Do you know what book is the most popular at Edmonton Public Libraries? What about the number of edible fruit trees in the city? The type of 311 complaints by neighbourhood? The best yards in Edmonton? Which communities have the highest concentration of pet dogs?
All these numbers — and about 1,400 more — are available through the city’s Open Data platform.
Edmonton started making data public in 2010. In 2015, an official city policy was approved. Now, people — individuals, businesses and schools — are requesting specific data sets.
Last year, Open City staff received about 160 requests and were able to supply data sets for all but about six. Usually, it’s privacy concerns or the fact that the information simply isn’t available that causes a request to be denied.
The director of Smart City says the biggest asset isn’t the enormous amount of data itself; it’s the way the data is used.
“It’s the application that they should be looking at,” Soumya Ghosh said.
“Open data is all open transparency and accountability but it’s the application that makes it fun and interesting. All the innovative ways that you could use this data to make better decisions or even start new services — innovate, essentially.”
Whether it’s an app that pinpoints where Edmonton’s edible fruit trees are or a way a real estate company can match clients with the neighbourhood that best suits their needs, Ghosh loves to see the raw data being used in practical ways.
“The more engaged people are and the more feedback and insight they’re providing to us will really help in improving the program and taking it to the next level.
“We do not want to be just the platform that releases the data, but actually making an impact on society.
“The number (of data sets) doesn’t matter; it’s the impact that those 1,400 or the 3,000 data sets are making.”
Here are some weird and wonderful ways the public data is being used:
An Edmonton real estate company called True Home uses Open Data to figure out which neighbourhoods best fit potential homeowners.
“They’re pulling information from our Open Data platform to optimize the neighbourhood that, as a home buyer, you should be focusing on based on your interests, based on whether you want a house near a school zone, transit… what’s important to you, essentially,” Ghosh said. “That’s what fascinates me — the application of this data into different fields.”
He’s also heard about an app that will help new businesses determine which area of the city needs their service most.
“Where small businesses can say… this is the kind of store I’m trying to open… it tells you what are the best locations given the demographics that you’re looking for. It’s like reverse engineering the same data. If you’re trying to open a coffee shop, look here, there’s a gap.”
“We are actually working with the Edmonton Public School Board and developing some training materials with them. They’re really interested in using Open Data in their curriculum as well, where appropriate.”
Ghosh said the city is working on a training program to help teachers use the data most effectively.
Instructors at the University of Alberta have already incorporated Open Data into their courses.
“The professor there uses our Open Data to build real recommendations and real analysis on the data we did,” he said, adding 16 projects were put forward by students from one class. “It’s really fascinating to see… the hypotheses that they have created and anaylzed through the data and presented to us.”
One of the data sets Ghosh has been looking forward to sharing online was related to the city’s photo traffic enforcement.
“Finally, we released it last week. We were really happy that we were able to. But that’s just the first release. We’ll continue to work with the department and we will continue to release more data sets — which is less around the enforcement and more around something that a post-secondary institution can pick up and do more research around traffic flows and patterns at the city.”
The library book with the most holds is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. That’s just one fun fact taken from the EPL books data set.
The idea to track the most popular library books — by branch and time of year — came from a hackathon.
“We had a whole day, six or seven people in each group, and they came up with different applications on the way you could use Open Data to solve a problem. This particular app was actually an outcome from that particular hackathon,” Ghosh said.
There are several data sets that map out award-winning gardens based on Yards in Bloom nominations and winners.
There are also maps that pinpoint where the greenest residential and commercial buildings are.
“Which energy efficient homes we have in the city,” Ghosh said. “Those who go to the EnerGuide, that whole review process, and they can actually submit or boost their home, saying, ‘We are energy efficient’… We do have a map for that as well.”
Anyone interested in finding out where bylaw infractions occur can find that information through Open Data. They can also view 311 complaints by ward or neighbourhood or by the type of complaint itself.
That kind of information could help inform voters ahead of the municipal election, Ghosh said.
“We released all our 311 data sets and anyone who’s interested could look into the kinds of requests that we receive by ward. That could be one of the indicators as to: what are the issues by particular ward? Now you have the traffic safety data released as well,” he added. “We have released the drainage, flooding information as well. There are a lot of layers.”
Ghosh said the city is in touch with not-for-profit groups to let them know the data is available to them and might help inform decisions about their services or where certain demand is.
“We felt they could really use this data to make a lot of the decisions they need to make without spending a lot of money in procuring this information. It’s available for free.
“We’re reaching out to them as well and saying, ‘This is what we have, let us know what else you need to make your decisions and make progress in your agenda.'”
Soon, the Open Data team will roll out an online training program to help users navigate and use the raw data.
This was another concept that came from a local hackathon.
“Someone asked, ‘What are the edible trees?’ and we said, ‘Here you go, here’s the data.’ And then, actually someone built an app,” Ghosh said.
“The conversation was… If there’s a zombie attack in Edmonton and we have no food, you can still survive and we need to know where those edible trees are.”
According to the city’s data, the most dog owners live in Edmonton’s southwest.
Cats, however, are most popular in central Edmonton. Open Data even tracks the number of pet licences for pet pigeons, which are most concentrated in the northeast.
“We released the information and we got some amazing feedback from people,” Ghosh said.
If a rare but large flooding event occurs in Edmonton, what neighbourhoods are most at risk? The city recently tabulated and released that information on Open Data.
“This particular request was FOIPed (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy) last year and in November of 2016, the information was released as a document, as a PDF, explaining if there is a one-in-100-years flood happening, what implication is there going to be? What areas are more prone to floods and not?”
The information came in the form of a PDF document so it took a few months to digitize and present in a digestible way. It’s a process that is followed for nearly every set of data.
“It goes from legal to FOIP to communications to the folks who do the visualization to the story piece,” Ghosh explained. “It’s a lot of work but we do have a process in place.”
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