Sitting on the first Citizen Media Rendez-Vous (more about that in The Hour) panel of the day was Jean-Noe Landry of Montreal Ouvert, who made a strong case for why Montreal should release Open Data to the citizens of this fine city, ultimately giving them greater access to all kinds of civic data sets, enabling them to engage more directly and responsibly in its operations.
The Open Data movement began in Europe and quickly spread to the US, and has since spread through a number of Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. It’s proven to have saved significant tax-payer dollars on certain budgets, and been a great way to release urban creative potential.
What is the future for Open Data in Montreal? I took a quick post-panel chat with Jonathan Brun, co-founder of Montreal Ouvert. But first, a quick a description of Montreal Ouvert and Open Data from Jonathan’s own blog :
Montreal Ouvert is a citizen’s action group to encourage the city of Montreal to embrace Open-Data. Open-Data is the practice of releasing information in a form that can be easily downloaded, used, merged and distributed. This means: centralized information, not in PDFs, and without copyright.
Please describe what Montreal Ouvert does.
Our organisation is a citizens group that advocates for open data.
What’s happened in other cities and what we hope will happen in Montreal, is that the city will create a portal, where they would post their data sets, everything from crime statistics to traffic incidents, all this sort of information.
They would post it in one centralised location, with a standardised format across all the data sets, so they can be accessed by journalists and by software developers and by anybody who wants to take this data.
So what we do is we advocate for the city to offer the data, and help to educate the city as to what formats to use to make this data accessible to the widest possible audience.
And how is that process going?
Well, we’re really just getting out of the gates. It’s a brand new initiative. As a bit of a history in Montreal, back in 2009 during the municipal elections for the Mayor of Montreal, I personally wrote to the candidates with another NGO asking them to endorse open data as part of their platform. We received no responses, so it was a bit discouraging but it was also a catalyzing of events, it that it really motivated me to do something about this.
So with Michael Lenczner, who started Ile sans fil, which is a network of free wifi in Montreal, we decided to launch this in August, and then two other people came on board, Jean-Noé Landry who is a community organiser who does a lot of democratic consultation, and Sebastien Pierre who runs a data visualization company, so his company takes data and visualises it to make it more accessible.
So the four of us started this group in August 5th or so and today we’re speaking its August 23rd. So we have met with some people from the city. There are definitely people inside the city that are aware of this problem and realise that it’s a big problem and want to do something about it. The problem is that there’s a lot of bureaucracy, there’s a lot of steps between the departments. A lot of silos have been created over the years. So we’ll see how fast it goes.
We’ve been warmly received by some people, but Montreal also has a particularly slow bureaucratic pace that’s going to slow down any advocacy, but we’re in for the long haul, but we’re hoping to see some tangible results from the city in about a year.
What sorts of beneficial results of open data are being used as examples when advocating to the city?
We’re using other cities in Canada as examples, some cities have opened up some of their data sets, some cities much more than others and with different restrictions on the data, so it’s not always a clear cut case of saying “Ottawa has open data…” well, sort of.
But already that leaves the impression that Montreal is somewhat behind the times, the fact that other major Canadian cities have done this and not Montreal.
In terms of clearly demonstrating benefits, the best applications that you would find for using data in terms of software that you would find on your iPhone or on your computer have been done in the States. Things that map out the crime statistics in Washington DC and San Francisco are being used by a lot of people now. In terms of economic benefits, there are more and more studies coming out. Open data itself is a pretty new philosophy at the government level, and even the most progressive governments, in the UK and the US, it’s only been around for about three years.
So there’s not a lot of analysis yet. But what has come out is a study from Catalonia showing how using open data standards to share data across municipalities saved them I believe it was €14 million per year in terms of man-hours. So it was more efficient to find that data, and the cost of implementing it was on the order of a few hundred thousand Euros, so the payback is enormous.
In Denmark, they put all the postal addresses of all the businesses and of everybody in the country accessible online in an open data format. Previously it was a closed database that you had to pay to get access to. And they estimate that that generated over €62 million in economic activity. The fact that businesses could find people more easily, deliver more products and target specific markets.
So there are a lot of potential economic benefits by having access to data.
And there are obviously ways that it can be beneficial to independent media workers as well…
There’s a huge barrier in terms of cost and time to getting information from the city or from any government organisation, you have to file a request for the information. Especially when you’re and independent media writer or journalist you have less resources that say a newspaper or larger institution might have to file these requests to chase them down and get them.
And by offering open data, by offering data on their websites in an accessible format, you should expect the independent journalists would have an easier time getting access to the information and therefore writing stories, interpreting the information and putting it in a more digested form for the reader at the end.
Obviously the average person is not going to go on these sites and download excel tables and plot charts in their spare time – that’s the role of the journalist, is to take the data, interpret it and write a story that engages that readership. And open data removes some of the barriers to comprehension of data.
What does the immediate future hold?
Montreal Ouvert’s short term plan is to reach out to stakeholders in the community, people inside the city, non-profits that work inside the community and other people who are interested in the project.
We’re hosting an event on Thursday, August 26th, from 6-8pm here in Montreal. It’s open to anybody interested in the subject to come, meet and talk about their experiences with the city and have an open discussion.
And we are going to be meeting with the city over the next few months and we are going to be educating them about the possibilities of using open data.
And then engaging with the developer community eventually to have them develop applications to demonstrate the value of this data to city officials, with the ultimate goal of passing a council bylaw that would oblige different departments of the city to offer their data in an open and accessible format online.
For anyone wanting to get involved in the project, either attend the above mentioned event:
Follow them on twitter: mtlouvert
For more examples of how Open Data is being used to great benefit in other cities – watch this TED Video