Working on the Toronto’s open data schedule: lessons for tying civic tech outputs to public consultations

The open data community is always looking for ways to show the value of open data. We talk a lot about telling open data stories and mapping case studies and so on, and as time ticks on the number of stories is growing.

To this end, there is an opportunity for our community to embed itself in pre-existing processes, to make them a tiny bit better. The opportunity? Tying civic tech and hackathon outputs to public consultations. Using a city’s schedule for public work and consultation to define the projects that the open data and civic tech community focuses on.

Ever been to a public meeting? The kind where you have been invited by your government, often your city, to provide input on a topic? I’ve been to lots because that’s what I do. I work at a firm called Swerhun and we help organize and run public meetings and processes. As we like to say, we “connect decision-makers to the people they serve”.

Public consultation is a chance for community enagement on several levels. Follow the idea for a minute.

Let’s say that there will be a new park built in Toronto. When this process starts there will be a general timeline for when the public process will start, when residents will be asked to come out to identify their priorities for the park. Knowing that this a) will happen and b) roughly when, the open data community has a chance to support this process.

To continue with the example, I have worked on a park project where at the first meeting there was a chorus of requests for what should be included in the new park. “A pizza oven!”, “Hill for sledding”, “Splash Pad”, “Dog Park” and on and on.

A very cool thing happened in the room. One person put their hand up and said “Well, we’ve lived here for a while and we walk our dog just up there, past the park, on that trail, and that seems to work well”. Then the next hand: “There is already a hill to sled on within a five minute walk, so maybe we should think about things we don’t have close by at all”. So through a combination of local knowledge and some additional mapping by the team, by the next meeting we had a map of the local assets within a set distance from the park, which helped guide the design.

Part of this is work that gets done in the process, but think of the opportunity to have mapped those assets ahead of the meeting and provided the map as part of the lead-up materials? Think of the member of the community sharing this kind of work with the team working on the project and their fellow residents. These public engagement processes serve as a way to bring people together for a few hours over the course of a few months or years.

It is a perfect opportunity to take open data along, to use these events as leading events for problem solving, to tell stories and to provide the community in question with data that can be included as part of its decision-making process.

One of the toughest parts of any process is getting everyone in a room up to speed on the past 5, 10, 15, 20 (and more) years. Think of how data visualizations can help with this.

These are just a few examples, and they are a small part. But a new small part to an already entrenched and supported process. The great news about this? There is a calendar of opportunities in every city just waiting for takers.

Bianca Wylie runs ODI Toronto.