Town invites Open Halton members and Open Data advocates to participate in the forum, which will be held on Thursday, May 16th from 7 to 9 p.m. at Queen Elizabeth Park Community and Cultural Centre –  2302 Bridge Rd, Oakville.

If you would like to attend the session, please RSVP with the Town via the email:  communications[AT]oakville.ca <– replace [AT] with @ :)
For questions or RSVP via phone, you can call:  905-845-6601, ext. 3764  (Sarah Stewart, Web Coordinator, Strategy / Policy / Communications with Oakville)

 

07 April 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Recollect waste collection service comes to Halton !

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Last week was Easter Monday, which means I wasn’t sure if our trash day was now a day later because of the holiday. Typically I check if it’s trash or recycling day by peeking outside to see if neighbours put their bins out. However this time around I really wasn’t sure, I didn’t see trash bags but thought for sure it was a trash day ?!

In the past I would go to my PC, open up my PC, go to Halton’s site and try to find the schedule, open up the PDF map to figure out my Zone, blah blah… but this time around, to my surprise I saw the familiar “green” of Recollect.NET form — right on Halton.ca in the new Waste Collection Calendar Tool. In my opinion, it’s a much more intuitive and user-friendly way to identify your zone, schedule & also keep track of collection dates/items via reminders (email, twitter & even phone!)

Recollect.NET is poster child for open data (collection schedules) and is a brain child of Luke ClossDavid Eaves and Kevin Jones from Vancouver, who have recently OpenWest Systems, and Recollect is their launch product. What started as a local Vancouver Hackathon project (VanTrash) turned into a North American open data business epitomizing success of an open data project turned to a service (free & paid).

But what makes is quite unique vs. other services &applications typically procured by government/organizations is that the data in Recollect is accessible via an API (Application Programming Interface). This means other organizations, services, applications, coders, open data hackers, etc. can access Halton’s waste management data and do more with it: build additional applications, incorporate into new services or mash-up & visualize in new innovative ways.

And finally, the data itself besides being made available as an API is also in an open standard (data specification) called TRON published by Recollect here making it easy to for municipalities/regions to publish their data in a format that Recollect (and others) can make use of. Besides consistency this provides interoperability & portability for the data, giving the waste management service providers more choice & flexibility.

So, there’s much to celebrate with the launch of Halton’s new waste management calendar tool:

For Residents it means a better way to find / keep track / get reminded of our waste service dates via web / mobile

For Halton it’s a way to deliver an improved service for residents and access to a consistently evolving/updating service

For Developers it’s a way to access Halton’s (and other muni’s) waste management data and build value on top of Recollect

While the data powering Hatlon’s new tool doesn’t look to be “open data” as per definition, it’s an important step by the region towards making better use of our taxpayers dollars and leveraging services built on open standards and with APIs for other developers in mind.

Well done, Halton, I’m proud of my region!

 

15 March 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Hacking Open Data with the Finder Template and a Sandwich: Citizen-Ready Apps in Minutes

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I’m re-posting a short how-to in honour of the last OpenDataDay hackathon. This uses City of Waterloo’s Open Data catalogue, which has a number of useful datasets, one of which I particularly liked for a small app project.  I decided to do my own “mini-hackathon” during my Saturday lunch break using the new Finder & Hero templates for Windows 8

turkey_sandwich

Objective: Create an app using an existing open data set (JSON format), using only my some super basic HTML and JavaScript skills (as little as possible). Successful compile of a working app = success
ToolsStart with my home Windows 8 PC with no dev tools installed
Time45 minutes, including the time to eat my lunch (Turkey Sandwich)

Here’s how it went down:

