Vancouver Opening Up!

Rejoice all you Canadian Open Source fans for Vancouver is making great strides! In a motion that was passed on Thursday May 21, 2009, “Vancouver city council has endorsed the principles of making its data open and accessible to everyone where possible, adopting open standards for that data and considering open source software when replacing existing applications.” — Quoted from cbc.ca.

The motion was brought forth by Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer and brings benefits that include improved transparency, lower costs and allows both private and commercial innovation by those using the data which will be made available. Reimer also noted that since the tax payers paid for this data, they should be given access to it (Wow, there’s a novel concept that governments around the world should consider!)

Next, try not to fall off your chair when you read this, Reimer says that some immediate changes are likely! Like any government body, change takes time. Policies have to be put in place, approved, ammended, re-approved, budgeted, blah, blah, blah…. Some things can likely be done much sooner. One example is videos which come from Vancouver city hall: as it stands now, you can only view them from the City of Vancouver website using Microsoft Internet Explorer as your browser.

Some might take this as just being a push to change over to open source applications which sometimes can be more difficult to use and whatnot but this doesn’t appear to be the case. This is more about the data not pushing a software philosophy. When the data is available to everyone, in a form that everyone can read a person isn’t limited to just using Microsoft or Linux. That is what makes this move so exciting!

The motion itself suggests that the Vancouver city manager so the following:

  • Identify immediate opportunities to distribute more of its data.
  • Index, publish and syndicate its data to the internet using prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats.
  • Develop a plan to digitize and distribute archival data to the public.
  • Ensure that data supplied to the city by third parties such as developers, contractors and consultants are unlicensed, in a prevailing open standard format, and not copyrighted except if otherwise prevented by legal considerations.
  • License any software applications developed by the City of Vancouver such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses and the public without restriction.

That last point is huge! Imagine a world where governments developed software that could not only be audited by other governments but also businesses and individuals! This wouldn’t be limited to audits either, these other parties could extend the software for their individual needs! Not only could this help make government more efficient, it could save money for taxpayers around the world!

Vancouver may be one of, if not the first city in Canada to make such a move but slowly this sort of thing has been happening around the world. For years now Brazil has been using Linux and other Open Source within their governments. Many places in Europe have also made moves to support Open Source. Recently, Hungary modified its government procurement rules to not only “… allow consideration of Open Source software, but to earmark for Open Source software an equal amount of money to that earmarked for proprietary purchases.” — Linux Journal

In France, their police force has also successfully made a push to Open Source to save money. you can read more about it here. Or how about Germany? not only have all levels of German government started to embrace Open Source, they have also deployed Linux workstations in embassies around the world!

So, what could be done where I live? Surprisingly Medicine Hat is rather progressive when it comes to technology. Our website is very current and boasts a number of ‘eServices’ including some for paying Property Taxes and utility bills! We have an iMap which allows you to look up addresses and legal descriptions around the city. The iMap also lets you easily locate major facilities in the area. The website has a news room with all the public notices released from city hall even! Considering what the website could be like there’s not a lot to complain about!

There are however, a few things that we could do a little better. The iMap is great, but I can’t really use it from my mobile phone. It would be EXTREMELY useful to have this information available on something like Google Maps or perhaps even the Open Street Map project.

The News Center only posts notices in PDF format which again, not easy to read on a mobile device. Postings in something a little more manageable like plain text or even HTML would be a great improvement.

With the current Twitter/microblogging revolution happening, it would also be nice to have small announcements posted. Perhaps if a water main breaks and roads are closed in a certain section of the city, a quick post to one of these services would be extremely useful to motorists. Or along the same lines, if there is an accident, it would be nice to know so I can avoid that road and give the police more room to do their work.

Again, Medicine Hat is a great city to live in, and the current city council has tried to improve transparency (and I believe they have done so in some areas) but things can always be better. I think that by openning the data we too as a city can improve. Everyone has different ideas and perspectives and opening up data to the tax payers of the city could open us up to innovations and progress we haven’t even imagined yet. So if you are a fan of open source or even like the idea of open data you might consider sending a message to one, or all of our city councillors in the hopes that things will continue to change and progress for the better in our fine city.