Monthly Archives: January 2012

Like me, Canadians prefer Patriots over Giants this sunday (or so says Google data)

After a rough bought of food poisoning… I’m back.

For some random reasons I got a PR notice from the people at APEX communications in Toronto who Google insights to see which of the two Superbowl NFL teams Canadians were searching for more.

So… okay, just Canadians searched more for the Patriots doesn’t mean that they prefer them but as a hard core parts fan, that’s what I’m choosing to believe. It was, nonetheless, a great reminder that I should be checking out Google Insights more. I have, for example, noticed that the Globe and Mail has been using Google searches as a proxy for assessing the popularity of NDP leadership candidates. Going to try to think of a couple of interesting search querries I should set up… For example, I wonder how often people are searching for Open Government or Gov 2.0 and in which jurisdictions…

Go Pats!

Algorithmic Regulation Spreading Across Government?

I was very, very excited to learn that the City of Vancouver is exploring implementing a program started in San Francisco in which “smart” parking meters adjust their price to reflect supply and demand (story is here in the Vancouver Sun).

For those unfamiliar with the program, here is a breakdown. In San Francisco, the city has the goal of ensuring at least one free parking spot is available on every block in the downtown core. As I learned during the San Fran’s presentation at the Code for America summit, such a goal has several important consequences. Specifically, it reduces the likelihood of people double parking, reduces smog and greenhouse gas emissions as people don’t troll for parking as long and because trolling time is reduced, people searching for parking don’t slow down other traffic and buses as they drive around slowly looking for a spot. In short, it has a very helpful impact on traffic more broadly.

So how does it work? The city’s smart parking meters are networked together and constantly assess how many spots on a given block are free. If, at the end of the week, it turns out that all the spaces are frequently in use, the cost of parking on that block is increased by 25 cents. Conversely if many of the spots were free, the price is reduced by 25 cents. Generally, each block finds an equilibrium point where the cost meets the demand but is also able to adjust in reaction to changing trends.

Technologist Tim O’Reilly has referred to these types of automated systems in the government context as “algorithmic regulation” – a phrase I think could become more popular over the coming decade. As software is deployed into more and more systems, the algorithms will be creating market places and resource allocation systems – in effect regulating us. A little over a year ago I said that contrary to what many open data advocates believe, open data will make data political – e.g. that open data wasn’t going to depoliticize public policy and make it purely evidenced base, quite the opposite, it will make the choices around what data we collect more contested (Canadians, think long form census). The same is also – and already – true of the algorithms, the code, that will increasingly regulate our lives. Code is political.

Personally I think the smart parking meter plan is exciting and hope the city will consider it seriously, but be prepared, I’m confident that much like smart electrical meters, an army of naysayers will emerge who simply don’t want a public resource (roads and parking spaces) to be efficiently used.

It’s like the Spirit of the West said: Everything is so political.

Public Servants Self-Organizing for Efficiency (and sanity) – Collaborative Management Day

Most of the time, when I engage with or speak to federal public servants, they are among the most eager to find ways to work around the bureaucracy in which they find themselves. They want to make stuff happen, and ideally, to make it happen right and more quickly. This is particularly true of younger public servants and those below middle management in general (I also find it is often the case of those at the senior levels, who often can’t pierce the fog of middle management to see what is actually happening).

I’m sure this dynamic is not new. In large bureaucracies around the world the self-organizing capacity of public servants have forever been in a low level guerrilla conflict against the hierarchies that both protect but also restrain them. What makes all this more interesting today however, is never before have public servants had more independent capacity to self-organize and never before have the tools at their disposal been more powerful.

So, for those who live in work in Ottawa who’d like to learn some of the tools public servants are using to better network and get work done across groups and ministries, let me point you to “Collaborative Management Day 2012.” (For those of us who aren’t public servants, that link, which directs into GCPEDIA won’t work – but I’m confident it will work for insiders). To be clear, it’s the ideas that are batted around at events like this that I believe will shape how the government will work in the coming decades. Much like the boomers created the public service of today in the 1960’s, millennials are starting to figure out how to remake it in a world of networks, and diminished resources.

Good luck guys. We are counting on you.

Details:

When: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Canada Aviation and Space Museum, 11 Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON or via Webcast

Cost: Free! Seats are limited; registration is required for attendance.

The GCPedia community defines collaboration as being “a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals—for example, an intellectual endeavour that is creative in nature—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.” And this is exactly what the Collaborative Culture Camp (GOC3) will teach you to achieve at the next Collaborative Management Day on January 25, 2012.

