A freshwater angler in one of Ontario’s waterways lands a steelhead to brag about. A Toronto mother locates an excellent child-care space on her commuting route. A Vancouver couple discover the home they wanted overlooking the water on the Sunshine Coast.
What they have in common is that they gained an advantage through the use of open data.
It’s not just tech companies, municipalities and financial institutions that are achieving efficiencies and commercial results from open data. Open data can be the trump card for a fly fisherman or a house-hunting couple.
To celebrate Canada 150, Canada's Open Data Exchange (ODX) assembled a list of more than 150 companies and agencies — large and small — from across Canada that have discovered the possibilities in open data.
The OD150 include names familiar to Canadians — CIBC, Service Canada, the Globe and Mail, IBM Canada and D2L Corp., all seeking competitive edges over major national and international players — but sometimes, open data can simply give you the edge over the guy in the next boat.
That’s the promise of FISHBUOY, the product being tested now by Waterloo-based ENVionX Inc. FISHBUOY, the creation of longtime sport fisherman and tech veteran Martin Draeger, offers both a desktop and mobile app for North American anglers to help them plan the best times and locations to catch fish. Using historical and open data sets pulled from over 17,000 monitoring stations, FISHBUOY aggregates vital fishing parameters such as water levels, water temperature and water turbidity among others, to help fishermen learn the connection between environmental conditions and fish feeding behaviour. Every time a fisherman takes a photo of a fish, environmental conditions are tagged to the picture and available through maps, allowing users to quickly recall historical photos from personal or publicly posted fishing records.
Says Draeger, “I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty, once you begin to learn the connection between environmental conditions and fish behaviour, you will start catching more fish — hands down!”
Landing the big one is also the goal of B.C. Realtor Gary Little. Little brought 17 years of experience with Apple and Sun Microsystems into the real estate business when he joined the Sunshine Coast Royal LePage office at Sechelt, B.C. in 2006. Now he’s known as the “map guy” for the Sussex Royal LePage offices in one of Canada’s hottest housing markets. His online interactive real estate map is available on desktops, tablets and smartphones for the Vancouver area’s hungry homebuyers.
His maps include such basics as price and location, but add layers with nearby schools, libraries, fire halls and assessment information. “Most of this information is scattered around various sites, but very few have brought it together in one place as I have.”
Little’s tech background equipped him to combine “multiple open data streams, to create a useful tool that I use to attract business. There are certainly very few other realtors that could undertake such a project on their own.”
Regnard Raquedan, co-founder of the child-care-finding app CubbySpot, faced the challenges facing many parents in finding the right child-care facility. He used open data to create an app that lets parents find child-care providers, apply for spaces and share opinions about providers, while the providers use the app to manage their wait lists. In two years, CubbySpot has built a base of 13,000 child-care centres. Raquedon hopes to add unlicensed, independent child-care providers, as well. “We want to cover Canada like a warm, fuzzy blanket.”
But there are hurdles for those tackling open data.
Hurdles faced with open data use
For CubbySpot, it took a Freedom of Information request to get the child-care data from one province “and we got the data on a DVD,” says Raquedan. “The kicker was that our laptop did not have a DVD drive. They eventually sent a USB stick.” He said that the electronic transfer of data should be done more easily.
For Gary Little, it was the variety of ways that data sets are released: “The hardest to use are Esri shapefiles, but I solved that conversion problem a few years ago.” Little says the “good news is that more and more of the larger municipalities in British Columbia seemed to have embraced the concept.”
Martin Draeger says that there’s an opportunity for innovators to create comprehensive tools that provide faster access to open data sets. However, it will require that open data organizations first commit to creating a true technical support structure that is dedicated to supporting data consumers’ needs. “In many open data organizations, it is difficult to request changes or access to various data types. You get what they provide in the format they provide. There is no formal way to request changes to how data is exposed or which data sets are available via APIs (if available) or in raw format. It is difficult to know who in the organization is responsible and how you can request changes.”
The value of open data
The effort is worth it, says Raquedan: “Open data has value. It has challenges, but if you are able to leverage it properly, it … can be your competitive advantage.”
Draeger’s advice: “Be patient and persistent. Many of the data owners have other primary job responsibilities and may not have time to address your data-specific questions.”
“Being part of the ODX community has enlightened myself about open data opportunities while also providing an avenue for me to provide input for improving future access to open data,” says Draeger. “Without ODX, FISHBUOY would not have progressed as quickly to the current state of the product, which is scheduled to be released fully to the public later this year.”
“If you need help with open data, connect with ODX. That is what they do, after all.”
Bill Bean is an award-winning journalist with 40 years experience who has been writing about innovation in Waterloo Region for three years, and who has a weakness for grandchildren, bicycles and chocolate.