Monthly Archives: October 2010

Let's do an International Open Data Hackathon

Let’s do it.

Last summer, I met Pedro Markun and Daniela Silva at the Mozilla Summit. During the conversation – feeling the drumbeat vibe of the conference – we agreed it would be fun to do an international event. Something that could draw attention to open data.

A few weeks before I’d met Edward Ocampo-Gooding, Mary Beth Baker and Daniel Beauchamp at GovCamp Ottawa. Fresh from the success of getting the City of Ottawa to see the wisdom of open data and hosting a huge open data hackathon at city hall they were thinking “let’s do something international.” Yesterday, I tested the idea on the Open Knowledge Foundation’s listserve and a number of great people from around the world wrote back right away and said… “We’re interested.”

This idea has lots of owners, from Brazil to Europe to Canada, and so my gut check tells me, there is interest. So let’s take the next step. Let’s do it.

Why.

Here’s my take on three great reasons now is a good time for a global open data hackathon:

1) Build on Success: There are a growing number of places that now have open data. My sense is we need to keep innovating with open data – to show governments and the public why it’s serious, why it’s fun, why it makes life better, and above all, why it’s important. Let’s get some great people together with a common passion and see what we can do.

2) Spread the Word: There are many places without open data. Some places have developed communities of open data activists and hackers, others have nascent communities. In either case these communities should know they are not alone, that there is an international community of developers, hackers and advocates who want to show them material and emotional support. They also need to demonstrate, to their governments and the public, why open data matters. I think an global open data hackathon can’t hurt, and can make help a whole lot. Let’s see.

3) Make a Better World: Finally, there is a growing amount of global open data thanks to the World Bank’s open data catalog and its Apps for Development competition. The Bank is asking for developers to build apps that, using this data (plus any other data you want) will contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. No matter who, or where, you are in the world this is a cause I believe we can all support. In addition, for communities with little available open data, the bank has a catalog that might provide at least some that is of interest.

So with that all said, I think we should propose hosting a global open data hackathon that is simple and decentralized: locally organized, but globally connected.

How.

The basic premises for the event would be simple, relying on 5 basic principles.

1. It will happen on Saturday, Dec 4th. (after a fair bit of canvassing of colleagues around the world this seems to be a date a number can make work). It can be as big or as small, as long or as short, as you’d like it.

2. It should be open. Daniel, Mary Beth and Edward have done an amazing job in Ottawa attracting a diverse crowd of people to hackathons, even having whole families come out. Chris Thorpe in the UK has done similarly amazing work getting young and diverse group hacking. I love Nat Torkington’s words on the subject. Our movement is stronger when it is broader.

3. Anyone can organize a local event. If you are keen help organize one in your city and/or just participate add your name to the relevant city on this wiki page. Where ever possible, try to keep it to one per city, let’s build some community and get new people together. Which city or cities you share with is up to you as it how you do it. But let’s share.

4. You can hack on anything that involves open data. Could be a local app, or a global apps for development submission, scrape data from a government website and make it available in a useful format for others or create your own data catalog of government data.

5. Let’s share ideas across cities on the day. Each city’s hackathon should do at least one demo, brainstorm, proposal, or anything that it shares in an interactive way with at members of a hackathon in at least one other city. This could be via video stream, skype, by chat… anything but let’s get to know one another and share the cool projects or ideas we are hacking on. There are some significant challenges to making this work: timezones, languages, culture, technology… but who cares, we are problem solvers, let’s figure out a way to make it work.

Again, let’s not try to boil the ocean. Let’s have a bunch of events, where people care enough to organize them, and try to link them together with a simple short connection/presentation.Above all let’s raise some awareness, build something and have some fun.

What’s next?

1. If you are interested, sign up on the wiki. We’ll move to something more substantive once we have the numbers.

2. Reach out and connect with others in your city on the wiki. Start thinking about the logistics. And be inclusive. Someone new shows up, let them help too.

3. Share with me your thoughts. What’s got you excited about it? If you love this idea, let me know, and blog/tweet/status update about it. Conversely, tell me what’s wrong with any or all of the above. What’s got you worried? I want to feel positive about this, but I also want to know how we can make it better.

