Blog article: Civic Issues Initiative

Civic Issues Initiative

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In this four-part series, we introduce our readers to the Civic Issues campaign. This campaign highlights some of the most important socio-political issues impacting Toronto residents, including hot-button items like housing affordability and poverty reduction. The Civic Issues Initiative survey
What do civic issues have to do with open data? It turns out, quite a bit. It’s important that open data releases reflect the concerns and interests of the city’s residents. Releasing in-demand open data is one way to increase community participation in civic tech, increase data literacy, and activate data-driven decision-making. Solving complex civic problems means ensuring there is a seat at the table for underrepresented voices. Join us as we take you through how we are improving the way open data is created and shared in the city to bring you more of the data you want, when you want it.

How do we currently acquire data requests?

Since the start of Toronto’s Open Data program in 2009, we’ve used many ways to determine what to publish, and when. Some of these ways include keeping tabs on formal and community requests through our e-mail inbox, public consultations, and requests from the media. Once we’re alerted to a dataset request, we connect with the appropriate division to find out if they have the data that’s being asked for, and assess how much effort is involved in acquiring it prior to publishing it. The Open Data team has a highly engaged following on Twitter, which has served as one of the primary ways in which the community can tell us about what they’re interested in. We also track current events and the media to establish the demand for a specific set of related information. We recently launched our monthly newsletter as well, The Open Data Update, which encourages our readers to contact us with requests for data.

Following a request, how is the data acquired?

City divisions like Transportation Services or Parks, Forestry and Recreation can periodically provide us with a ready to go real-time data feed, but not always! A lot of this data is subject to the technical limitations of the time at which it was collected, so much of it is buried. Even when we have access, the formats might be out of date, and there might be issues with consistency. We see these issues in many of the datasets currently hosted on open data. This means that the data would need to be cleaned up, undergo an extensive privacy review, and/or need to be digitized prior to release. It’s a lot of work. There are an estimate 9 petabytes of data in the City, and not all of it can be made open due to privacy, licensing, or technical restrictions either. So it’s essential that we prioritize our releases based on the value their provide to service provisioning.

How does all this relate to civic issues?

As a civic campaign, we’re obligated to demonstrate the socioeconomic value of open data in our reporting. Like other cities, we struggle with demonstrating the true social value of the data that we provide. Many times, we aren’t able to truly demonstrate just how impactful open data can be to a typical resident of the city. It can seem too technical or too bureaucratically inaccessible. How do we change this perspective, and democratize access to open data? Let’s consider some non-technical challenges. Often, the decision-makers in the room don’t usually represent the groups we need to provide services to the most. These are groups with limited data literacy, limited mobility, or economic insecurity. Lived experience is often the best way to understand the unique experience of someone who may be under-housed, or struggle with transit affordability. We need to make sure that we don’t overlook the importance of these communities, and so we want to prioritize the release of data that can positively influence change and provide opportunities for improvement. Evidence shows that decision-making models that involve affected communities and prioritize their needs are typically the most sustainable and scalable.

How do we understand social value?

Let’s pause for a moment and think about a common experience many residents have. Prior to the existence of smartphones, it was difficult to predict transit delays, and commuters had few options outside of waiting. Through access to historical transit data, a frustrated commuter was able to develop an app-based solution that can predict the arrival time of your bus with a high level of accuracy. This example, and countless others from our community, demonstrate the value of open data in case studies that are identifiable to a diverse range of city residents. As such, we have a responsibility to dismantle the barriers that contribute to the under-representation of marginalized communities in civic technology. So how do we truly engage a diverse audience? How do we ensure everyone gets a seat at the table? How do we ensure that we balance feelings with facts to create policies that benefit the residents of Toronto? Simple. We listen. In the interest of working within a data-driven government model, sometimes this will mean delving into the uncomfortable, and being honest and transparent with data that shows us where there’s room for improvement. Open data is also about self-sufficiency. We want to reduce barriers to access. We want anyone who wants our data to be able to use it openly and transparently, whether they’re going to start a business or create a community campaign in support of a social issue they care about. The Civic Issues Initiative survey