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Open government is quickly becoming a strategic priority of municipalities across North America as the public's expectation grows for greater transparency and accountability in the public sector. Open data is one central pillar of any open government strategy, but for most municipalities, it remains the most challenging to address. Open data programs require at least basic technical skills for proper implementation, as well as some sort of investment in a technology or program for hosting data. As a result, open data places a greater demand on the human and financial capacity of municipal government than most other elements of an open government strategy.

Early wins are required in order to demonstrate the value of open data and secure buy-in from council and senior management.

With limited time and resources, municipalities must strategically develop their open data programs. Early wins are required in order to demonstrate the value of open data and secure buy-in from council and senior management. In partnership with Canada's Open Data Exchange (ODX), Public Sector Digest launched the Open Cities Index to provide municipal governments with a yardstick against which they can measure their progress in launching and advancing their open data initiatives. The Open Cities Index not only identifies the precise areas for improvement for each municipality's open data program, but it also allows municipalities to track their progress and communicate those results to staff, council, and the public. The 2015 Open Cities Index Report includes a review of the performance of the top ten cities, as well as an analysis of the state of municipal open data initiatives across Canada.

The Open Cities Index

The Open Cities Index has been created as a supplementary guide for cities looking to initiate or advance their open data programs. Until now, Canada's municipalities have lacked a reference point for the performance of their open data programs. After surveying 34 of Canada's largest cities to determine the number and quality of municipal data sets available to the public, PSD launched the first iteration of the Open Cities Index in 2015. The Open Cities Index benchmarks each of its 34 municipalities on 107 variables, providing a detailed comparison of open data programs across regions and provinces/territories. The Open Cities Index measures the readiness, implementation, and impact of the participating cities' open data initiatives.

  1. Readiness - To what extent is the municipality ready/capable of fostering positive outcomes through its open data initiative?
  2. Implementation - To what extent has the city fulfilled its open data goals and ultimately, what data has it posted online?
  3. Impact - To what extent has the posted information been used, what benefits has the city accrued as a result of its open data program, and to what extent is the city capable of measuring the impact?

The implementation section of the Index consists of three types of data sets that cities may have made available to the public: Accountability, Innovation, and Social Policy. The Accountability cluster includes data sets related to government finance and elections like government budget data and election data. The Innovation cluster includes data sets related to government operations like traffic volumes and service requests. Finally, the Social Policy cluster includes data sets related to outcomes for a community like crime rates and health performance. Across each type of data set, municipalities were scored on five variables:

  1. Is the data available online?
  2. Is the data machine readable?
  3. Is the data available for free?
  4. Is the data up to date?
  5. Or is the data unavailable?

A meaningful and comprehensive open data program will include up to date data sets that are available online for free in a format that is machine readable, facilitating the analysis and reuse of data by the general public and developers.

The Top Ten

With open data being a relatively new responsibility for municipal governments, limited progress has been made in most communities in Canada to launch or advance open data portals or initiatives. The Open Cities Index Top Ten are trailblazers, working to develop the most efficient and effective open data programs despite limited resources. These ten cities are starting to see the benefits of making municipal data available to the public, including not only enhanced transparency and civic engagement, but also the generation of local economic development as developers use the municipal data to create powerful apps.

  1. Edmonton
  2. Toronto
  3. Surrey
  4. Ottawa
  5. London
  6. Vancouver
  7. Calgary
  8. Windsor
  9. Oakville
  10. Montreal

Open Cities Index 2015 Top Ten Raw Scores (based on max score of 193)

For 2015, the city that emerged at the top of the Open Cities Index was Edmonton, followed by Toronto and Surrey rounding out the top three. These cities have placed open data at the centre of their strategies to open up government, while providing the private sector with valuable data for analysis and reuse.

Edmonton received a score of 78% overall for its open data program, with strong performance in the Readiness category (73%) and with the highest score under the Implementation sub-category of Innovation (89%). From government spending data to zoning data (GIS), Edmonton has made a wide variety of its data available to the public online, with most sets being free, up to date, and machine readable.

Similarly, Toronto has made great strides in posting municipal data sets from a wide variety of departments/operations. With the highest score under the Implementation sub-category of Social Policy (83%), Toronto is leading the way in making data sets available related to program outcomes in the community, including health and education performance data.

Leading the pack under the Accountability sub-category of Implementation is the City of Ottawa, scoring 95% and coming in fourth overall in the Open Cities Index for 2015. From budget data to lobbyist information, Ottawa has made Accountability data sets a priority in its open data program.