4. If there is interest let’s get a simple website up with some basic logo that anyone can use to show they are part of this. Something like the OpenDataOttawa website comes to mind, but likely simpler still, just laying out the ground rules and providing links to where events are taking place. Might even just be a wiki. I’ve registered opendataday.org, not wedded to it, but it felt like a good start. If anyone wants to help set that up, please let me know. Would love the help.

5. Localization. If there is bandwidth locally, I’d love for people to translate this blog post and repost it locally. (let me know as I’ll try cross posting it here, or at least link to it). It is important that this not be an english language only event.

6. If people want a place to chat with other about this, feel free to post comments below. Also the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Government mailing list is probably a good resource.

Okay, hopefully this sounds fun to a few committed people. Let me know what you think.

Rethinking Wikipedia contributions rates

About a year ago news stories began to surface that wikipedia was losing more contributors that it was gaining. These stories were based on the research of Felipe Ortega who had downloaded and analyzed millions the data of contributors.

This is a question of importance to all of us. Crowdsourcing has been a powerful and disruptive force socially and economically in the short history of the web. Organizations like Wikipedia and Mozilla (at the large end of the scale) and millions of much smaller examples have destroyed old business models, spawned new industries and redefined the idea about how we can work together. Understand how the communities grow and evolve is of paramount importance.

In response to Ortega’s research Wikipedia posted a response on its blog that challenged the methodology and offered some clarity:

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

This is actually quite fair. But the specifics are less interesting then the overall trend described by the Wikmedia Foundation. It’s worth noting that no open source or peer production project can grow infinitely. There is (a) a finite number of people in the world and (b) a finite amount of work that any system can absorb. At some point participation must stabilize. I’ve tried to illustrate this trend in the graphic below.

Open-Source-Lifecyclev2.0021-1024x606

As luck would have it, my friend Diederik Van Liere was recently hired by the Wikimedia Foundation to help them get a better understanding of editor patterns on Wikipedia – how many editors are joining and leaving the community at any given moment, and over time.

I’ve been thinking about Diederik’s research and three things have come to mind to me when I look at the above chart:

1. The question isn’t how do you ensure continued growth, nor is it always how do you stop decline. It’s about ensuring the continuity of the project.

Rapid growth should probably be expected of an open source or peer production project in the early stage that has LOTS of buzz around it (like Wikipedia was back in 2005). There’s lots of work to be done (so many articles HAVEN’T been written).

Decline may also be reasonable after the initial burst. I suspect many open source lose developers after the product moves out of beta. Indeed, some research Diederik and I have done of the Firefox community suggests this is the case.

Consequently, it might be worth inverting his research question. In addition to figuring out participation rates, figure out what is the minimum critical mass of contributors needed to sustain the project. For example, how many editors does wikipedia need to at a minimum (a) prevent vandals from destroying the current article inventory and/or at the maximum (b) sustain an article update and growth rate that sustains the current rate of traffic rate (which notably continues to grow significantly). The purpose of wikipedia is not to have many or few editors, it is to maintain the world’s most comprehensive and accurate encyclopedia.

I’ve represented this minimum critical mass in the graphic above with a “Maintenance threshold” line. Figuring out the metric for that feels like it may be more important than participation rates independently as such as metric could form the basis for a dashboard that would tell you a lot about the health of the project.

2. There might be an interesting equation describing participation rates

Another thing that struck me was that each open source project may have a participation quotient. A number that describes the amount of participation required to sustain a given unit of work in the project. For example, in wikipedia, it may be that every new page that is added needs 0.000001 new editors in order to be sustained. If page growth exceeds editors (or the community shrinks) at a certain point the project size outstrips the capacity of the community to sustain it. I can think of a few variables that might help ascertain this quotient – and I accept it wouldn’t be a fixed number. Change the technologies or rules around participation and you might make increase the effectiveness of a given participant (lowering the quotient) or you might make it harder to sustain work (raising the quotient). Indeed, the trend of a participation quotient would itself be interesting to monitor… projects will have to continue to find innovative ways to keep it constant even as the projects article archive or code base gets more complex.

3. Finding a test case – study a wiki or open source project in the decline phase

One things about open source projects is that they rarely die. Indeed, there are lots of open source projects out there that are the walking zombies. A small, dedicated community struggles to keep a code base intact and functioning that is much too large for it to manage. My sense is that peer production/open source projects can collapse (would MySpace count as an example?) but the rarely collapse and die.