    1. Got the Bits: 5 mins - First, I searched for “windows8 development” and clicked the first link that came back, which took me to a page to download Free Visual Studio Express 2012 + resources / guides. I then proceeded to download the Finder Template from GitHub (yes, I should’ve done a Git Clone, but I was lazy & hungry, so just did a download) and while waiting had a few bites of my sandwich – yummy!
    2. Installed VS Express 2012: 12 mins – Visual Studio 2012 install included installing Blend for Visual studio for CSS and registering my developer account (super quick). While the installer did its thing I multi-tasked…
    3. Browsed the Quick Start Guide – Mark Arteaga did a great write-up that walks through pretty much the same thing I’m doing here, but more technical and without a sandwich. I focused on the Requirements & the Customization Section.
    4. BING maps SDK & Key: 5 mins – While reading the Quick Start Guide, realized I need the BING SDK and a Bing Maps Key (signed in with my Live ID account), clicked “create/view keys” on the left panel, filled in a simple form & VOILA!
      At the same time, starting to get concerned that 1/2 of my allotted time is gone, as is my sandwich :(
    5. imageRun the template: 3 mins – I unzipped the template (downloaded in Step 1) ,ran “FinderApp.sln” solution for Visual Studio. Right off the bat, I just hit “F5” to build the project – and it worked!  YAY!  Of course it was using the default dataset as a feed. Before I forgot, changed the BING maps key with the one I just got: open FinderApp –> js –> “config.js” file, containing most of the stuff that needs to  be changed. Scroll to the bottom & set my key. So far so good.
    6. Set Data Feed Options5 mins – for this test I used the City of Waterloo Open Data catalogue, specifically the Public Art dataset (with the JSON URL: http://cityofwaterlooopendata.cloudapp.net:8080/v1/CityOfWaterlooOpenData/PublicArt/?format=json). This JSON viewer reveals the fields I needed: NAME, latitude, longitude, LOCATION_DESC (instead of an address field), and DESCRIPTION. Going into config.js it took just a couple of minutes to set the JSON URL, appName and the new fields (including an additional field: detailField), like this:image
    7. Build & tweak: 10 mins – Hitting “F5”, and…. success. The map zoomed in to Waterloo/Kitchener and showed the data from the feed. Clicking on the points brought up the “Detail” screen with a map view, but the “detail” was just the default infoFormat string: “<h4>Here is some info about {{nameField}}.<h4>”. A quick navigation to home.details.js below the “// setup the document elements” section revealed:document.getElementById(“address”).textContent =  … which I set to… = data[Finder.Config.secondaryField]  and
      document.getElementById(“infoDiv”).innerHTML=  … which I set to the new the new field…. = Finder.Formatter.format(data[Finder.Config.detailField], data);

image

Hit F5 again, and now I had the Art description field “DESCRIPTION” in my app. Nice and simple! My custom app builds just fine, with just a few tweaks – and only needs a few little things like the About section & custom icons to be App Gallery ready.

 

With 10 minutes to spare I had to time finish off my sandwich and scurry off to re-join my family for the rest of the week.

On Monday I’ll continue my hacking (on a different dataset maybe) at the Make Web Not War hackathon in Montreal.

Hope to see you there!

16 April 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Milton Open Data Report: Gets the Costs & Risks, Misses on Benefits

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The Open Data Report by Milton city staff is ready for council!

At 2 pages long, it’s crisp, quite balanced, and does take into consideration costs & risks of an open data initiative by the town. Understated is the focus on CITIZEN VALUE of Open Data –  particularly when the minority of those “software developers and tech savy citizens” turn Data into Citizen-Ready Applications used by the majority of residents (web, mobile, etc).

For Milton where median age of residents is 34, an open data initiative can provide a powerful platform to extend and augment the services provided by the town. Think services like looking up a bus route from Milton to Burlington via Oakville Whole Foods, i.e. a Halton Transit web and phone app — one of OpenHalton’s Planned Projects, or perhaps a better way to engage with council via social media provided by apps like WardRep.ca.

The benefits of open data are not ONLY on the transparency and accountability side of things, but ALSO on practical uses by Miltonians in their every day activities: transit, driving, parking, recreational activities, etc. There is still an opportunity for Milton Council to recognize that there is tremendous value in hundreds of applications ready to be used by residents of Milton, if only the data from the Town could were made open data!

Report ends with a recommendation (contingent on council’s approval) to run an Open Data Pilot Project…

…with a limited data set including but not limited to: transit routes, transit stops, ward boundaries, Town facilities and park locations. This will give staff an opportunity to develop a process for posting the data and evaluate the level of public interest…

This is a typical move adopted by almost every municipality that embarked on an Open Data initiative. Particularly exciting is TRANSIT data — as well as Town facilities & Park location information. On the heels of Parks & Facility Data released under the Burlington Open Data Pilot, the Town of Milton could take advantage of apps & visualizations like Burlington Parks and Milton Splash almost immediately!

One area that needs to be challenged in the report is that:

City’s new website, Milton.ca, is not physically able to host some of the open data formats

Really? Which formats? Certainly Burlington, Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor, Region of Waterloo, and many others in Canada do just fine with their existing Content Management Systems (CMS) making the data available. Certainly for  the pilot there’s no technical reason that I see not to use city’s existing infrastructure, particularly after the website re-development. Can anyone point to reasons I’m missing here?

Of particular interest is the reference to other Canadian cities’ open data projects, and specifically likely adoption of the UK open government license — a good move.

The report is well done. Perhaps a closer look at costs of publishing raw data in the existing web/CMS infrastructure and a better articulation of benefits around citizen value?
But overall — not a bad start!!

