Monthly Archives: April 2012

Canada Post’s War on the 21st Century, Innovation & Productivity

The other week Canada Post announced it was suing Geocoder.ca – an alternative provider of postal code data. It’s a depressing statement on the status of the digital economy in Canada for a variety of reasons. The three that stand out are:

1) The Canadian Government has launched an open government initiative which includes a strong emphasis on open data and innovation. Guess which data set is the most requested data set by the public: Postal Code data.

2) This case risks calling into question the government’s commitment to (and understanding of) digital innovation, and

3) it is an indication – given the flimsiness of the case – of how little crown corporations understand the law (or worse, how willing they are to use the taxpayer funded litigation to bully others irrespective of the law).

Let me break down the situation into three parts. 1) Why this case matters to the digital economy (and why you should care), 2) Why the case is flimsy (and a ton of depressingly hilariously facts) and 3) What the Government could be doing about, but isn’t.

Why this case matters.

So… funny thing the humble postal code. One would have thought that, in a digital era, the lowly postal code would have lost its meaning.

The interesting truth however, is that the lowly postal code has, in many ways, never been more important. For better for worse, postal codes have become a core piece of data for both the analog and especially digital economy. These simple, easy to remember, six digit numbers, allow you to let a company, political party, or non-profit to figure out what neighborhood, MP riding or city you are in. And once we know where you are, there are all sorts of services the internet can offer you: is that game you wanted available anywhere near you? Who are your elected representatives (and how did they vote on that bill)? What social services are near you? Postal codes, quite simply, one of the easiest ways for us to identify where we are, so that governments, companies and others can better serve us. For example, after to speaking to Geocoder.ca founder Ervin Ruci, it turns out that federal government ministries are a major client of his, dozens of different departments using his service including… the Ministry of Justice.

Given how important postal code data is given it can enable companies, non-profits and government’s to be more efficient and productive (and thus competitive), one would think government would want to make it as widely available as possible. This is, of course, what several governments do.

But not Canada. Here postal code data is managed by Canada Post, which charges, I’m told, between $5,000-$50,000 dollars for access to the postal code database (depending on what you want). This means, in theory, every business (or government entity at the local, provincial or federal level) in Canada that wants to use postal code information to figure out where its customers are located must pay this fee, which, of course, it passes along to its customers. Worse, for others the fee is simple not affordable. For non-profits, charities and, of course, small businesses and start-ups, they either choose to be less efficient, or test their business model in a jurisdiction where this type of data is easier to access.

Why this case is flimsy

Of course, because postal codes are so important, Geocoder came up with an innovative solution to the problem. Rather than copy Canada Post’s postal code data base (which would have violated Canada Post’s terms of use) they did something ingenious… they got lots of people to help them manually recreate the data set. (There is a brief description of how here) As the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) brilliant argues in their defense of Geocoder: “The Copyright Act confers on copyright owners only limited rights in respect of particular works: it confers no monopoly on classes of works (only limited rights in respect of specific original works of authorship), nor any protection against independent creation. The Plaintiff (Canada Post) improperly seeks to use the Copyright Act to craft patent-like rights against competition from independently created postal code databases.”

And, of course, there are even deeper problems with Canada Post’s claims:

The first is that an address – including the postal code – is a fact. And facts cannot be copyrighted. And, of course, if Canada Post won, we’d all be hooped since writing a postal code down on say… an envelop, would violate Canada Post’s copyright.

The second, was pointed out to me by a mail list contributor who happened to work for a city. He pointed out that it is local governments that frequently create the address data and then share it with Canada Post. Can you imagine if cities tried to copyright their address data? The claim is laughable. Canada post claims that it must charge for the data to recoup the cost of creating it, but the data it gets from cities it gets for free – the creation of postal code data should not be an expensive proposition.

But most importantly… NON OF THIS SHOULD MATTER. In a world of where our government is pushing an open data strategy, the economic merits of making one of the most important open data sets public, should stand on their own without the fact that the law is on our side.

