Open data, and what it can do to make government better
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."
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 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.
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.
This crowdsourcing approach is cheaper, faster and perhaps, even more effective than relying on politicians and bureaucrats to get things done.
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.