16 April 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Open Data in Milton: Possibly in 2013

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This tweet from Milton Councillor Rick DiLorenzo has re-ignited possibilities offered by Open Data:

OpenData coming back 2 #Milton Council A&P committee tonite 7pm. Staff recommend add to 2013 budget as pilot project @OpenHalton

The  ADMINISTRATION AND PLANNING COMMITTEE  agenda for April 16, 2012 has this agenda item referencing the Open Data Report (CORS-07-12) prepared by Milton town staff:

CONSENT ITEMS
1 Staff Report CORS-017-12

Subject: Open Data

Staff Recommendation: THAT report CORS-017-12 regarding Council’s inquiry into the costs, resources and risks involved with the possible implementation of Open Data be received for information;
AND THAT staff be directed to include in the 2013 budget a program for Council consideration to enable the delivery of data in an alternative format to support an Open Data initiative.

Bottom line, there is a _possibility_ that 2013 budget may include a program for open data.

20 March 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Do you need an API? It depends!

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tranist_apiPeter Krantz published this article discussing whether Governments really need APIs for open data? Wouldn’t a “download” of a dataset suffice?

My perspective: It depends!

  • Is it one or multiple related datasets? Are you looking to expose the relationships between the datasets?
  • How large is your dataset & do you have the infrastructure to support downloads of large files?
  • If not, do you have skills to support exposing “slices” of data from your internal systems as externally-accessible downloads?
  • Are you exposing any value-add functionality of your internal systems (i.e. geo-spatial query on a dataset that involves additional APIs like directions)
  • How frequently is this data changing? Every minute, every day, once a year? Think real-time GPS data or environment monitoring vs list of facilities.

Here’s where APIs offer advantage:

  • Querying large datasets for relevant bits of data (think a 15GB download vs. a 100KB slice of that same data via an API)
  • Real-time or frequent update scenarios (GPS bus tracking, current weather where the data is time sensitive & importing it would be inefficient)
  • Exposing relationships in the data (the agency is best suited to expose the relationships in the data it provides via APIs vs just meta-data)
  • Using its own APIs (the government uses own APIs for visualizing/interacting with the data or presenting it to citizens as information)

With the right API you can still enable download of the data. Built correctly, an API would be able to handle traffic or bogging down internal systems. This is particularly true for APIs where the data flows from internal systems into a cloud-based open data catalogue, with an API that exposes the data + relationships + downloads. The best of both worlds.

That said, not having an API should not be roadblock to publishing data. Downloads are fine for most common scenarios, but cloud-based API are an evolution toward a more dynamic platform for open gov data.   

 

p.s. Thanks Jury for a good find & letting us all know!

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07 February 2012 ~ 3 Comments

What happened, Milton?

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confused_scream_faceOpen Data in Milton, ON? Not quite yet, possibly not at all!
But why? Things seem to progress so well with the Open Data motion!?

What happened: Councilor R. Di Lorenzo withdrew his motion and asked staff to report back to council on the risks, benefits and costs involving the possible implementation of an Open Data program.

What it means: The motion was shot down by a few concerned council representatives who didn’t want to endorse principles of open data and open standards, or take any further action on open data without town staff first telling them what they think it means from a cost, risk and benefit perspective.

Instead of council directing the town staff to report on practical steps toward open data (as outlined in the motion), the staff was asked to report to council on hypothetical risks/benefits/costs. This essentially relieved  council from endorsing open data, open standards and the principles of open government. While frankly I think it’s a cop out on the part of the council, I also take responsibility for not covering our bases to proactively address the challenges that stalled the motion, outlined below.

How it went down: The motion was read. Councilor Di Lorenzo said a few words to explain the motion making some great references to “planting the seed that will produce results in long term”, as well as indicating that the motion represented “gradual steps” toward open data. Councilor Hamid seconded the motion. Following that I delivered a 10-minute delegation on Open Data and why I thought it makes sense for Milton. After that the floor was open to discussion, which turned into a heated debate.

In retrospect, there were some fundamental challenges with some of the wording of the motion, and also with how I approached my presentation. Those boil down to three issues:

  • Some on the town council had no understanding of open data: the definition, the principles, or even the difference between data vs information. This created confusion as to why the motion was put forward, with questions like: “Aren’t we already open? Don’t we already share all this information?!” The opportunity with my delegation was to educate on the fundamentals vs. talking about successes of other cities with open data what’s possible.

  • Some of the council were very vocal about costs and risks of moving toward open data. Extreme scenarios from “spending millions on a new IT system” to “hiring a full-time staff to manage open data” took focus off the main action in the motion: to direct town staff to come back with exactly that – an analysis of costs and risks.

