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PROFILE: Dare to share — meet the man who’s bringing open data to the masses

Edward Ocampo-Gooding sees a bright future in open data. Photography by Dwayne Brown

Edward Ocampo-Gooding maintains that he got into the open-data movement for purely selfish reasons. When he moved to Ottawa two years ago, the young computer-science grad quickly found a group of programmers to hang out with, but he also noticed that the high-tech industry in Ottawa tended to be very insular — even within itself. Those who worked with Flash animation hung out with other Flash experts; programmers who use Ruby, like Ocampo-Gooding, met for beers on Ruby Tuesdays. Government techies were in another group altogether “because they can’t talk to each other — or anyone else,” Ocampo-Gooding jokes.

In short, Ocampo-Gooding wanted to meet more people. So the 26-year-old web developer, who currently works for successful Ottawa start-up Shopify, planned a party to bring everyone together. At the time, Ocampo-Gooding didn’t realize he would set in motion a movement that would place Ottawa at the forefront of a burgeoning campaign that includes the World Bank and the United Nations.

It’s called open data, and according to Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, 2010 is the year open data went worldwide. He predicts that raw data on the web — be it government stats, scientific results, or park listings — “will be used by other people to do wonderful things in ways that they never would have imagined.”

Open data refers to data sets that are available for free and presented in a standard format. They are also licensed to allow sharing and augmentation; this lets developers share work with others. No fancy software needed, no adjusting websites so that the links break — that is what it means to have an open-data policy. The information available through open data may not be very compelling when viewed as raw data, but creative readers can use it to create “mashups” — things such as websites and smart-phone applications — that are usable and fun and often increase citizen engagement. One well-known local success story is FixMyStreet.ca, an Ottawa-based site that allows visitors to report potholes or graffiti to their municipality.

But back to the party. The seed for the fateful get-together was planted when Ocampo-Gooding attended a talk by Nick Charney, an Ottawa blogger who writes about the public service, technology, and being a “government ninja.”

Pumped by the enthusiasm of the speech, Ocampo-Gooding and his girlfriend, public servant Mary Beth Baker, approached Charney to ask for ideas for their party.

“He said, ‘I hear this open-data thing is going to be big,’ ” Ocampo-Gooding recalls.

So, like any good techie, he started a Twitter account that would bring together skilled programmers and ideas people for a one-day brainstorming/software-development event. 

With the help of his small team of open-data advocates, Ocampo-Gooding used Twitter to invite people to add to a list of ideas of how municipal information could be used to make websites and applications. “What I didn’t want was an awareness-raising event that would basically see us preaching to the choir,” he says. This meant going outside of his techie community to bring dog owners, cycling activists, moms — any interested citizens — to the party. “Moms, in particular, were very good at bringing ideas to the table,” Ocampo-Gooding reports.

The big motivation for the event — by then dubbed HackFest and scheduled for April 24 — was to encourage the city to adopt an open-data policy. And as the Twitter feed grew, the list of data requests also grew. In March, a city hall staffer responded to a tweet, and Ocampo-Gooding was invited to 110 Laurier Avenue to a meeting of the city’s information-technology subcommittee. “They were talking about how they kind of wanted to do open data,” says Ocampo-Gooding, “but they were presenting it really listlessly.” Even Ocampo-Gooding admits that “By itself, open data is boring and useless. You have to ask: how can I mash it up to make something that’s useful and interesting?”

About halfway through the meeting, Ocampo-Gooding learned that he would have a chance to speak. “I got up there and started pointing out examples of how open data had been really successful, how it’s going to save them all sorts of money, and how it’s going to make people happy,” he says earnestly. “I waved my hands a lot and shouted. I told them, ‘I don’t want your money, I want your data.’” The city’s chief information officer, Guy Michaud, was impressed with Ocampo-Gooding’s spiel — especially the offer to develop the open-data software for free.

“That really caught the attention of the councillors,” Michaud says. Media interviews ensued, and people started to understand that open data could improve citizen engagement, reduce information requests, and “make people happy.”

HackFest went off without a hitch. Around 120 people showed up — from programmers with technical know-how to moms with ideas — and worked together in groups. Says Michaud: “I was there and was very impressed with the creativity and the willingness to do this. This is so full of potential for residents.”

At the end of the day, Ocampo-Gooding showed off 15 new applications. What’s more, the city passed an official open-data policy a few months later and announced a contest with $50,000 in prize money to develop applications using city data (see www.apps4ottawa.ca for contest details).

“The open-data movement has really changed our perspective about the value of our data,” says Michaud. “I was a bit taken by surprise about how enthusiastic people in the community are about this. But the return on investment is huge, and if someone is willing to take their own time doing something to improve the community, why would we not encourage that?”

As for Ocampo-Gooding’s role in putting Ottawa in the forefront of this movement, Michaud says he was “instrumental in making us realize how [open data] can be beneficial.” But Ocampo-Gooding insists it wasn’t solely for altruistic reasons that he got into open data. Following HackFest, he and his many new friends celebrated at Collection in the ByWard Market — so he got his party.

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