Monthly Archives: April 2011

Just a Click Away Keynote Slides

A little over two months ago I gave a keynote at the Just a Click Away Conference in Vancouver. The conference was a gathering for legal information and education experts – for example the excellent people that provide legal aid. My central challenge to them was thinking about how they could further collapse the transaction costs around getting legal assistance and/or completing common legal transactions.

I had a great time at the event and it was a real pleasure to meet Allan Seckel – the former head of British Columbia’s public service. I was deeply impressed by his comments and commitment to both effective and open government. As one of the key forces behind the Citizens at the Centre report he’s pushed a number of ideas forward that I think other governments should be paying attention to.

So, back to the presentation… I’ve been promising to get my slides from the event up and so here they are:

Why Does Election Canada Hate Young People?

This weekend the New York Times had an interesting article about how the BBC and other major media organizations are increasingly broadcasting new television episodes simultaneously around the world. The reason? The internet. Fans in the UK aren’t willing to wait months to watch episodes broadcast in the United States and vice versa. Here a multi-billion dollar industry, backed by copyright legislation, law enforcement agencies, and the world’s most powerful governments and trade organizations is recognizing a simple fact: people want information, and it is increasingly impossible to stop them from sharing and getting it.

Someone at Elections Canada should read the article.

Last week Elections Canada took special care to warn Canadian citizens that they risked $25,000 fines if they posted about election results on social network sites before all the polls are closed. Sadly, Election Canada’s approach to the rise of new internet driven technologies speaks volumes about its poor strategy for engaging young voters.

The controversy centers around Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act which prohibits transmitting election results before polling stations have closed. The purpose of the law is to prevent voters on the west coast from being influenced by outcomes on the east coast (or worse, choosing not to vote at all if the election has essentially be decided). Today however, with twitter, facebook and blogs, everybody is a potential “broadcaster.”

Westerner may have a hard time sympathizing with Election Canada’s quandary. It could simply do the equivalent to what the BBC is doing with its new TV shows: not post any results until after all the voting booths had closed. This is a much simpler approach then trying to police and limit the free speech of 10 million Canadian social media users (and to say nothing of the 100s of millions of users outside of Canada who do not fall under its jurisdiction).

More awkwardly, it is hard to feel that the missive wasn’t directed at the very cohort of Election’s Canada is trying to get engaged in elections: young people. Sadly, chastising and scaring the few young people who want to talk about the election with threats of fines seems like a pretty poor way to increase this engagement. If voting and politics is a social behaviour – and the evidence suggests that it is – then you are more likely to vote and engage in politics if you know that your friends vote and engage in politics. Ironically, this might make social media might be the best thing to happen to voting since the secret ballot. So not only is fighting this technology a lost cause, it may also be counter productive from a voter turnout perspective.

Of course, based on the experience many young voters I talk to have around trying to vote, none of this comes as a surprise.

In my first two Canadian elections I lived out of the country. Both times my mail in ballot arrived after the election and were thus ineligible. During the last election I tried to vote at an advanced poll. It was a nightmare. It was hard to locate on the website and the station ended up being a solid 15 minute walk away any of the three nearest bus routes. Totally commute time? For someone without a car? Well over an hour and a half.

This are not acceptable outcomes. Perhaps you think I’m lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe that if you want people to vote – especially in the age of a service economy – you can’t make it inconvenient. Otherwise the only people who will vote will be those with means and time. That’s hardly democratic.

Besides, it often feels our voting infrastructure was essentially built by and for our grandparents. Try this out. In the 1960’s if you were a “young person” (e.g 20-30) you were almost certainly married and had two kids. You probably also didn’t move every 2 years. In the 60’s the average marriage age was 24 for men, 20 for women. Thinking in terms of the 1950s and 60s: What were the 3 institutions you probably visited on a daily basis? How about A) the local community centre, B) the local elementary school, and C) the local church.

Now, if you are between the age of 20 and 35 or under, name me three institutions you probably haven’t visited in over a decade.

Do young people not vote because they are lazy? Maybe. But they also didn’t have a voting system designed around them like their grandparents did. Why aren’t their voting booths in subway stations? The lobbies of office towers? The local shopping mall? How about Starbucks and Tim Hortons (for both conservatives and liberals)? Somewhere, anywhere, where people actually congregate. Heaven forbid that voting booths be where the voters are.

