Monthly Archives: September 2011

Insite: Evidence, compassion and effectiveness overcome fear and reactiveness

I’m so deeply pleased to hear that the Supreme Court has ordered the federal government to allow Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site, to stay open. While on one level the case was about a battle of powers between the provincial and federal government – does health policy trump criminal law – at a deeper level it was a case about evidence based public policy. The question was, when lives are at stake and people will die as a result of a policy choice, can ideology trump evidence?

The answer, for now, is no.

Thank god.

It is great to know that data, analysis, evidence, along with compassion and effectiveness can overcome fear and closed mindedness.

For those unfamiliar with Insite, it is a needle injection site, where heroine users can use drugs under the supervision of a nurse. There has not been one death at the injection site since its opening in 2003 (unlike on the streets), and the facility reduces the spread of AIDS and other diseases, puts users in contact with the health system where they are more likely to ask for help and get into detox, as well as takes pressure off (and reduces costs) the regular medical system, in particular ambulatory services and the emergency room. In Vancouver, it is a measure that has support across the spectrum, from the left to the right.

To read more on the Supreme Court ruling it can be found here. My friend DR points out that paragraph 140 is particularly relevant. It is in this piece that the court discusses how the government may set policy, but it cannot do so in a way that violates Canadians “right to life.” Removing access to Insite diminishes greatly the prospect of an addict to not only live, but to find the help they need and so meets that test:

[139]                     Canada submits that exempting Insite from the prohibitions in the CDSA “would effectively turn the rule of law on its head by dictating that where a particular individual breaks the law with such frequency and persistence that he or she becomes unable to comply with it, it is unconstitutional to apply the law to that person” (A.F., at para. 101).  Canada raises the spectre of a host of exempt sites, where the country’s drug laws would be flouted with impunity.

[140]                     The conclusion that the Minister has not exercised his discretion in accordance with the Charter in this case, is not a licence for injection drug users to possess drugs wherever and whenever they wish.  Nor is it an invitation for anyone who so chooses to open a facility for drug use under the banner of a “safe injection facility”.  The result in this case rests on the trial judge’s conclusions that Insite is effective in reducing the risk of death and disease and has had no negative impact on the legitimate criminal law objectives of the federal government.  Neither s. 56 of the CDSA nor s. 7 of the Charter require condonation of crime.  They demand only that, in administering the criminal law, the state not deprive individuals of their s. 7 rights to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that violates the principles of fundamental justice.

There will be lots of coverage on this. I’ve already linked to the Globe article above. It also appears Maclean’s will be writing quite a it on this (good for them) as they have had some truly excellent and disturbing coverage on this issue in the past.

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Slovak Republic
South Africa
United Kingdom
United States


Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)


*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Canada Joins the Open Government Partnership

I’m in New York today for the launch of the Open Government Partnership and it looks as the Canada is now a signatory (or at least has signed a letter of intent).

No commitments are outlined, but I will link to them when they are posted.

The Open Government Partnership was launched by the White House and the State Department earlier this year with 8 founding countries. The goal is to get a coalition of governments around the world to commit to implementing a series of initiatives to improve government transparency, effectiveness and accountability. You can read more here.

For those interested, the launch of the event will be livestreamed here. If you’re at the event, I’ll be hosting the lunch on “How to identify and prioritize core classes of information for public disclosure.”

Updated: here’s a video…

Neo-Progressive Watch: Rahm Emanuel vs. Teachers Union

Anyone who read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope will have been struck with the amount of time the then aspiring presidential candidate spent writing about public education policy. More notably, he seemed to acknowledge that any effort at education reform was, at some point, going to butt heads with teachers unions and that new approaches were either going to have to be negotiated or imposed. It was a point of tension that wasn’t much talked about in the reviews I read. But it always struck me as interesting that here was Obama, a next generation progressive, railing against the conservatism of what is possible the original pillar of the progressive movement: public education.

All of this has, of course, been decidedly forgotten given both the bigger problems the president has faced and by the fact that he’s been basically disinterested in monkeying around in public education policy since taking office. That’s why it is still more fascinating to see what his disciples are doing as they get involved in levels of government that are in more direct contact with this policy area. Here, none is more interesting to watch than Rahm Emanuel.

