As some of you will know, I’ve spent the last week in Vancouver – the World’s first “open 3″ city – learning about open data, open standards and open systems.
I’m trying to synthesise everything I’ve learned whilst here, and it’s difficult to condense it down into something I can easily share, however there is one theme that has been dominant in all our conversations:
Open data has nothing to do with technology.
Whilst most data is in silos of technology, and there is a need for technical expertise to find, release and digest it, Vancouver went through the process it did in order to address social issues.
The social issues in Vancouver are a little unusual. It has some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods and some of the poorest as well. Where I was staying (about two blocks from the notorious Hastings and Main junction), it was impossible not to see homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution everywhere you looked. 30 minutes walk toward Stanley Park, and it’s like entering another World: one dominated by apartment blocks owned by Chinese billionaires and pristine sidewalks with a Starbucks never more than 2 blocks away.
To make an analogy, imagine you took all the homeless people, mental health patients, drug addicts and prostitutes in Manchester and multiplied their number by fivefold. Now put them all in one small area of the city: say, an area about the size of the Northern Quarter. Remove nearly all private enterprise and investment from the area. Now imagine the apartments across the rest of the city were twice as expensive, and to be a home-owner you would need to be on around £100,000 per year. That’s about as close as Manchester could ever be.
Open data and open standards here are about trying to understand why the city is the way it is: what information are councillors and those in authority using when making decisions? How accurate is that data? Could other alternatives be considered? If so, shouldn’t the information being used to help inform decisions be made available to other stakeholders – including those affected – by default?
What really struck me about the lack of technical focus here though was the definition of “open standards”. When I use that phrase, I typically mean something these days based on XML. Here in Vancouver, they mean something much more inclusive, that it should be culturally irrelevant. They don’t want information to be in XML on a website: they want it in the conversations on the street, to be in newsletters or meetings where it can inform and illuminate. Putting it up on the web is just the first step.
I will not forget my trip to Vancouver for a long time. It’s been a privilege to visit, and I have already decided that on my return I want to be more engaged politically with the social issues of the city I call home. Open data is part of that, but the enthusiasm and breadth of what the people in Vancouver are attempting has inspired me to think beyond some of the boundaries I’ve had mentally until now.