The fact is our entire voting structure is anti-young people. It’s designed for another era. It needs a full scale upgrade. Call it voting 2.0 or something, I don’t care. Want young people to vote? Then build a voting system that meets their needs, stop trying to force them into a system over a half century old.

We need voting that embraces the internet, social networks, voters without cars and voters that are transient.  These changes alone won’t solve the low voter turn out problem overnight, but if even 5% more young people vote in this election, the parties will take notice and adapt their platforms accordingly. Maybe, just maybe, it could end up creating a virtuous circle.

Back to Reality: The Politics of Government Transparency & Open Data

A number of my friends and advocates in the open government, transparency and open data communities have argued that online government transparency initiatives will be permanent since, the theory goes, no government will ever want to bear the political cost of rolling it back and being perceived as “more opaque.” I myself have, at times, let this argument go unchallenged or even run with it.

This week’s US budget negotiations between Congress and the White House should lay that theory to rest. Permanently.

The budget agreement that has emerged from most recent round of negotiations – which is likely to be passed by congress –  slashes funding to an array of Obama transparency initiatives such as USASpending, the ITDashboard, and data.gov from $34M to $8M. Agree or disagree, Republicans are apparently all too happy to kill initiatives which make the spending and activities of the US government more transparent as well as create a number of economic opportunities around open data. Why? Because they believe it has no political consequences.

So unsurprisingly, it turns out that political transparency initiatives – even when they are online – are as bound to the realities of traditional politics as dot.com’s were bound by the realities of traditional economics. It’s not enough to get a policy created or an initiative launched – it needs to have a community, a group of interested supporters, to nurture and protect it. Otherwise, it will be at risk.

Back in 2009, in the lead up to the drafting and launching of Vancouver’s Open Data motion I talked about creating an open-government bargain. Specifically, I argued that:

..in an open city, a bargain must exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfill its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so too must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

Some friends countered that open data and transparency should simply exist because it is the right thing to do. I don’t disagree – and I wish we lived in a world where the existence of this ideal was sufficient enough to guarantee these initiatives. But it isn’t sufficient. It’s easy to kill something that no one uses (or in the case of data.gov, that hasn’t been given enough time to generate a vibrant user base). It’s much, much harder to kill something that has a community that uses it, especially if that community and the products it creates are valued by society more generally. This is why open data needs users, it needs developers, think tanks and above all, the media, to take interest in it and to leverage it to create content. It’s also why I’ve tried to create projects like Emitter.ca, recollect.net, taxicity and others, because the more value we create with open data for everyone, the more secure government transparency policies will be.

It’s use it or risk losing it. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s the best defense I can think of.

Canadian Real Estate Association Talk and Slides

A few months ago the Canadian Real Estate Association’s (CREA) board invited me to speak to their board about open/platform strategies and the future of the real estate industry. Last week I was invited back to give a similar talk at their annual general meeting in Ottawa.

I had a great time at both conferences and was impressed with how both the leadership and membership were trying to come to grips with the rapidly changing environment of their industry. I’m also impressed and grateful that they invited me – someone whose perspective they knew would challenge them – and that they engaged my ideas so openly.

A number of CREA members have asked if I would share my slide deck, so I’ve done so below.

Also posted below is the graphic facilitation created by the very talented Avril Orloff who drew these while I was giving my talk!

Disruptive_Change.legal_

Developing Community Management Metrics and Tools for Mozilla

Background – how we got here

Over the past few years I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can improve both the efficiency of open source communities and contributors experience. Indeed, this was the focus, in part, of my talk at the Mozilla Summit last summer. For some years Diederik Van Liere – now with the Wikimedia foundation’s metrics team – and I have played with Bugzilla data a great deal to see if we could extract useful information from it. This led us to engaging closely with some members of the Mozilla Thunderbird team – in particular Dan Mosedale who immediately saw its potential and became a collaborator. Then, in November, we connected with Daniel Einspanjer of Mozilla Metrics and began to imagine ways to share data that could create opportunities to improve the participation experience.