This Saturday my friend Amy L. pointed me to a New York Times article outlining the most recent battle between Rahm Emanuel and the teacher’s union. My own take is that the specifics of the article are irrelevant, what matters is the broad theme. In short, Rahm Emanuel is on a short timeline. He needs to produce results immediately since local elections both happen more frequently and one is much, much closer to the citizen. That said, he doesn’t have to deliver uniform results, progress, in of itself may be sufficient. Indeed, a little experimentation is profoundly good given it can tease out faster and cheaper ways to deliver said results.

In contrast, the teacher’s union faces few of the pressures experienced by Rahm. It can afford to move at a slower pace and, more importantly, wants a uniform level of treatment across the entire system. Indeed, its entire structure is built around the guarantee of uniform treatment for its members. This uniformity is a value that evolved parallel to but not of progressive thinking. It is an artifact of industrial production that gets confused with progressive thought because of the common temporal lineage.

This skirmish offers a window into the major battle that is going to dominate the our politics in about a decade. I increasingly suspect we are moving into a world where the possibilities for education, thanks to the web and social networks, is going to be completely altered. What we deem is possible, what parents demand, and the skills that are seen as essential, are all going to shift. Our educational system, its schools, the school boards and, of course, the unions, are still bound in a world of mass production – shifting students from room to room to prepare them for the labour and production jobs of the 20th century. No matter how gifted the teachers (and there are many who are exceedingly gifted) they remain bound by the structure of the system the education system, the school boards, and the unions, have built and enforce.

Of course, what is going to be in demand are students that can thrive in the world of mass collaboration and peer production in the 21st century -behaviours that are generally viewed as “cheating” in the current model. And parents who are successful in 21st century jobs are going to be the first to ensure their children get the “right” kind of education. Which is going to put them at odds with the current education system.

This is all this is to say that the real question crisis is: how quickly will educational systems be able to adapt? Here both the school boards and the unions play an enormous role, but it is the unions that, it would appear, may be a constraining factor. If they find that having Rahm engage schools directly feels like a threat, I suspect they are going to find the next 20 years a rough, rough ride. Something akin to how the newspapers have felt regarding the arrival of the internet and craigslist.

What terrifies me most, is that unless we can devise a system where teachers are measured and so good results can be both rewarded and shared… and where parents and students have more choices around education, then families (that can afford to) are going to vote with their feet. In fact, you already see it in my home town.

The myth in Vancouver is that high property values are driving families – and thus children – out of the city. But this is patently not true. The fantastic guys over at Bing Thom Architects wrote a report on student populations in Vancouver. According to their research, in the last 10 years the estimated number of elementary and secondary aged children in Vancouver has risen by 3% (around 2,513 new students). And yet, the number of students enrolled in public education facilities has declined by 5.46%. (around 3,092 students). In fact, the Vancouver School Boards numbers seem to indicate the decline may be more pronounced.

In the meantime the number of private/independent schools has exploded by 43% going from 39 to 68 with enrollment increases of 13.8%. (Yes that does leave a surplus of students unaccounted for, I suspect they are also in private/independent schools, but outside of the City of Vancouver’s boundaries). As a public school graduate myself, one who had truly fantastic teachers but who also benefited from enormous choice (IB, French Immersion) the numbers of the past decade are very interesting to immerse oneself in.

Correct or incorrect, it would seem parents are opting for schools that offer a range of choices around education. Of course, it is only the parents who can afford to do this that are doing it. But that makes the outcome worse, not better. With or without the unions, education is going to get radically rethought. It would be nice if it was the public sector that lead that revolution, or at least was on the vanguard of it. But if our public sector managers and teachers are caught arguing over how to adjust the status quo by increments, it is hard to see how our education policy is going to make a quantum leap into the 21st century.

Interview with Charles Leadbeater – Monday September 19th

I’m excited to share that I’ll be interviewing British public policy and open innovation expert Charles Leadbeater on September 19th as part of a SIG’s webinar series. For readers not familiar with Charles Leadbeater, he is the author of We-Think and numerous other chapters, pamphlets and articles, ranging in focus from social innovation, to entrepreneurship to public sector reform. He served as an adviser to Tony Blair and has a long standing relationship with the British think tank Demos.

