Monthly Archives: February 2013

Three Ways Anyone Can Contribute to Open Data Day

With well over 90 cities now scheduled to partake in Open Data Day and with several events expecting 50+ and even 100+ participants I wanted to outline some thoughts to help people who are thinking about participating but not sure what to expect or if they have anything helpful to offer.

First things first.

You can help. You have something to offer.

Second. You are not alone. Many people are not sure what to expect nor what they will do. If you come with a sense of play, curiosity and a willingness to work with others, you will find something interesting to do. And, of course, you will have amazing local organizer who, from what I’ve seen on the wiki and the web, have worked very hard to find a great venue, put together great agendas and reach out to other great people at the event you’ll be attending.

So here are two things even someone who knows next to nothing can do and five projects to consider exploring:

1. Mock Up Your Idea

Not everyone can code. I can’t code! But coding is only one part of a series of activities that can lead to an interesting project. The first… is thinking of an interesting project.

If you have an idea, one of the simplest and best things you can do is “spec” the idea out. Open up Keynote, Powerpoint, or Google Present and create a fake “screenshot” of what you think your app should look like, describe what it would do, and outline why someone would use it. This is probably the simplest most straightforward thing you can do and the most helpful to get others to undestand and want to be part of your idea. I’ve done this a few times, and on several occasions, developers have taken the idea and created it!

The most important thing is to create something. That way others can read about it, build on it or critique/improve it. If you don’t create something, it can’t grow!

You can see an example here where I used keynote to edit a website to add a feature I thought it needed! (plus a whole blog post describing it)

2. Be an Astronaut. Document what you do.

During a recent hackathon I gave an opening address where I urged participants to “be an astronaut.” Not because astronauts are cool (they are). But because of the ultimate (somewhat depressing) responsibility astronauts have – they document and share everything they do so that the next person doesn’t suffer the same fate as them if anything goes wrong.

Hackathons are an effort to create a fun environment to encourage experimentation and foster learning, but that doesn’t mean people have to leanr the same lesson over and over again.

One of the most helpful thing I’ve seen people do during a hackathon is keep a running blog of what the developers were doing. They documented the steps they took, the ideas they researched and the scripts/libraries/etc… they used.

If the project was interesting, these “documentaries” can be helpful to get others involved. If the project is a disaster then, like an astronaut, your piece can be a warning to others so they don’t repeat your mistakes and try alternatives. Even a failure can inspire others to try something that ends up working. Indeed, that is how a lot of innovation takes place.

3. Identify some data worth scraping or share a new data set

While I love open data, there remains a lot of juicy, good government data that is, well… not open. So locating a juicy data set that you think could help shed new perspectives on a problem or help people take action is itself quite valuable. For example, I’m hoping to find a way to “scrape” (e.g. create a re-usable copy) of the City of Vancouver’s budget as well as the provincial budget.

But we don’t have to just focus on governments. I love the call to action in Oakland for its Open Data Day where they are asking non-profits:

“Do you work for or run an Oakland based nonprofit organization? Do you have data problems? Do you have data needs? Because if you do, we can help!”

I’ve always wanted to find ways to get non-profits involved in open data and just thinking about data analysis, so love that open data day can be a vehicle for this.

 

International #OpenDataDay: Now at 90 Cities (and… the White House)

Okay. We are 10 days away from International Open Data Day this February 23rd, 2013. There is now so much going on, I’ve been excited to see the different projects people are working on. Indeed there is so much happening, I thought I’d share just a tiny fraction of it in a little blog post to highlight the variety.

Again if you haven’t yet – please do see if there is an event near you and let the organizer know you are keen to come participate! As you see if you read below, this event is for everyone.

And if you are going – be sure to thank your local organizer. With roughly 90 or more events now scheduled world wide this is and remains a locally organized event. It is the organizers on the ground, who book the rooms, rally people and think of projects that make this day magical.

The White House joins International Open Data Day

Yes. You read that right. As you can read read here:

“We’re inviting a small group to join us in Washington, DC on February 22, 2013 for the White House Open Data Day Hackathon”

So if you are in the US and interested in participating, get on over to their website and apply. How cool would it be to hack on data at he White House?

More Organization Release Data in Anticipation of Open Data Day

One of the by products of open data day that we’ve been particularly happy about has been the reaction of governments and other organizations to release data in anticipation of the day to give developers, designers, data crunchers and every day citizens a new data set to play with.

