At 2013 BC Open Data Summit, apps and opportunities

When Montreal-based non-profit group Équiterre needed funding for its environmental and social programs, it faced a herculean task. Money was available, but to find it would take months of trudging through mountains of government and private foundation websites and reports. That’s when it turned to Ajah, a software company that tracks sources of funding for non-profits in Canada.

“Our web company helps non-profits research and connect with founders,” Ajah CEO Michael Lenczner said. “We track all the money in the non-profit sector to see who funds who. We then try to make it really clear and easy for fundraisers and executive directors to manipulate, and to look through and explore that data.”

Lenczner was one of the speakers at the 2013 BC Open Data Summit, held in Vancouver this week.

His company is an example of new businesses evolving out of the trend of many governments to open data banks to the public.

Open data is based on the idea that data should be made available freely to everyone, without restrictions on copyright or other controls.

The idea is not new. 

“Libraries are a good example,” said Herb Lainchbury, President of the Open Data BC Society.

“Likely, the first person who suggested making books available to a mostly illiterate population, lending them out, likely not getting them all back and costing money, was probably considered a crazy person.”

The push for more open data is starting to gain steam, but Lainchbury said the movement will only make its greatest leap forward if the economic benefit of open data is realized.

In England, an entrepreneur used government data to develop an app analyzing which doctors in what regions were prescribing certain drugs and found that in some regions, doctors were prescribing brand name drugs instead of generics. 

The app saved the government £200 million ($310 million Cdn.) in the first year.

“It’s great to do things for altruism, but there are also great economic reasons for doing this,” Lainchbury said.

“We’re trying to make people see the opportunities. I think attitudes will change once they see the opportunities.”

Lainchbury says a good example of where open data could benefit the economy is real estate, particularly in BC. He says there is far too much secrecy among realtors surrounding real estate data and information on houses being sold.

Lindsay Brown, artist, community organizer and owner of Ouno Design, attended the summit on behalf of Commons BC, which brings together surveyors, economists and environmentalists to amass data on BC to help diversify the economy and better manage crown, or common land. One of their projects is to produce readable maps, but wading through complicated government data is a huge challenge.

Finding people to do the job is another.

“There are huge data sets that are publicly available on land use, science, environmental and biological data on fish and trees,” Brown said.

“We have some money to pay people to visualize that data in an interesting and meaningful format for the general public. But it’s such a new field it’s very difficult to find people. I went to universities looking for hot shot nerds to do data visualization and found it’s not really being taught in the curriculum. So I think there is some catch-up to be done.“

A key topic at the open data summit was the issue of standardization. As governments and other agencies open their data vaults, there is no established standard for how citizens can use data to communicate and interact with their governments.

Open Data Summit attendees heard from Open311 founder Philip Ashlock. His company has established a standardized, open-access, read/write model for citizens to report non-emergency issues that is being used in a number of US cities.

”There's a huge amount of interest in finding data, getting it into readable formats with standards,” Brown said.

Privacy was also a discussion at the summit. With health and education data, individual private information is often entwined throughout the documents.

“The difficulty there is when you make that data available to the public for use, you need to make sure you've anonymized it sufficiently,” Brown said. 

“Even removing names, called 'scrubbing the data', isn’t quite enough because the data sets, when put all together, it’s very easy to triangulate individuals. Data analysis has become so sophisticated that it requires you to scrub the data far more than people think you have to."

Federal and provincial government are creating easy-access data portals, but it is municipalities that are leading the way. Vancouver has been a promoter of the open data movement for several years, hoping to “engage citizens and support our local technology and creative sectors in building a better city,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a news release about Open Data Day.

The City will host the Open Data Day Hackathon on Saturday (Feb. 23) as part of International Open Data Day in 90 cities around the world. The event helps “bring people together who are interested in open data and how it can be used to solve community problems and transform government.” 

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