  • But it was this third challenge that proved to be the biggest obstacle: there was a distinct lack of comfort with the “move as quickly as possible”  wording in the motion below:
  • Open Standards – the Town of Milton will move as quickly as possible to adopt prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media

Bottom Line: those challenges could’ve been proactively addressed through engagement with council ahead of the motion, a delegation that focused on fundamentals & education of what open data was, and focused on building consensus behind this motion as a very first of many steps toward open data.

That’s where we are. It’s not all over yet, as the town staff is now asked to investigate open data. The hope is that their analysis will focus on the “low hanging fruit” for open data, targeting a few reasonable datasets and processes that could be easily augmented for open data, and taking a reasonable scope that will make open data for Milton practical vs unattainable. 

31 January 2012 ~ 2 Comments

Milton Open Data Motion

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Today milton_townhallMilton, ON town council is considering an open data motion put forward jointly by two Milton councilors: Rick Di Lorenzo and Zeeshan Hamid.

The motion specifically calls out Open Government, Open Data and Open Standards as the areas that contribute towards transparency, sharing of information, improving services, efficiency of government services and creating a more economically vibrant community.

This is an opportunity for the town to endorse the following principles:

Open and Accessible Data – the Town of Milton will freely share with citizens,
businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data possible while respecting privacy and security concerns; 
 
Open Standards – the Town of Milton will move as quickly as possible to adopt
prevailing open standards for data, documents, maps, and other formats of media;

and to implement specific actions for the city staff to report back to council what steps could be taken on existing data, with the relevant focus on costs, risks and benefits. 

This motion is modeled after similar motions – like those by the Cities of Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa, and many others that paved the path for open data initiatives in Canada.

I will be representing (and tweeting from) @OpenHalton, as well as deliver a delegation on Open Data with the slides posted below:

30 January 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Fighting Flu with Open Data

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Happy 2012! Things have been busy on the Open Data front in the Halton Region – with Burlington, ON open data pilot announced and launched in the fall, and even some apps & visualizations of Parks Data built by open data hackers like Matt Down. Right before the holidays, I also heard from the Milton councilor Rick Di Lorenzo about his plans to draft an Open Data motion to put in front of council in early 2012. Good stuff!

42-21991798However, not much is still happening with the Halton Region, despite a variety of great data already available. A good example is the Flu Clinic information, including dates and locations, published on the Halton.ca site (as an HTML list and PDF). While there was clearly a lot of effort put into creating the web page listing, and into creating a nicely-formatted PDF, it is a shame that the source data was not released in a spreadsheet format. If it were open data, it would be trivial to create and share map all of the clinics and not just links to each location.

The Halton Flu app is intended to be exactly that kind of map. It’s just a simple site for web & mobile devices, with a clinic list on the left, a filter by city, search, plus an interactive map on the right – in a map layout & format that most folks are used to.

imageThe objective: making it easier for residents to find nearby Flu Clinics in Halton. But there’s more!! Why not then add a way for users to geo-locate themselves on the map, and a way to get directions to the clinic of your choice? Done, and done!

The credit for the work on the site goes out to Johan Säll Larsson, a developer behind the JQuery-bing-maps framework, who saw my attempts to use his code on the Milton Splash project and offered help to add some dramatic (and much needed) improvements. Johan and I worked together to liberate & scrape Halton’s Flu data – into a developer-friendly dataset and made it citizen-ready via our Flu Clinics app.

The code is open source (contact me if you need the code right away), and could be used and re-used over and over for other similar application needs in Halton & our municipalities: think finding Battery Recycling centers, Hazardous Waste, Tire, Electronics disposal, etc.

My hope is that Halton, and in the very near future Burlington, Milton & others will start releasing open data that could power similar citizen-ready applications.

22 November 2011 ~ 0 Comments

Burlington Parks

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With the Burlington Open Data pilot in full swing, the very first piece of data in the Halton Region released under an Open Data license became the “long hanging fruit” dataset listing Burlington Parks / Facilities / Fields and Courts.

image

The dataset released on Sep 19th was released as a spreadsheet with multiple tabs – and formatted to make it easy for citizens to consume with spreadsheet software.

Within a few hours, I built a Burlington Parks Finder app (web & smartphone mobile), which was a quick adaptation of the Vancouver Parks Finder, previously built using Vancouver’s park listing from their open data catalogue. As with Vancouver’s data, the application leverages the SIMILE Exhibit software, which makes it easy to build map / search applications even for those with limited developer skillz (read: that’s me Smile )

This is open data in action – an example where cities can leverage each other’s open data initiatives to release (and improve upon) datasets, which are similar in formats, schemas and range of information. This makes it extremely easy to customize and re-use in similar type applications – saving time for developers, and providing immediate value to citizens.