Montréal Ouvert wants the city’s facts and figures in open format
by MATT JONES
September 1, 2010
If there's a future for smartphone applications beyond firing indignant fowl at pigs and perusing the holiday snaps of people you wish were your real friends, Montreal Ouvert is determined to find it. Over the past couple years, city administrations around the world have begun to take various types of public data they’ve been sitting on—the kind that’s usually on display in the basement filing cabinet of City Hall—and upload it onto the Internet in open format. The result is a software developer’s wet dream: pages and pages of unorganized data just waiting to be pieced together, measured, graphed, made into parabolas, sexed-up and put online as user-friendly applications to make our increasingly tech-heavy lives more convenient. That’s a fantasy the four founders of Montréal Ouvert hope to see realized in Montreal as soon as possible.
"This initiative started first in the UK, where city officials adopted a motion to provide access in a standardized format to data. The goal is for civic information to be made accessible through a single, easily usable repository that then developers, coders, statisticians, librarians, civil society at large can use," says Jean-Noé Landry, whose day job is as a consultant in democratic development.
One such application is Stumble Safely, developed in Washington, D.C. Using the City's crime statistics, it helps you navigate your way home from a bar in the murder capital of the US while avoiding the most likely places to get mugged.
"You go on Google Maps and you can see all the crimes that have been reported along your route and then you can filter it by time or type of crime," says Jonathan Brun, who is also the co-founder of Nimonik, an environmental regulatory website. "Eventually, you would think you'd be able to map out things like contaminated sites, air pollution, water issues. So if you rent a home in a new neighbourhood, you can see access to public transportation, environmental conditions, crime conditions, the types of businesses in your neighbourhood."
The possibilities are limited only by the type of data that can be accessed. "Obviously, we're not suggesting people open up their health records," says Michael Lenczner, the founder of Île-Sans-Fil. But other health data could be useful.
"Say you go to a restaurant and there've been health reports on it," says Lenczner. "Right now the information's in City Hall, you can go find it. But you could be looking at the restaurant and pull out your iPhone and see which restaurants have had a health report in the last six months."
For the group, the issue is not just one of convenient consumerism, but of democratizing information that's already public. For Sebastien Pierre, founder of FFunction, a company that organizes visualizations of data, the distance citizens are kept from information is one of the reasons people are becoming disenchanted with politics.
"Very often you have to take too many steps to reach information. If you have to go to a library and make an appointment, that's really a huge roadblock. But if you have the tools, even without knowledge of programming you have access to a lot of information. And if you want to do something in your area, you're much more powerful," he says.
For the moment, the group is patiently putting together a campaign to persuade the City that an open data approach would benefit Montreal. Brun says a number of councillors are interested, but one problem is simply that the project is so new: Toronto opened up its data only a year and a half ago and Ottawa followed last April. Still, Landry is convinced the benefits are self-evident.
"It's a competitive advantage issue: if you're able to keep the innovators, the creative side of the city, then the economic benefits trickle down."
See montrealouvert.net to follow the campaign.
Montreal Mirror September 1, 2010 (this is the unedited text)