Diederik suggested that maybe one should study a wiki or open source project that has died. The fact that they rarely do is actually a good thing from a research perspective as it means that the infrastructure (and thus the data about the history of participation) is often still intact – ready to be downloaded and analyzed. By finding such a community we might be able to (a) ascertain what “maintenance threshold” of the project was at its peak, (b) see how its “participation quotient” evolved (or didn’t evolve) over time and, most importantly (c) see if there are subtle clues or actions that could serve as predictors of decline or collapse. Obviously, in some cases these might be exogenous forces (e.g. new technologies or processes made the project obsolete) but these could probably be controlled for.

Anyways, hopefully there is lots here for metric geeks and community managers to chew on. These are only some preliminary thoughts so I hope to flesh them out some more with friends.

How the Globe Editorial Board is Misleading You About Journalism

It was completely fascinating to read the Globe and Mail’s editorial board crow over its “victory” last week regarding the protection of confidential news sources.

Standing up for newshounds!” screamed the headlines, with a bold opening paragraph proclaiming:

The Supreme Court of Canada demonstrated respect and understanding on Friday for news reporting that depends on confidential sources. It set an appropriately high bar for judges who may wish to order journalists to reveal those sources, in civil or criminal cases. The court has in effect given the organized news media the tools to do investigative journalism in the public interest. [Emphasis mine.]

Wow, organized media has been *given tools* to protect the public interest? Yes! (According to the G&M…) Well, if this is true… Cue self-congratulatory text that plays into the trope (and myth) that traditional news media is essential for democracy!

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court – again, according to the G&M – has ruled. Only journalists for the big news companies are real journalists that can enjoy the protection of the court.

This, if it were true, would be really big news. It might even justify such self-congratulatory rhetoric. The ruling however, is not this cut and dry. In truth, it provides no real new tools; the Globe‘s lawyers extracted little from the courts in the form of new protections; and the protections that do exist exist for everyone, not just journalists.

As a result, what is really disappointing about all this is that the Globe‘s editorial is at best misleading, attempting to lure Canadians into believing that traditional news media companies enjoy rights that are special and unique to them (and further, implies those rights are new). At worst, the piece suggests the editorial board clings to a world before the web – confined to an outdated worldview where “creators” who could legitimately report on or talk about the news were separated from “consumers” who passively absorb it. Previously, this worldview was made possible by the technology of the printing press, which kept production in the hands of a few; now that publishing is available to virtually anyone, the Globe‘s editorial board seems interested in finding a new way to limit this freedom – when they should be expanding it – by attempting to cast the law as a restrictive force whose benefits are enjoyed by only a few (them) and not everyone (us). It’s a dark perspective for the country’s leading editorial board to take.

Intrigued? I hope so, because what the ruling did say matters.

So what did the ruling say and what does it actually mean? Let’s look closer.

This Was a Draw, Not a Win.

Conversing with the eaves.ca legal team*, the consensus is that the ruling is a draw, not a win for the media. Very little has changed. Prior to the ruling, ascertaining if a confidential source deserved protection was up to the courts who used the four part Wigmore framework to make their assessment:

  1. the relationship must originate in a confidence that the source’s identity will not be disclosed;
  2. anonymity must be essential to the relationship in which the communication arises;
  3. the relationship must be one that should be sedulously fostered in the public interest; and
  4. the public interest served by protecting the identity of the informant must outweigh the public interest in getting at the truth.

Nothing about this case changes this framework. Courts, not the media, continue to determine if a source should be confidential, and the criteria have not changed. In short, the media has not been given “new” tools. Essentially the same tools as before apply.

Indeed, this case is at best a draw (albeit an important one) for the Globe‘s lawyers. This is because they were arguing for new and special rights, specifically the recognition that “the basis of the journalist-source privilege is a constitutional one.” In other words, they wanted to court to state that journalists have an inherent right to protect sources in the same way lawyers have a special solicitor-client privilege or medical doctors have doctor-patient confidentiality privilege. However, as the decision states:

the Court was unprepared “[t]o throw a constitutional immunity around the interactions of such a heterogeneous and ill-defined group of writers and speakers and whichever ‘sources’ they deem worthy of a promise of confidentiality and on whatever terms they may choose to offer it.”