This free event will offer you a day of workshops and learning sessions that will help you:

  • Expand your knowledge and use of collaborative tools and culture
  • Develop an awareness of alternative processes that deliver results
  • Understand how to foster an environment of openness and transparency
  • Develop networks to support the application of new tools

At the end of the day you will be able to bring a collaborative toolkit back to your organization to share with your employees and colleagues!

Keep up to date on the event by keeping an eye on our GCPedia pages and by following us on Twitter (@GOC_3) and watching the #goc3 conversation (no account needed to check out the conversation!).

Questions? Concerns? Feedback? Feel free to email the event organizers or leave a message on our Discussion page on GCPedia.

My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Attached below is my submission to the Open Government Consultation conducted by Treasury Board over the last couple of weeks. There appear to be a remarkable number of submission that were made by citizens, which you can explore on the Treasury Board website. In addition, Tracey Lauriault has tracked some of the submissions on her website.

I actually wish the submissions on the Government website were both searchable and could be downloaded in there entirety. That way we could re-organize them, visualize them, search and parse them as well as play with the submissions so as to make the enormous number of answers easier to navigate and read. I can imagine a lot of creative ways people could re-format all that text and make it much more accessible and fun.

Finally, for reference, in addition to my submission I wrote this blog post a couple months ago suggesting goals the government set for itself as part of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Happily, since writing that post, the government has moved on a number of those recommendations.

So, below is my response to the government’s questions (in bold):

What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.

FINDING DATA:

My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.

More specifically, what works includes:

1. Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
2. Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc…) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
3. Preview: Once I choose a data set I’m given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
4. Social: Here there is a ton on offer
– I’m able to sort data sets by popularity – being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
– Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I’m more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
– Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
– Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
5. Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one’s skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.

USING DATA

Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.

Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API’s into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here – http://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ – product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.

Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn’t going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.

More importantly, and missing from Socrata’s sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation – such as the NPRI – are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.

 

How would you use or manipulate this data?

I’m already involved in a number of projects that use and share government data. Among those are Emitter.ca – which maps and shares NPRI pollution data and Recollect.net, which shares garbage calendar information.

While I’ve seen dramatically different uses of data, for me personally, I’m interested mostly in using data for thinking and writing about public policy issues. Indeed, much has been made of the use of data in “apps” but I think it is worth noting that the single biggest use of data will be in analysis – government officials, citizens, academics and others using the data to better understand the world around them and lobby for change.

This all said, there are some data sets that are of particular usefulness to people, these include:

1. Data sets on sensitive issues, this includes health, inspection and performance data (Say surgery outcomes for specific hospitals, or restaurant inspection data, crime and procurement data are often in great demand).
2. Dynamic real-time Data: Data that is frequently updated (such a border, passport renewal or emergency room wait times). This data is shared in the right way can often help people adjust schedules and plans or reallocate resources more effectively. Obviously this requires an API.
3.Geodata: Because GIS standards are very mature it is easy to “mashup” geo data to create new maps or offer new services. These common standards means that geo data from different sources will work together or can be easily compared. This is in sharp contrast to say budget data, where there are few common standards around naming and organizing the data, making it harder to share and compare.

What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

It is absolutely essential that all government records be machine readable.

Some of the most deplorable moment in open government occur when the government shares documents with the press, citizens or parliamentary officers in paper form. The first and most important thing to make government information easier to find online is to ensure that it is machine readable and searchable by words. If it does not meet this criteria I increasingly question whether or not it can be declared open.

As part of the Open Government Partnership commitments it would be great for the government to commit to guarantee that every request for information made of it would include a digital version of the document that can be searched.

Second, the government should commit that every document it publishes be available online. For example, I remember in 2009 being told that if I wanted a copy of the Health Canada report “Human Health in a Changing Climate:A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity” I had to request of CD, which was then mailed to me which had a PDF copy of the report on it. Why was the report not simply available for download? Because the Minister had ordered it not to appear on the website. Instead, I as a taxpayer and to see more of my tax dollars wasted for someone to receive my mail, process it, then mail me a custom printed cd. Enabling ministers to create barriers to access government information, simply because they do not like the contents, is an affront to the use of tax payer dollars and our right to access information.

Finally, Allow Government Scientists to speak directly to the media about their research.

It has become a reoccurring embarrassment. Scientists who work for Canada publish an internationally recognized ground break paper that provides some insight about the environment or geography of Canada and journalists must talk to government scientists from other countries in order to get the details. Why? Because the Canadian government blocks access. Canadians have a right to hear the perspectives of scientists their tax dollars paid for – and enjoy the opportunity to get as well informed as the government on these issues.