Our conversation will initially focus on open innovation, but I’m sure will range all over, touching on the impact of open source methodologies on the private, non-profit and public sector, the future of government services and, of course, the challenges and opportunities around open data.

If you are interested in participating in the webinar you can register here. There is a small fee I’m told is being charged to recover some of the costs for running the event.

If you are participating and have a question you’d like to see asked, or a theme or topic you’d like to see covered, please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer more discretion, send me an email.

Research Request – Transit Study

After writing yesterday’s post on the economics of opendata and transit I’ve really been reflecting on a research question that emerged in the piece: Does having transit data embedded in Google Maps increase ridership?

My hypothesis is that it would… but I did some googling on the topic and couldn’t find anything written on the subject, not to mention something that had been rigorously researched and would stand up to peer review. This leads me to believe it could be a great research project. I willing to bet that some transit authorities, and Google would be of enormously interested in the results.

Obviously there are a number of variables that might impact public transit ridership: budgets, fleet size growth or cutbacks, the economy, population growth, etc… That said, I’m sure there is someone out there who could think of a methodology that would account for these factors and still allow us to tell if becoming available in Google Maps impact’s a city’s ridership levels.

The helpful thing is that there are lots of data points to play with. A brief scan of the public transit feed lists suggests that there are roughly 150 cities that provide Google with GTFS data of the transit schedule. That’s a lot of cities to play with and would allow a study to offset regional variations. I’m also confident that each of the transit authorities mentioned in the list publicly publish their ridership levels (or they could be FOIAed/ATIPed)

If anyone has done this study, please let me know, I’d love to know more. If no, and someone is interested in doing this study, please go for it! I’m definitely happy to offer whatever support I can.

The Economics of Open Data – Mini-Case, Transit Data & TransLink

TransLink, the company that runs public transit in the region where I live (Vancouver/Lower Mainland) has launched a real time bus tracking app that uses GPS data to figure out how far away the next the bus you are waiting for really is. This is great news for everyone.

Of course for those interested in government innovation and public policy it also leads to another question. Will this GPS data be open data?

Presently TransLink does make its transit schedule “open” under a non-commercial license (you can download it here). I can imagine a number of senior TransLink officials (and the board) scratching their head asking: “Why, when we are short of money, would we make our data freely available?”

The answer is that TransLink should make its current data, as well as its upcoming GPS data, open and available under a license that allows for both non-commercial and commercial re-use, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because the economics of it make WAY MORE SENSE FOR TRANSLINK.

Let me explain.

First, there are not a lot of obvious ways TransLink could generate wealth directly from its data. But let’s take two possible opportunities: the first involves selling a transit app to the public (or advertising in such an app), the second is through selling a “next bus” service to companies (say coffee shops or organizations) that believe showing this information might be a convenience to their employees or customers.

TransLink has already abandoned doing paid apps – instead it maintains a mobile website at – but even if it created an app and charged $1 per download, the revenue would be pitiful. Assuming a very generous customer base of 100,000 users, TransLink would generate maybe $85,000 dollars (once Apple takes its cut from the iPhone downloads, assuming zero cut for Androids). But remember, this is not a yearly revenue stream, it is one time. Maybe, 10-20,000 people upgrade their phone, arrive in Vancouver and decide to download every year. So your year on year revenue is maybe $15K? So over a 5 year period, TransLink ends up with an extra, say $145,000 dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, but not notable.

In contrast a free application encourages use. So there is also a cost to not giving it away. It could be that, having transit data more readily available might cause some people to choose taking transit over say, walking, or taking a taxi or driving. Last year TransLink handled 211.3 million trips. Let’s assume that more accessible data from wider access to the data meant there was a .1% increase in the number of trips. An infinitesimally small increase – but it means 211,300 more trips. Assuming each rider pays a one zone $2.50 fare that would still translate in an additional revenue of $528,250. Over the same five year period cited above… that’s revenue of $2.641M, much better than $145,000. And this is just calculating money. Let’s say nothing of less congested roads, less smog and a lower carbon footprint for the region…

When the this analysis is applied to licensing data it produces the same result. Will UBC pay to have TransLink’s real time data on terminals in the Student Union building? I doubt it. Would some strategically placed coffee shops… possibly. Obviously organizations would have to pay for the signs, but adding on annual “data license fee” to display’s cost would cause some to opt out. And once you take into account managing the signs, legal fees, dealing with the contract and going through the sales process, it is almost inconceivable that TransLink would make more money from these agreements than it would from simply having more signs everywhere created by other people that generated more customers for its actual core business: moving people from A to B for a fee. Just to show you the numbers, if shops that weren’t willing to pay for the data put up “next bus” screens that generated a mere 1000 new regular bus users who did only 40 one way trips a year (or 40,000 new trips), this would equal revenue of $100,000 every year at no cost to translink. Someone else could install and maintain the signs, no contracts or licenses would need to be managed.

