The city of Cape Town joined the likes of San Francisco, London and Barcelona yesterday when it formally adopted an open data policy which will see new troves of economic and civic data added to the city’s data portal. Plans dawn up in February were put to the vote and will come into immediate effect today.

While it’s not yet been decided exactly what the city will publish and when, a steering committee made up of politicians and members of the public will govern the process of selection and will fall under the jurisdiction of the department for Development Information and Geographical Informations Systems (DI&GIS). The policy lays out guidelines for protecting information subject to copyright and that which contains personal information, but encourages disclosure of economic, planning, environmental and infrastructure related data that currently sits on the city government intranet but is not available to the public.

Curiously, the ANC members of Cape Town parliament voted against the policy, and were censured by DA representatives for doing so.

In a public statement, the Mayoral Committee member for Corporate Services, Councillor Xanthe Limberg, said:

The City generates a significant amount of data that is potentially useful to residents. In the Information Age, making public sector data available allows us as government to tap into the creativity and innovative thinking of business and society.  This will help us build a better city and allow us to truly make progress possible together.

Open data is seen internationally as a key way to improve government transparency and accountability, and allow citizens and businesses to innovate and create employment around data sets collected by local authorities which they have already paid for through taxes. Examples of open data in action from around the world include numerous apps based on public transport maps and real-time tracking of buses and trains, government budget calculators which allow members of the public to monitor expenditure and suggest efficiencies, and weather data from the UK’s Met Office.

Open data activist and head of Code4SA, Adi Eyal, says that while he applauds the city’s new policy and describes it as “brave” he’d like to see it developed further.

“The problem with the draft policy was that it wasn’t an open data policy, it was more about creating an open data portal,” Eyal explains, “There’s no discussion about what licence data will be published under, and how you can store it or sell products that use it and so on.”

Eyal also expressed concern that the unless the policy draft has been updated – and the City hasn’t yet published the document that was adopted – it may actually slow down the publication of city data if the steering committee doesn’t meet often enough. Internationally, many cities have introduced policies which stipulate that all data should be published unless there’s a strong reason not to. The sticking point for the Cape Town policy, says Eyal, is that all data will only be published after it’s been requested by the public and that request has been reviewed by the steering committee. The steering committee is only be obliged to meet once every three months, and is unlikely to have time to deal with all requests.

“The heart is in the right place,” Eyal says, “But the City sees this primarily as an economic issue rather than one about transparency and civic engagement.”

By contrast, he says, the Western Cape is also reviewing an open data policy with more emphasis on timely publishing of as much data as possible.

“The province is taking the time to get to understand the principles of open data and find out what it means,” Eyal says, “That process is running too slowly for my liking, but may result in a better policy.”

[Image – Cape Town Long Exposure, CC 2.0 by Meraj Chhaya]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.