Lessons from city pioneers on opening up data

How cities can become open by default

Open Data Charter
Feb 5, 2018 · 3 min read
Image for post
Image for post
The city of Edmonton, Alberta, was the first city in Canada to adopt the Charter. Photo: Jeff Wallace

by Jean-Noé Landry and Merlin Chatwin

Cities have often been at the forefront of innovation in the way that government is run. Over the last ten years there has been a movement for governments to open up data so that anyone can access, use or share it, and cities have been pioneers of this.

OpenNorth and the Open Data Charter teamed to try to understand the opportunities and challenges that cities face when opening up data. We spoke to officials, civil society representatives and politicians from a number of cities. Our research focused on Canada, but we included three international cities to provide broader context.

There are strong incentives for cities to open up their data, and the Open Data Charter can help them to do this. Open data can encourage trust in government, improve the provision of services and stimulate economic growth.

However, big challenges remain and a number of themes emerged from our conversations.

“The systems have not been built to open data… The state of government IT is in a massive technical debt, held together by chicken wire and bubblegum” — Civil society leader in Toronto

“The open data program is really the only way to access data for city employees too. There was no previous data warehouse in the city.” — City representative

Cities are often starting from a point of out-of-date IT and data management systems. Focusing just on a public-facing ‘open by default’ approach can reduce the availability of resources for basic internal data sharing. Instead, it’s important that cities take an open approach that is applied to broader data management systems and facilitates the collection of data in such a way that it benefits city officials, as well as the public.

“We have a vocal, but small group of people asking for new data, new visualisations, and new tools. We are trying to broaden the people that want to use it [data].” — Buenos Aires city open data program manager

Opening data does not automatically create a data literate public. City officials need to work with potential data users to ensure that they have the right skills to use the data. Officials themselves often require more training to be able to publish and use high quality data.

“Residents do not care who owns the data. They want access to it.” — provincial representative.

Achieving impact through open data requires interjurisdictional cooperation. Citizens don’t see the borders between different government units. Officials should be working with their counterparts in other cities, and in national governments, to ensure that their open data efforts fit in with what’s going on elsewhere.

“Open data is much more complex now than it was only a few years ago. Now cities are required to address license standards, open data platforms, data collection strategies, and still monitor the political discourse.” — An elected representative.

Policy and standard development is not keeping up with the pace of change. It’s important for data to be released using shared standards, but city officials often struggle to find relevant ones for particular datasets. More work needs to be done to harmonise approaches to open data.

“Opening the procurement documents is one of the areas with the most room for growth moving forward.” — An elective representative.

Governments cannot be ‘open by default’ without open procurement. This means both opening up the general government procurement process and ensuring that the purchasing of data and IT products allows an ‘open by default’ approach.


For the cities we included in our research, open data has been integrated into their strategy, but it still lacks sufficient human and financial resources to result in meaningful social impact. The report includes recommendations for officials for what they can do next.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Charter, or are a city who wants to formally adopt the Charter principles, please get in touch: info@opendatacharter.org.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store