There is also a bonus 4th element which makes for fun reading in the CIPPIC defense that James McKinney pointed out:

“Contrary to the Plaintiff’s (Canada Post’s) assertion at paragraph 11 of the Statement of Claim that ‘Her Majesty’s copyright to the CPC Database was transferred to Canada Post’ under section 63 of the Canada Post Corporation, no section 63 of the current Canada Post Corporation Act  even exists. Neither does the Act that came into force in 1981 transfer such title.”

You can read the Canada Post Act on the Ministry of Justice’s website here and – as everyone except, apparently, Canada Post’s lawyers has observed – it has only 62 sections.

What Can Be Done.

Speaking of The Canada Post Act, while there is no section 63, there is a section 22, which appears under the header “Directives” and, intriguingly, reads:

22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

In other words… the government can compel Canada Post to make its Postal Code data open. Sections 22 (3), (4) and (5) suggest that the government may have to compensate Canada Post for the cost of implementing such a directive, but it is not clear that it must do so. Besides, it will be interesting to see how much money is actually at stake. As an aside, if Canada were to explore privatizing Canada Post, separating out the postal code function and folding it back into government would be a logical decision since you would want all players in the space (a private Canada Post, FedEx, Puralator, etc…) to all be able to use a single postal code system.

Either way, the government cannot claim that Canada Post’s crown corporation status prevents it from compelling the organization to apply an open license to its postal code data. The law is very clear that it can.

What appears to be increasingly obvious is that the era of closed postal code data will be coming to an end. It may be in a slow, expensive and wasteful lawsuit that costs both Canada Post, Canadian taxpayers and CIPPIC resources and energy they can ill afford, or it can come quickly through a Ministerial directive.

Let’s hope that latter prevails.

Indeed, the postal code has arguably become the system for physical organizing our society. Everything from the census to urban planning to figuring out where to build a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks will often use postal code data as the way to organize data about who we are and where we live. Indeed it is the humble postal code that frequently allows all these organizations – from governments to non-profits to companies – to be efficient about locating people and allocating resources. Oh. And it also really helps for shipping stuff quickly that you bought online.

It would be nice to live in a country that really understood how to support a digital economy. Sadly, last week, I was once again reminded of how frustrating it is to try to be 21st century company in Canada.

What happened?

Directives
  • 22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

Some thoughts on the Open Government Partnership

It is hard to sum up what is happening at the Open Government Partnership this year. Whether it is the geography the conference covers (over 40 countries), the range of issues affected by openness, or the sheer number of people, there is a great deal to wrap your arms around.

Here are some reflections after a day and a half.

First is the sheer size of the conference. I’m told there are roughly 1200 registered participants. And you feel it. The buzz is louder, the crowds are bigger, and the number of people you don’t know is larger.

For one, governments get to see what others are up to, but more important are the connections made among civil society members. In many ways the OGP’s biggest benefit may be the way it builds capacity by enabling civil society organizations and individuals to learn from one another and trade stories.

The potential for this is particularly true (and remains unrealized) between civil society communities that do not tend to interact. There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.

Moreover, concerns among access to information types that the OGP will be dominated by technology issues feel overplayed, every “official” civil society representative I witnessed respond to a government presentation on its OGP goals was someone out of the Access to Information community, not the Gov.20/tech community. In a real sense, it is the access to information community that has greater influence over the discourse at the OGP and so concerns about the reverse feel, to some measure, overblown.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there are some very early debates about the future of the OGP, particularly in relation to its members. The articles of governance published yesterday by the OGP do lay out a process for removing members, but the criteria is vague regarding many issues the virtually all civil society members feel strongly about. The OGP has already demonstrated that the term open can capture the imaginations of a broad group of people and is a desirable trait to which governments want to be associated. In this regard it has some realized and a great deal more potential of being an important carrot that can provoke governments to make commitments around openness that they might not have otherwise make or prioritize. But the stick – which is essential to many civil society participants – remains still somewhat vague. And without it, it is hard to imagine the project working. If, once you are in the OGP, it does not much matter what you do, then the project loses a great deal of its meaning, at least, based on conversations I had, to many of its civil society participants.

And the tests on this issue are real and immediate.

South Africa – a OGP steerting committee member(!) – is in the process of enacting the “Protection of Information Bill” which effectively makes leaks illegal. If this can happen without any sanctions to its OGP status, then I suspect, the process loses a great deal of credibility. The participation of Russia raises similar questions. While it speaks volumes about the attractiveness of the OGP and Russia’s participation may help foster some domestic positive changes, to admit a country that is regularly accused of rigging elections and where journalists routinely go missing is likely to frustrate many who wish to use the OGP as a stick by which to hold their own governments to account. How worried will Mexico, Turkey or Canada be about reneging on its commitments if South Africa is allowed to pass draconian laws around access to information, or journalists are allowed to go missing in Russia?

To date, there are not heated arguments over the issue (at least publicly) and my sense is the topic is only just beginning to peculate for most civil society members, but given the immediate challenges South Africa and Russia pose to the OGP expect this issue to become much more heated, barring some clear resolution that satisfies the civil society participants.

Much less important, but still worth noting, is the simple fact that the logistics must be better next time. While the Brazilians were generous and warm hosts and, unlike in New York, civil society participants were thankfully not segregated from the government representatives, the failure to have internet access on the first day was unacceptable. It meant that anyone not on site could not follow along to the presentations and those at the conference could not engage those at home, or at the conference, online. For a conference about openness and engagement, it was an unfortunate reminder of even some of the more basic challenges still confronting us.

NASA space hackathon (in Vancouver) this weekend

So, many, many things I’d like to blog upon at the moment. I’m in Brasilia at the Open Government Partnership meeting, so obviously lots to talk about there, and, of course, Canada Post has completely lost it and is suing a company over postal code data but it’s been twenty hour days and those post more thought (and rest).

In the mean time, if you are in Vancouver, the very cool people over at Steam Clock Software – and Angelina Fabbro in particular – are organizing the Vancouver edition of the NASA International Space Apps challenge THIS WEEKEND at the Network Hub.

You should feel free to show up as a team, or come on your own and join a team. It’s worth checking this out now, as there is some pretty rich data sets to explore so getting familiar with it before hand is… recommended.

Mostly I just love that NASA is thinking this way.

It’s also good that the Canadian government is not involved, since even getting them to acknowledge there participation would have proven too controversial (and sucked up a ton of public servants time).

Space geeks… unite!

Canada's Action Plan on Open Government: A Review

The other day the Canadian Government published its Action Plan on Open Government, a high level document that both lays out the Government’s goals on this file as well as fulfill its pledge to create tangible goals as part of its participation in next week’s Open Government Partnership 2012 annual meeting in Brazil.

So what does the document say and what does it mean? Here is my take.

Take Away #1: Not a breakthrough document

There is much that is good in the government’s action plan – some of which I will highlight later. But for those hoping that Canada was going to get the Gov 2.0 bug and try to leapfrog leaders like the United States or the United Kingdom, this document will disappoint. By and large this document is not about transforming government – even at its most ambitious it appears to be much more about engaging in some medium sized experiments.

As a result the document emphasizes a number of things that the UK and US started doing several years ago such  getting license that adheres to international norms or posting government resource allocation and performance management information online in machine readable forms or refining the open data portal.

What you don’t see are explicit references to try to re-think how government leverages citizens experience and knowledge with a site like Challenge.gov, engage experts in innovative ways such as with Peer to Patent, or work with industries or provinces to generate personal open data such as the US has done with the Blue Button (for Healthcare) or the Green Button (for utilities).

Take Away #2: A Solid Foundation

This said, there is much in the document that is good. Specifically, in many areas, it does lay a solid foundation for some future successes. Probably the most important statements are the “foundational commitments” that appear on this page. Here are some key points:

Open Government Directive

In Year 1 of our Action Plan, we will confirm our policy direction for Open Government by issuing a new Directive on Open Government. The Directive will provide guidance to 106 federal departments and agencies on what they must do to maximize the availability of online information and data, identify the nature of information to be published, as well as the timing, formats, and standards that departments will be required to adopt… The clear goal of this Directive is to make Open Government and open information the ‘default’ approach.

