Monthly Archives: July 2011

The End of the World and Journalism in the Era of Open

For those not in the United Kingdom a massive scandal has erupted around allegations that one of the country’s tabloids – the News of the World ( a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) – was illegally hacking into and listening in on the voicemails of not only the royal family members and celebrities but also murder victims and family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The fall out from the scandal, among other things, has caused the 168 year old newspaper to be unceremoniously closed, prompted an enormous investigation into the actions of editors and executives at the newspaper, forced the resignation (and arrest) of Andy Coulson – former News of the World editor and director of communications for the Prime Minister – and thrown into doubt Rupert Murdoch’s bid to gain complete control over the British satellite television network BskyB.

For those wanting to know more I encourage you to head over to the Guardian, which broke the story and has done some of the best reporting on it. Also, possibly the best piece of analysis I’ve read on the whole sordid affair is this post from reuters which essentially points out that by shutting down News of the World, Newscorp may shrewdly ensure that all incriminating documents can (legally) be destroyed. Evil genius stuff.

But why bring this all up here at

Because I think this is an example of a trend in media that I’ve been arguing has been going on for some time.

Contrary to what news people would have you believe, my sense is that most people don’t trust newspapers – no more so then they trust governments. Starting in 1983 Ipsos MORI and the British Medical Association have asked UK citizens who they trust. The results for politicians are grim. The interesting thing is, they are no better for journalists (although TV news anchors do okay). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the data tables from Ipsos MORI. Or look at the chart Benne Dezzle over at Viceland created out of the data.

There is no doubt people value the products of governments and the media – but this data suggests they don’t trust the people creating them, which I really think is a roundabout way of saying: they don’t trust the system that creates the news.

I spend a lot of my time arguing that government’s need to be more transparent, and that this (contrary to what many public servants feel) will make them more, not less, effective. Back in 2009, in reaction to the concern that the print media was dying, I wrote a blog post saying the same was true for journalism. Thanks, in part, to Jay Rosen listing it as part of his flying seminar on the future of news, it became widely read and ended up as getting reprinted along with Taylor Owen and I’s article Missing the Link, in the journalism textbook The New Journalist. Part of what I think is going in the UK is a manifestation of the blog post, so if you haven’t read it, I think now is as good a time as any.

The fact is, newsrooms are frequently as opaque (both in process and, sometimes, in motivations) as governments are. People may are willing to rely on them, and they’ll use them if their outputs are good, but they’ll turn on them, and quickly, if they come to understand that the process stinks. This is true of any organization and news media doesn’t get a special pass because of the job it plays – indeed the opposite may be true. But more profoundly I think it is interesting how what many people consider to be two of the key pillars to western democracy are staffed by people who are among the least trusted in our society. Maybe that’s okay. But maybe it’s not. But if we think we need better forms of government – which many people seem to feel we do – it may also be that we believe we need better ways of generating, managing and engaging in the accountability of that government.

Of course, I don’t want to overplay the situation here. News of the World doomed itself because it broke the law. More importantly, it did so in a truly offensive way: hacking into the cell phone of a murder victim who was an everyday person. Admitedly, when the victims were celebrities, royals and politicians, it percolated as a relatively contained scandal. But if we believe that transparency is the sunlight that causes governments to be less corrupt – or at least forces politicians to recognize their decisions will be more scrutinized – maybe a little transparency might have caused the executives and editors at News Corp to behave a little better as well. I’m not sure what a more open media organization might look like – although wikipedia does an interesting job – but from both a brand protection and values based decision making perspective a little transparency could be the right incentive to ensure that the journalists, editors and executives in a news system few of us seem to trust, behave a little better. And that might cause them to earn more of the trust I think many deserve.







Lots of Open Data Action in Canada

A lot of movement on the open data (and not so open data) front in Canada.

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Open Data Portal Launched

IATI-imagesSome readers may remember that last week I wrote a post about the imminent launch of CIDA’s open data portal. The site is now live and has a healthy amount of data on it. It is a solid start to what I hope will become a robust site. I’m a big believer – and supporter of the excellent advocacy efforts of the good people at Engineers Without Borders – that the open data portal would be greatly enhanced if CIDA started publishing its data in compliance with the emerging international standard of the International Aid Transparency Initiative as these 20 leading countries and organizations have.

If anyone creates anything using this data, I’d love to see it. One simple start might be to try using the Open Knowledge Foundation’s open source Where Does my Money Go code, to visualize some of the spending data. I’d be happy to chat with anyone interested in doing this, you can also check out the email group to find some people experienced in playing with the code base.

Improved License on the CIDA open data portal and

One thing I’ve noticed with the launch of the CIDA open data portal was how the license was remarkably better than the license at – which struck me as odd, since I know the feds like to be consistent about these types of things. Turns out that the license has been updated as well and the two are identical. This is good news as some of the issues that were broken with the previous license have been fixed. But not all. The best license out there remains the license at (that’s a trick question, because has no license, it is all public domain! Tricky eh…? Nice!) but if you are going to have a license, the UK Open Government License used by at is more elegant, freer and satisfies a number of the concerns I cite above and have heard people raise.

