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Open Data

Information is power.

Information that is hoarded or withheld, without good reason, or only released after an unconscionable delay, can determine outcomes.

Nowhere is this more true than in the rarefied world of urban planning with its hierarchies of overlapping plans and strategies. It is all made to appear much more complex than it is.

For me, Glenway stands as a classic example of how local residents were royally stitched up by their own municipality and its agents. Key information was never put on the table.

We urgently need to demystify “planning” and start sharing more widely the information that planners collect and use to inform their decisions and recommendations. Like the rest of us, councillors are often kept in the dark, bamboozled by planning-babble, but they have the power to change things – if they so choose.

Of course, the usual caveats and health warnings apply. Anything that identifies individuals is out-of-bounds. Data must be aggregated to guarantee anonymity.

Does planning have to be this complex? 

Finding out what is happening locally means consulting a multiplicity of documents. There is no one document that will tell you what you need to know. Complexity, it seems, is built into the system. It really shouldn’t be this difficult to understand. is a new app that should make it easier to find basic information about any property in Newmarket (and beyond). The map uses overlays showing how provincial, regional and local official plans impact on any given property. The site is still under construction and will be available free of charge to non profit organisations. Professional firms, developers and the like will be expected to pay.

Open data catalogues

We can access open data catalogues at Federal and Provincial level.

The Federal Government’s open data portal is the gateway to over 240,000 data sets. Many of these are related to the physical environment although there is stuff there that informs social policy.

The Provincial Government toots its open-data horn and asks for suggestions on the kind of data sets that should be put out there. Its catalogue of open datasets needs to be massively expanded.

I don’t know the full range of information the Province collects – but we are told the “sunshine list” is the most popular. But why not list all the data-sets –closed and open – indicating why the closed ones are so classified? In many cases the answers will be blindingly obvious but for others, not so.

Toronto strikes up a conversation with local people

Toronto is also keen on open data and has a number of interesting sites aimed at striking up a conversation with residents.

The ward profiles allow readers to paint a picture of their neighbourhood based on a stack of striking economic and demographic data. (In his first election campaign, my own councillor, Tom Hempen,  wanted ward 4 to get "its fair share". He was, I recall, talking about a splash pad. But detailed ward profiles would help us identify priority areas.)

York Region, too, advertises its open data offering. But it needs to be more proactive.

In Newmarket, we should have a list of data collected – both open and closed - and an invitation to add further data-sets.

A commitment to open data presents a terrific opportunity for our secretive Mayor Tony Van Bynen to move beyond the sound bite.

He can surprise us all by enthusiastically embracing open data as he marches forward with his "ground breaking broadband network".

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