Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Big data could be the key to unlocking Toronto's potential — but only if we listen to it

By: Metro Published on Mon Apr 13 2015

When it comes to making Toronto a better place to live, I believe in the power of the spreadsheet.

Big data, or open data, or whatever you want to call it, has untapped potential to transform the way municipal government works. The idea of openly and publicly measuring and quantifying virtually everything city hall does – from transit scheduling to trash collection to tree planting – just might be the thing that leads to real improvements.

Hell, it might be the thing that drags Toronto into this century.

Too optimistic? Maybe, but still, I was glad to see mayor John Tory last week make a commitment to what he called the “power of big data” at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone. Tory’s announcement was specifically limited to using data to make traffic move better, which is a more limited scope than I’d like to see, but it’s a start.

Now he just needs to follow-through.

If Tory really wants to demonstrate his “power of big data” cred, that follow-through will have two parts.

First, the mayor needs to send a message to every department at city hall that open data should be opt-out, not opt-in.

That means instead of cherry-picking pieces of information that might make for good data to release publicly, everything should get released unless there’s a pressing reason to keep it secret.

And by “everything” I mean, you know, everything. Yeah, it’s unlikely anyone will make an app or a map from data that details, for example, the complete history of the interest rates the city pays on its debt, or a geolocated feed of the requests Animal Services gets to pick up deceased raccoons, but let’s err on the side of openness.

Second, none of this talk about using data will amount to anything if elected officials don’t let data guide their decisions.

Too often at city hall, data takes a back seat to anecdote-soaked speeches about “what the people want” and gut feelings councillors have about traffic, or transit, or taxes.

Much of my optimism about the power of data is tempered by vivid memories of the debates council had last term about the controversial Scarborough subway project. There, councillors were presented with repeated data-driven reports making the case for staying with their previously-approved LRT.

But it didn’t seem to matter. All of the data disappeared under the weight of speeches about what constituents want, and what Scarborough deserves.

That’s no way to run a data-driven government.

In the next few months, Tory and council will debate a bunch of important issues — things like lowering speed limits on residential streets and tearing down part of the Gardiner Expressway.

On these issues, Tory and councillors will again get a big pile of data. They’ve got to let it guide them.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-04-13T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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