5 cool ways Hamiltonians could benefit from open data

Know when your street is plowed. Stay inside until the bus arrives. Help the fire department keep fire hydrants clear. Sound good so far?
Coun. Brian McHattie calls the need for open data "such a no brainer." (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Know when your street is plowed. Stay inside until the bus arrives. Help firefighters keep fire hydrants clear.

These are just a few of the potential uses if the city of Hamilton makes its data fully open to the public.

At a general issues committee meeting this week, local open data advocate Joey Coleman urged the city to devote more resources to making its information public. 

The city released more than 30 data sets this year. That's a good start, said Coleman, a project lead with Open Hamilton and a member of a federal advisory committee on open data. But he wants more staff time and commitment to the concept.

With available information, local developers could create apps to make life easier for Hamiltonians. Here are five cool apps that could benefit the city if local government opens the doors.

1. Know which streets have been plowed

Using GPS data from Chicago snow plows, the Open City group created ClearStreets, an app that lets people see which streets have been recently plowed.

Chicago residents can search by street or by storm. In early 2012, the city released its own app, Plow Tracker, so residents could monitor snow plow activity.

By knowing where plows are, Coleman said, people “can predict when they’ll clear your street. That way you don’t clear the driveway just as the plow comes up your street and snows you back in.”

2. Help clear fire hydrants

In the city of Boston, Code for America has created an Adopt-a-Hydrant site, where residents adopt fire hydrants to keep cleared when it snows. This saves the fire department time and resources.

With the site, residents report when they've cleared their hydrants, and report when they can't so others can take care of their adopted hydrant, Coleman said.

3. Keep an eye on vacant and abandoned buildings

In Chicago, Open City created an app that lets residents watch vacant buildings in their neighbourhoods. The city publishes its list of vacant buildings, and the app, called the Vacant and Abandoned Building Finder, invites residents to keep an eye on them.

The app displays which buildings are abandoned, have fire damage or are inhabited by gangs, homeless people and others. Residents call police about suspicious activity, and firefighters even use it to know if a building is inhabited. On average, 19 new vacant buildings are reported every day.

4. Monitor police activity

Residents of Tyler, Texas can monitor police calls using Tyler Sirens, the product of the open data group Hack Tyler. As police calls come in, the app automatically updates the map and shows you the call. 

5. Know when the bus is coming

Transit apps are perhaps the most common use of open data. Currently, Hamilton transit riders only have access to scheduled bus arrival times, not the actual times. Don Hull, manager of HSR, told councillors on Wednesday that a board displaying actual arrival times would be posted at the MacNab terminal in six to nine months.

In Toronto, developers have created apps such as Pocket Radar, which tells riders when the next bus or streetcar will arrive. Some shops even inform customers when the next bus will arrive via LED displays, Coleman said, so they can stay inside where it’s warm.

“Instead of freezing outside this winter, imagine having a nice warm coffee instead,” he said.

The city of Hamilton's open data project has been ongoing for about two years. Open data is no longer leading edge, city manager Chris Murray said this week. "It's pretty common."

Coun. Brian McHattie said the city's progress seems too slow. "I just really don’t know what to say about it," he said. "It seems like such a no brainer to me."

But Murray promised that the project is proceeding.

"Things have happened, things are happening and things will be happening in the near future."


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