Yesterday, thank’s to some amazing work on the part of the Mozilla Metrics team (listed at bottom of the post), we started sharing some of work at the Mozilla all hands. Specifically, Daniel demoed the first of a group of dashboards that describe what is going on in the Mozilla community, and that we hope, can help enable better community management. While these dashboards deal with the Mozilla community in particular I nonetheless hope they will be of interest to a number of open source communities more generally. (presently the link is only available to Mozilla staffers until the dashboard goes through security review – see more below, along with screen shots – you can see a screencast here).

Why – the contributor experience is a key driver for success of open source projects

My own feeling is that within the Mozilla community the products, like Firefox, evolve quickly, but the process by which people work together tends to evolve more slowly. This is a problem. If Mozilla cannot evolve and adopt new approaches with sufficient speed then potential and current contributors may go where the experience is better and, over time, the innovation and release cycle could itself cease to be competitive.

This task is made all the more complicated since Mozilla’s ability to fulfill its mission and compete against larger, better funded competitors depends on its capacity to tap into a large pool of social capital – a corps of paid and unpaid coders whose creativity can foster new features and ideas. Competing at this level requires Mozilla to provide processes and tools that can effectively harness and coordinate that energy at minimal cost to both contributors and the organization.

As I discussed in my Mozilla Summit talk on Community Management, processes that limit the size or potential of our community limit Mozilla. Conversely, making it easier for people to cooperate, collaborate, experiment and play enhances the community’s capacity. Consequently, open source projects should – in my opinion – constantly be looking to reduce or eliminate transactions costs and barriers to cooperation. A good example of this is how Github showed that forking can be a positive social contribution. Yes it made managing the code base easier, but what it really did was empower people. It took something everyone thought would kill open source projects – forking – and made it a powerful tool of experimentation and play.

How – Using data to enable better contributor experience

Unfortunately, it is often hard to quantitatively asses how effectively an open source community manages itself. Our goal is to change that. The hope is that these dashboards – and the data that underlies them – will provide contributors with an enhanced situational awareness of the community so they could improve not just the code base, but the community and its processes. If we can help instigate a faster pace of innovation of change in the processes of Mozilla, then I think this will both make it easier to improve the contributor experience and increase the pace of innovation and change in the software. That’s the hope.

That said, this first effort is a relatively conservative one. We wanted to create a dashboard that would allow us to identify some broader trends in the Mozilla Community, as well as provide tangible, useful data to Module Owners – particularly around identifying contributors who may be participating less frequently.


This dashboard is primarily designed to serve two purposes. First is to showcase what dashboards could be with the hope of inspiring the Mozilla community members to use it and, more importantly, to inspire them to build their own. The second reason was to provide module owners with a reliable tool with which to more effective manage their part of the community.  So what are some of the ways I hope this dashboard might be helpful? One important feature is the ability to sort contributors by staff or volunteer. An open source communities volunteer contributors should be a treasured resource. One nice things about this dashboard is that you can not only see just volunteers, but you can get a quick sense of those who haven’t submitted a patch in a while.

In the picture below I de-selected all Mozilla employees so that we are only looking at volunteer contributors. Using this view we can see who are volunteers who are starting to participate less – note the red circle marked “everything okay?” A good community manager might send these people an email asking if everything is okay. Maybe they are moving on, or maybe they just had a baby (and so are busy with a totally different type of patch – diapers), but maybe they had a bad experience and are frustrated, or a bunch of code is stuck in review. These are things we would want to know, and know quickly, as losing these contributors would be bad. In addition, we can also see who are the emerging power contributors – they might be people we want to mentor, or connect with mentors in order to solidify their positive association with our community and speed up their development. In my view, this should be core responsibilities of community managers and this dashboard makes it much easier to execute on these opportunities.

main-dasboard-notes
Below you can see how zooming in more closely allows you to see trends for contributors over time. Again, sometimes large changes or shifts are for reasons we know of (they were working on features for a big release and its shipped) but where we don’t know the reasons maybe we should pick up the phone or email this person to check to see if everything is okay.

user-dashboard-notes

Again, if this contributor had a negative experience and was drifting away from the community – wouldn’t we want to know before they silently disappeared and moved on? This is in part the goal.

Some of you may also like the fact that you can dive a little deeper by clicking on a user to see what specific patches that user has worked on (see below).

User-deep-dive1

Again, these are early days. My hope is that other dashboards will provide still more windows into the community and its processes so as to show us where there are bottlenecks and high transaction costs.