Ouch. That’s not a victory, it’s outright defeat. Indeed, the court doesn’t even think journalists are a group with any unique rights as it:

also rejected the existence of a class-based privilege, on the basis that there is no formal accreditation or licensing process for journalists in place, as there is for lawyers for example, and no professional organization regulates the profession and maintains professional standards.

But that’s not it. On the fourth Wigmore criteria – the question of public interest – the Globe‘s lawyers also wanted the onus to shift to the party seeking production/testimony. In other words, to keep a source secret it shouldn’t be up to the Globe to persuade the courts that the story IS in the public interest, but up to the other party (person, corporation and government) to persuade the courts that it ISN’T in the public interest.

But the court did not agree with this request either:

The Court rejected this argument. Given that the evidence is presumptively compellable and admissible, the burden of persuasion remains on the media to show that the public interest in protecting a secret source outweighs the public interest in criminal investigations. The Court ultimately concluded that every claim to journalist-source privilege — be it in the face of testimonial compulsion or the production of documents — is situation specific, with the public’s interest in the freedom of expression always weighing heavily in the court’s balancing exercise. [my bold/italics]

Strike two.

So, to recap so far: First, the court has not made journalists a special class.  We all enjoy the rights to publish content and if that content were tested legally, the Wigmore framework would be applied to our sources. Second, the court essentially preserved the Wigmore test, so it has not “given media the tools”; it has simply preserved and reaffirmed the tools that already existed. Essentially the courts mostly sustained the status quo that existed before the lower court upset the apple cart.

I don’t want to belittle this outcome. This is an important victory for all Canadians as it preserves everyone’s ability to engage in investigative journalism if they so choose.

So what’s with the language in the Globe‘s editorial? Why claim a big victory and dump on bloggers? What you are really reading is a lot of spin. Which is part of what makes the editorial so frustrating – I hold the editorial board to a high standard, and I expect them to not spin stories, especially about themselves and a subject as serious as freedom of speech.

So let’s unpack that spin…

Mixed Messages

The first is the effort to qualify the victory.

As we previously saw, the Globe‘s lawyers argued that journalists should be a protected class and journalist-source relationships should enjoy constitutional protection. As we also saw, however, the Supreme Court did not agree. But look at the quote from the piece below:

“Bearing in mind the high societal interest in investigative journalism, it might be that he [Mr. Leblanc] could only be compelled to speak if his response was vital to the integrity of the administration of justice.” That is a high bar, indeed. The protection of sources should never be absolute, but the Quebec Superior Court will have to give it full consideration, in light of the important public interest at stake, when it ultimately decides the matter.

So first, the bar did not really move. Yes, the court overturned the lower court, but it essentially re-affirmed the Wigmore framework. Again, this is great news, but this is something preserved, not gained.

But more intriguing was the editorial board saying that the protection of sources should never be absolute. A constitutionally protected journalist-source relationship either is absolute, or if I understand it correctly, pretty close to absolute. So why say it shouldn’t be absolute when this is what your legal team was essentially asking for? One suspects that had the court given journalists a special, constitutionally protected relationship with sources (which really would have demanded a dramatic editorial) than the paper would have argued that the journalists sources had finally achieved the absolute protection they so richly deserve and need.

Burying the Lead

But what is particularly interesting about the Globe‘s editorial piece is its treatment of pretty much everyone who isn’t employed by the mainstream media. The entire framing of the piece is that this is a win for journalists and the media, even though the court goes out of its way to say they are not a protected or even recognized class.

Indeed the real story is that important rights that belong to all Canadians have been preserved! But that story is buried.

Rather, the Globe seems very keen to divide the country into two groups – creators (that’s them) and (passive) consumers (that’s you).  Coming back to the first quote from the piece, the Globe notes that.

In an era in which every blogger is a self-proclaimed journalist, the court clearly puts great stock in the organized media’s ability to probe behind the closed doors of powerful institutions.

In fact, the court does no such thing. First, the Wigmore framework applies to anyone who publishes. That would include people like myself who blog. That also means you (since really anyone can blog, or tweet, or publish something these days).

Second – and this is where it feels like the editorial board really misleads the public – the court did not put great stock in organized media. Indeed, if anything, it went out of its way to say it put very little stock in it.

