Recently the RedBit team has been working on some very interesting projects on Windows Phone 7 but we have been also working on some Open Data projects that have a very big impact on the general public as a whole.
Microsoft Open Lab and Open Data
In conjunction with Microsoft Canada, RedBit has been the technical lead in the Microsoft Canada Open Lab where one the goals is to build open source software that leverages data exposed by various government bodies. Microsoft has developed and open sourced Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI) which allows government bodies to upload their data and expose various data sets in a standard format for general consumption.
An example of this is VanGuide which on the surface looks like a mobile app that shows various landmarks in the City of Vancouver. But underneath, it’s actually data that has been exposed to the public by the City of Vancouver using OGDI. What we have done is taken the exposed data and plotted it on a map on the mobile phone. In fact, there was a previous version that was available for the web and for the iPhone that use the exact same data.
What’s the Big Deal
To me the big deal is all this government data should be publicly and easily accessible. Currently most open data from government is either not accessible or you have to go through a long process to get access to that data. Even inter-government department sharing of data is a challenge and this is internal sharing! As citizens this data should be available to us for two reasons
- Transparency in Government
- Empowering Citizens and Developers to use the data in ways never thought of
Transparency in Government is a big deal and personally I think there is not much there. Empowering Citizens and Developers is a big deal to me. As a business owner, I’m always looking for opportunities. Having data available allows us to think of how we can use that data and this allows us to potentially create jobs in the community. For example, the Vancouver data, you can use the park information to determine if a potential house purchase you are about to make is close to the park for the kids. Very simple example but hopefully you get the point.
The goal is to open up the data to the public and empower the public to innovate on the data in new and creative ways.
What About This Pollution Data
Environment Canada actually releases pollution data that industries are mandated to report on. All this data is public data and all pollution data for Canada is available on the Environment Canada site. If you clicked the link and looked at the data, you basically need a masters or PHD to figure this stuff out, something which I don’t have. Not very friendly and not very easy to read. As a normal regular citizen (me), you just want to know if I’m safe in my neighbourhood and don’t necessarily care what type of pollution/chemicals are put into the atmosphere. The only time I would care is if there are large amounts of pollution in my area then I would want to dig deeper and find out why. With the state of the current data, you can’t easily find out ‘Why?’ and you visualize if it’s in your neighbourhood.
Now if you are a developer, using this data is a real challenge. It’s not really in a standard format to be able to use in a custom application. And to decipher the data, you need to spend a lot of time figuring out the structure of the data so it’s useable for your specific purpose. All pollution datasets have been made available by Environment Canada as Microsoft Access databases and is posted publicly on their website.
If you are a developer and want to use the data in the form Environment Canada gives exposes it, go for it, the data is there. But I would recommend reading Barranger’s article. He talks more about how we were able to take the Environment Canada Pollution data, import it into OGDI and expose it in a standard format. You can leverage the same data we are using and avoid the hassle of deciphering the ‘cryptic’ pollution data available in it’s original form.
To make things easier to visualize and easier to search RedBit was involved in a project to help liberate pollution data called Emitter. Emitter takes all the Environment Canada data and allows citizens to easily visualize the data pollution data around their neighbourhood. There are a few ways to search for data and it’s all well explained on the Emitter site so I won’t repeat it. But the end result is now you can very easily search and visualize pollution levels in and around the area you are interested in.
What does the search return? It returns the company that is releasing the pollution into the atmosphere, a ranking relative to other companies and also returns the federal riding and the Elected MP Official for that riding.
Building Emitter was a collaborative effort between many individuals across Canada and hosted by the Microsoft Canada Open Lab. The key contributors are listed on the Emitter site but everyone definitely deserves a mention for the effort
- Aaron McGowan – Main developer on Emitter.ca, open data activist, student, hacker
- Barranger Ridler – Responsible for integrating the pollution data with OGDI and helping get the site up and running on Windows Server
- David Eaves – Open Government activist and envisioned the Emitter.ca concept and helped bring it from start to finish
- Matthew Dance – The ‘brains’ behind the Emitter.ca methodology, graduate student at University of Alberta and responsible for interpreting/analyzing the pollution data and allowing us to present in useful ways
- Nik Garkusha – Open Data enthusiast and Open Source Strategy Lead at Microsoft Canada. Nik took role of architect and helping to envision Emitter and most importantly providing funding and hosting for Emitter at the Microsoft Open Lab
- Mark Arteaga – I took on the role of Project Manager and helping to coordinating all the efforts from figuring out the data to managing the development cycle.
So there you have it. After a few months of hard work, Emitter.ca is born. This was a great effort by a lot of people to help make pollution data easier to read for the public. Get engaged, have a look and send us your feedback, this is just our first beta release and are taking feedback and feature requests. What do you want to see?