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Looking Inside the Maple Leaf – How Canada Does Transparency

How many potholes have been filled this spring in your city? Are buses arriving on time this weekend? What’s the number of business licenses granted in the past month? How fast are emergency vehicles responding on-scene to accidents?

These are just examples of questions citizens ask their local government on an everyday basis. Frequently, finding the data or getting response can be a difficult endeavor. But the city of Edmonton, Canada, is trying to change that by taking an open and transparent approach to municipal services and civic engagement with their new Citizen Dashboard.

Edmonton has leveraged open data to create the dashboard, which gives Edmontonians easy access to up-to-date information on the effectiveness and efficiency of important government services. A visitor to the City of Edmonton website will immediately see the status of government service delivery and response rates.

Jason Darrah, Director of Public Communications for the City of Edmonton, told me during GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview that the goal of the dashboard is to help the city be more open and transparent.

The dashboard displays the data next to the goal rates set for each category by the city. For example, the dashboard today shows that the fire department is not meeting the goal of having a full team on the scene in less than eight minutes. On the other hand, the dashboard also displays that the city is meeting their goal of responding to all emergency phone calls in less than 20 seconds.

“The greater transparency we have in city operations, the better understanding the residents we serve,” Darrah explained. “And therefore the better input they have to help us change and revise and improve our service to them.”

The dashboard provides updates in real-time and divides the data into easy-to-understand categories: “The Way We Live,” “The Way We Move,” “The Way We Green,” “The Way We Grow,” “The Way We Prosper,” and “The Way We Finance.”

“It’s really important that we capture basic information that’s accessible that people can see response rates in these different areas. If someone is interested in transportation issues, they can click on one tab that really compiles together all the transportation related items,” said Darrah. “On the ‘Way We Move’ tab they are able to see road construction or street sweeping schedule success rates. The whole point is to show our performance to target rate.”

The dashboard even features a red, yellow and green indicator to show if a project is on target or not. “It is really trying to be accessible, but also capture basic information on our performance,” said Darrah.

The key to the dashboard’s success is the format. The information is easy to consume. While the city does not alter the data, they do carefully select which datasets are made available. “We have about 600 lines of business as a municipality,” said Darrah. “That’s 600 different programs offering everything from bylaw enforcement, to road construction, to even some social programs and fire control. We break the data sets down into something that’s really meaningful for people. We have all the open data available for people to crunch and mash up and figure out things that government isn’t too smart about.”

With more than 600 lines of business the city had an enormous amount of data to add to the dashboard, but instead of throwing all the data up at once they took the agile development approach. “We started with only six items on our dashboard. Citizens said they wanted more. That gave us the impetus to keep the program going, and we’ve added a whole bunch,” said Darrah .

So what’s next for the dashboard? “We are trying to change the way we grow our city so it’s a far more compact footprint. We are going to build out some more functionality about permitting, growth and other types of planning,” said Darrah. “The other big initiatives are really about the way we finance the city. The means figuring out how we make our entire budget in the open data catalog so people can see how much their bus fare pays for the transit service, and how much comes from the taxes, and see what’s the right balance.

“Transparency is everything,” Darrah added. “We rely on a lot a data from outside our area to show how we’re one of the fastest growing economies in Canada. We want to show what that means on the ground locally in terms of job uptake rate. We’ve got the lowest unemployment rate, and we need to have that out there and visible so citizens and industry alike understand.”

If you enjoyed our GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview, you can find more interviews under keyword “Emily’s Corner.”

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