Thus, lift the ban that blocks government scientists from speaking with the media.

 

Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

1. Honour Consultation Processes that have started

The process of public consultation is insulted when the government itself intervenes to bring the process into disrepute. The first thing the government could do to improve how it consults is not sabotage processes that already ongoing. The recent letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver regarding the public consultation on the Northern Gateway Pipelines has damaged Canadians confidence in the governments willingness to engage in and make effective use of public consultations.

2. Focus on collecting and sharing relevant data

It would be excellent if the government shared relevant data from its data portal on the public consultation webpage. For example, in the United States, the government shares a data set with the number and location of spills generated by Enbridge pipelines, similar data for Canada would be ideal to share on a consultation. Also useful would be economic figures, job figures for the impacted regions, perhaps also data from nearby parks (visitations, acres of land, kml/shape boundary files). Indeed, data about the pipeline route itself that could be downloaded and viewed in Google earth would be interesting. In short, there are all sorts of ways in which open data could help power public consultations.

3. Consultations should be ongoing

It would be great to see a 311 like application for the federal government. Something that when loaded up, would use GPS to identify the services, infrastructure or other resources near the user that is operated by the federal government and allow the user to give feedback right then and there. Such “ongoing” public feedback could then be used as data when a formal public consultation process is kicked off.

 

Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

1. The UK governments expense disclosure and release of the COINS database more generally is probably the most radical act of government transparency to date. Given the government’s interest in budget cuts this is one area that might be of great interest to pursue.

2. For critical data sets, those that are either required by legislation or essential to the operation of a ministry or the government generally, it would be best to model the city of Chicago or Washington DC and foster the creation of a data warehouse where this data could be easily shared both internally and externally (as privacy and security permits). These cities are leading governments in this space because they have tackled both the technical challenges (getting the data on a platform where it can be shared easily) and around governance (tackling the problem of managing data sets from various departments on a shared piece of infrastructure).

 

Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

Some additional ideas:

Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

a) Any document it produces should be available digitally, in a machine readable format. The sham that the government can produce 3000-10,000 printed pages about Afghan detainees or the F-35 and claim it is publicly disclosing information must end.

b) Any data collected for legislative reasons must be made available – in machine readable formats – via a government open data portal.

c) Any information that is ATIPable must be made available in a digital format. And that any excess costs of generating that information can be born by the requester, up until a certain date (say 2015) at which point the excess costs will be born by the ministry responsible. There is no reason why, in a digital world, there should be any cost to extracting information – indeed, I fear a world where the government can’t cheaply locate and copy its own information for an ATIP request as it would suggest it can’t get that information for its own operations.

Use Open Data to drive efficiency in Government Services: Require the provinces to share health data – particularly hospital performance – as part of its next funding agreement within the Canada Health Act.

Comparing hospitals to one another is always a difficult task, and open data is not a panacea. However, more data about hospitals is rarely harmful and there are a number of issues on which it would be downright beneficial. The most obvious of these would be deaths caused by infection. The number of deaths that occur due to infections in Canadian hospitals is a growing problem (sigh, if only open data could help ban the antibacterial wipes that are helping propagate them). Having open data that allows for league tables to show the scope and location of the problem will likely cause many hospitals to rethink processes and, I suspect, save lives.

Open data can supply some of the competitive pressure that is often lacking in a public healthcare system. It could also better educate Canadians about their options within that system, as well as make them more aware of its benefits.

Reduce Fraud: Creating a Death List

In an era where online identity is a problem it is surprising to me that I’m unable to locate a database of expired social insurance numbers. Being able to query a list of social security numbers that belong to dead people might be a simple way to prevent fraud. Interestingly, the United States has just such a list available for free online. (Side fact: Known as the Social Security Death Index this database is also beloved by genealogist who use it to trace ancestry).

Open Budget and Actual Spending Data

For almost a year the UK government has published all spending data, month by month, for each government ministry (down to the £500 in some, £25,000 in others). More over, as an increasing number of local governments are required to share their spending data it has lead to savings, as government begin to learn what other ministries and governments are paying for similar services.

Create a steering group of leading Provincial and Municipal CIOs to create common schema for core data about the country.

While open data is good, open data organized the same way for different departments and provinces is even better. When data is organized the same way it makes it easier to citizens to compare one jurisdiction against another, and for software solutions and online services to emerge that use that data to enhance the lives of Canadians. The Federal Government should use its convening authority to bring together some of the countries leading government CIOs to establish common data schemas for things like crime, healthcare, procurement, and budget data. The list of what could be worked on is virtually endless, but those four areas all represent data sets that are frequently requested, so might make for a good starting point.

