One of the things I’m really enthusiastic about is open data. If you haven’t heard of open data the ideas that governments have a lot of data at their disposal. They gather this data as a normal part of doing business. If you think about your city they gather data about traffic patterns so they can set up traffic light patterns and decide which interchanges to expand first. They gather data about property values so they know what tax rates should be. They gather demographics about neighbourhoods to decide where to put recreation centers. Cities also have at their disposal lists of all the street names and all the companies registered in the city. The list of data goes on and on.

Other levels of governments are equally well set up with data. You simply cannot run a government, or really any large company, without a lot of data. Typically governments sit on this data, they hoard it and gloat over it in the high towers of their data castles.

The City of Calgary's data castle. Huge waste of tax payer's money if you ask me.The City of Calgary’s data castle. Huge waste of tax payer’s money if you ask me.

Fortunately this is changing. Governments are starting to open this data up an make it available to the general public. This is fantastic because it allows those of us with some data analysis chops to dig in and find all sort of correlations which governments which might not have noticed. Many eyes can find things which government workers might have missed. Governments are also amazingly slow to react to new technologies so it isn’t very likely that your government is going to even think about producing a mobile application much less creating one. However private individuals or companies may well see profit or use in creating applications. With open data they can go ahead and do it.

The key to open data is that governments give it away for free and without strings. Some governments are reluctant to give the data away without strings attached. They consider that they have spent a lot of money to create the data so they should be compensated for it. What they’re missing is that the money that they’re spending is our money. We paid for the data so we should be entitled to use it in whatever way we see fit. The applications and tools which the data savvy are creating are not being created by governments. Everybody is likely to benefit from these applications so that is another way in which governments benefit from open data.

The city in which I live, the City of Calgary, has a small collection of open data available on their website. Unfortunately, they’re still behind the times. The data is protected by a rather draconian user agreement (Edit: Walter was kind enough to point out that the license has been vastly improved, I no longer have any real complaints about it) and the city provides no API access to the data. I am hopeful that the city will catch on soon and update the data they provide.

I’m talking today about open data because February the 23rd is Open Data Day. I am going to spend some time writing something using either Calgary’s open data or something from the provincial or federal governments. I’m not sure what I’ll make so please feel free to make some suggestions. Calgary has a few transit applications already so it won’t be one of those. If you’re interested in joining me to create something then drop me a line. Open data is only a success if people like you and me use it. So let’s get using it!