On Thursday, October 6, Victoria councillor Marianne Alto introduced two motions calling on the City of Victoria to “open up government” by “providing its data for easy observation and use to the people who pay for it – local residents.”
Alto asked that her fellow councillors, and the City, adpot a set of “open data principles”, namely that all data made public should be complete, collected at source, released in a timely fashion, accessible, freely available, and non-proprietary.
Alto then asked that City staff report back on the cost associated with taking specific actions, including building searchable databases of bylaws and permits, creating searchable archives of council agendas and minutes, enabling live video streaming of council meetings, and automatically releasing all reports submitted to council.
Alto’s motions were warmly received by the other councillors, and passed easily. “It’s great for governance, it’s great for citizens who want to engage our city,” said mayor Dean Fortin.
As advocates for transparent government, we at Open Victoria also applaud councillor Alto for her initiative.
However, we have to wonder if many of these proposals will actually be realized.
In January 2009, right after he was elected mayor of Victoria, Dean Fortin told Monday Magazine (original article here) that he would take similar steps to more open government:
Fortin pledges accountability
In the run-up to November’s  municipal election, then-mayoral candidate Dean Fortin told Monday that one of the steps he would take if he were made mayor was recording council votes and posting them to the City of Victoria website. He also suggested recording city council meetings and streaming them live to the web so residents could have access to “really boring TV,” that would, nonetheless, increase accountability and transparency at City Hall. So does Fortin still feel the same now that he finds himself in the driver’s seat?
“It’s absolutely and totally on the agenda,” says Fortin. “I think it speaks to who this administration, mayor and council are.”
None of this was done. Votes continue to go unrecorded, and the councillors have disappeared into closed, in-camera sessions at 32 of 33 of their meetings. Should anyone expect such tendencies to change if the same administration remains in place?
Alto’s motion also failed to impose any date or deadline for staff to report back on the feasibility of such changes, let alone implement them.
Open-data initiatives don’t need to take long. In October 2009, Edmonton councillor Don Iveson made a proposal like Alto’s, and by January 2010, the City of Edmonton’s information technology department – using a report they’d crowdsourced in Google Documents – had their open-data catalogue up and running.
The City of Victoria’s legislative services director, Rob Woodland, did tell the councillors that some items in Alto’s motion would be coming “sooner rather than later”, especially once the City’s new website is up and running. However, the new website’s been in the works for many moons now. (Ironically, at the same meeting, councillors finally received the City’s new bicycle parking strategy – which took two years to prepare.) Target dates have been part of open-data projects in other cities, and Victoria’s should have one too.
Finally, missing from Alto’s plan was any provision to ask the public – the people who are actually going to use the data – what and how they want it made available. Usually, the first step a municipal government takes is to hold a City Camp, where programmers and citizens identify the needs and priorities. This would be infinitely preferable to a top-down, we-know-best approach, where City Hall unilaterally dictates what information it will allow the public to have.
Any move toward more open information at City Hall is to be congratulated, and we thank councillor Alto for her initiative. But transparency is about more than just data – it’s a culture, and one that the City of Victoria has been slow to embrace. Citizens will have to be vigilant to see if City Hall actually puts its open-data principles into practice.
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