Open Data: Can it make Canadian cities more resilient?

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This article was co-authored by Jean-Noé Landry and by Professor Pamela Robinson and was originally featured on Medium.

Worldwide, open data is helping to fight corruption, to increase government efficiency, and to grow sectors of the economy, and early research hints that it can also play an important role in making our cities more resilient.

The recent floods in Windsor, Ontario are a reminder that Canadian communities face a myriad challenges from climate change and environmental issues. From drought in the West to the wildfires in Fort McMurray, to Montreal diverting raw sewage into the St. Lawrence, the challenges are vast and varied, and it is clear our communities need new tools to help them respond. Cities have always faced acute shocks, like earthquakes and wildfires. But they also face chronic stresses, such as unemployment, homelessness, and the cumulative impacts of the underinvestment in public infrastructure. Communities across Canada have cracked water and sewer pipes, public transportation that cannot keep up with population growth, and public housing with repair backlogs that we have neither the time nor money to address quickly.

These challenges point to the real need for Canadian communities to become more resilient. How can we anticipate and mitigate the risks? How can our communities better cope in the aftermath of these events?

As you can imagine, addressing these issues is no easy feat. Two of the most challenging factors in managing them are the sheer number of variables that impact a city’s overall health, as well as the speed with which any number of those variables may change. Time, money, public awareness, and political will are often cited as the missing ingredients to building urban resiliency. However, recent research offers new insight into actions that might help. Worldwide, open data is helping to fight corruption, to increase government efficiency, and to grow sectors of the economy, and early research hints that it can also play an important role in making our cities more resilient.

Late this summer, Open North, Canada’s leading open data non-profit open data, and Geothink.ca — a university research consortium funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities research council — investigated the potential of open data to strengthen urban resilience efforts. We interviewed over 35 leading international experts on urban planning and open data. The goal of the study funded by the U.K. based Open Data Institute (ODI), which will be published later this Fall, was to explore just how useful open data can be when tackling issues that weaken our cities and to determine where opportunities exist for collaboration.

Cities from around the world are facing the same issues we are, and they have begun developing networks between themselves in order to find effective solutions and frameworks that can be used in various scenarios. However, in many cases, the first responders, urban planners or humanitarian organizations on the forefront battling these issues don’t always have the know-how nor the capacity to develop the solutions that they need implemented. On the flip side, we have members of the open data community, who don’t necessarily have access to decision-makers, but who are capable of developing multilayered maps, creating predictive analyses, or designing models that can inform policymaking and regulations.

Indeed, having access to timely, open, and accessible data and networks is paramount for developing any kind of system, but we also need to begin building bridges between those that know what needs to be done, and those that know how to do it.

While federal, provincial and many municipal governments have committed to implementing open data policies in the last few years, the truth is we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of our potential for using open data to help cities thrive in Canada.

It’s fantastic that we’re trying to make our cities “smarter” and more efficient, but we’re going to have to start working towards making them more resilient as well.

Cities and countries from around the world have been innovating in leaps and bounds. Take for example, Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, which is Africa’s fastest growing city. With 70 per cent of its population living in unplanned settlements, managing significant flood risks has been a tremendous challenge, but that hasn’t stopped the city from innovating. By partnering up with local universities and the national government, the city has been using drones in order to map out flood-prone areas and to develop risk models. All the data gathered through this initiative is also made public, and is being used to inform disaster relief efforts as well as the transport of medical supplies.

We can also learn a lesson from our North American cousins to the south. Mexico is ranked as one of the most seismically active countries in the world and around two-fifths of its territory, which includes over a quarter of its population, is exposed to storms, hurricanes, and floods. In an attempt to increase transparency, in 2014 the government began publishing data regarding the funds used in all stages in the management of an emergency. That means that citizens are able to assess where the funds are being used, and whether they are being used appropriately.

And what about Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere? In 2015, it was facing its greatest water crisis in almost a century. For a city located in what Brazilians have historically called the “Saudi Arabia of water,” this came as a huge shock to the millions of people forced to ration their water consumption. One of the reasons the drought hit the city so badly, however, was a lack of data. In fact, according to one city official we interviewed, there were parts of the civil service that had no idea how low the water level actually was. But that changed, thankfully, in part due the pressure put on the state government by the open data community. Sao Paulo isn’t out of the woods yet, but the situation has indeed improved.

This last example is probably the one that hits closest to home. We’ve known for years now that Canada is one of the largest consumers of water in the world, and yet, many of our cities, including Montreal, still do not meter residential water. Data is lacking and it shouldn’t be.

That’s why it’s important for our cities to begin participating in global networks. Remember, Canada isn’t alone. New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Paris, and Jakarta all face the same challenges that we urban Canadians face.

Events like the Open Cities Summit that Open North co-organized last week in Madrid with a range of global organizations, such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), are the perfect opportunity to do so. We need a sustained, systematic, and well-funded approach across the board that enables our cities to connect with one another and address issues on a global scale. Cities shouldn’t wait for a disaster to happen before taking steps to improve the lives of citizens. After all, would you wait for a life-threatening heart attack to begin a healthy diet and exercise? Early action is key. It’s time we coordinate the way we share and exchange data and solutions in order to tackle these issues head on.

The 21st century has so far shown itself to be quite unpredictable, but with unknown variables come endless possibilities for innovation. It’s now up to us to come together to make our cities stronger.

Jean-Noé Landry is the Executive Director for Open North and founder of Open Cities Strategies, which helps cities successfully plan and implement their open data programs. Professor Pamela Robinson teaches at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto and is a researcher at GeoThink.ca.

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