Municipalities are struggling to accurately measure the impact and outcomes of their open data programs.

National Trends

It is evident from the results of the 2015 Open Cities Index that most Canadian cities have significant work to do to advance their open data programs. The overall average score for the 34 participating municipalities was 25% for 2015. The greatest room for improvement can be seen under the Impact category of the Index with an overall average score of 29%. Municipalities are struggling to accurately measure the impact and outcomes of their open data programs. Some cities, however, have reported operational cost savings as a result of their open data programs. With the public able to access municipal data directly online, some municipalities have measured significant reductions in requests for information, saving the city time and money. Others have been able to proactively generate local economic development in their communities via hackathons. A hackathon, whether organized by the city itself or a community partner, can help to promote the use of open data for the creation of apps and programs that benefit the community as a whole, such as a transit tracking app or a participatory budgeting app.

Municipalities fared slightly better under the Implementation category with a national average score of 35%. The strongest showing was under the sub-category of Accountability (50% national average score), with more municipalities publishing data relating to government budgets, spending, and elections. As expectations grow for enhanced transparency and accountability in the public sector, the demand for these types of data sets will also grow. Social Policy is by far the weakest sub-category with a national average of 21%. These types of data sets can be more difficult to come by, with several levels of government potentially sharing responsibility for data gathering, for example with health performance being heavily tied to provincial jurisdictions. Social Policy data sets may also contain more sensitive information about individuals, requiring more work on the part of the municipality to ensure anonymity where required.

Municipalities performed the best overall under the Readiness category of the Index with a national average score of 41%. The first step in launching an open data program is to identify a team lead and start building organizational capacity for program implementation. With many communities across Canada, both large and small, starting to assign the open data portfolio to a department or team, the readiness of Canada's cities to tackle open data challenges and opportunities is improving. The Top Ten cities are one step ahead with many having an open data lead and budgets set aside for technology, training, and even community outreach.

Final Insights

When governments proactively post meaningful data online three things happen. First, efficiencies externally, internally, and interdepartmentally arise. As open data begins to break down the silos that exist within government, this improves the effectiveness of city programs, departments, and applications.

Second, new infomediary firms and markets are created once government agencies release information. With open data released to the market, government bodies will not likely see an immediate direct benefit. This is a medium to long term strategy that seeks indirect impacts, efficiencies, cost savings, and the tax revenue that is generated from downstream collaboration.

Finally, those very firms and markets will begin to produce new products and services, helping to solve essential community problems, all using the data that was posted online. The catch is, when data is posted online, it must be free, machine readable, and up to date. Without those three attributes, the data cannot be used to build the most robust applications.

Canada's Top Ten cities in the Open Cities Index have taken the lead in launching open data initiatives without a proven template or roadmap to follow. These trailblazers will continue to build their open data programs, experimenting with new processes, technologies, and policies to ensure that the greatest value for money is achieved, all while continuing to enhance transparency and accountability. Cities just starting to look at open data as a priority in 2016 can learn from the best practices of the Open Cities Index Top Ten, applying lessons learned to the unique fiscal and organizational environment of their respective municipal governments.

Participating in the Open Cities Index

In 2016, PSD and ODX will work with participating Canadian municipalities and the private sector to improve the standardization of municipal open data benchmarking, as well as facilitate national discussion around emerging trends and challenges within municipal open data. PSD has already launched the Open Cities Index online benchmarking tool that allows municipalities to compare open data initiatives across Canada. Cities can benchmark their open data programs across categories by region and population. The interactive tool is designed so that cities can monitor their progress from year to year and identify targeted areas for improvement.

"ODX is especially pleased to partner with the Open Cities Index for the first study of its kind to benchmark Canada's municipal open data initiatives" said Kevin Tuer, Managing Director of ODX, an Open Cities Index partner. "We want municipalities to analyze how they collect and disseminate data, what frameworks to use and how the cost compares to the potential return. For some, the question will be 'How can we perform better than our neighbours?' For others it will be simply 'Where do we begin?' The Open Cities Index will serve to not only bolster the supply of open data, but also assist the entrepreneur and Canadian cities to qualify and quantify the impact of open data driven products and solutions."

Cities interested in being included in the Open Cities Index and accessing a detailed analysis of municipal open data programs across Canada can contact PSD for further details.

Tyler Sutton, Editor & Research Lead
tsutton [at] publisectordigest [dot] com