George Smitherman: Open Government Candidate? #voteTO #opendata #gov20

I am impressed to see this statement come out of the George Smitherman campaign. Smitherman is the only leading candidate for Mayor of Toronto committed to mandate the release of municipal data in machine-readable formats as a key pillar of his go…

I am impressed to see this statement come out of the George Smitherman campaign. Smitherman is the only leading candidate for Mayor of Toronto committed to mandate the release of municipal data in machine-readable formats as a key pillar of his government transparency and democratic renewal policies.

In these final days of the Toronto municipal election, citizens and advocates looking for more open, transparent, innovative and effective government have had some difficulty sorting through the platforms of the leading mayoral candidates, looking for the signals they need to make an informed choice. Until Smitherman’s announcement, the words “open data” have yet to make it into the language of the other leading candidates.

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We should expect Joe Pantalone to continue the work of the Miller administration in opening up municipal data with the launch of Toronto.ca/Open, but he hasn’t said anything about it publicly. At least not according to my Google searches. Perhaps someone from the Pantalone campaign can correct the record on this.

Rob Ford’s approach to transparency is framed within his “taxpayer protection” pledge. Again, there is no specific mention made about open data in any of the searchable campaign materials. I would love for somebody from the Ford campaign to talk about this.

Pantalone and Ford mention things like making City Hall more accessible with various online services: Pantalone emphasizes expanding 311, webcasting committee meetings, and enabling online voting for elections; Ford speaks of publishing councillor expenses and voting records online. These are evolutionary, not revolutionary changes. Council meetings are already webcast, although not committees, and expenses and voting records are published online already in some form, albeit not 100% complete or machine-readable.

The missing piece from the point of view of the open government movement in Toronto is an authoritative mandate backed by law based on the PRINCIPLE that ALL public data should be released to the public in machine-readable formats, except for specific privacy and public security exceptions. George Smitherman is the first and only candidate to make that commitment. This is very significant.

City of Toronto departments have had a carrot in the form of a data repository at Toronto.ca/Open, a supportive Mayor and an engaged and forward-thinking CIO. What we really need to ratchet open the doors to more municipal data is a stick in the form of a Council resolution. City departments, agencies, boards and commissions are children of Council, and only Council has the authority to mandate a data transparency initiative with teeth. I hope that a Smitherman-led council will pass such a resolution.

Smitherman’s promised 100 day budget review, backed by real data, could be the kind of big project that would focus energy and attention on the real power of open data to fuel more effective government. This project might start with releasing financial data, but how can you evaluate the effectiveness of money spent without also having data about the things that spending produces? To justify their expense lines, City departments should be motivated to make sure everyone knows the value that they create as well.

Smitherman’s promised 100 day budget review process is a big, hairy undertaking. It might not succeed. Instead of dumb blunt cuts, could it produce smart surgical cuts as well as smart new investments? Could it be an opportunity to start an ongoing process of open civic innovation?

Maybe, just maybe, it could be the beginning of a revolution.

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