Vancouver mulls making itself an 'open city'

Vancouver residents and businesses would benefit if the city made the data it collects accessible to everyone wherever possible and encouraged the use of open standards and open source software, a city councillor says.

Vancouver residents and businesses would benefit if the city made the data it collects open and accessible to everyone wherever possible, a city councillor says.

By using open standards to help make that data available to the public, the city would improve transparency, cut costs and enable people to use the data to create new useful products, including commercial ones, said Coun. Andrea Reimer in a motion read before city council on Tuesday.

The City of Vancouver is inviting the public to provide feedback on this motion. To do so, they can:

  • Email
  • Sign up to speak at the committee meeting on Thursday, May 21, by contacting meeting co-ordinator Denise Salmon at 604-873-7269 or

The motion calls for the city to endorse the principles of:

  • Making data open and accessible by sharing as much of it as possible while respecting privacy and security concerns.
  • Adopting open standards for data, documents, maps and other media.
  • Placing open source software on equal footing with "commercial systems."

The motion is to be discussed in a committee meeting this Thursday — likely the city services and budgets committee, Reimer said — and is expected to go to a council vote immediately after.

Reimer said the local software development community is excited about the proposal, which would give the industry access to reams of data that the city has collected at taxpayer expense on topics ranging from transit routes to water management.

"If they could access data like this, they could start developing products … for the public sector market," said Reimer.

So far, she said, only a few other cities such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Toronto have started moving toward this kind of increased openness.

"And hopefully, if we're leading the way, our software industry can lead the way and help bring other cities into this area and that's going to create economic spinoffs here for sure."

Reimer added that the proposal could help save the city money.

As an example, she brought up the example of tools to help the public navigate the local transit system.

Originally, bus schedules were placed online as PDF files that were only useful to people who already knew which bus route they had to take. Later, the data was incorporated into proprietary trip planning software that was better, but slow and expensive to create and advertise.

Open standards made way for Google Transit

Finally, the data was converted into an open standard, and Google added Vancouver to Google Transit, free online travel planning software designed for use on both regular web browsers and mobile phones.

"So had they [transit officials] had the info in an open standard from the beginning, they could have themselves a whack of money and had a much more usable product from the outset," Reimer said.

Reimer said she was inspired to bring forward the motion partly because she gets more than 100 emails a day from citizens looking for information, some of which actually is available but not necessarily easy to find.

"What that tells me is that somehow we're not connecting to the public in the way that we could be," she said. "Cities that are doing that successfully are ones where information flows not just freely but in multiple ways, so people can access it in ways to make most sense to them."

She added that the city would never have the resources to make the information available in all those ways.

"But if we make the information available in an open standard, then the community around us can imagine that and can develop the programs."

Part of the problem, she said, is that in the 1990s, governments tried to sell the data they collected for a profit.

"The fallacy of that is that taxpayers paid … for the data to be collected in the first place and weren't that interested in paying again to access it," Reimer said, adding that many cities have now given up on making money from their data. "But they haven't changed systems that locked people out of getting the data."

'Massive educational opportunity'

Russell McOrmond, co-founder of Getting Open Source Logic into Governments (GOSLING), a group that is lobbying for governments to use open source software, said Reimer's motion won't necessarily be adopted.

But he thinks the amount of discussion it has generated is great.

"It's a massive educational opportunity," said McOrmond, adding that many people don't realize how much government data is actually closed to them.

He agreed that if the data is made public, citizens, business and even non-profit groups would be able to use and benefit from it, such as combining multiple datasets to create new mapping tools.

He thinks the adoption of open data and open standards would encourage the adoption of open source software, saying the use of proprietary data formats is one of the main barriers to adopting open source.

However, he does expect opposition from businesses that have so far benefited from the current system.

They will likely claim that encouraging open source software will hurt businesses and cause people to lose jobs, McOrmond predicted.

In reality, he said, open source software often is commercial, and provides more opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses at the expense of multinational corporations.

Bernie Magnan, chief economist for the Vancouver Board of Trade, said that in general he thinks it's a good idea for governments to be open with data and transparent as possible, whether that is through policies such as Reimer's proposal or other means.

However, Magnan said, it is hard to say whether it will benefit businesses, as that will depend on whether the increased availability of data is accompanied by more efficient procedures at city hall.