Edmonton: City of Open Data Champions (Contributed)

Edmonton's open data plans and policies can set an example for other cities looking to bring more citizens into the "civic rink."

by Jeremy Goldberg / May 11, 2015
The Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta, a city that recently won the silver medal for its Citizen Dashboard, a tool that capitalizes on the theory of the broad base of crowdsourcing. Flickr/Jeff Wallace

Edmonton, Alberta, is proudly referred to by its residents and admirers as the “City of Champions,” likely due to the Oilers’ hockey dominance between 1984 and 1990, when that storied team raised the Stanley Cup five times. 

However, the moniker should not refer only to the Wayne Gretzky (“The Great One”) Era. Today Edmonton is skating at great speed and collecting accolades, such as being the first municipality to be named “The Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award” by Canadian executive search firm Waterstone Human Capital, a prize that reflects Edmonton’s reputation for enhancing and supporting employee work efficiency and collaboration. 

It should also come as no surprise that a city that encourages internal collaboration also won the silver medal for its Citizen Dashboard, which serves as an excellent tool to capitalize on the theory of the broad base of crowdsourcing. Edmonton today is becoming the City of Open Data Champions. 

I learned a lot about these achievements, both process and progress, in Edmonton last month when I moderated a panel at the annual conference of Economic Developers Alberta. The panel featured private- and public-sector leaders like Rollie Dykstra of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures and Samuel Mok of KPMG. Our panel expert representing city innovation was Wendy Gnenz, Edmonton’s director of corporate and departmental initiatives.

Gnenz pointed out a few examples of just how they broaden the civic engagement base, or in hockey terms, what you might call the “civic rink.”

Edmonton’s 311 Explorer is a city-hosted platform that features an interactive map visualization where residents can see the various types of service requests and reports such as litter and waste, potholes, park maintenance, and traffic lights and signs that were made to Edmonton's 311 in any neighborhood across the city. Additionally a civic technologist can create, enhance or build new applications off of this data. 

Edmonton’s Open Lab Initiative is focused on building relationships between citizens and government to find new solutions to municipal challenges. In February 2015, the city hosted its second annual International Open Data Day Hackathon, providing the opportunity to showcase Edmonton’s Open Data Catalogue. The hackathon resulted in a new product with meaningful impact for residents called “Rate My Hood,” which smartly leveraged the city’s data to help residents find their ideal neighborhood to live, learn, work, explore and socialize.

From my Edmonton scouting report, there are at least three takeaways:

Policy Chops: The creation and endorsement by council of a city open data policy that meets the needs of a city’s citizens and provides the underlying support for open government is necessary. Executive leadership needs to believe in it and encourage citizens to engage in a way that is directly connected to impact. 

External Partners Inform, Support and Show the Way: Partnership with citizens, nonprofit organizations, businesses and employees is key. Partners not only need to be consulted to ensure that goals and objectives align with broader regional needs, but they can actually join in their implementation either as partners or pro-bono resources.

Feed the Data Portal: By simply putting the data on their portal, such as Citizen Dashboard, a city is able to engage the public in new ways, some of which Edmonton is already realizing, with many more likely to come. Releasing the data wtih an automatic feed also systematizes the partnership so it's likely to endure beyond political transitions.

A common theme running through Edmonton’s activities is constant striving to integrate as broad an array of individuals into the community’s civic life as possible. This, hopefully, would include not just the usual suspects, but also grass-roots analysts who are inspired to “play” with the data made available, as well as consumers of public services who are urged to provide feedback and direction on everything from brick-and-mortar issues to budgets. In this sense, Edmonton has provided a platform to broaden the basis for engagement, as well as the architecture that supports such networks of residents. Indeed, it is possible that even individuals beyond Edmonton could be enriched by the city's data and practices. 

So, how might these trends be extended to get even more folks in the “civic rink”? 

Every Team Needs to Know the Numbers: In-house analytics are critical, and an attractive job posting can help, but it can also be beneficial to outsource the analytics through a strategic partnership with pro-bono experts from surrounding companies or academic institutions. Perhaps they could develop a registry like Kaiser Permanente does for medical doctors and specialists that consists of developers and analysts that one can search and engage with.

Seek Out and Recruit Bench-Strength and Prime-Time Players: Civic technology is a burgeoning sector with a sub-set of proven companies and those in “beta.” Tell the civic tech community the Edmonton story. Explain what makes it unique and ripe for tech talent to come and tinker and participate in the making of its future.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Take a page from the Netflix Prize, in which Netflix successfully sought an improved system of video recommendations by outsourcing its research and development via a $1 million award. In the context of local government, the focus (or prize) is the impact — you dedicate time and hard work, and you bring home the civic equivalent of the Stanley Cup: improving lives, services and communities.

As we can see in Edmonton, there’s a lot of momentum, and the future for innovation and open data is bright. The ability to look ahead, to have foresight and to plan for the “power play” will take this City of Open Data Champions beyond the past and through the present. So, Edmonton, keep skating where the puck is going, not where it has been.

Jeremy Goldberg is the director of civic innovation at Civic Consulting, where he oversees a collaboration with the White House Strong Cities Strong Communities National Resource Network.