Karen Quinn Fung, University of British Columbia
Government organizations around the world are planning or launching open data initiatives. The aim of these initiatives is to make data generated from the provision of government services freely available on the Internet to citizens for analysis, mash-ups, or use by web or mobile applications. The trend is philosophically rooted in the desire for helping improve the citizen experience of government. Prominent technologists like Tim O’Reilly have jumped into this movement, dubbed “Government 2.0,” helping to bring together technologists, entrepreneurs, civil servants, and community leaders to discuss the new developments. Open data has spurred on a larger conversation about collaboration with government. This article will describe these projects as well as some resources that shine a theoretical light on why and how these projects work.
I am both an open government advocate and a student of urban planning. Working as volunteer convener of the Open Government West Conference, as well as a student of urban planning at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, I am in the unique position of viewing the possibilities of open data from the perspective of technologists, government officials, and ordinary citizens. These projects have included a business that uses open data to make it easier for citizens to take out the trash, a group using data to analyze how climate change will affect neighborhoods in Vancouver, and others seeking to understand patterns of graffiti.
Where I think the conversation around open data gets more interesting for planners is when we consider it as a piece of the platform for community engagement. Whether it’s using technology to measure, evaluate, and coordinate our environments and our actions in the community (as Paul Epstein and his coauthors suggest in the new book Results That Matter) or enabling “participatory urbanism” for citizen science through the kinds of tools developed by Carnegie Mellon professor Eric Paulos, there is a sense that we can thoughtfully engage and translate the desire of citizens, through technology, into new ways to impact policy.
We can see individuals engaging in this type of information gathering and sharing in times of disaster and crisis — as the open source tool Ushahidi has demonstrated in disasters such as the Japan, Haiti, and New Zealand earthquakes. I believe that community organizations are in the best position to lead similar data gathering and analysis efforts where they concern less urgent, more systemic problems that manifest on the streets in our cities everyday. Their efforts can also be greatly enhanced with open government data, as a pretense to collaborating with governments themselves.
In our excitement to share tools and recruit citizen scientists however, we must remain vigilant of the manner in which we conduct our conversations and understand what, at root, people actually want out of the process. Judith Innes and David Booher’s most recent work Planning With Complexity describes a framework for making a conversation sensitive, inclusive, and supportive of the effort, whether it’s between planners, politicians, other public servants, community leaders, or unaffiliated citizens.
The examples I have cited have only scratched the surface of how communities, scholars, and governments in collaboration have done things that show great promise in shifting the conversation around how change happens. Planners, and the planning profession generally, are well positioned as a result of our skills and everyday work to understand the importance of collaboration, engagement, and open government data.
For more information on Vancouver’s Open Data Project please visit: