Monthly Archives: February 2012

Joining the Canadian Government's Advisory Panel on Open Government

Some people have already noticed, so wanted to share the news here as well. Yesterday, the Canadian Government announced the Advisory Panel on Open Government to which I was asked to join.

The purpose of the panel is to serve as a challenge function to the government as it develops its ideas and policies. I see my role as that of pushing the government on where I believe they could be doing more. Obviously, I’ve always been interested in peoples thoughts, hopes and concerns around Open Government (and many of you have been keen to share them with me), my hope is that this will provide another way to inject these ideas into the government’s planning process.

As I make suggestions and recommendations I will attempt to blog about them here, there were, indeed, a number of suggestions I made yesterday during the first Advisory Panel’s meeting, and I hope to write up as I think they will be helpful to other governments as well.

For those curious about who else is on the panel, it is chaired by Minister Clement and I’m joined by a number of other excellent “outside of government” voices (full list of names and bios here as well). In the list below I’ve tried to include twitter handles wherever possible:

Bernard Courtois, Past President & CEO, Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)

Robert Herjavec, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, The Herjavec Group

Alexander B. Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent, O’Reilly Media

Thomas ‘Tom’ Jenkins, Head of the Canadian Digital Media Network and Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer, OpenText Corporation

Vivek Kundra, Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets, Salesforce.com.

Herb Lainchbury, Chief Technology Officer, MD Databank Corp.

Colin McKay, Public Policy Manager (Canada), Google

Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy

Alex Miller, President and Founder, ESRI Canada

Marie-Lucie Morin, Executive Director for Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean, The World Bank

Dr. Rufus Pollock, Co-Founder and Director, Open Knowledge Foundation

Dr. Teresa Scassa, Vice-Dean of Research and Professor of Law, University of Ottawa

As an off topic aside, the first meeting too place using Cisco’s telepresence technology. This essentially is fancy videoconferencing where all the rooms around are virtually identical so that it feels like people are sitting around the same table. It was the first time I’ve tried using it and I was duly impressed. It did mean that the government didn’t have to fly us in from all around the world to meet face to face – a real cost savings and obviously, good for emissions as well.

 

The Ground War for Control of Public Space

My partner stumbled on the quote below attributed to Banksy (wikipedia), the English street artist who many consider to be one of the great a modern day satirists.

It’s an interesting take on advertising in public space – for some it will be a familiar call to arms, to others it will feel revolutionary. I find it particularly interesting given the age of customized advertising is coming our way. One of the big questions we’ll soon be asking is, to what degree can a company target an add, to you specifically, in a public space.

Some people find customized Google ads to be eerie, whereas I find them useful, and frankly, understand them to be part of the social contract I accept when I use Google. But using Google is a choice. Walking down a public street and suddenly being hit by an ad that is customized for me? One I did not even implicit ask to see… I don’t know how I feel about that yet. It may feel helpful. But it may feel deeply invasive.

However, I know how Banksy is going to feel. And he’s got some powerful points.

By the way, if you have not seen the documentary about/by Banksy entitled Exit Through the Gift Shop it is very, very much worth catching. It’s on Netflix for those who have it (Which by the way, has a decent documentary film selection).

Here’s the Banksy quote. It’s all over the internet, but I’ve yet to find an attributing link, which would have been nice.

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are “The Advertisers”and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

Inferring Serial Killers with Data: A Lesson from Vancouver

For those happily not in the know, my home town of Vancouver was afflicted with a serial killer during the 80’s and 90’s who largely targeted marginalized women in the downtown eastside – the city’s (and one of the country’s) poorest neighborhoods.

The murderer – Robert Pickton – was ultimately caught in February 2002 and, in December 2007, was convicted on 6 accounts of second degree murder. He is accused of murdering an additional twenty women, and may be responsible for deaths of a number more.

Presently there is an inquiry going on in Vancouver regarding the failure of the policy to investigate and act earlier on the disappearing women. Up until now, the most dramatic part of the inquiry for me had been heart wrenching testimony from one female officer whose own efforts within the Police Department went largely ignored. But I’ve recently seen a new spat of articles that are more interesting and disturbing.

It turns out that during the late 1990s the Vancouver Policy Department actually had an expert analyzing crime data – particularly regarding the disappearing women – and his assessment was that a serial murder was at work in the city. The expert, Kim Rossmo, advised the police to issue a press release and begin to treat the case more seriously.

He was ignored.

The story is relatively short, but worth the read – it can be found here.

What’s particularly discouraging is looking back at past articles, such as this Canadian Press piece which was published in June 26th, 2001, less than a year before Pickton was caught:

Earlier that day, Hughes stood with six others outside a Vancouver courthouse and told passers-by she believes a serial killer is responsible.

Vancouver police officially reject the suggestion.

But former police officer Kim Rossmo supported it while he was a senior officer. He wanted to warn residents about the possible threat. Rossmo is now involved in a wrongful dismissal trial against the force in B.C. Supreme Court.

Last week, he testified he wanted to issue a public warning in 1998, but other officers strongly objected. The force issued a news release saying police did not believe a serial killer was behind the disappearances.

Indeed, Rossom was not just ignored, other policemen on the force actively made his life difficult. He was harassed and further data that would have helped him engage in his analysis was withheld from him. Of course a few months later the murder was caught, demonstrating that his capture might have happened much earlier, if the force had taken the potential problem seriously.

A few lessons from this:

1) Data matters. In this case, the use of data could have, literally, saved lives. Rossom’s data model is now used by other forces and has become a professor in the United States.

2) The challenge with data is as often cultural as it is technical. As with the Moneyball story, the early advocates of using data to analyze and reassess a problem are often victimized. Their approach threatens entrenched interests and, the work often is conducted by people on the margins. Rossom was the first PhD in Canada to become a police officer – I’m pretty sure that didn’t make him a popular guy. Moreover, his approach implicitly, and then explicitly suggested the police were wrong. Police forces don’t deal with errors well – but nor do many organizations or bureaucracies.

3) Finally, this case study says volumes about police forces capacity to deal with data. Indeed, some of you may remember that the other week I deconstructed the Vancouver Police Department’s misleading press release regarding its support for Bill-C30 which would dramatically increase the police’s power to monitor Canadians online. I find it ironic that the police are seeking access to more data, when they have been unable to effectively use data that they can already legal acquire (or that, frankly is open, such as the number and locations of murder/disappearance victims).

Media Watch: The Globe and Mail’s Shifting Headline

Earlier today the Globe and Mail had one of these truly terrible “balanced” articles about the proposed federal crime bill. The headline screamed: Quebec expert backs Tory crime bill amid U.S. warning on sentencing. (Image below)

So who was this expert you might ask? A university professor with years of research on the subject? Maybe some breakthrough research by a young grad student? How about a researcher from a think tank that has been investigated the issue?

Wrong on all accounts. It was, in fact, former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare from the province of Quebec. Of course, you might say… “being a Justice Minister problem should make you an expert.” If only this were the case. If Minister Vic Toews has taught us anything it is that you definitely don’t have to be an expert in something to become a Minister. Nor does being a Minister make you an expert.  But the real kicker is that Marc Bellemare was minister for just under a year. Sworn in on April 29th 2003 he resigned on April 27th 2004. Of course, the article makes no reference to the current Justice Minister of Quebec, Jean-Marc Fournier, who is both opposed to the Crime bill and has been minister since August 11th, 2010. That’s a year and a half longer making him 50% more of an expert than Bellemare!

I suspect one of two things happened (both of which I now know are wrong – see update below). Either the Globe reporter simple used language that came packaged in a press release that referred to Marc Bellemare as an expert or worse, in pursuit of “balance” the journalist felt compelled to label Bellemare’s an expert given the second part focused on how a large number of US republican “tough on crime” legislators who created mandatory minimum sentences in the 90s are trying to role them back because they have been a total failure in addressing crime and a disaster financially.

Of course Globe and Mail readers noticed the problem with the “expert” right away. The most voted for comment was the following one (yes, I voted too, might have been my first time):

comment-1

And slightly further done was a better comment pointing out some further idiotic ideas the Minister had for reforming the justice system.

comment-two

More interesting is that sometime in the later afternoon EST the Globe changed its landing page, acknowledging the “expert’s” true credentials.

GM-landing-page

I think this speaks volumes about the Globe – in a good way. Nobody is perfect, we make mistakes. Sun prides itself on getting facts wrong to tell a story and the Globe is demonstrating that they take the opposite tact. So this post isn’t to say “the globe messed up,” it’s about how newspaper can and should react to feedback from readers. It doesn’t mean you change everything all the time, but there are times when the feedback points to changes that will bring about greater clarity. It also says a lot about the power of the audience.

However, it is worth noting, the headline on the story page… remains unchanged.

7:14pm Update

I’ve made some errors of my own in the above post. I assumed above that the journalist had chosen the headline, this is, in fact, not true. As one of the editors from the Globe has pointed out to me on twitter, it was the editor who made the choice. Any assignment of blame on the journalist is misplaced, I definitely apologize for that on my part.

More on Google Transit and how it is Reshaping a Public Service

Some of you know I’ve written a fair bit on Google transit and how it is reshaping public transit – this blog post in particular comes to mind. For more reading I encourage you to check out the Xconomy article Google Transit: How (and Why) the Search Giant is Remapping Public Transportation as it provides a lot of good details as to what is going on in this space.

Two things about this article:

First, it really is a story about how the secret sauce for success is combining open data with a common standard across jurisdictions. The fact that the General Transit Feed Specification (a structured way of sharing transit schedules) is used by over 400 transit authorities around the world has helped spur a ton of other innovations.

Couple of money quotes include this one about the initial reluctance of some authorities to share their data for free (I’m looking at you Translink board):

“I have watched transit agencies try to monetize schedules for years and nobody has been successful,” he says. “Markets like the MTA and the D.C. Metro fought sharing this data for a very long time, and it seems to me that there was a lot of fallout from that with their riders. This is not our data to hoard—that’s my bottom line.”

and this one about iBart, an app that uses the GTFS to power an app for planning transit trips:

in its home city, San Francisco, the startup’s app continues to win more users: about 3 percent of all trips taken on BART begin with a query on iBART

3%? That is amazing. Last year my home town of Vancouver’s transit authority, Translink, had 211.3 million trips. If the iBart app were ported to here and enjoyed similar success that would man 6.4 million trips planned on iBart (or iTranslink?). That’s a lot of trips made easier to plan.

The second thing I encourage you to think about…

Where else could this model be recreated? What’s the data set, where is the demand from the public, and what is the company or organization that can fulfill the role of google to give it scale. I’d love to hear thoughts.

The Surveillance State – No Warrant Required

Yesterday a number of police organizations came out in support of bill C-30 – the online surveillance bill proposed by Minister Vic Toews. You can read the Vancouver Police Department’s full press release here – I’m referencing theirs not because it is particularly good or bad, but simply because it is my home town.

For those short on time, the very last statement, at the bottom of the post, is by far the worst and is something every Canadian should know. The authors of these press releases would have been wise to read Michael Geist’s blog posts from yesterday before publishing. Geist’s analysis shows that, at best, the police are misinformed, at worst, they are misleading the public.

So let’s look at some of the details of the press release that are misleading:

Today I speak to you as the Deputy Chief of the VPD’s Investigation Division, but also as a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and I’m pleased to be joined by Tom Stamatakis, President of both the Vancouver Police Union and Canadian Police Association.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is asking Canadians to consider the views of law enforcement as they debate what we refer to as “lawful access,” or Bill C-30 – “An Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts.”
This Bill was introduced by government last week and it has generated much controversy. There is no doubt that the Bill is complex and the technology it refers to can be complex as well.
I would, however, like to try to provide some understanding of the Bill from a police perspective. We believe new legislation will:
  • assist police with the necessary tools to investigate crimes while balancing, if not strengthening, the privacy rights for Canadians through the addition of oversight not currently in place

So first bullet point, first problem. While it is true the bill brings in some new process, to say it strengthens privacy rights is misleading. It has become easier, not harder, to gain access to people’s personal data. Before, when the police requested personal information from internet service providers (ISPs) the ISPs could say no. Now, we don’t even have that. Worse, the bill apparently puts a gag on order on these warrantless demands, so you can’t even find out if a government agency has requested information about you.

  • help law enforcement investigate and apprehend those who are involved in criminal activity while using new technologies to avoid apprehension due to outdated laws and technology
  • allow for timely and consistent access to basic information to assist in investigations of criminal activity and other police duties in serving the public (i.e. suicide prevention, notifying next of kin, etc.)

This, sadly, is a misleading statement. As Michael Geist notes in his blog post today “The mandatory disclosure of subscriber information without a warrant has been the hot button issue in Bill C-30, yet it too is subject to unknown regulations. These regulations include the time or deadline for providing the subscriber information (Bill C-30 does not set a time limit)…”

In other words, for the police to say the bill will get timely access to basic information – particularly timely enough to prevent a suicide, which would have to be virtually real time access – is flat out wrong. The bill makes no such promise.

Moreover, this underlying justification is itself fairly ridiculous while the opportunities for abuse are not trivial. It is interesting that none of the examples have anything to do with preventing crime. Suicides are tragic, but do not pose a risk to society. And speedily notifying next of kin is hardly such an urgent issue that it justifies warrantless access to Canadians private information. These examples speak volumes about the strength of their case.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the Police (and the Minister) refer to this as “basic” information, the judiciary disagrees. Earlier this month the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal concluded in R v Trapp, 2011 SKCA 143 that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the IP address assigned to him or her by an internet service provider, a point which appeared not to have been considered previously by an appellate court in Canada

The global internet, cellular phones and social media have all been widely adopted and enjoyed by Canadians, young and old. Many of us have been affected by computer viruses, spam and increasingly, bank or credit card fraud.

This is just ridiculous and is designed to do nothing more than play on Canadians fears. I mean spam? Really? Google Mail has virtually eliminated spam for its users. No government surveillance infrastructure was required. Moreover, it is very, very hard to see how the surveillance bill will help with any of the problems cited about – viruses, spam or bank fraud.

Okay skipping ahead (again you can read the full press release here)

2. Secondly, the matter of basic subscriber information is particularly sensitive.
The information which companies would be compelled to release would be: name, address, phone number, email address, internet protocol address, and the name of the service provider to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties.
Actually to claim that these are going to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties is also misleading. This data would be made available to police who, at best, believe they are in the lawful execution of their duties. This is precisely why we have warrants so that an independent judiciary can assess whether or not the police are actually engaged in the lawful execution of their duties. Strip away that check and there will be abuses. Indeed, the Sun Newspaper phone hacking scandal in the UK serves as a perfect example of the type of abuse that is possible. In this case police officers were able to access “under extraordinary circumstances” without a warrant or oversight, the names and phone numbers of people whose phones they wanted to, or had already, hacked.
While this information is important to police in all types of investigations, it can be critical in cases where it is urgent that police locate a caller or originator of information that reasonably causes the police to suspect that someone’s safety is at risk.
Without this information the police may not be able to quickly locate and help the person who was in trouble or being victimized.
An example would be a message over the internet indicating someone was contemplating suicide where all we had was an email address.
Again, see above. The bill does not stipulate any timelines around sharing this data. This statement is designed to lead readers to believe readers that the bill will grant necessary and instant access so that a situation could be defused in the moment. The bill does nothing of the sort.
Currently, there is no audited process for law enforcement to gain access to basic subscriber information. In some cases, internet service providers (ISPs) provide the information to police voluntarily — others will not, or often there are lengthy delays. The problem is that there is no consistency in providing this information to police nationally.

This, thankfully is a sensible statement.

3. Lastly, and one of the most important things to remember, this bill does NOT allow the police to monitor emails, phone calls or internet surfing at will without a warrant, as has been implied or explicitly stated.
There is no doubt that those who are against the legislation want you to believe that it does. I have read the Bill and I cannot find that anywhere in it. There are no changes in this area from the current legislation.

This is the worst part of the press release as it is definitely not true. See Michael Geist’s – the Ottawa professor most on top of this story – blog post from yesterday, which was written before this press release went out. According to Geist, there is a provision in the law that “…opens the door to police approaching ISPs and asking them to retain data on specified subscribers or to turn over any subscriber information – including emails or web surfing activities – without a warrant. ISPs can refuse, but this provision is designed to remove any legal concerns the ISP might have in doing so, since it grants full criminal and civil immunity for the disclosures.” In other words the Police can conduct warantless surveillance. It just requires the permission of the ISPs. This flat out contradicts the press release.

 

Transparency isn't a cost – it's a cost saver (a note for Governments and Drummond)

Yesterday Don Drummond – a leading economist hired by the Ontario government to review how the province delivers services in the face of declining economic growth and rising deficits – published his report.

There is much to commend, it lays out stark truths that frankly, many citizens already know, but that government was too afraid to say aloud. It is a report that, frankly, I think many provincial and state governments may look at with great interest since the challenges faced by Ontario are faced by governments across North America (and Europe).

From an IT perspective – particular one where I believe open innovation could play a powerfully transformative role – I found the report lacking. I say this with enormous trepidation, as I believe Drummond to be a man of supreme intellect, but my sense is he (and/or his team) have profoundly misunderstand government transparency and why it should be relevant. In Chapter 16 (no I have not yet read all 700 pages) a few pieces come together to create, what I believe, are problematic conditions. The first relates to the framing around “accountability”:

Accountability is an essential aspect of government operations, but we often treat that goal as an absolute good. Taxpayers expect excellent public-sector management as well as open and transparent procurement practices. However, an exclusive focus on rigorous financial reporting and compliance as the measure of successful management requires significant investments of time, energy and resources. At some point, this investment is subject to diminishing returns.

Remember the context. This section largely deals with how government services – and in particular the IT aspects of these services – could be consolidated (a process that rarely yields the breadth of savings people believe it will). Through this lens the interesting things about the word “accountability” in this section above is that I could replace it with searchability – the capacity to locate pieces of information. I agree with Drummond that there is a granularity around recording items – say tracking every receipt versus offering per diems – that creates unnecessary costs. Nor to I believe we should pay unlimited costs for transparency – just for the sake of transparency. But I do believe that government needs a much, much stronger capacity to search and locate pieces of information. Indeed, I think that capacity, the ability for government to mine its own data intelligently, will be critical. Transparency thus becomes one of the few metrics citizens have into not only how effective a government’s inputs are, but how effective its systems are.

Case in point. If you required every Canadian under the age of 30 to conduct an ATIP request tomorrow, I predict that you’d have a massive collapse in Canadians confidence in government. The length of ATIP requests (and the fact that in many places, they aren’t even online) probably says less about government secrecy to these Canadians than it does about the government’s capacity to locate, identify and process its own data and information. When you can’t get information to me in a timely manner, it strongly suggests that managers may not be able to get timely information either.

If Ontario’s public service is going to be transformed – especially if it is going to fulfill other Drummond report recommendations, such as:

Further steps should be taken to advance partnering with municipal and federal services —efficiencies can be found by working collaboratively with other levels of government. For example, ServiceOntario in Ottawa co-locates with the City of Ottawa and Service Canada to provide services from one location, therefore improving the client experience. Additionally, the new BizPal account (which allows Ontario businesses to manage multiple government requirements from a single account) allows 127 Ontario municipalities (such as Kingston, Timmins, Brampton and Sudbury) to partner with ServiceOntario and become more efficient in issuing business permits and licensing. The creation of more such hubs, with their critical mass, would make it easier to provide services in both official languages. Such synergies in service delivery will improve customer experience and capitalize on economies of scale.

Then it is going to require systems that can be easily queried as well as interface with other systems quickly. Architecting systems in open standards, that can be easily searched and recoded, will be essential. This is particularly true if the recommendation that private sector partners (who love proprietary data models, standards and systems which regularly trap governments in expensive traps) are to be used more frequently. All this is to say, we shouldn’t to transparency for transparencies sake. We should do transparency because it will make Ontario more interoperable, will lower costs, and will enable more accountability.

Accountability doesn’t have to be a cost drive. Quite the opposite, transparency should and can be the bi-product of good procurement strategies, interoperable architecture choices and effective processes.

Let’s not pit transparency against cost savings. Very often, it’s a false dichotomy.