Hacking the City

By Joey Coleman

Let’s take a drive. Start in the city of your choice. Your destination? Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. You’ve never been to Hamilton and have decided to see it for yourself.

Let’s assume we’re riding an imaginary highway that isn’t the QEW. On this imaginary highway, you’re able to enjoy the scenery of beautiful modern cities as you travel. (Not being the QEW, we can also imagine not being stuck in a parking lot)

You arrive on the outskirts of Hamilton to discover a highway sign in a decrepit state, hanging by a single bolt, dangling in the wind, showing worn paint, and with the faint outline of letters “We com t Ham lt n”. As you stare at this post-apocalyptic sign, you think: is this Hamilton?

Would we as citizens tolerate our road signs being in such poor condition? Would we not act and mobilize a community clean-up?

The city’s website, www.hamilton.ca, is the road sign in this allegory and it is time for a community clean-up. Let’s call it Website Crawl. (And no, I’m not paying royalties, Matt Jelly)

We cannot tolerate a city website that turns away investment, that turns away visitors, and makes our city seem populated by digital cavemen. On the “information superhighway” (to use digital caveman terminology), our website is the post-apocalyptic city with the off-ramp everyone avoids.

It’s time to fix our decrepit city website.

Municipalities model their websites upon the organizational structure of how government thinks of itself, rather than how citizens use government services. People don’t think of the splash pad in their local park as a “public work” but they’d better start to if they want to find such information on the current city website.

This needs to change. A useful city website is structured for citizens, not bureaucrats.

City Councillors have discussed hiring consultants to build a new website, with a figure of $1,000,000 tossed out by one Councillor at a recent General Issues Committee meeting. While it wasn’t clear if billing for morning muffins was included in that cost, what is sure is that high-priced consultants are not the solution to the problem. They will return a closed source custom proprietary website, which can’t be worse than the current website, but won’t be better.

Waiting over a year for a high-cost non-solution is unacceptable. The road sign needed to be fixed last year.

Council passed a motion on March 24, 2010 directing staff to “review the City’s existing web site and prepare a report respecting the total redevelopment of the web site.” The review continues over 18 months later.

The time for action is now. Open Hamilton, our local open data community, is acting to build a new City of Hamilton website powered by the community, maintained by the community, and responsive to the community.

We’re going to hold a series of “hackfests” this winter to create an entirely open source City of Hamilton website focused upon empowering neighbourhoods and informing citizens of what’s happening in their city.

We’ll do simple things like making bus schedules available in mobile friendly formats. At present, you can’t access bus schedules from most smartphones as they are old-style PDFs. We’ll do complex things such as adding GeoIP capabilities to the site to allow for customized homepages based upon the locations of the computer accessing hamilton.ca – if you’re in Ancaster, you’ll land on a page focused on your community, and if you’re visiting from overseas, you’ll be shown a page of information about Hamilton with the option to translate to your country’s language.

We’ll save the city over $1,000,000 dollars, get a better website that truly reflects the great strengths of our city, and finally fix the decrepit image that our city’s horrible website creates.

Building a city website is a community effort. No matter your skill set, your contribution is valuable.

Visit www.openhamilton.ca to join the effort.

JOEY COLEMAN is Hamilton’s premier mobile, independent journalist, with his camera and phone always at hand. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoeyColeman.

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