The basis of the above line in the editorial is, I presume, this part of the ruling:

Justice Binnie put particular emphasis on the significance of the third and fourth factors [of the Wigmore framework], in the journalist-source context. The third factor, whether the relationship is one that the community should sedulously foster (para. 57), introduces a certain degree of flexibility in the evaluation of the different types of sources and different types of journalists. He suggested that whether the relationship is between a source and a blogger, or between a source and a professional journalist, will impact upon the court’s weighing exercise.

So yes, the credibility of the person will matter. But this also means a fly-by-night newspaper may not enjoy the same protection as an established blogger. But even here the wording is quite conservative – “a certain degree of flexibility” and the difference is “suggested.” This is all pretty qualified, and hardly a sign of the court putting “great stock” in established media.

Of course, what little there is gets watered down even further in the next line of the ruling:

But, according to Justice Binnie, the fourth factor [of the Wigmore framework] does the lion’s share of the work, and the court’s task is to “achieve proportionality in striking a balance among the competing interests” (para. 59).

So the public interest is what really matters – not who (e.g. blogger or newspaper) is seeking to preserve the confidentiality of the source.

In Conclusion

This piece is, in many way, a continuation to a piece I wrote in December after a previous Supreme Court ruling which the court went out of its way to put journalists, bloggers and citizens on a equal footing. In the same vein, my problem with the editorial board’s piece isn’t that they played up the significance of their victory – it is still an important victory. It’s that the piece suggests the victory is the (large) news industry’s to enjoy exclusively (or at least, that we ordinary citizens may only enjoy its benefits through them). This is not the case and it does a disservice to citizens, bloggers and journalists to suggest as such.

The Globe and Mail will likely have a long and illustrious reign as the newspaper of record of Canada – but that reign is more likely to continue if it provides credible insights into both the technological and legal realities of the digital world. This editorial suggests that it does not; and I believe that the country, and the paper, are weaker for it.


*Thank you for those who helped me with the legal legwork on this piece, and for those who’ve stuck through to the end; I know this is an unusually long post.

Not all Maclean’s Covers are Created (or Treated) Equal

Which one of these covers is more damning?

Macleans-Cover vs.  images

Now that a little time has passed I was reflecting on the controversy about the Maclean’s cover about Quebec as “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada” and remain amazed at the outcry it generated. It is stunning that Parliament took time out to condemn the cover. I don’t say this because I think the article is true. Let’s face it, Canada really isn’t that corrupt. In 2009 Transparency International ranked us as tied for 8th as the least corrupt country in the world. What is more interesting is that so many people felt it was in their interests to take seriously (or exploit) what was obvious link bait.

Indeed what made the outcry all the more fascinating was the a mere 2 years earlier Maclean’s called BC a “World Crime Superpower” and that elicited no response. No outcry from parliament… no screams of protest… Again, in the grand scheme of things claiming BC us a World Crime Superpower on par with countries like say Mexico, Afghanistan and Colombia feels, like a stretch. (Although the economic impact on BC of California decriminalization marijuana is fascinating topic)

Lots of reasons can account for the difference. Part of it may be that BCers frankly don’t care what the rest of the country – not to mention Maclean’s – think. It’s also possible the BCers have less of a sense of common identity – especially one sensitive to how the central Canada describes it. It may also be a reflection of how political power doesn’t always flow with demographics or even opportunity. Today there are few seats to be won in Quebec – the bloc is entrenched and unlikely to move. making a big stink probably isn’t going to change one’s fortunes. In contrast, in BC, vast swaths of the province are up for grabs for all the parties (save the Bloc) – defending the honour of BC might actually yield something. And then, of course, all the parties may not be interested in condemning the Superpower of Crime label – a real, or imagined – creates a mega-crime menace in BC that would play well with a party interested in finding kingpins to fill the empty prisons it plans to build. Perhaps not coming to BCs defense is the shrewd move for some (although one is left wondering, where were the others?).

I think what is most interesting though is that it suggests that for all of the past challenges Quebec has had regarding being in Canada, it is an activist member of the dominion, both in its politics and in its populace. Quebecers seem to care what the rest of the country thinks and they’ll sharpen their elbows and let themselves be heard if necessary. In short, they’ll play in the game. BC has never cared to separate, but sometimes it feels like the province the least part of the dominion. Federal politics don’t get much play in BC, its provincial politicians rarely play the federal game (well) and its population is usually oblivious to what goes on east of the Rockies. Hence the irony of a province that has at times wanted out still cares so much, and a province that defined the country by asking to come in, cares so little.

