How Accessible Can Open Data Be?

Open data policies are being developed across industries, particularly the Canadian government as a push for such entities to be more accountable, effective, efficient and transparent. While data collection is a vital first step from which groups can process and analyze patterns and simply know, we have to consider whether open data is useful for those most disadvantaged and marginalized. How can we make data meaningful for those whom we seek to do good for? Looking for information, organizing information and making it public are different than the universal accessibility of, and participation with that data. How do we create empowering users of open data?

As a panelist at PodCamp Toronto this weekend, I chatted about Data, Policy and Neighborhoods with fellow panelists on Sun Feb 22 You can read a brief storify of the Sunday here). We focused on: How does data, open data and tech­nol­ogy play a role in the plan­ning, and revi­tal­iza­tions of neigh­bour­hoods, as well as ser­vice deliv­ery? The video can be found here by Bianca Wylie

We can’t approach old problems with the same ideologies that created them. While data collecting and mapping is cool and exciting from a design and technology perspective, how are specific projects shifting, for e.g., how we look at poverty, or other systemic issue?


From left to right: Andray, Salomeh, Idil, Safia, Andrew

Open data has the potential to increase cross-sector collaboration and interoperability, which is “the ability of diverse systems and organizations to work together (inter-operate). In this case, it is the ability to interoperate – or intermix – different datasets.” (via OpenData Handbook)

Having tools and making sure tools advocate for policy and civic awareness are two  different worlds that need to be bridged. Where does one project end and another begin, are data, information and tools sufficient?

Having created Rexdale Lab we are recognizing the growing need to work with tech to amplify information into new and substantive projects, all without losing sight of our neighborhood needs. While the long-form census that creates a trickle down effect of improvements in services areas, is vital for governmental and non-governmental entities, it is not the be all end all of how data will improve well-being. We have to be honest in recognizing that data and tech alone cannot shift ideologies if they are not used adequately. Although we cannot deny the potential for reach. We can become more aware of the potential of what one does with that open data – the advocacy, the action, the accountability.

Recap of my opinions on the questions:
1) Long-form census – how was the data being used, why it is necessary? At a low-cost, high response rate, the information from the long-form shares demographics and other patterns that exist in society. Extracting data and aligning them with the social determinants of health (such as employment, well-being, education, etc.) provides the best information for evidence-based policy making, both government and non-governmental bodies to pinpoint areas of concern.

2) Data about neighbourhood services – how to use it, how can it help? Apps? Maps?
At Rexdale Lab we are in the planning stages of developing an app that came about after two separate question about accessing local services helped guide providers to the necessary resource for a client. We are assessing needs through a survey to narrow in on the scope of the mobile app. The app will be a consolidated and easy to navigate resources in North Etobicoke organized by tags, and will produce up to date contact information through one avenue.

3) Policing and data – what data matters most?
We didn’t have time to answer this in person, however here is my response: Policing data for e.g. is sometimes under reported and categorized according to a baseline that might not be standardized from precinct to precinct. What data is there? How can it be used to educate and be proactive, prevent future crimes and improve safety? The data bases of disproportionate numbers, races and ages of those arrested for specific crimes would also be useful in proactive planning to prevent similar crimes, remove barriers to socio-economic success of all citizens. Further the police practice of carding has racial discriminatory practices and while it has been suspended by Blair, we hear from citizens who are still carded after that fact.

4) How does data inform how a neighbourhood is used? Who lives there? Which services need to be provided?
What you ask and how you ask it  – the determining factors in what answers you will receive. There is a lot of data already out there, at the municipal, provincial and federal level that is used for governmental and non-governmental bodies. What areas of focus should reflect which areas need to be focused on. Some issues are intersectional with other areas, such as poverty – it requires focus on: education, physical and mental well-being, access, employment, support, among other factors. Add in the elements of: how can we improve services while eliminating the need for them in the first place? That should be embedded in the problem defining and solutions dialogue.

5) Community hubs and how they connect to technology projects
Working with Rexdale Lab we are also responding to the negative narratives of mainstream media depicting Rexdale poorly on many levels. A project was proposed to counter those narratives with those of resiliency, adversity, success and triumph in order to empower, motivate and encourage a positive atmosphere, we often overlook in favor of the problems of the world.

What are your thoughts on the questions?

Mowat Centre – An Open Future.
Open Data Charter for G8
Open Parliament Canada
Open Knowledge UK – Citizens, democratic Accountability & Governance


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