Citizens can use data to improve their cities
University of Calgary researcher Ryan Burns’s recent SSHRC-funded research focuses on inequalities in what information is publicly released
Date published: 2020-04-06 4:45:00 PM
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 University of Calgary’s Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts, 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.
“Why is this? Is this transparent?" he asks. “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.
This story was written by Marta Cyperling, University Relations, at the University of Calgary. It was first published on the university’s website.