Nfld. & Labrador

Open data, and what it can do to make government better

What is open data, and how is the provincial government doing with it just over a year in? The CBC's Geoff Bartlett sought out three local voices to find out.
Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. (Jonathan Gray/Flickr)

In March 2014, Tom Marshall — who at that time was still new in the premier's office — unveiled what was called the open government initiative. One of the pillars was identified as "open data." 

But just what is open data? According to the provincial government's website, open data is defined as "the release of government datasets in accessible formats for use and re-use by anyone for any purpose." 
The Newfoundland and Labrador government launched a website in March 2014 as part of its open government initiative. (CBC)

That sounds pretty vague, and I needed real examples to understand just what open data looks like in the real world.

To find out more, I got in touch with James Flynn of Code NL — a local organization promoting greater computer programming education in the province.

James told me about a panel discussion Code NL held on Feb. 17 all about open data, and put me in touch with some of the people that attended and presented.

After speaking with some of them, here are three things I learned about open data and how it could look in practice in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Citizens can solve public problems without government's help

One thing open data can do is provide an opportunity for individuals and groups to provide better public services, which could alleviate some pressure on government when it comes to solving problems in society.

Tim Oram, former president of Memorial University's computer science society, sees potential in regular citizens using the data that government posts to create apps and other programs that anyone can use.

"One of the things the province has listed, for example, is boil order advisories for the province that can be used," he said.

"For myself, I could create a website that allows residents of Newfoundland and Labrador to get an email when there's an advisory in their area, whereas before you would have to depend on the government to create that for you — now I can create it myself or someone else can create it."

By making things like boil order advisory information available online, the door is open for someone to create an app or program that could alert residents when one is happening in their community.

By having individual people and groups design things like a boil-order app, perhaps some pressure can be taken off our cash strapped governments when it comes to overcoming public challenges.

We can all be the eyes and ears of government

People are often quick to jump on different levels of government for being slow to react to problems in society, whether it be a big issue like hospital wait times or something as trivial as fixing pot holes on city streets.

Open data provides an opportunity for all of us to become more involved in the process of solving these problems, instead of just complaining about them in hopes that someone will step in to solve them for us.

St. John's City Councilor Dave Lane, no stranger to promoting technology use in government, was one of the presenters at the Code NL event in February.

"It's based on the fact that organizations are always collecting data about what's happening in the city," he said.

"That can be things like the numbers of permits that people are asking for and what they're using them for, the places where certain events happen — like traffic accidents or congestion or things like that."

An example he gave is a new feature of the access 311 smartphone app the city is using — which allows people to report potholes as they see them around town.

"You can say, 'we've got a pothole on my street', and you can actually follow the process as the city refers it to inspector and then gets it completed," Lane said.

Residents of St. John's can use an app which allows them to report potholes and then monitor their repair. (CBC)

With regular citizens chipping in to report things like potholes and monitoring the repairs in real time, the slow process of waiting for government workers to flag and solve a problem would be eliminated, and we could all have a stake in getting things done more efficiently.

Many eyes make all bugs shallow

Another person at the Code NL panel was Whymarrh Whitby, a fourth-year computer science student at MUN.

He also sees a lot of potential in open data to take pressure of government when it comes to solving public problems.

"One of the mottos of computer science is that many eyes make all bugs shallow, and that's just to say that when you're having an issue with software, having more people look at it makes it easier to see where things are likely to be going wrong," he said.

"I think that same thing can be said about the government. You have a very select few people who are working 9 to 5 doing their best to run a province — but that's obviously limited by that number of people."

With a shrinking public service in Newfoundland and Labrador, this idea could become more important than ever. By having government post as much information as possible for everyone to see, we all have the option to look at the data, identify problems and then solve them with whatever innovative solutions we can come up with.

One of the main arguments for government open data policy is that making information to public allows everyone to pitch in and come up with solutions, instead of a limited amount of bureaucrats or government workers. (Shutterstock)

This crowdsourcing approach is cheaper, faster and perhaps, even more effective than relying on politicians and bureaucrats to get things done.

Other examples

​Newfoundland and Labrador is just over one year in to its open data initiative, but around the world governments are embracing the approach to much success.

For example, woman in Denmark built findtoilet.dk, which showed all Danish public toilets, so that people with bladder problems can now trust themselves to venture out more often​

In New York City, a woman used information the city posted online to deign a smartphone app that lets people quickly see all areas where they can walk their dogs. 

Those are just two of thousands of examples out there — happening on every level of government.

With a generation of "digital natives" moving into their twenties and thirties here in Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a lot of untapped potential for people to pitch in and improve people's lives in the province — using nothing more than a smartphone to do so.

About the Author

Geoff Bartlett

Contributor

Geoff Bartlett is an educator and journalist in Corner Brook.

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