A few months back, Microsoft made a presentation on OData at PHP Quebec. While I found the format interesting at first, with the way you can easily navigate and explore the dataset, I must admit I was a bit skeptical. After all, public organizations handing out their data to Microsoft does sound like a terrible idea. While a lot of that data will be hosted on Microsoft technologies, the format remains open, and it appears to be picking up.
I guess what was missing originally for me was a real use case for it. The example at the presentation used a sample database with products and inventory. Completely boring stuff. Today, at Make Web Not War, I had a conversation with Cory Fowler (with Jenna Hoffman sitting close by) who has been promoting OData for the city of Guelph. I got convinced right away that this was the right way to go. Not necessarily, OData as a format, but opening up information for citizens to explore and improve the city. If OData can emerge as a widespread standard to do it, it’s fine by me. The objective is far away from technology. In fact, when I look at it, I barely see it. It’s about providing open access to information for anyone to use. How they will use it is up to them.
The conference had a competition attached to it. Two projects among the finalists were using OData. One of them created a driving game with checkpoints in the city of Vancouver. They simply used the map data to build the streets and position buildings. That is a fairly ludicrous use of publicly available information, but still impressive that a small team could build a reasonable game environment in a short amount of time. The other project used data from Edmonton to rank houses based on the availability of nearby services, basically helping people seeking new properties to evaluate the neighborhood without actually getting away from their computer.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. The data made available at this time is mostly geographical. Cities expose the location of the various services they offer. The uses you can make out of it are quite limited. I’ve seen other applications helping you locate nearby parks or libraries. Sure, knowing there is a police station nearby is good, but there could be so much more. What we need is just more data: crime locations, incident reports, power usage, water consumption. Once relevant information is out there, small organizations and even businesses will be able to use it to find useful information and track it over time. At this time, a lot of the data is collected but only accessible by a few people. Effort duplication occurs when others attempt to collect it. Waste. Decisions are made based on poor evidence.
So there is information out there for Vancouver, Edmonton, even Guelph. Nothing about Montreal. Nothing in the province of Quebec that I could find. I think this is just sad.
Actually, if there is anything out there, it might be very hard to find. Even if there are these great data sources available openly, it remains hard to find them. There is no central index at this time. Even if there were, the question remains of what should go in it. Official sources? Collaborative sources? Not that there is anything like that, but consider people flagging potholes on streets with their mobile phones as they walk around. Of course, accuracy would vary, but it would serve as a great tool for the city employees to figure out which areas should become a priority. There are so many opportunities and so many challenges related to open data access. I don’t think we are fully prepared for the shift yet.