Or maybe it’s just all a fun note about the fun country we live in and how old stereotypes sometimes send us into a tizzy… and sometimes not.

The Open Data Debate Arrives in Ottawa

The Liberals are promising to create an open data portal – opendata.gc.ca – much like President Obama has done in the United States and both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have done in the United Kingdom.

It’s a savvy move.

In May 2010 when it launched a public consultation on the Digital Economy, the government invited the public to submit proposals and vote on them. Two of the top three most voted ideas involved asking the government to open up access to government collected data. Three months after the submissions have closed it appears the opposition has decided to act on Canadians wishes and release a 21st century open government strategy that reflects these popular demands.

Today, at 1pm EST, I’ve discovered the Liberals will announce that, if elected, they will adopt a government-wide directive in which “the default position for all departments and agencies will be for the release of information to the public, both proactively and responsively, after privacy and other legal requirements are met.”

There is much that both ordinary citizens and advocates of greater government transparency will like in the proposal. Not only have the Liberals mirrored the most aggressive parts of President Obama’s transparency initiatives they are also promising some specific and aggressive policies of their own. In addition to promising to launching opendata.gc.ca to share government data the document proposes the creation of accesstoinformation.gc.ca where citizens could search past and current access to information requests as well as see response times. A third website, entitled accountablespending.gc.ca is also proposed. It would allow government grants, contributions and contracts to be searched.

The announcement brings to the Canadian political debate an exciting issue that first gained broad notoriety in early 2009 when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, called on the world’s governments to share their data. By May of that year the United States launched data.gov and in September of 2009 the British Government launched data.gov.uk both of which garnered significant domestic attention. In addition, dozens of cities around the world – including Vancouver, Edmonton and, most recently, Ottawa – have launched websites where they shared information that local charities, non-profits, businesses and ordinary citizens might find useful.

Today, citizens in these jurisdictions enjoy improved access to government information about the economy, government spending, access to information requests, and statistical data. In the United States developers have created websites that empower citizens by enabling them to analyze government data or see what government data exists about their community while a British program alerts citizens to restaurant’s health inspections scores.  The benefit however, not limited to improved transparency and accountability. An independent British estimated that open data could contribute as much as £6 billion to British economy. Canada’s computer developers, journalists and entrepreneurs have been left wondering, when will their government give them access to the data their tax dollars paid to collect?

One obvious intent of the Liberals is to reposition themselves at the forefront of a debate around government transparency and accountability. This is ground that has traditionally been Conservative, but with the cancellation of the long form census, the single source jet fighter contract and, more recently, allegations that construction contracts were awarded to conservative party donors, is once again contestable.

What will be interesting to see is the Conservative response. It’s been rumored the government has explored an open data portal but to date there has been no announcement. Open data is one area where, often, support exists across the political spectrum. In the United Kingdom Gordon Brown’s Labour government launched data.gov.uk but David Cameron’s Conservative government has pursued the project more aggressively still, forcing the release of additional and higher value data to the public. A failure to adopt open data would be tragedy – it would cause Canada to lag in an important space that is beginning to reshape how governments work together and how they serve and interact with citizens. But perhaps most obviously, open data and open government shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Congratulations to Naheed & other fabulous people

(On a separate note, I’m giving a talk tomorrow at 3pm at UBC.)

For those who weren’t paying attention to the Calgary municipal election last night, Naheed Nenshi came out of third place and won the mayoral race. Of course, the articles are already focusing on the wrong things: he’s Muslim, his a minority, etc…

What really matters about Naheed is that he smart, he is about ideas and he’s progressive. That he’s managed to capture the imagination of a place like Calgary speaks volumes both about how hard he campaigned and how cosmopolitan Canada’s urban centres are becoming.

But back to ideas. I first met Naheed way back when he served as lead author of Building Up: Making Canada’s Cities Magnets for Talent and Engines of Development for Canada25. Essentially for as long as I’ve known him he’s cared about cities (and his passion predates my meeting him). There isn’t much more you could want from someone who is about to become your mayor. For me personally, his work became the template for me later when I worked as lead author first on Canada25’s report written at the request of the Privy Council Office and then, of course, on From Middle to Model Power.