This last sentence is nice to read. Of course the devil will be in the detail (and in the execution) but establishing a directive around open information could end being as important (although admittedly not as powerful – an important point) as the establishment of Access to Information. Done right such a directive could vastly expand the range of documents made available to the public, something that should be very doable as more and more government documentation moves into digital formats.

For those complaining about the lack of ATI reform in the document this directive, and its creation will be with further exploration. There is an enormous opportunity here to reset how government discloses information – and “the default to open” line creates a public standard that we can try to hold the government to account on.

And of course the real test for all this will come in years 2-3 when it comes time to disclose documents around something sensitive to the government… like, say, around the issue of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (or something akin to the Afghan Prisoner issue). In theory this directive should make all government research and assessments open, when this moment happens we’ll have a real test of the robustness of any new such directive.

Open Government License:

To support the Directive and reduce the administrative burden of managing multiple licensing regimes across the Government of Canada, we will issue a new universal Open Government License in Year 1 of our Action Plan with the goal of removing restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information (data, info, websites, publications) and aligning with international best practices… The purpose of the new Open Government License will be to promote the re-use of federal information as widely as possible...

Full Disclosure: I have been pushing (in an unpaid capacity) for the government to reform its license and helping out in its discussions with other jurisdictions around how it can incorporate the best practices and most permissive language possible.

This is another important foundational piece. To be clear, this is not about an “open data” license. This is about creating a licensing for all government information and media. I suspect this appeals to this government in part because it ends the craziness of having lawyers across government constantly re-inventing new licenses and creating a complex set of licenses to manage. Let me be clear about what I think this means: This is functionally about neutering crown copyright. It’s about creating a licensing regime that makes very clear what the users rights are (which crown copyright does not doe) and that is as permissive as possible about re-use (which crown copyright, because of its lack of clarity, is not). Achieving such a license is a critical step to doing many of the more ambitious open government and gov 2.0 activities that many of us would like to see happen.

Take Away #3: The Good and Bad Around Access to Information

For many, I think this may be the biggest disappointment is that the government has chosen not to try to update the Access to Information Act. It is true that this is what the Access to Information Commissioners from across the country recommended they do in an open letter (recommendation #2 in their letter). Opening up the act likely has a number of political risks – particularly for a government that has not always been forthcoming documents (the Afghan detainee issue and F-35 contract both come to mind) – however, I again propose that it may be possible to achieve some of the objectives around improved access through the Open Government Directive.

What I think shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the government’s “experiment” around modernizing the administration of Access to Information:

To improve service quality and ease of access for citizens, and to reduce processing costs for institutions, we will begin modernizing and centralizing the platforms supporting the administration of Access to Information (ATI). In Year 1, we will pilot online request and payment services for a number of departments allowing Canadians for the first time to submit and pay for ATI requests online with the goal of having this capability available to all departments as soon as feasible. In Years 2 and 3, we will make completed ATI request summaries searchable online, and we will focus on the design and implementation of a standardized, modern, ATI solution to be used by all federal departments and

These are welcome improvements. As one colleague – James McKinney – noted, the fact that you have to pay with a check means that only people with Canadian bank accounts can make ATIP requests. This largely means just Canadian citizens. This is ridiculous. Moreover, the process is slow and painful (who uses check! the Brits are phasing them out by 2018 – good on em!). The use of checks creates a real barrier – particularly I think, for young people.

Also, being able search summaries of previous requests is a no-brainer.

Take Away #4: The is a document of experiments

As I mentioned earlier, outside the foundational commitments, the document reads less like a grand experiment and more like a series of small experiments.

Here the Virtual Library is another interesting commitment – certainly during the consultations the number one complaint was that people have a hard time finding what they are looking for on government websites. Sadly, even if you know the name of the document you want, it is still often hard to find. A virtual library is meant to address this concern – obviously it is all going to be in the implementation – but it is a response to a genuine expressed need.

Meanwhile the Advancing Recordkeeping in the Government of Canada and User-Centric Web Services feel like projects that were maybe already in the pipeline before Open Government came on the scene. They certainly do conform with the shared services and IT centralization announced by Treasury Board last year. They could be helpful but honestly, these will all be about execution since these types of projects can harmonize processes and save money, or they can become enormous boondoggles that everyone tries to work around since they don’t meet anyone’s requirements. If they do go the right way, I can definitely imagine how they might help the management of ATI requests (I have to imagine it would make it easier to track down a document).

I am deeply excited about the implementation of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This is something I’ve campaigned for and urged the government to adopt, so it is great to see. I think these types of cross jurisdictional standards have a huge role to play in the open government movement, so joining one, figuring out what about the implementation works and doesn’t work, and assessing its impact, is important both for Open Government in general but also for Canada, as it will let us learn lessons that, I hope, will become applicable in other areas as more of these types of standards emerge.

Conclusion:

I think it was always going to be a stretch to imagine Canada taking a leadership role in Open Government space, at least at this point. Frankly, we have a lot of catching up to do, just to draw even with places like the US and the UK which have been working hard to keep experimenting with new ideas in the space. What is promising about the document is that it does present an opportunity for some foundational pieces to be put into play. The bad news is that real efforts to rethink governments relationship with citizens, or even the role of the public servant within a digital government, have not been taken very far.

So… a C+?

 

Additional disclaimer: As many of my readers know, I sit on the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel. My role on this panel is to serve as a challenge function to the ideas that are presented to us. In this capacity I share with them the same information I share with you – I try to be candid about what I think works and doesn’t work around ideas they put forward. Interestingly, I did not see even a draft version of the Action Plan until it was posted to the website and was (obviously by inference) not involved in its creation. Just want to share all that to be, well, transparent, about where I’m coming from – which remains as a citizen who cares about these issues and wants to push governments to do more around gov 2.0 and open gov.

Also, sorry or the typos, but I’m sick and it is 1am. So I’m checking out. Will proof read again when I awake.

Here's a prediction: A Canadian F-35 will be shot down by a drone in 2035

One of the problems with living in a country like Canada is that certain people become the default person on certain issues. It’s a small place and the opportunity for specialization (and brand building) is small, so you can expect people to go back to the same well a fair bit on certain issues. I know, when it comes to Open Data, I can often be that well.

Yesterday’s article by Jack Granastein – one of the country’s favourite commentator’s on (and cheerleaders of) all things military – is a great case in point. It’s also a wonderful example of an article that is not designed to answer deep questions, but merely reassure readers not to question anything.

For those not in the know, Canada is in the midst of a scandal around the procurement of new fighter jets which, it turns out, the government not only chose to single source, but has been caught lying misleading the public about the costs despite repeated attempts by both the opposition and the media to ask for the full cost. Turns out the plans will cost twice as much as previously revealed, maybe more. For those interested in reading a case study in how not to do government procurement Andrew Coyne offers a good review in his two latest columns here and here. (Granastein, in the past, has followed the government script, using the radically low-ball figure of $16 billion, it is now accepted to be $26 billion).

Here is why Jack Granastein’s piece is so puzzling. The fact is, there really aren’t that many articles about whether the F-35 is the right plane or not. People are incensed about being radically mislead about the cost and the sole source process – not that we chose the F-35. But Granastein’s piece is all about assuring us that a) a lot of thought has gone into this choice and b) we shouldn’t really blame the military planners (nor apparently, the politicians). It is the public servants fault. So, some thoughts.

These are some disturbing and confusing conclusions. I have to say, it is very, very depressing to read someone as seasoned and knowledgeable as Granastein write:

But the estimates of costs, and the spin that has so exercised the Auditor-General, the media and the Opposition, are shaped and massaged by the deputy minister, in effect DND’s chief financial officer, who advises the minister of national defence.

