Dare to Dream with Data

In May, the HotSpot team had the privilege to attend the Canadian Open Data Summit, hosted in beautiful Saint John, NB.

The conference brought together industry leaders from across the country, showcasing outstanding cities and individuals who are driving the open data movement. The passion of these individuals, along with presentors and attendees, was nothing short of inspiring. You could feel the energy grow with each session, strengthening the movement with each hour that passed.

We sat down with our COO, Erin Flood, to discuss the open data movement.

Q: Open Data is something that is becoming more and more common, but what does it really mean?

It means “Opportunity”. Of course, there are many things to consider when opening up data sets across a city, or anywhere, for that matter. The first and foremost of importance is the transparency provided to citizens and all those involved. 

What does this mean? Transparency should first address security, privacy and the safety of everyone. Once we have addressed these, how do we address the elephant in the room: What is open data? And how is this relevant to me? My business? My city?  Just as Simon Sinek suggests, we must first start with Why. What I’m suggesting is that by starting with why, we can begin to fine tune and focus in on different aspects of the importance of open data when we add context relevant to those effected: citizens, businesses, municipalities. 

Building a story around buckets of the open data sets helps to turn “data” into stories that can be easily visible, creating tangible outcomes.

Q: How does real-time data play into open data?

Data is similar to a lake, rich with resources, and untapped potential. Just like lakes, data is only as useful as we make it. Without being fed new water (or information), the lakes stagnate and so do the collections of data.

Stagnant data become irrelevant very fast, therefore risking flawed and downright incorrect results. To keep up to date helps us to consistently adapt to changes in the landscape and remain competitive.

Q: Most people know HotSpot as a parking company, how did HotSpot get involved in this space?

It’s a funny question, and something that has brought me to the realization that many people don’t expand on their thoughts around parking much more than the cold metal parking meter they encounter on the daily. Parking serves as real-time data map of where people frequent in a city.

We started our company to serve a need, create more convenient parking experiences; and as a result drive local economy. Parking was actually first put in place to support local economy, and we were witnessing it beginning to do the exact opposite. This is when we built our networks of beacons to make parking even simpler, while at the same time facilitating stronger customer-business relationships through a simple parking validation tool. Parking provides the frame and inner workings of a city, but the people who frequent and do business in the city provide the splashes of colour that speak to the economic strength of that city.

Q: What kind of information do you collect?

We aim to better analyze and understand both vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns across urban cores. The data collected predicts traffic flow patterns, and provides visualizations and trend analyses on the direct impact it has on the local economy across all sectors; retail, entertainment, restaurant and tourism. The results will drive and inform capital project decisions, better understand underperforming and over performing regions in the city and predict and model future decisions based on historical information for any given geographic locations.

Q: How will open data help a city?

By opening up our data sets, we’re actively putting out a call to action for citizen engagement. We’re opening up the floor for all players to be involved in the policy making process before they’re enforced, not after. Great cities are built on the ideas of the people; opening up data sets to allow these people to expand upon opens up a realm of possibility for municipalities to make smarter investments long-term. Example: Capital-intensive projects should be built with living breathing data to support the investment. The investments need more than anecdotal evidence, and citizens will begin to, and should begin to expect this as the norm.

The information that these data sets provide is unique to the city they serve and will enable better business decision making processes, introduce new revenue opportunities and provide citizens with data backed stories to support business in the city.

Q: Who does it help specifically?

Open Data, if fully tapped for it’s potential can positively affect everyone. It’s about how we educate the public/ private sectors on not only the importance of open data, but on how we leverage this data. In order to educate, we should rely on those curious to take open data available to them and create projects that humanize and afford the viewer data visualization, and not just raw numbers. My favourite example is Shawn Peterson, who single-handedly created Propertize.ca, a platform that provides easy access to assessment and sales data for New Brunswickers. Data is only as powerful as it’s creator’s minds. 

Data seems like such a broad word and has so many implications across industry; it almost seems unfair to place it under one umbrella. It’s the frame of reference in which the data becomes defined by separating itself with its characteristics unique to the industry in question. 

Q: At the Open Data Summit this past spring, you talked about the virtuous cycle. What does that mean?

I’ve touched on this question indirectly in my above answers by emphasizing the importance of citizen, business and government engagement. The open data movement presents plentiful opportunity to begin creating stronger collaborative projects between public/private sector- moving progress faster, quicker with the combination of industry experts and the power of municipalities to advance policy/legislation.

Surface Level examples of the virtuous cycle I refer to:

Q: How is it going to impact Saint John?

This question is specific to the Pattern of Life Project that has public/private working together to push innovation forward on a fast-tracked timeline. Partners include Cisco, T4G, HotSpot, the City of Saint John and Enterprise Saint John (among others). The project takes full advantage of the resources already available to us in a city, and leverages their value further through collaboration.

(Did I mention that we received coverage for this project from our favourite local storytellers? Cc: Huddle)

Big data when applied with rich context is a natural re-occurring resource that can be refined, used, and exported. The case being made for the Community Data Strategy is no different than Saint John’s exports which have been a staple in writing our history. The sea has shaped Saint John and our ability to be a leader in supplying natural resources far and wide. Saint John is the export leader and the Port Authority has been instrumental to our success. This Pattern of Life Data pilot project will enable the collection of new and emergent data sets that will be made part of the community data repository.

Q: Who are leaders in this space (city or company)?

Too many to name. I’ll look forward to the basement dwellers, innovators and influencers that rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to explore and build off of an open data platform.

(But, if I had to name one company: Check out Black Arcs & if I had to name one progressive city councilor: go introduce yourself to Greg Norton & one true private sector leader: Cathy Simpson)

So with all this being said, what's next? Get ready for a series of stories related to the role of open data in defining smart cities.