It also speaks volumes about the types of people I had the pleasure to meet through Canada25 and watch grow over the years. Indeed, yesterday I ended up having lunch with Chris Kennedy – another Canada25 alum – who as Superintendent of Schools with the West Vancouver School District is also driven by a sense of public service and policy. Alison Loat, Executive Director of Samara, is another passionate believer in public service and public policy. I’m not sure whether to be more impressed by her own work or simply grateful for her unfailing belief and support of me and my work. And Andrew Medd, who gave me what may have become the best advice about blogging when I first started eaves.ca years ago: “Write for yourself, as though no one will read it.” (advice that actually was fact for the first while – you should only blog if you’re prepared to be alone with your thoughts). Of course there are so many I’m not mentioning like Ross Wallace, Debbie Chachra, Mike Morgan…

Watching the celebrations taking place in Calgary, all I can think of is how lucky I was to get to meet some of these people early on and how much I can’t wait to watch them going forward.

On a separate note, it is very much worth looking at MasterMaq’s election website powered by open election data from the city of Edmonton. From Naheed’s election (in which social media paid a powerful role), to the coverage through Twitter (that’s how I followed the events), social media continues to evolve and have an impact, especially at the local level.

The Social Network and the real villains of the old/new economy

The other week I finally got around to watching The Social Network. It’s great fun and I recommend going out and watching it whether you’re a self-professed social media expert or don’t even have a Facebook account.

Here are some of my thoughts about the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

1. Remember this is a Hollywood movie: Before (or after) you watch it, read Lawrence Lessig’s fantastic critique of the movie. This review is so soundly brilliant and devastating I’m basically willing to say, if you only have 5 minutes to read, leave my blog right now and go check it out. If you are a government employee working on innovation, copyright or the digital economy, I doubly urge you to read it. Treble that if you happen to be (or work for) the CIO of a major corporation or organization who (still) believes that social media is a passing phase and can’t see its disruptive implications.

2. It isn’t just the legal system that is broken: What struck me about the movie wasn’t just the problems with the legal system, it was how badly the venture capitalists come off even worse. Here is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help support and enable entrepreneurs and yet they’re directing lawyers to draft up contracts that screw some of the original founders. If the story is even remotely true it’s a damning and cautionary tale for anyone starting (or looking to expand) a company. Indeed, in the movie the whole success of Facebook and the ability of (some) of the owners to retain control over it rests on the fact that graduates of the first internet bubble who were screwed over by VCs are able to swoop in and protect this second generation of internet entrepreneurs. Of course they – played by Sean Parker (inventor of Napster) – are parodied as irresponsible and paranoid.

One thought I walked away with was: if, say as a result of the rise of cloud computing, the costs of setting up an online business continue to drop, at a certain point the benefits of VC capital will significantly erode or their value proposition will need to significantly change. More importantly, if you are looking to build a robust innovation cluster, having it built on the model that all the companies generated in it have the ultimate goal of being acquired by a large (American) multinational doesn’t seem like a route to economic development.

Interesting questions for policy makers, especially those outside Silicon Valley, who obsess about how to get venture capital money into their economies.

3. Beyond lawyers and VCs, the final thing that struck me about the movie was the lack of women doing anything interesting. I tweeted this right away and, of course, a quick Google search reveals I’m not the only one who noticed it. Indeed, Aaron Sorkin (the film’s screenwriter) wrote a response to questions regarding this issue on Emmy winner Ken Levine’s blog. What I noticed in The Social Network is there isn’t a single innovating or particularly positive female character. Indeed, in both the new and old economy worlds shown in the film, women are largely objects to be enjoyed, whether it is in the elite house parties of Harvard or the makeshift start-up home offices in Palo Alto. Yes, I’m sure the situation is more complicated, but essentially women aren’t thinkers – or drivers – in the movie. It’s a type of sexism that is real, and in case you think it isn’t just consider a TechCrunch article from the summer titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” in which the author, Michael Arrington, makes the gobsmacking statement:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

Really? This is a country (the United States) where women start businesses at twice the rate of men and where 42% of all businesses are women owned? To say that women don’t want to be entrepreneurs is so profoundly stupid and incorrect it perfectly reflects the roles women are shoveled into in The Social Network. And that is something the new economy needs to grapple with.