Yesterday the  Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), a European not-for-profit think-do-tank made its online knowledge assets “open data ready” by launching an open data portal with facts and figures related to buildings and with a particular focus on the delivery of energy efficiency retrofits to existing buildings through addressing technical and financial barriers. This includes things like building stock performance (energy consumption, envelope performance, energy sources) and building stock inventories reflecting floor area, construction year, ownership profiles as well as national policies and regulation.

This could be of interest to people concerned with climate change and construction. I know there is a team in Vancouver and British Columbia that might find this data interesting, if only for benchmarking.

Global

Few people realize just how global Open Data is… here is a small sampling of some of the locations and how organized they are:

Getting it Done in Ghana

If you want to see what a tightly organized Open Data looks like, check out the agenda in Accra, Ghana.

Thinking about Poverty in the Philippines

There are a bunch of cool things happening in Manilla on Open Data Day but I love that one of them is focused on anti-poverty and the engagement with local NGOs:

“National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) Open Data initiative (http://maps.napc.gov.ph). We welcome suggestions and comments to further improve our work.”

I know in Vancouver I’ll be talking to people about homelessness (a big priority here) and hope we’ll get some non-profits in the sector looking participating as well – particularly given the recent release of the city’s Rental Standards batabase (which lists outstanding infractions).

Lots of Community in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu they got stalls for a number of organizations related to open data, the open web and development such asOpen DRI, Open Data Nepal, IATI, Mozilla & Wikimedia, the OGP (LIG) and others. I also love that they are doing a course on how to edit a wiki. The focus on education is something we see everywhere… People come to Open Data Day to above all else, learn. 

School of Data in Amsterdam

Speaking of learning, one thing we’ve tried hard to emphasize is that Open Data day is not just for hackers. It is for anyone interested in community, learning and data. One group that has epitomized that has been the team in Amsterdam who are running a number of workshops, including some pretty wonkish ones such as exploring tax evasion working on the Open Data Census.

Building Community in Edinburgh (and every where)

I love how Edinburgh is focusing on getting people to talk about data, problems and code that can help one another. In many open data day events this is typical – as much time is spent learning, understanding and talking about how we can (and should or shouldn’t) use data to help with local problems. People are trying to figure out what this tool – open data – is and is not helpful for… all while connecting people in the community. Awesomeness.

Google Translate Required

And man, I don’t know what is going happening in Taipei (first open data event in Taiwan!!) but they have two tracks going on, so it has got to be serious! And it is hard to believe that in the first two years there were no events in Japan and this year there will be at least five. Something is happening there.

It makes me doubly happy when I see events where the wiki and comments are all in the local language – it reminds me of how locally driven the event is.

Hacking Open Data and Education – Open Science coutse

Billy Meinke of Creative Commons has posted that in Mountainview, “the Science Program at Creative Commons is teaming up with the Open Knowledge Foundation and members of the Open Science Community to facilitate the building of an open online course, an Introduction to Open Science.”

Participation in this event IS NOT LIMITED TO MOUNTAINVIEW. So check out their website if you want to participate.

Exciting.

Code Across America

If you live in the US and you don’t see an event in your community (or even if you do) also know that Code for America is running Code Across America that weekend. We love Code for America and they love open data, so I hope there is some cross pollination at some of these sites!

And much, much more…

This is just a small part of what will be happening. I’m going to be blogging some more on open data day.

I hope you’ll come participate!

CivicOpen: New Name, Old Idea

The other day Zac Townsend published a piece, “Introducing the idea of an open-source suite for municipal governments,” laying out the case for why cities should collaboratively create open source software that can be shared among them.

I think it is a great idea. And I’m thrilled to hear that more people are excited about exploring this model, and think any such discussion would be helped with having some broader context, and more importantly, because any series of posts on this subject that fails to look at previous efforts is, well, doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

Context

I wrote several blog posts making the case for it in 2009. (Rather than CivicOpen, I called it Muniforge.) These post, I’m told, helped influence the creation of CivicCommons, a failed effort to do something similar (and upon which I sat on an advisory board).

Back when I published my posts I thought I was introducing the idea of shared software development in the civic space. It was only shortly after that l learned of Kuali – a simliar effort that was occurring the university sector – and was so enamoured with it I wrote a piece about how we should clone its governance structure and create a simliar organization for the civic space (something that the Kuali leadership told me they would be happy to facilitate). I also tried tried to expose anyone I could to Kuali. I had a Kuali representative speak at the first Code for America Summit and have talked about it from time to time while helping teach the Code for America Fellows at the beginning of each CfA year. I also introduced them to anyone I would meet in municipal IT and helped spur conference calls between them and people in San Francisco, Boston and other cities so they could understand the model better.

