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Cocities: Open Government Data

Ton Zijlstra
Networked Living, open government, giving skills and tools to the people.

Spice up your city-Just Add Open Government (slideshare)

Cities are unpredictable, but recognizable at the same time. They are complex, adaptive systems. Serendipity. Creativity. Excitement.

Government, on the other hand, feels boring. Open government is not about opening up concrete silos, or mere transparency. What this is really about is the same kind of digital disruption that changed the music industry. If government doesn't open from the inside, it will be opened from the outside.

Participation and Open Data
This is not about town hall meetings followed by representational action. Participation is really about living in your community. Urban farming, for example. There were no grocery stores in inner-city Detroit which sold fresh vegetables, so people started growing vegetables in the middle of the city. That is participation.

Opening public data. This data could be used in many other ways. This is about tapping an abundant resource which nobody has access to. This is big data.

(Weird that he is using a Flickr api project to illustrate a point about open government data. Isn't there a great government data visualization example?)

EU documents are used to train google translator.

PSI-->Beurocrats for public data. It already is the law that public data should be usable, but practice does not always follow. Problem: open standards, machine-readability.

Participation is the path to data reuse. Government as a platform.

Your local environment is your natural place of action. Examples: data about health inspection reports are connected to restaurants in a usable way. Citizens report civic issues or suggestions on a map.

Data often gets used in a useless way, to tell you nothing new or to make pretty pictures with no real readable information at all. Zijlstra calls this "flat" use of data.

It gets really interesting when you COMBINE data sets. (hells ya)
Example of cholera outbreaks and water sources on a map of London to discover the contamination source (this is a pre-digital example, so maybe the machine-readable bit is not really important)

Citizen-generated noise-pollution grid example. Private citizens sharing data is interesting.

Corporations are also starting to share data about the provenance of their ingredients.

The point is, that when government opens its data, it encourages private citizens and corporations to augment and add to that data.

In Rotterdam, you can get an alert from a particular air quality sensor and set your own sensitivity. It helps you decide when it is safe for you to go out in a meaningful way.

We feed data into devices which act on the environment and then create their own data sets and feed them back into the system. (some examples would have been nice here. The one he gave was a bit slippery for me)

"What's the problem I want to address," is the first question. Finding the data and building the way to use it should follow from that. Start with your sphere of influence and your own problems. Figure out what kind of data you need and then go to the government and get it. All you need is a single civil servant who is interested in what you are doing. It's people, not government. People are easy to approach (this is the most important point!)


Question about Wikileaks
Wikileaks is what happens when government is not responsive.
Government should do its own leaking.

Question: How do you get data into government? How do you get government to use the data you create?
It can be very difficult when the citizen data doesn't tell the story that the government is interested in telling.


  1. Ton said...
    Hi Trixolina,
    Thanks for the write-up of my talk. Slides will be at later when I get a bit more bandwith.

    A few remarks/responses:
    I used the Flickr examples because it is visually appealing, and it allowed me to put it into the context of Berlin. Great gov data viz is indeed harder to get by.

    EU documents could not only be used to train translation algorithms, but they actually are.

    The airpollution alert examples works for the entire Netherlands and can be found at

    I agree that some good examples of using devices as sensors and actuators would be helpful. It's just I don't have that many useful ones yet available (would love to see more of them) I mentioned FabLabs not as an example but as a place you can go to actually in a very low threshold way create those devices yourself.

    And yes, it's always about people :)

    Thanks for the live blogging, I find it always very useful if someone does that, and I'm complete rubbish at it myself.
    Trixolina said...
    Your talk was one that I found really inspiring. Your point about finding a problem to solve and then finding the data that can help you solve it was really spot on, especially in a crowd so heavy with data geeks (I include myself in that).

    Also a wonderful point is the guy in the blue shirt. Very well made. You approach people when you approach government. Nobody knows how to relate to government. Everybody knows how to relate to other people. I always advise people dealing with immigration that if they have a hard time with a bureaucrat, they should just be polite, leave, and come back another day. You'll see a different person and that person will deal with you differently.

    Thanks for all those links. You saved me some time. I'm just now going in to do some clean up and link-hunting in these posts.

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