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Data portal opens the door

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Those looking to burst through the virtual door into Oshawa’s open data portal may need to be weary of a screen door on the other side.

The city has officially joined the growing list of municipalities and governments opening the doors on the basic data they collect, but at this early stage, it may not be as useful as some may hope.

For Ken Pu, an associate professor in UOIT’s faculty of computer science, there’s no denying that the new portal is a positive development, but things have a long way to go.

“It’s not something where we’re going to get it right, right away, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he says.

Oshawa’s portal is made up of a series of different data sets relating to the tracking of city operations.

Land use data regarding city parcel and property fabric, street networks, zoning and existing land use data are included, as well as data related to parking facilities in the downtown area including on-street parking, service lots and parking garages.

Statistics for intake and outcome data for animal services and housing licensing information are also live on the portal.

However, the information is in a very raw format that may not be accessible to the general public to understand. For Pu, he says it’s a problem for many institutions implementing open data initiatives.

“It is challenging to build a very easily accessible portal for the public to kind of derive maximum value out of government open data,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but without this open data initiative, we’ll never get there.”

The portal was approved by council in June prior to its summer recess. Pu says the fact that the portal now exists provides an avenue for more data to flow from city hall in the future.

“I think it’s a very valuable platform for dissemination,” Pu says. “So where there is data that is available and the government may feel that it serves the public interest, open data currently is the only means for the government to get that information to the public.”

That may take some getting used to though, he says.

“I think having the government getting used to maintaining certain accountability through data is actually new,” he says.

The city’s portal follows in the footsteps of the Region of Durham, which launched a similar open data program in March, and other municipalities and organizations across the country that are attempting to make this type of information further available to residents. The federal government launched an open data portal in 2011 and the Ontario government followed suit in November 2015.

Originally, the new Oshawa program was launched with a $5,000 budget, planned to be used for the launch of the site. However, the city was able to save that cost and get the portal up and running using solely internal resources and existing technolgoical infrastructure, according to Bev Hendy, the city’s commissioner of corporate services.

According to the city’s previous report, the usage of the data will be monitored for the duration of the pilot project, set to last for a minimum of nine months to help inform future decisions on the program.