Errr….Really? I think they are shaped by them at the direction or with the approval of the Minister of Defence. I agree that the Minister and Cabinet probably are not up to speed on the latest in airframe technology and so probably aren’t hand picking the fighter plane. But you know what they are up to speed on? Spinning budgets and political messages to sell to the public. To somehow try to deflect the blame onto the public servants feels, well, like yet another death nail for the notion of ministerial accountability.

But even Granastein’s love of the F-35 is hard to grasp. Apparently:

“we cannot see into the future, and we do not know what challenges we might face. Who foresaw Canadian fighters participating in Kosovo a dozen years ago? Who anticipated the Libyan campaign?”

I’m not sure I want to live and die on those examples. I mean in Libya alone our CF-18′s were joined by F-16s, Rafale fighters, Mirage 2000s and Mirage 2000Ds, Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons, and JAS 39C Gripen (are you bored yet?). Apparently there were at least 7 other choices that would have worked out okay for the mission. The Kosovo mission had an even wider assortment of planes. Apparently, this isn’t a choice of getting it “just right” more like, “there are a lot of options that will work.”

But looking into the future there are some solid and strong predictions we can make:

1) Granastein himself argued in 2010 that performing sovereignty patrols in the arctic is one of the reasons we need to buy new planes. Here is a known future scenario. So frankly I’m surprised he’s bullish on the F-35s since the F-35′s will not be able to operate in the arctic for at least 5 years and may not for even longer. Given that, in that same article, Granastein swallowed the now revealed to be bogus total cost of owernship figures provided by the Department of National Defence hook, line and sinke, you think he might be more skeptical about other facts. Apparently not.

2) We can’t predict the future. I agree. But I’m going to make a prediction anyway. If Canada fights an enemy with any of the sophistication that would require us to have the F-35 (say, a China in 25 years) I predict that an F-35 will get shot down by a pilotless drone in that conflict.

What makes drones so interesting is that because they don’t have to have pilots they can be smaller, faster and more maneuverable. Indeed in the 1970s UAVs were able to outmaneuver the best US pilots of the day. Moreover, the world of aviation may change very quickly in the coming years. Everyone will tell you a drone can’t beat a piloted plane. This is almost likely true today (although a pilot-less drone almost shot down a Mig in 2002 in Iraq).

But may have two things going for them. First, if drones become cheaper to build and operate, and you don’t have to worry about losing the expensive pilot, you may be able to make up for competency with numbers. Imagining an F-35 defeating a single drone – such as the US Navy’s experimental X-47B – is easy. What about defeating a swarm of 5 of them that are working seamlessly together?

Second, much like nature, survival frequently favours those who can reproduce frequently. The F-35 is expected to last Canada 30-35 years. Yes there will be upgrades and changes, but that is a slow evolutionary pace. In that time, I suspect we’ll see somewhere between 5 (and likely a lot more) generations of drones. And why not? There are no pilots to retrain, just new lessons from the previous generation of drones to draw from, and new technological and geo-political realities to adapt to.

I’m not even beginning to argue that air-to-air combat capable drones are available today, but it isn’t unlikely that they could be available in 5-10 years. Of course, many air forces hate talking about this because, well, drones mean no more pilots and air forces are composed of… well… pilots. But it does suggest that Canada could buy a fighter that is much cheaper, would still enable us to participate in missions like Kosovo and Libya, without locking us into a 30-35 year commitment at the very moment the military aerospace industry is entering what is possibly the most disruptive period in its history.

It would seem that, at the very least, since we’ve been mislead about pretty much everything involved in this project, asking these questions now feels like fair game.

(Oh, and as an aside, as we decide to pay somewhere between $26-44 Billion for fighter planes, our government cut the entire $5 million year budget of the National Aboriginal Health Organization which over research and programs, in areas like suicide prevention, tobacco cessation, housing and midwifery. While today Canada ranks 6th in the world in the UN’s Quality of Life index, it was calculated that in 2007 Canada’s first nation’s population, had they been ranked as a separate group, would have ranked 63rd. Right above healthy countries like Belarus, Russia and Libya. Well at least now we’ll have less data about the problem, which means we won’t know to worry about it.)