From a cost recovery perspective it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where TransLink is better off not allowing commercial re-use of its data.

My point is that TransLink should not be focused on creating a few bucks from licensing its data (which it doesn’t do right now anyway). It should be focused on shifting the competitive value in the marketplace from access to accessibility.

Being the monopoly holder of transit data does not benefit TransLink. All it means is that fewer people see and engage with its data. When it makes the data open and available “access” no longer becomes the defining advantage. When anybody (e.g. TransLink, Google, independent developers) can access the data, the market place shifts to competing on access to competing on accessibility. Consumers don’t turn to who has the data, they turn to who makes the data easiest to use.

For example, Translink has noted that in 2011 it will have a record number of trips. Part of me wonders to what degree the increase in trips over the past few years is a result of making transit data accessible in Google Maps. (Has anyone done a study on this in any jurisdiction?) The simple fact is that Google maps is radically easier to use for planning transit journeys than Translink’s own website AND THAT IS A GOOD THING FOR TRANSLINK. Now imagine if lots of companies were sharing translink’s data? The local Starbucks and Blenz Coffee, to colleges and universities and busy buildings downtown. Indeed, the real crime right now is that Translink has handed Google a defacto monopoly. It is allowed to use the data for commercial re-use. Local tax-paying developers…? Not so according to the license they have to click through.

Translink, you want a world where everyone is competing (including against you) on accessibility. In the end… you win with greater use and revenue.

But let me go further. There are other benefits to having Translink share its data for commercial re-use.


Some riders will note that there are already bus stops in Vancouver which display “next bus” data (e.g. how many minutes away the next bus is). If TransLink made its next bus data freely available via an API it could conceivably alter the procurement process for buying and maintaining these signs. Any vendor could see how the data is structured and so take over the management of the signs, and/or experiment with creating more innovative or cheaper ways of manufacturing them.

The same is true of creating the RFP for TransLink’s website. With the data publicly available, TransLink could simple ask developers to mock up what they think is the most effective way of displaying the data. More development houses might be enticed to respond to the RFP increasing the likelihood of innovations and putting downward pressure of fees.


Of course, making GPS data free could have an additional benefit. Local news companies might be able to use the bus’s GPS data to calculate traffic flow rates and so predict traffic jams. Might they be willing to pay TransLink for the data? Maybe, but again probably not enough to justify the legal and sales overhead. Moreover, TransLink would benefit from this analysis – as it could use the reports to adjust its schedule and notify its drivers of problems beforehand. Of course everyone would benefit as well as better informed commuters might change their behaviour (including taking transit!) reducing congestion, smog, carbon footprint, etc…

Indeed, the analysis opportunities using GPS data are potentially endless – much of which might be done by bloggers and university students. One could imagine correlating actual bus/subway times with any other number of data sets (crime, commute times, weather) that could yield interesting information that could help TransLink with its planning. There is no world where TransLink has the resources to do all this analysis, so enabling others to do it, can only benefit it.


So if you are at TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company (or any transit authority in the world), this post is for you. Here’s what I suggest as next steps:

1) Add GPS bus tracking API to your open data portal.

2) Change your license. Drop the non-commercial part. It hurts your business more than you realize and is anti competitive (why does can Google use the data for a commercial application while residents of the lower mainland cannot?). My suggestion, adopt the BC Government Open Government License or the PDDL.

3) Add an RSS feed to your GTFS data. Like Google, we’d all like to know when you update your data. Given we live here and are users, it be nice to extend the same service to us as you do them.

4) Maybe hold a Transit Data Camp where you could invite local developers and entrepreneurs to meet your staff and encourage people to find ways to get transit data into the hands of more Lower Mainlanders and drive up ridership!