Why government Open Data initiatives are a boon for business

An initiative to make public information residing in government databases more accessible to citizens is gaining ground and slowly unlocking business opportunities for many Canadian start-ups, according to adherents of the initiative.

David Eaves, open data activist who advises various local governments and companies on how to make online data more useful to the public, told ITBusiness.ca that several Canadian municipalities have launched their own Open Data Catalogues.

Open Data Catalogues essentially give citizens and software developers access to public information such as weather and environment data, GIS (geographical information system) data, census reports, public projects and proposals as well as various studies and analyses. Unhampered access to such information, Eaves said, helps entrepreneurs and apps developers to create services and tech tools for both private and government use.

The data involved is not confidential in nature, Eaves stressed but actually open for public consumption. “When I embarked on this venture a year and a half ago, I found that much of the data is already available to the public but they reside in various databases scattered all over the place.”

In Eaves’ vision these pockets of data would be contained in centralized federal and municipal databases that will provide users with a “one-shop-stop” location for information.

Other countries as way ahead of Canada in open data programs, he said. “The United Kingdom’s data.gov.UK beta site houses national and local data that is free to use and reuse.”

“Most recently, Vancouver, London, Ottawa and Edmonton have taken major steps in becoming more open and transparent with the launch of their Open Data Catalogues,” said Eaves. He advises the mayor of Vancouver on open government and open data and helped draft the city’s Open Motion.

Cloud computing and open data

Open data programs rely on cloud computing technologies and social networking strategies, according to Nik Garkusha, open source strategy lead for Microsoft Canada.

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“Internet-based applications and social media provide a set of tech tools that enable governments to make their data widely available to various communities of users,” he said.

Using this strategy, governments are able to offer not only data but software assets as well for download from their open catalogues or Web portals, he said.

Microsoft is behind the Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI) which uses the company’s Windows Azure cloud computing system to make it easier to publish and disseminate a wide variety of public data.

OGDI offers participants a free open source starter kit with code that can be used to publish data to the Internet in a Web-friendly format with open APIs (application programmable interface), said Garkusha.

“The OGDI-based Web APIs can be accessed from a variety of technologies such as Silverlight, Flash, JavaScript, PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, mapping Websites and other,” he said.

Open data encourages innovation

Making various government data available freely and easily manipulated using various platforms, Garkusha said, will reduce constraints on developers and entrepreneurs to develop cloud-based tools such as GIS services and products for government or public use.

Perhaps one of the recently popular projects is the app developed by Timothy Dalby, an Edmonton-based Web and software developer. His Find-A-Home, simplifies and automates house hunting.

The app helps people find their ideal home through an online ranking systems that takes into account not only location, price, size of lot and building but other factors as well such as bust stop location, proximity to recreation centres and services including hospitals, police and fire stations, shopping and others.

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If a homeowner is interested in finding out how his home fares with other houses, he can enter his address and the GIS-enabled tool will show his home on the interactive map and show the building’s ranking.
Find-A-Home was the first prize winner in the 2010 FTW! (For The Web) Coding Competition held in May.

In another example, open data from Environment Canada was mashed up with data from provincial and federal riding information from http://vote.ca and http://howthevote.ca to develop an app that gives citizens the scoop on pollution levels in their area.

Matthew Dance, environmental activist and University of Alberta graduate student collaborated with open data advocate Eaves, Microsoft’s Garkusha, SAaron McGowan, member of OpenDataLondon and student at Fanshawe College, in London, Ont. and developer Mark Arteaga to build Emitter.

By simply entering an address on Emitter, the app will provide pollution data from the National Pollutant Release Inventory for that area. Searchers can narrow or broaden the search by specifying a proximity to the address (5km, 25km radius etc.)

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Users can also search by city or by political riding, which has broad implications for users with public service or cause oriented purposes.

Enter a postal code or full address and the app can help users look up the Federal Electoral Riding and Member of Parliament information for that location thanks to a tie-in with howdtheyvote.ca. Users can then go and find all facilities that reported pollution data into the NPRI within that riding.

“This gives you a way to not only see polluting facilities in your riding, but also enable you to easily find which MP to contact,” said Dace.

“Unlocking government help public data to the public not only addresses the public’s right to information, but also foster innovation and business and encourage greater citizen involvement in the community and how government is run,” according to Eaves.

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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