 

Beautiful Maps – Open Street Map in Water Colours

You know, really never know what the web is going to throw at you next. The great people over at Stamen Design (if you’ve never heard of Stamen you are really missing out – they are probably the best data visualization company I know) have created a watercolor version of Open Street Maps.

Why?

Because they can.

It’s a wonderful example of how you, with the web, you can build on what others have done. Pictured below my home town of Vancouver – I suggest zooming out a little as the city really comes into focus when you can see more of its geography.

Some Bonus Awesomeness Facts about all this Stamen goodness:

  • Stamen has a number of Creative Commons licensed map templates that you can use here (and links to GitHub repos)
  • Stamen housed Code for America in its early days. So they don’t just make cool stuff. The pitch in and help out with cool stuff too.
  • Former Code for America fellow Michael Evans works there now.

 

Using BHAG's to Change Organizations: A Management, Open Data & Government Mashup

I’m a big believer in the ancillary benefits of a single big goal. Set a goal that has one clear objective, but as a result a bunch of other things have to change as well.

So one of my favourite Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG) for an organization is to go paperless. I like the goal for all sorts of reasons. Much like a true BHAG it is is clear, compelling, and has obvious “finish line.” And while hard, it is achievable.

It has the benefit of potentially making the organization more “green” but, what I really like about it is that it requires a bunch of other steps to take place that should position the organization to become more efficient, effective and faster.

This is because paper is dumb technology. Among many, many other things, information on paper can’t be tracked, changes can’t be noted, pageviews can’t be recorded, data can’t be linked. It is hard to run a lean business when you’re using paper.

Getting rid of it often means you have get a better handle on workflow and processes so they can be streamlined. It means rethinking the tools you use. It means getting rid of checks and into direct deposit, moving off letters and into email, getting your documents, agendas, meeting minutes, policies and god knows what else out of MS Word and onto wikis, shifting from printed product manuals to PDFs or better still, YouTube videos. These changes in turn require a rethinking of how your employees work together and the skills they require.

So what starts off as a simple goal – getting rid of paper – pretty soon requires some deep organizational change. Of course, the rallying cry of “more efficient processes!” or “better understanding our workflow” have pretty limited appeal and, can be hard for everyone to wrap their head around. However, “getting rid of paper”? It is simple, clear and, frankly, is something that everyone in the organization can probably contribute an idea towards achieving. And, it will achieve many of the less sexy but more important goals.

Turns out, maybe some governments may be thinking this way.

The State of Oklahoma has a nice website that talks about all their “green” initiatives. Of course, it just so happens that many of these initiatives – reducing travel, getting rid of paper, etc… also happen to reduce costs and improve service but are easier to measure. I haven’t spoken with anyone at the State of Oklahoma to see if this is the real goal, but the website seems to acknowledges that it is:

OK.gov was created to improve access to government, reduce service-processing costs and enable state agencies to provide a higher quality of service to their constituents.

So for Oklahoma, going paperless becomes a way to get at some larger transformations. Nice BHAG. Of course, as with any good BHAG, you can track these changes and share them with your shareholders, stakeholders or… citizens.

And behold! The Oklahoma go green website invites different state agencies to report data on how their online services reduce paper consumption and/or carbon emissions. Data that they in turn track and share with the public via the state’s Socrata data portal. This graph shows how much agencies have reduced their paper output over the past four years.

Notice how some departments have no data – if I were an Oklahoma taxpayer, I’m not too sure I’d be thrilled with them.But take a step back. This is a wonderful example of how transparency and open data can help drive a government initiative. Not only can that data make it easier for the public to understand what has happened (and so be more readily engaged) but it can help cultivating a culture of accountability as well as – and perhaps more importantly – promote a culture of metrics that I believe will be critical for the future of government.

I often say to governments “be strategic about how you use some of the data you make open.” Don’t just share a bunch of stuff, use what you share to achieve policy or organizational objectives. This is a great example. It’s also a potentially a great example at organizational change in a large and complex environment. Interesting stuff.