But even in 2009 I was not introducing the idea of shared municipal open source projects. While discovering that Kuali existed was great (and perhaps I can be forgiven for my oversight, as they are in the educational and not municipal space) I completely failed to locate the Association des développeurs et utilisateurs de logiciels libres pour les administrations et les collectivités territoriales (ADULLACT) a French project created seven(!) years prior to my piece that does exactly what I described in my Muniforge posts and what Zac describes in his post. (The English translation of ADULLACT’s name is the Association of Developers and Users of Free Software for Governments and Local Authorities; there is no English Wikipedia page that I could see, but a good French version is here.) I know little about why ADULLACT has survived, but their continued existence suggests that they are doing something right – ideas and processes that should inform any post about what a good structure for CivicOpen or another initiative might want to draw upon.

Of course, in addition to these, there are several other groups that have tried – some with little, others with greater, success – to talk about or create open source projects that span cities. Indeed, last year, Berkeley Unviersity’s Smart Cities program proclaiming the Open Source city arrived. In that piece Berkeley references OpenPlans, which has for years tried to do something similar (and was indeed one of the instigators behind CivicCommons – a failed effort to get cities to share code. Here you can read Philip Ashlock, who was then at OpenPlans, talk about the desirability of cities creating and sharing open source code. In addition to CivicCommons, there is CityMart, a private sector actor that seeks to connect cities with solutions, including those that are open source; in essence it could be a catalyst for building municipal open source communities, but, as far as I can tell, it isn’t. (update) There was also the US Federal Government’s Open Code Initiative, which now seems defunct, and Mark Headd of Code for America tells me Google “Government Open Code Collaborative” but to which I can find no information on.

To understand why some models have failed and why some models have succeeded, Andrew Oram’s article in Journal of Information Technology and Politics is another good starting point. There was also some research into these ideas shared at the Major Cities of Europe IT Users Group back in 2009 by James Fogarty and Willoughby that can be read here; this includes several mini-case studies from several cities and a crude, but good, cost-benefit analysis.

And there are other efforts that are more random. Like  The Intelligent/Smart Cities Open Source Community which for “anyone interested on intelligent / smart cities development and looks for applications and solutions which have been successfully implemented in other cities, mainly open source applications.”

Don’t be ahistorical

I share all this for several reasons.

  1. I want Zac to succeed in figuring out a model that works.
  2. I’d love to help.
  3. To note that there has been a lot of thought into this idea already. I myself thought I was breaking ground when I wrote my Muniforge piece back in 2009. I was not. There were a ton of lessons I could have incorporated into that piece that I did not, and previous successes and failures I could have linked to, but didn’t (until at least discovering Kuali).

I get nervous when I see posts – like that on the Ash Centre’s blog – that don’t cite previous efforts and that feel, to put it bluntly, ahistorical. I think laying out a model is a great idea. But we have a lot of data and stories about what works and doesn’t work. To not draw on these examples (or even mention or link to them) seems to be a recipe for repeating the mistakes of the past. There are reasons CivicCommons failed, and why Kuali and ADDULACT have succeeded. I’ve interviewed a number of people at the former (and sadly no one at the latter) and this feels like table stakes before venturing down this path. It also feels like a good way of modelling what you eventually want a municipal/civic open source community to do – build and learn from the social code as well as business and organizational models of those that have failed and succeeded before you. That is the core of what the best and most successful open source (and, frankly many successful non-open source) projects do.

What I’ve learned is that the biggest challenge are not technical, but cultural and institutional. Many cities have policies, explicit or implicit that prevent them from using open source software, to say nothing of co-creating open source software. Indeed, after helping draft the Open Motion adopted by the City of Vancouver, I helped the city revise their procurement policies to address these obstacles. Indeed, drawing on the example mentioned in Zac’s post, you will struggle to find many small and medium sized municipalities that use Linux, or even that let employees install Firefox on computers. Worse, many municipal IT staff have been trained that Open Source is unstable, unreliable and involves questionable people. It is a slow process to reverse these opinions.

