Hack Your City: An Interview with David Eaves

[I've turned to David Eaves many times over the past few years to swap ideas and get some insights into the goals and impact of the open data movement.  He's amazingly busy these days, but after a few tries (across multiple continents) we managed to find a time to do this interview. Thanks David!  -- originally @SustainableCitiesCanada).]


Earlier this Summer I blogged about what providing open access to public data could do for urban sustainability. Since then New York held its first green hackathon, and Montreal is set to follow suit.
The overlap between the green cities and open data movements is something of a terra incognita: there's lots of potential, but we are only just starting to explore it.

I recently caught up with open data expert David Eaves to talk about green urbanism and open data in more detail. Based in Vancouver, Eaves is an internationally recognized consultant and activist in the field. We've spoken a few times over the years. Despite being amazingly busy, I've always found him to be thoughtful and insightful. Squeezed in between back to back trips to China and Washington, our most recent conversation was no exception.

Alex Aylett: What are the best examples of what open data can accomplish in cities?

David Eaves: The single biggest example remains what has been done around transit. Open data has really changed the way people use transit. A big piece of that is the fact that there is a single standard, the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), for reporting the data. Transit apps can scale really well from one city to the next, because they are all built around that same standard.

But it is important not to focus just on the apps. What is interesting is what they allow people to do. The first versions of the GTFS really changed how people plan their movements in a city. In particular they change what it is like to be a visitor in a city. They are what makes it possible for you to consult Google Transit and get around a new place without always wondering “how would a local person be doing this?”
Now with GTFS 2 we are seeing cities add real time data. Schedules are great, but in most cities buses don't run on time. They get stuck in traffic, things happen. When you take open data about routes and scheduling and add the real time positions of buses you can combine long term and short term planning really effectively.

AA: You can plan the trip you are going to take tomorrow, and then, if the bus is late, decide whether you should wait a bit more or walk down to the metro.

DE: Exactly. And the impact is that more people take transit. There is at least one research paper that shows that it really increases the number of people who use the bus.

Other great examples of what cities have done are more local. In Vancouver for example, Bing Thom Architects just released an assessment of the impacts that sea level rise is going to have on Vancouver. That work was largely built on open data.
In San Francisco they are just sharing public data, they are also asking the public to help them collect data. They have been using an open tree map to collaboratively inventory the entire urban forest. It's part of a larger project to map all the trees in the city. People have input hundreds of trees into the system, which takes a load off of municipal employees. When they assessed the data they found that it is just as accurate as data input by trained staff.

AA: Transit, climate change impacts, urban greening... Everything you mentioned so far has been directly linked to specific areas that are critical to urban sustainability. At a more general level what do you think the overlap is between the open data movement and the challenge of building green climate smart cities?

DE: Well, If we are going to do more green things we are going to have to allocate our very limited capital as efficiently as we possibly can. You can try to do that by gut feeling. But one way that you can be more effective at that is by having geospatial information about municipal assets, emissions, traffic patterns, transit patterns... Weaving all those different types of data together can help you figure out “if we are going to invest one dollar where will it have the most impact?”

And not just public dollars, but also private dollars, and the time and efforts of civil-society groups and citizens. And here I'm talking about everything from identifying gaps in the services that are accessible in specific communities to creating more community gardens.

AA: How do you see that working?

DE: Let's take community gardens. It would be really interesting to have all the cadastral data from Montreal and then to map all the unused or underused spaces. With that you could have a social hackathon where people help to sort the assets into different types: old railways, municipal lands, parks... Knowing the characteristics of those different types of land would let you identify sites that could be turned into gardens.

But because your are doing it at that level [the level of the whole city] you can go beyond approaching each site in isolation. Analysing the data at a city-scale gives you the foundation for designing new policies. Policies that can help transform multiple sites. Say you realize you have long stretches of old railway. Instead of doing things one garden at a time, you can put in place a policy that guides the greening of old rail assets across the city.

Using different kinds of data you could identify prime sites for green roofs across a city, or spot holes in the types of services residents can access at their local community centres.

And this doesn't have to be all about developing apps for phones and computers. People can also sit down around a table and figure these things out with a pencil and paper – so long as they have good data to work with.

AA: What are some common mistakes that cities make when it comes to open data programs?

DE: They don't think strategically. Often they simply release a grab-bag of different data sets and expect something to emerge from it. But that's not really how it works. On the one hand, city's really need to listen to what kinds of data people are interested in and then follow through on that.

But cities also need to think strategically about how they can use data to drive policy outcomes. One example that I use often is sharing restaurant inspection data. When that data is public it doesn't take long before there is an application developed that allows people to check the record of local restaurants and make informed choices. That's good for the people who use it. But it's also good for the city's goal of maintaining food safety standards because it increases the costs faced by restaurants that don't comply.

AA: I've heard you say that there are important internal benefits for governments when they put in place an open data policy. Could you elaborate on that?

DE: In my experience, very often users of open data portals are actually coming from within the government itself. They are employees from one department who want data from another department, but who (before open data) didn't have access to it. Open data policies give them that access. That in turn really reduces the transaction costs of designing smart well informed policy.

The alternative is public money being wasted. Wasted either on the time public servants have to spend in meetings to negotiate access to public data, or wasted when one level of government charges another for the ability to use its data. Open data does away with all that.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.