London becomes an open data city

September 21, 2010 No Comments »

Nyssa Kuwahara GAZETTE

This summer the City of London agreed to make more of its information available to the public. What residents do with that information is up to them.

The City is releasing data sets from the Parks and Recreation department as “open data.” Web developers and programmers in the city can turn this into applications for public use.

Open data is information made available to residents in a form that can be used in computer programming to create applications. These can track things from the locations of parks to restaurant food inspections to bus routes.

“You can see what great results you can get with open data — people are more involved, more engaged with their civic government,” said Elaine Gamble, director of corporate communications for the City of London.

“Open data is the philosophy and practice of making computer-readable data available to the public without copyright, patent, or controls of any kind,” explained Shawn Adamsson, an organizer in London’s open data movement.

UnLondon is an organization hoping to create applications from open data. One idea is an application tracking garbage pick up days for residents in the city. The group will play host to a group who will create it during their Hackathon — an event this weekend where local hackers come together and turn open data into smartphone apps.*

“Give us the city’s data and let us do stuff with it,” Bill Deys, co-founder of UnLondon, said of the organization’s mission.

He mentioned many open data applications were created by people who wanted a way to access information themselves. Then they would share their creations with other people.

Aaron McGowan, a computer programming student at Fanshawe, created an application for smartphones allowing individuals to track when the next LTC bus will arrive at their location.

“It was created for me personally, because I was tired of not knowing where the buses were,” he explained.

As a Fanshawe student, he frequently had to transfer at Oxford Street and Adelaide Road, he said.

Community is a large part of why Elaine Gamble pushed for London City Council to approve the placement of some of the city’s data in open data formats.

“I had a lot of conversations with people in the community before this,” she said. “They helped educate me about what open access was.”

She explained more data would be made available soon, meaning more projects and better results.

Adamsson viewed the ability to open up data as a way to create new solutions without using city resources.

“Our city has finite resources, and can’t always innovate the way that this community is able.”

Gina Barber, a member of London’s Board of Control, said she viewed London’s creativity as a reason for opening the data.

“The city can take advantage of the creativity and ingenuity of our citizens to get better service at a lower cost.”

Since organizations like UnLondon offer to manipulate the data for free, Adamsson predicted this might affect how people perceive the initiative.

“We are sure to face apprehension from people who see this movement as a risk to their jobs within the bureaucracy,” he said, adding he hasn’t heard of a job being lost due to open data agreements and there are several in the world.

More data and applications will come available if the first round proves to be a success, Barber said.

“I personally hope someone comes up with a green pickup tracking system, so that we can determine what day and hour our leaves will be picked up.”

Applications available in the London Area

“The goal is to develop applications that will benefit all citizens and make their lives easier where possible,” Adamsson said.  “We would also like to see better visualization of information to make it more accessible and understandable to everyone.”

Some of the examples developed so far include:
Takes the information from the Middlesex-London Health Unit and allows you to see which restaurants in London are nearby and have passed inspection.
Takes information from the London Transit website and allows you to see when the next bus is coming. You can view current locations for a bus which is en route.  You can also find the major stops and approximate next vehicle arrival time for a stop on a particular route.
This will be launched this weekend after the Hackathon. The application will share information with residents on when their garbage will be picked up

* Correction (Tuesday, Sept. 21) — This sentence was clarified to indicate UnLondon was only hosting the Hackathan, not running it.

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