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5 questions with David Wrate on Open Data and Higher Education

David Wrate is the director of Citizen Engagement for the government of British Columbia. He is speaking tomorrow (Feb 19, 2013) at the B.C. Open Data Summit in Vancouver.


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iDavid Wrate

1.    Tell us about the open government movement in B.C. and why open data matters?

Open government has deep roots in B.C.; in 2009, Vancouver passed their motion endorsing the principles of open data. Nanaimo followed suit. And in, July 2011, the Province made history as the first provincial government to embrace open data placing B.C. at the forefront of open data in Canada.

There are three core principles behind open data:

  1. the data be freely accessible on the web;
  2. the data is covered by a license that encourages its use in applications or other ways;
  3. the data format is non-proprietary and easily used by computers.

Two recent B.C. centric examples:

In B.C. the community energy and emissions data was used to make the BC Emissions web app to help explain energy and emissions to middle school students.

Traffic accident data from ICBC and school locations were combined at a hackathon to create the SchoolZone app. This web-based app shows accident locations relative to school locations and helps parents find the safest way to walk their children to school in and around the lower mainland.

2.  What is DataBC and why would the data sets provided be of interest to post- secondary institutions in the province?

DataBC is the open data program for the Province of B.C. In July 2011, it launched with just over 2,400 datasets. Now, over 3,000 datasets are available under the Province’s Open Government License. Since the program began, we have seen tremendous interest from post-secondary institutions in B.C. and across Canada.

Access to this data is a goldmine for post-secondary students and faculty as they struggle with increasing costs, dwindling budgets and changing demands. Often, materials have restrictive copyrights, which either prevent its use or require expensive licensing for classroom use.

Post-secondary institutions now have access to very interesting data about their industry. People can look at data on enrolment targets, student headcounts, student loan default rates and credentials awarded and paint a compelling story:

  • What does it look like when funding and student headcounts are compared?
  • How do student loan defaults or credentials awarded compare when viewed against this backdrop?

This information can help us understand the state of post-secondary education in B.C. and provide a glimpse into its future.

Open data also has a symbiotic relationship with the Open Textbook initiative from BC Campus. Both focus on developing and using open materials that can be mixed and matched as to create new content that engages both students and the teachers.

3.    In the United States, there are two main agencies that provide data sets for the post-secondary sector: the National Center of Education Statistics and the Education Data Community from Data.Gov.  Does Canada have such a system in place and do provinces share data sets with one another?

I’m not aware of Canadian programs that provide the type of impressive breadth of resources available from two agencies identified. While data has been at the heart of the sciences and similar disciplines, open data is relatively new to Canada and so its role is still developing. I’m encouraged that all levels of governments are putting more focus put on making data open and engaging in its use for education throughout the system.

The Government of Canada continues to make steady progress toward open data as well. The Province of B.C. is actively involved in shaping the open data landscape at the federal, provincial and municipal government levels.

4.   On February 19, you’ll be speaking at Open Data Summit in Vancouver. Why should post -secondary institutions like BCcampus attend?

The Open Data Summit will be a day of sharing ideas, confronting issues and working together. I’m interested in two topics: first, how open data can change the approach to the staggering number Information Access requests governments receive every year; and, second, how the people in the post-secondary sector: administrators, instructors, profs and students alike can benefit from open data.

I’m hopeful that everyone who attends will leave with an appreciation for both the power and the challenges open data creates. The cross-section of attendees will attest to the role data plays in our lives and reinforce the need for post -secondary institutions to create data literacy either directly with focused data and statistical course work, or indirectly, by using data as the backdrop to other concepts and ideas.

5.    For those of interested in learning more, do you have any must-read books or links to explore?

For an open data primer, Joshua Tauberer provides a very readable e-book here.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has a terrific ebook on data journalism.

I’m continually impressed with the World Bank and the Guardian newspaper and how they use data to identify issues and advance discussions.

For the more technically inclined, O’Reilly has a data science series that is sure to satisfy.

Notable quotes:

Open data represents a unique learning opportunity; how better for professors and instructors to teach and for students to learn than by using data about the province in which they live? -David Wrate

Sciences, humanities, economics and the arts come alive when infused with data relevant to both the sides of the learning equation. -David Wrate

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