Some of the features we’d like to add to this or other dashboards include:

  • a code-review dashboard that would show how long contributors have been waiting for code-review, and how long before their patches get pushed. This could be a powerful way to identify how to streamline processes and make the experience of participating in open source communities better for users.
  • a semantic analysis of bugzilla discussion threads. This could allow us to flag threads that have become unwieldy or where people are behaving inappropriately so that module owners can better moderate or problem solve them
  • a dashboard that, based on your past bugs and some basic attributes (e.g. skillsets) informs newbies and experienced contributors which outstanding bugs could most use their expertise
  • Ultimately I’d like to see at least 3 core dashboards – one for contributors, one for module owners and one for overall projects – emerge and, as well as user generated dashboards developed using Mozilla metrics data.
  • Access to all the data in Bugzilla so the contributors, module owners, researchers and others can build their own dashboards – they know what they need better than we do

What’s Next – How Do I Get To Access it and how can I contribute

Great questions.

At the moment the dashboard is going through security review which it must complete before being accessible. Our hope is that this will be complete by the end of Q2 (June).

More importantly, we’d love to hear from contributors, developers and other interested users. We have a standing weekly call every other Friday at 9am PST where we discuss development issues with this and the forthcoming code-review dashboard, contributors needs and wanted features, as well as use cases. If you are interested in participating on these calls please either let me know, or join the Mozilla Community Metrics Google group.

Again, a huge shout out is deserved by Daniel Einspanjer and the Mozilla Metrics team. Here is a list of contributors both so people know who they are but also in case anyone has question about specific aspects of the dashboard:
Pedro Alves – Team Lead
Paula Clemente – Dashboard implementor
Nuno Moreira – UX designer
Maria Roldan – Data Extraction
Nelson Sousa – Dashboard implementor

City of Vancouver Wins Top Innovator Award from BC Business

To be clear, this is not top innovator among governments, this is top innovator among all organizations – for-profit, non-profit and government – in the province.

You can see the award write up here.

As the article states, Vancouver Open-Data initiative “floored the [judging] panel.” Indeed, one panellist stated: “I have never seen a municipality open to new ideas in my life. When was the last time any level of government said, Here are our books; fill your boots?”

Back in October BC Business asked me to write a think piece explaining open data, I ended up penning this piece entitled “The Difference Data Makes”. It fantastic to see the business community recognizing the potential of open data and how it could transform both the way government works, and the opportunities it poses for the private and non-profit organizations as well as citizens.

It’s a great data for the City of Vancouver and for Open Data.

Calgary Launches Business Plan and Budget App

So this is interesting. The City of Calgary has launched a Business Plan & Budget app for free from iTunes.

It’s a smart move as it creates an easy, “one button” option for citizens to participate in and learn about the city’s financial planning process. You can read (a tiny bit) more at the City of Calgary’s blog.

Looking more closely at the app, it doesn’t offer a huge amount but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Consolidating all the information into a single place and making it available to people on the go is a great starting point. Secondly, it is worth remembering that this is just a starting point – there is obviously lots to be learned about how to engage citizens online – especially using mobile technology. If this is done right, Calgary will be learning these lessons first, which means their 2nd and 3rd generation versions of the app and the process will be more sophisticated while others are left catching up (think of Apple and the iPad).

So while the app is fairly light on features today… I can imagine a future where it becomes significantly more engaging and comprehensive, using open data on the data and city services to show maps of where and how money is spent, as well as post reminders for in person meet ups, tours of facilities, and dial in townhall meetings. The best way to get to these more advanced features is to experiment with getting the lighter features right today. The challenge for Calgary on this front is that it seems to have no plans for sharing much data with the public (that I’ve heard of), it’s open data portal has few offerings and its design is sorely lacking. Ultimately, if you want to consult citizens on planning and the budget it might be nice to go beyond surveys and share more raw data and information with them, it’s a piece of the puzzle I think will be essential. This is something no city seems to be tackling with any gusto and, along with crime data, is emerging as a serious litmus test of a city’s intention to be transparent.

The possibilities that Calgary’s consultation app presents are exciting – and again it is early days – so it will be interesting if developers in Calgary and elsewhere can begin to figuring out how to easily extend and enhance this type of approach. Moreover, it’s nice to see a city venturing out and experimenting with this technology, I hope other cities will not just watch, but start experiments of their own, it’s the best way to learn.