Open Data in BC – Good & Bad Examples from Bikes to Libraries

Some small examples of open data use and public servants who do and don’t understand open data from the Province of British Columbia to the City of Vancouver.

Open Libraries?

For the past several years – ever since the open motion was passed in Vancouver – the city has been releasing more and more data sets. One data set I’ve encouraged them to proactively release was library data – the catalog, what books were popular, etc… Others have made the request and, in fact, some of the catalog data is available, if you know where to look – but it isn’t licensed. This hasn’t stopped people from creating cool things – like this awesome Firefox greasemonkey script that shows if a book you are looking at on Amazon’s site is available at your local VPL library – but it has driven these innovations underground, discouraged them, and made them difficult to maintain.

I’ve even had meetings with Vancouver Public Library (VPL) officials who ranged from deeply opposed to indifferent about sharing their data, usually on the grounds of privacy and security. How releasing the libraries catalog, or offering an API into the catalog or showing the number of times a book has been checked out threatens privacy is beyond me. Mostly I suspect it is driven by the fact that they don’t want anything competing with their website and software – pretty much the opposite approach to innovation than that taken by the leading cities and governments.

The reluctance of VPL to share its data given they are a) a community supported library and b) that City Council passed a motion explicitly directing city staff to make their data open, is all the more surprising (I mean even ICBC gave me bike accident data). This is why I was excited to see that the Provincial Government of British Columbian has taken the opposite view. Recently they released location and statistic for Public Libraries across BC for 2006-2009. It does not sadly, include the collections data or the number of check outs for each book (which would of course be awesome but it does provide lat/longs for every library and a great deal of data on each library system and sometimes individual branch such as staff levels, budget data and usage counts (again not by resource). It’s a good start and something I hope people will want to play with. Of course, getting an API into the actual catalog is the real idea – the things my friends talk about doing to enable them and their kids to better use the library…

Speaking of playing…

Bike Accident Data Keeps Generating Discussion

It is wonderful to see that blog posts and analysis as a result of Eric Promislow’s BC bike accident map continue to emerge. Eric created his map during the December 3rd Open Data Hackathon when he visualized bike accident data I managed to get from Insurance Company of British Columbia and uploaded it to Buzzdata. (Eric subsequently got automobile accident data and mapped that too). Another example appeared last week, when the map and data proved useful to Stephen Wehner who used it in a recent blog post to supplement some anecdotal data around accidents in his neighborhood.

It’s a wonderful example of how local citizens can begin to see the risks and problems in their neighborhoods, and arm themselves with real data when they want to complain to their councilperson, MLA, MP or other representative.

Oh, the hypocrisy… Oilsands, EthicalOil.org and Foreign Funding

Wow. Talk about the hypocrisy. So EthicalOil.org which has been leading the charge about how foreign money is influencing environmental groups and the regulatory process. But… apparently it refuses to disclose its donor list.

The double truths get better. While they state on their website they only receive money from Canadian and Canadian companies they won’t reveal if any of those Canadian companies are owned by foreign entities.

From the New York Times:

While most Canadian environmental groups are charities and must disclose the major sources of their funds, Ethical Oil does not. Ms. Marshall said that the group accepted money from only Canadians and Canadian companies, although she declined to directly say if that included Canadian corporations controlled by foreign entities. Many of the large energy companies active in the oil sands are foreign-owned or -controlled.

So just to be clear: If an American or Chinese multinational funnels money through its Canadian subsidiary into ethicaloil.org that is okay. But if a US foundation gives money to a Canadian environmental non-profit, that’s foreign meddling?

Someone needs to talk to Minister Joe Oliver. If ethicaloil is going to be shaping government talking points and policy (Alykhan Velshi who helped run ethicaloil.org now works in the Prime Minister’s office) then it appears “foreign money” infiltrating the process than he already believed!

Let’s have a full debate about the pipeline – as someone who wants to learn more about it I’d like the process to be as open, participatory and transparent as possible.

Ethical Oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Process

This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.

This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.

Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?

It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.

But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.

There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?

Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.

Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.

As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

Solving the Common Standards problem in the Open Data Space

Last year during my Open Government Data Camp keynote speech on The State of Open Data 2011 I mentioned how I thought the central challenge for open data was shifting from getting data open (still a big issue, but a battle that is starting to be won) to getting all that open data in some common standards and schemas so that use (be it apps, analysis and other uses) can be scaled across jurisdictions.

