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A young Toronto programmer designed a brilliant app using raw intel from the TTC. Now, if only city hall would give him more data

(Image: Andrew B. Myers)

A few years ago, the TTC did something surprisingly cool. It met with its crankiest critics—Toronto’s transit-obsessed hackers and bloggers—to help make the so-called better way even better. The process began with a full-day gathering called TransitCamp, where the two groups sought creative ways to improve the TTC. This opened the door to further collaboration, and the TTC later released schedule and real-time GPS data for the city’s programmers to play with.

The data inspired Rocket Radar, an ingeniously simple iPhone app designed by a 27-year-old named Adam Schwabe, who now sells it for 99 cents through iTunes. Rocket Radar instantly finds you and any streetcar heading your way. A countdown tells you that a ride will be arriving in two minutes. You see nothing approaching, and then there it is, like magic, right on time.

“No TTC committee could ever have made Rocket Radar,” says TransitCamp organizer and tech consultant Mark Kuznicki. The elegance of its design, the simplicity of its user interface, the speed with which it was developed—this was the weekend work of a web designer who wanted to show off his skills and add to his portfolio, not the boondoggle of a lumbering bureaucracy.

The Harvard Business Review celebrated TransitCamp as one of the breakthrough ideas of the year. San Francisco borrowed the concept and held a “TransitCampBayArea.” The idea jibed with the optimism of the day: the Obama campaign was in high gear, and “open” stood with “hope” and “change” as a timely buzzword. Politicians wanted to seem as digital, transparent and “2.0” as possible.

What does “open” mean? In the context of technology, openness has specific connotations. Open-source software refers to programs users can fix or expand themselves, which is cheaper and more efficient than waiting for a software company to release new upgrades every few years. A similar principle applies to open government, in which a city becomes a system, not unlike a computer program; its problems become solvable “bugs.” Citizens (usually civic-minded hackers) donate time to fix the bugs or build entirely new features. Just as open software requires that a program’s source code be unhidden, open government requires full transparency from the civil service.

At Mesh09, a national web conference held at MaRS, then-mayor David Miller unveiled Toronto Open Data, an information portal in the form of a central website (toronto.ca/open), where all of the city’s public information could be uploaded and updated as often as possible. But in the two years since then, the project has stalled, for one simple reason: little data was ever released by the city.

Here lies the difference between “public” and “open.” Every municipal department, agency, board or commission generates reams of data deemed public by law. But unless someone formally asks for it, most of it languishes on city hard drives before eventually being dumped into the library system. It’s public, but good luck finding it.

For data to be “open,” it must be automatically sent to the portal as it is generated. This is not a terribly difficult or expensive undertaking, but it requires buy-in from every city department. Systems to automate the process would need to be put in place, and there would have to be consequences for failing to comply. The bureaucracy at city hall, by nature and by design, is not inclined to work openly or collaboratively, and no one is forcing it to. Ryan Merkley, an advisor on toronto.ca/open who now works for the open-source computing foundation Mozilla, sees Toronto Open Data as a missed opportunity. “Within the city data is the story of our public service,” he says. “What they’re good at; what they’re not; how fast they resolve issues; and how efficiently they perform.”

Meanwhile, other Canadian cities have whizzed past us with their own open data programs. In Ottawa, a free app lets you plug in to the city’s traffic cameras and instantly decide what route to take to work. In Edmonton, you can check any neighbourhood’s property values, income levels and occupancy rates. In Vancouver, a web browser plug-in will tell you when a book on Amazon is available at the public library. And there are more examples of such collaborations abroad. In London, for instance, there’s an app for reporting potholes and burnt-out street lamps, then monitoring repairs. In Washington, D.C., you can find an empty parking spot by checking computerized meters via your smart phone.

Toronto Open Data might have had similarly wonderful results. In the months following Miller’s announcement, the city’s hackers sketched out ideas for a number of helpful apps. There was the City Budget Navigator, which would show you how much of Toronto’s $9.2-billion budget had been spent in your neighbourhood and on what. There was the Community Services Mashup, which would direct you to every public resource offered in your area. And there was the Childcare Finder, which would generate a live feed of every daycare vacancy in the city, organized by proximity to your home. But when the data wasn’t forthcoming, Toronto’s developers abandoned these projects, and many more like them.

Ontario’s minister of research and innovation, Glen Murray, hopes to fare better with his own provincial data portal, an upcoming effort that he describes, sparing no jargon, as “the world’s first wiki-mobile digital-economy.” Murray envisions public and private organizations voluntarily sharing all manner of data, with the common goal of supporting innovation in different regions. The types of data that might be used include patent registrations, business licences and investments in research or start-ups. Murray describes a virtuous circle in which data sharing is so valuable that stakeholders will clamour to participate. It seems far-fetched, but he vows to personally lobby everyone into participating.

Who could do the same for Toronto? If not the mayor, then certainly the city’s chief information officer, David Wallace. Wallace was appointed in 2007, and he can often be found preaching the open data gospel at conferences and in partnership with other Canadian cities. And yet he seems to have had little success coaxing information out of city hall. When I spoke with him, he claimed Toronto had done more to advance the open data cause than any other city in the country. “But where are the apps?” I asked. “The community has to take responsibility,” he said, shifting the blame onto the hackers.

The day after our interview, Wallace sent me two lists: one of the data he has pried from the hands of city agencies so far this year, and one of data he hopes to make public but has yet to. The first lists eight data sets, none of which could be described as high-value (fire hall locations is one of them). The second lists 36 data sets that would make any developer drool. It includes data on parking, libraries, schools, housing, speeding tickets, museums, social services and much more. Meanwhile, the city’s hackers have moved on to other helpful projects: apps for assisting disaster relief efforts in Japan; for monitoring blood sugar levels in diabetics; for automatically issuing charitable tax receipts. Would the hackers turn their attention back to Toronto apps if the promised data emerged? Sure. But they aren’t holding their breath.