Another challenge that needs to be addressed is that many city IT departments have been hollowed out and don’t have the capacity to write much code. For many cities IT is often more about operations and selecting who to procure from, not writing software. So a CivicOpen/Muniforge/CivicCommons/ADULLACT approach will represent a departure into an arena where many cities have little capacity and experience. Many will be reluctant to built this capacity.

There are many more concerns of course and, despite them, I continue to think the idea is worth pursuing.

I also fear this post will be read as a critique. That is not my intent. Zac is an ally and I want to help. Above all, I share the above because   the good news is this isn’t an introduction. There is a rich history of ideas and efforts from which to learn and build upon. We don’t need do this on our own or invent anew. There is a community of us who are thinking about these things and have lessons to share, so let’s share and make this work!

A note to the Ash Centre

As an aside, I’d have loved to linked to this at the bottom of Zac’s post on the Havard Kennedy School Ash Centre website, but webmaster has opted to not allow comments. Even more odd is that it does not show any dates on their posts. Again, fearing I sound critical but just wanted to be constructive, I believe it is important for anyone, but academic institution especially to have dates listed on articles so that we can better understand the timing and context in which they were written. In addition, (and I understand this sentiment may not be shared) but a centre focused on Democratic Governance and Innovation should allow for some form of feedback or interaction, at least some way people can respond to and/or build on the ideas they publish.

International Open Data Day Feb 23rd: Vancouver Edition

So International Open Data is rapidly approaching! All around the world people are organizing local events to bring together developers, designers, policy wonks, non-profits, government officials, journalists, everyday citizens and others to play, chart, analyze, educate and/or build apps with open data.

For those of us who started International Open Data Day, it was never designed to be just a hackathon. Rather we’ve always wanted it to be an event that anyone interested in data, and interested in open data about their community in particular, could come to. So if you live in Vancouver and that is you… please sign up here. If you live somewhere else, check out the wiki as there are events happening all around the world.

So what do we have planned in Vancouver? And what will be some fun projects to work on?

Open Data Dating!

Well, this year, generously, the event will be taking place at City Hall and we are expecting some staff to be on hand. Following the lead from the excellent organizers in Ottawa were going to run some open data dating. Specifically, we’ll have city staff share with us what is some of the data they have, how they are using it, and answer questions participants may have. These conversations often spark ideas on behalf of both staff and participants about useful analysis or apps that could be created, or important data that should be collected.

Budget Visualization

Stéphane Guidoin from Montreal is trying to get people at Open Data Events across Canada (and possibly around the world) to input their city’s budget data into Where Does My Money Go so we can toy with creating some visualizations of city budgets. Not sure yet that we can get the budget data, but think it could be scrapped – but am nonetheless hopeful.

Homelessness and Rental Properties

One of the big priorities of city government is homelessness. The city is gearing up to launch a database of infractions affecting rental properties. Councillor Reimer – who is been a strong supporter of open data and addressing homelessness – will be on hand and has several ideas about how this data could be used to help the city, and residents, better understand the nature of some of the challenges around housing and foster support for more and better housing.

Air Quality Egg Hacking

My colleagues at the Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus have recently procured an Air Quality Egg and are hoping to explore how they can hack this hardware. We been dreaming up a scenario where we deploy may 10-30 of these around the lower mainland to get realtime measurements of the air quality. For the Centre for Digital Media, we’d love it if we can create a dashboard for the measurements from these eggs, as it would enable residents to compare air quality from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Biking Apps

Since I’m now just throwing ideas out there… (Cause that is what happens on open data day), another idea Councillor Reimer shared involves the newly released bike rack data from the City of Vancouver (which this fine gentleman mapped in very short order). An app that does nothing more than load, locate you, and point you to the direction of the nearest bike rack could be helpful to bikers. But if the location of the user could be anonymously shared with the city… it would be hugely valuable to them as it would provide some insight about where people are when they are looking for bike racks. This could allow the city to deploy its bike rack infrastructure more efficiently and save on (re)installation/moving costs.

And lots, lots more…

Obviously, there is lots more that happens, people network, brainstorm projects of their own, join established projects… or just learn about what is possible. Hopefully these ideas give you some insight into what is possible. That said, if you think you don’t have the right skills, please come anyways… we’ll find you a way to participate.

Presently the City of Montreal just tipped over 100 participants for their open data day. Ottawa regularly has similar participation levels. I confess that I’ve been a little slow in getting the word out, so please do consider coming and… pass the word along!

 

Again, one can sign up here.

The event will be taking place at City Hall on February 23rd, from 9:30am until 5:30pm.