Why Edmonton newcomer David Rauch decided to start an open-data movement
A confusing rock-sculpture mushroom garden set it all in motion.
David Rauch lives near the glittery stone garden in front of an apartment complex in Queen Mary Park. “The world should know about this,” thought Rauch, an Edmonton newcomer who moved from DeKalb, Ill., in December 2013. “I shouldn’t be the only one.”
A strategic analyst in the City of Edmonton’s urban planning and environment branch, Rauch thought the same thing during conversations with colleagues in which he would learn about interesting art scattered throughout his new city. “People would say, ‘Oh, have you seen the house with a castle and turret on it, the one with knights and cannons?’”
Some people might simply sit and wonder what other art is out there. But with an interest in technology and citizen engagement, Rauch decided to go a few steps further and launch OpenArtYEG, a project to crowd-source and map public art in the Edmonton region, in September 2014.
It’s an initiative of Open Edmonton, a group Rauch co-founded that’s made up of civic-minded volunteers interested in using technology to improve the public good. The art-mapping project is based on the idea that residents know their neighbourhood gems best, just like Rauch knew about that mushroom garden. Why not spread that local knowledge?
After tapping into the wisdom of the crowd to locate the strange and beautiful, the pieces will be compiled on a map, which should be ready in early 2015. The map is expected to contain more than 700 pieces of art, a compilation of about 350 public submissions alongside existing lists of art from the Edmonton Arts Council, The Works, the University of Alberta, Strathcona County and the provincial government.
For Rauch, the project aligns with his core philosophy. “I won’t reinvent the wheel,” he says. “I take something that works really well elsewhere and adapt it to here. I love projects that are imminently actionable.”
That credo has served him well. After living in Edmonton for less than six months, Rauch launched OpenPianoYEG, following a project he had seen in other cities. He organized volunteers to paint and place seven pop-up pianos in public spaces throughout the city.
The idea for Open Edmonton came from a similar group — Code for America — with which Rauch was involved when he lived in the United States. And he’s working on an oral history project called In Your Own Words with the Edmonton Public Library’s makerspace. It’s an Edmonton version of StoryCorps, an American project helping people record each other’s stories.
It helps, too, that Rauch lives in a city of makers. “For every project I’ve done, I’ve found not just supporters, but people who want to own the project,” Rauch says. He has sought help from Make Something Edmonton, a local resource for people creating all sorts of projects.
Chris Gusen, marketing and communications specialist at Make Something Edmonton, has been impressed by Rauch’s boundless energy and ability to “get things done really quickly.”
“He’s doing so many different things and is always so excited,” Gusen says. “He’s never daunted by the challenges.” In the case of the piano project, challenges included navigating the liability-insurance market and dealing with Edmonton’s weather (“I had no idea it snowed here in May,” Rauch says).
His newcomer’s view of Edmonton, along with his skill set in open data, has inspired many of Rauch’s projects. He admits there is also some self-interest involved. When he moved to Edmonton, Rauch did not own a piano and would play the one at City Hall. “I thought if I could put pianos outside, I could play whenever I wanted,” he says.
Rauch moved to Edmonton after his girlfriend, a dual citizen and former graphic designer, started work towards her master’s degree in organic chemistry at the University of Alberta. He was in the midst of his own career switch, returning to school for a master’s degree in public administration after years of working in journalism, covering local government and working as a photojournalist for newspapers outside of Chicago. He researched his master’s project using the City of Edmonton’s open data, knowing he was planning to move to the city.
Photography by Adam Goudreau
Expect Rauch’s future projects to follow his proven formula: A mix of ideas that have worked in other cities, technology, citizen engagement, and a touch of selfishness. Rauch plans to launch a map of bike racks and bike thefts in the city in spring 2015 — a project inspired, in part, by the recent theft of his bike. He later learned others had also had their bikes stolen from the same parkade where his bike was taken. “It’s easier now, more than ever before, to document these collective experiences people have,” Rauch says.
So far, documenting those experiences has helped Rauch connect with his new city and those who call it home. He marvels at the unexpected results, such as a YouTube video of a homeless man playing a piano Rauch placed in Churchill Square. As of February, it had been viewed 5.4 million times. “That was absolutely crazy,” Rauch says. “Whenever you do projects, the ultimate sign of success is that others connect with it.”