Looks like someone out there is trying to turn that challenge in to a business opportunity.

Listpoint, a UK based company has launched a platform with the goal of creating translators between various established specs. As they point out in an email I saw from them:

“The Listpoint reference data management platform is a repository for data standards in the shape of code lists. Listpoint will help interpret open data by providing its underlying metadata and schema in machine readable format. E.g. mapping ISO country codes and Microsoft Country codes to provide a translation layer for systems to surface a single view of data.”

Interesting stuff… and exactly the types of challenges we need solved if we are going to scale the opendata revolution.

Open Government Advocacy: The Danger of Letting Narrative Trump Fact

So I loath making this the first post of the new year, but here we go.

Today Canada.com published a story “Tony Clement vows innovative new open government, but critics point to poor record.” In it,  Jason Fekete the journalist responsible for the story, quotes a Democracy Watch spokesperson who sadly gets the facts completely wrong despite the fact that I warned Democracy Watch about their error a month ago after their press release caused similar errors to appear in a CBC story. I’ll outline why this is problem later in the post. Bur first the error.

In the article Fekete reports

Democracy Watch said it will appeal to the international open government group to reject Canada’s entry because the federal government failed to keep one of its required commitments to consult Canadians. Ottawa announced its online consultation one day after the watchdog complained about it.

This is, in fact, not true. To date, the government has not failed to meet its commitment. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (to which Democracy Watch responded as is aware) Democracy Watch accuses the government of failing because it believed consultations needed to be conducted before a November OGP meeting in Brazil. Unfortunately, the meeting in which Governments will be sharing their plans (and thus need to complete their consultations) will be taking place in Brazil in April. The OPG clearly states this on their website (under section 5). There was a meeting in November, so the confusion was understandable.

Of course, just to be safe, I did what the CBC and Postmedia should have done. I emailed the OGP secretariat to check. Within minutes they confirmed to me that the April meeting is the deadline for consultations and developing plans. What is more interesting to me is the no one from Democracy Watch, the CBC or Post Media bothered to simply email or call the OGP secretariat and confirm these facts. For the CBC and Postmedia this is a matter of laziness. For Democracy Watch, I’m not sure what is driving this willed blindness. Ultimately, I suspect that once they went public with their narrative, backing down would be seen as weakness and then government secrecy would win!

This is dangerous for two reasons.

The first is, it isn’t true. Government secrecy doesn’t win if Democracy Watch got its facts mixed up. I agree that this government has a lot to answer for around its willingness to disclose government documents. Be it documents around the procurement of the F-35 or the treatment of Afghan prisoners there are many cases where the lack of transparency has been blatant and, I believe, counter to the principles of democracy and open government. Conceding that the Government is still on track for its Open Government Partnership objectives does not diminish that fact. The only thing that misrepresenting the facts does is cause conservative leaning voters who believe in government transparency (an important constituency) to tune out of the debate and believe that Democracy Watch is simply out to score points against the government, not fulfill its mission.

The bigger reason I think it is dangerous is that it undermines the very thing that makes the Open Government Partnership an effective tool of open government advocates. I want to be clear. The Open Government Partnership is, in part, designed to empower advocates and help them compel their government’s to be more open. Used correctly it could be powerful. The fact that Canadian government signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a result, in part, of the fact that other OGP countries were signing on. We were able to use peer pressure to create an upward spiral. We can also use the timelines of the OGP to ensure the government carries out the pledges that it has made. And of course, there is an Open Government consultation that is currently taking place (please participate) that the government will have to share the results of with its partners – potentially giving us a way to verify that our input is being taken seriously. Indeed, participating OPG countries may even try to out do one another to demonstrate how seriously they are taking this input.

But when this tool is misused it gives the government license to ignore and write off critics. As someone who wants to use the OGP commitments as a carrot and stick to hold our government to account, stories like those I linked to above hurt our capacity to be effective.

This government does not have a great record of transparency. At the same time, there is a legitimate effort to create open government goals as part of the OGP, let’s let the process run its course (and criticize when they actually violate the process) and use the tools that are at our disposal constructively to maximize impact, rather than try to snare a quick headline that in the long term, could damage the open government movements credibility.

I certainly wouldn’t encourage Democracy Watch to petition the OGP to ask Canada to leave the partnership. I suspect the secretariat would be confused by the request. The deadline has not passed, indeed, most OGP countries are in the middle of their consultations right now.