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How Open Data Is Changing The Way Vancouver Shelters Its Homeless

BY David Eaves | Monday, March 4 2013

Vancouver SRO (image: Megaphone Mag/Flickr)

Last month, seemingly out of nowhere, the Province of British Columbia announced it would spend $1 million (in Canadian dollars) to address health and safety violations in a number of the single resident occupancy (SRO) buildings it owns in Vancouver.

The reason...? Open data.

Indeed, what follows is a wonderful example of how data and transparency can drive policy and encourage governments to fulfill commitments that help those most at risk.

In January 2012, the Vancouver city council passed a motion mandating the creation of

an online, searchable database of rental apartments in Vancouver, which would:

  • utilize existing publicly available information collected by the City; and
  • include information such as building owner, outstanding work orders, and property violations, if any.

This open data set, modelled after a similar searchable database in New York, had two explicit goals. It sought to both create an incentive for landlords to ensure their properties were in good order and become a resource to help inform renters about the condition of rental properties.

The result is the publication of a downloadable data set — updated nightly — and an online search tool on the city's website that shows outstanding work orders and property violations — such as issues relating to fire hazards, electrical wiring, plumbing problems or other maintenance issues — for all rental properties with five or more units.

The impacts of this one dataset can be measured on several levels.

First, from a sheer policy and communications perspective an interesting story becomes immediately apparent by looking at this data.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it turns out those most at risk of being homeless can expect to be in buildings with the most violations. Two thirds of SRO buildings — ones that rent out single-room apartments generally on a weekly basis — had outstanding violations compared to just 9 percent of non-SRO buildings. Worse, SRO with violations averaged about 26 different types per building. Non-SRO buildings with violations averaged about 3.4.

Second, it had an immediate impact on how governments responded to these problems.

The landlord with the most violations against its buildings was the province of British Columbia, which, as previously mentioned, owns a number of rental buildings. In contrast, the City of Vancouver, which runs 10 buildings, had no outstanding infractions. Aware of the impending publication of this data set the province announced $1 million to repair these outstanding issues. That is, $1 million to help ensure housing for those more at risk of becoming homeless is safe and livable. But what is interesting to me is how open data enabled a junior actor — the city — to gain leverage on a more powerful actor — the province — and encourage them to make investments that advanced a specific policy goal: addressing homelessness.

Bigger opportunities for savings

While getting the province to invest $1 million may not sound like a lot, it could have knock-on effects. According to this report in a local Vancouver newspaper, Vancouver's Fire-Rescue Services claim that firefighters responded to 150 incidents in 2012 alone at just one of the worst offending buildings cited in the database. This means that fire personnel were being deployed to just this address almost 3 times a week. The costs of this many incidents must be staggering. If resolving some of the outstanding issues even reduced the number of incidents by 20 percent, I suspect the city would experience material savings. Scale this up across several buildings and the savings could be very significant to the city.

How the data changed the city

One interesting side outcome of this project is that it is also changing the way the city "thinks" about the problem of inspections and infractions. Previously, the issues of infractions around electrical, fire, plumbing and gas, Standards of Maintenance and Building codes were all managed independently. These data sets still sit in separate silos — but I'm told that creating a merged data set has people in the city realizing that it is easier for the city to have a better handle on what is going on in a given property. This enhances the city's capacity to protect citizens, but also to coordinate inspections, alleviating the burden on landlords but also ensuring that problems that transcend any one issue can be looked at by all the inspectors involved. Here an open data set is helping the city get smarter by de-siloing how the city works.

Community Engagement

Finally, this data set seems to have captured the imagination of several local developers. Soon after its release one set of developers announced they are working on a mobile app, Vancouver RentalDog, that shows which buildings have violations. Another developer, Luke Closs, created a dashboard using the rental database data that highlighted the worst offending landlords, number of outstanding infractions and a variety of other information. For cities serious about making their city safe for renters such as dashboard - mounted in the city hall lobby - could be a powerful message. I of course, look forward to a day when the data from Vancouver can be integrated with padmapper or craigs list so that when you are looking at a posting for a rental apartment a tiny window is letting you know if there are issues with the building as well as possible the history of infractions.

What this means for open data

This project strikes me as a second generation open data initiative. In addition to just releasing the data, the City of Vancouver had specific policy objectives that transparency supported. I don't think this is a requirement for every data set, but I think it is encouraging to see politicians and policy makers thinking about how transparency and open data can not just be about disclosure but also about advancing policy objectives. It is too early to tell if this release will be a long term success, but the short term outcomes are very promising. Even more striking is how it is helping a community that may not even make use of the data directly.

I'm looking forward to seeing more "second generation" open data efforts where policy makers, increasingly comfortable with releasing data begin to see it more as a tool, and less as a compliance problem.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.