March 6, 2019

Citizens can use data to improve their cities

Researcher Ryan Burns's recent SSHRC grant focuses on inequalities in what information is publicly released

Governments across the globe are now, more than ever, releasing datasets to encourage transparency. The City of Calgary started releasing various datasets in 2012, and citizens can search through archives of traffic incidents, community crime statistics, or even permit applications. 

Datasets could be used by the public for many things, such as finding city neighbourhoods in need of social services or finding inefficiencies in government operations. In 2014, in an effort to improve safety in the city, a Calgary engineer used 16 years of Calgary police data to make a map showing pedestrian collisions in the city.

Dr. Ryan Burns, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts, and pictured above, was recently funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) grant. His research examines the social implications of big, open, and spatial data.

“My imagination is limited, but citizens could do anything, all sorts of fun activities, such as charting new marathon routes through the city. The limit is as broad as Calgarians' imaginations could go,” says Burns.

Not all data is publicly available

Burns questions if inequalities are created based on which datasets are released. One example of this is The City of Calgary’s roads data, as it’s usually the first set of data that a municipal government releases. However, The City charges $1,000 for this dataset — a fee that Burns takes issue with.

"That fee makes it harder for citizens to use the dataset in really impactful ways, like to hold the City accountable," he says. “Road data could be useful in designing new route algorithms, and finding better ways to deliver goods, pizza, and even social services.”

Burns asked The City about the cost, and learned that the fee is an attempt by The City to recuperate some of the costs of collecting and maintaining the data.

Burns is working with The City of Calgary to understand some of the inequalities in the dataset, and to work on new open data systems. In this collaboration with city staff, he is pulling together a policy document to inform policy-makers about the different approaches toward data dissemination, including releasing data for free, or for a charge. He is also working with non-profits in Calgary to streamline their data-sharing practices and, hopefully, improve their operational efficiencies.

Interpreting data is not easy

Burns also says there is an impression among citizens that anyone can interpret datasets and use appropriate statistical analysis, but he says it’s not that easy.

“You need some strong technical and interpretive skills,” he says. This can mean anything from taking university-level classes on qualitative or quantitative analysis, to completing free online technology training courses. While online and autonomous training options don’t substitute a strong formal education program, they do make open data analysis more accessible using tools like the scripting language Python or the web visualization language JavaScript. Burns says city administrators should provide ways for citizens to perform open data analyses and offer feedback, so their efforts produce meaningful results.

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Urban Alliance is a strategic partnership between The City of Calgary and the University of Calgary to promote the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between The City and the university, for the benefit of all our communities. Urban Alliance energizes connections between the people who make up our organizations, and encourages us to work together to find ways to make life better for all Calgarians.