Toronto Reference Library Hosts Open Data Book Club

April 11, 2016 | Ab. Velasco

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Open Data Book Club Discussion
The Open Data Book Club was previously hosted at Studio Y at MaRS Discovery District.

Starting on April 21, Toronto Reference Library and its Digital Innovation Hub will host the monthly Open Data Book Club.

These monthly meetings invite data miners, analysts and engaged citizens to get a better understanding of their government. At each event, members and other participants review, analyze and find trends using government open data sets alongside the staff members who are responsible for them.

The program was previously hosted at Studio Y in the MaRS Discovery District. The library is the club's home for the remainder of 2016 -- and possibly beyond -- and ties in nicely with the library's recently-launched Open Data Policy and open data sets as well as our recent Open Data Hackathon in November 2015.

We chatted with program organizer Richard Pietro to find out what happens at a book club meeting, why he thinks it's important for public institutions to make their data open, and where he sees Toronto's open data movement headed.


What happens at an Open Data Book Club meeting?

Members experience a free-flowing discussion with the stewards of government open data sets. For example, at one of our meetings we had a representative from the Ontario Ministry of Energy and together we reviewed and offered feedback on the greenhouse gas open data set.

At a different meeting, members of the Open Data Book Club prepared online tools for the Toronto Wellbeing Map. These tools were so good that the steward in attendance chose to publish them on the Toronto Wellbeing Map and sent them out to his stakeholders in the city.

I like to say that what happens at an Open Data Book Club event is true and impactful collaboration between the public and government.


Why did you choose to partner with the library on this program?

The Open Data Book Club couldn't possibly find a better home than Toronto Public Library. In addition to the fact that TPL is actively growing its digital and new media programs, the Reference Library is centrally located, well recognized, has the facilities needed for our events, and a team that wants to help grow Open Data literacy in the City of Toronto.

Besides, partnering with a library for something called the Open Data Book Club seemed to make quite a bit of sense. *smiles*


For someone who does not know a lot about open data, what's the best way to get a primer and to engage with the community?

Open Data is machine-readable data that can be re-purposed freely by the public, organizations and not-for-profits. Some of the most high profile open data sets are Weather and GPS data. However, in the last few years we've seen many other types of Open Data that have greatly influenced our daily lives. For example, all those wonderful TTC Transit apps are powered by Open Data.

If you’d like more details, don’t hesitate to watch this quick “once-over” video below created by the Open Data Institute.




The City has an Open Data Catalogue and the library recently launched an open data policy. Why is it important for public institution to make their data open?

Open Data (and by association, Open Government) are the tools that have been created to make our government more transparent, accountable and collaborative. They usher in a massive cultural shift in how things are done and are drastically changing just about every corner of the bureaucracy and legislative assemblies.

What Open Data and Open Government are doing is taking our “vending machine government” and transforming it into a platform. Here’s what I mean: Apple and Android are not in the business of creating Apps. They are in the business of creating an environment where people can create Apps.

In other words, government is a “doer” when it should be an “enabler.” Perhaps more accurately, government has become a "one-size-fits-all" machine in a world that expects customization and agility. Open Data and Open Government are the mechanisms we’ve developed to make this transition.

As a sidenote, I also like to say that Open Government & Open Data are the mechanism that will restore trust between people and government.


Where do you see Toronto's open data movement going in the near future?

You have to think of Open Data and Open Government like Social Media back in 2004. It is new. It is a weird concept to understand. And for the most part, most people have never heard the terms, and if they have, it is a catchphrase or headline that bears very little context or meaning. And much like Social Media in 2004, no one truly understands the potential impact that Open Data and Open Government will have in the future.

For example, no one could’ve predicted that NFL would be streaming games on Twitter or that it would influence journalism as much as it did. So, I don't know exactly where the open data movement is going, but I do know that Toronto has a rich community of engaged citizens who want to make Open Data & Open Government a reality.

Here’s something else I know: being part of these movements allows you to help mould the direction Open Data and Open Government will take.


Open Data Book Club Discussion
The Open Data Book Club was previously hosted at Studio Y at MaRS Discovery District.