So this new license is a step in the right direction, but still behind the open gov leaders (teaching lawyers new tricks sadly takes a long time, especially in government).

Great site, but not so open data: WellBeing Toronto

Interestingly, the City of Toronto has launched a fabulous new website called Well Being Toronto. It is definitely worth checking out. The main problem of course is that while it is interesting to look at, the underlying data is, sadly, not open. You can’t play with the data, such as mash it up with your own (or another jurisdiction’s) data. This is disappointing as I believe a number of non-profits in Toronto would likely find the underlying data quite helpful/important. I have, however, been told that the underlying data will be made open. It is something I hope to check in on again in a few months as I fear that it may never get prioritized, so it may be up to Torontonians to whold the Mayor and council’s feet to the fire to ensure it gets done.

Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) launches (non-open) data website

It seems the PBO is also getting in on the data action with the launch of a beta site that allows you to “see” budgets from the last few years. I know that the Parliamentary Budget Office has been starved of resources, so they deserve to be congratulated for taking this first, important step. Also interesting is that the data has no license on the website, which could make it the most liberally licensed open data portal in the country. The site does have big downsides. First, the data can only be “looked” at, there is no obvious (simple) way to download it and start playing with it. More oddly still the PBO requires that users register with their email address to view the data. This seems beyond odd and actually, down right creepy, to me. First, parliament’s budget should be free and open and one should not need to hand over an email address to access it. Second, the email addresses collected appear to serve no purpose (unless the PBO intends to start spamming us), other than to tempt bad people to hack their site so they can steal a list of email addresses.

Why not create an Open311 add-on for Ushahidi?

This is not a complicated post. Just a simple idea: Why not create an Open311 add-on for Ushahidi?

So what do I mean by that, and why should we care?

Many readers will be familiar with Ushahidi, non-profit that develops open source mapping software that enables users to collect and visualize data in interactive maps. It’s history is now fairly famous, as the Wikipedia article about it outlines: “’ (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) is a website created in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election (see 2007–2008 Kenyan crisis) that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map.[2]“Ushahidi’s mapping software also proved to be an important resource in a number of crises since the Kenyan election, most notably during the Haitian earthquake. Here is a great 2 minute video on How how Ushahidi works.

ushahidi-redBut mapping of this type isn’t only important during emergencies. Indeed it is essential for the day to day operations of many governments, particularly at the local level. While many citizens in developed economies may be are unaware of it, their cities are constantly mapping what is going on around them. Broken infrastructure such as leaky pipes, water mains, clogged gutters, potholes, along with social issues such as crime, homelessness, business and liquor license locations are constantly being updated. More importantly, citizens are often the source of this information – their complaints are the sources of data that end up driving these maps. The gathering of this data generally falls under the rubric of what is termed 311 systems – since in many cities you can call 311 to either tell the city about a problem (e.g. a noise complaint, service request or inform them about broken infrastructure) or to request information about pretty much any of the city’s activities.

This matters because 311 systems have generally been expensive and cumbersome to run. The beautiful thing about Ushahidi is that:

  1. it works: it has a proven track record of enabling citizens in developing countries to share data using even the simplest of devices both with one another and agencies (like humanitarian organizations)
  2. it scales: Haiti and Kenya are pretty big places, and they generated a fair degree of traffic. Ushahidi can handle it.
  3. it is lightweight: Ushahidi technical footprint (yeap making that up right now) is relatively light. The infrastructure required to run it is not overly complicated
  4. it is relatively inexpensive: as a result of (3) it is also relatively cheap to run, being both lightweight and leveraging a lot of open source software
  5. Oh, and did I mention IT WORKS.

This is pretty much the spec you would want to meet if you were setting up a 311 system in a city with very few resources but interested in starting to gather data about both citizen demands and/or trying to monitor newly invested in infrastructure. Of course to transform Ushahidi into a process for mapping 311 type issues you’d need some sort of spec to understand what that would look like. Fortunately Open311 already does just that and is supported by some of the large 311 providers system providers – such as Lagan and Motorola – as well as some of the disruptive – such as SeeClickFix. Indeed there is an Open311 API specification that any developer could use as the basis for the add-on to Ushahidi.

Already I think many cities – even those in developing countries – could probably afford SeeClickFix, so there may already be a solution at the right price point in this space. But maybe not, I don’t know. More importantly, an Open311 module for Ushahidi could get local governments, or better still, local tech developers in developing economies, interested in and contributing to the Ushahidi code base, further strengthening the project. And while the code would be globally accessible, innovation and implementation could continue to happen at the local level, helping drive the local economy and boosting know how. The model here, in my mind, is OpenMRS, which has spawned a number of small tech startups across Africa that manage the implementation and servicing of a number of OpenMRS installations at medical clinics and countries in the region.

I think this is a potentially powerful idea for stakeholders in local governments and startups (especially in developing economies) and our friends at Ushahidi. I can see that my friend Philip Ashlock at Open311 had a similar thought a while ago, so the Open311 people are clearly interested. It could be that the right ingredients are already in place to make some magic happen.