Tag Archives: ontario

The promise and challenges of open government – Toronto Star OpEd

As some readers many know it was recently announced that I’ve been asked by Ontario Premier Wynn and Government Services Minister John Milloy to be part of the Government of Ontario’s task force on Open Government.

The task force will look at best practices around the world as well as engage a number of stakeholders and conduct a series of public consultations across Ontario to make a number of recommendations around opening up the Ontario government.

I have an opinion piece in the Toronto Star today titled The Promise and Challenges of Open Government where I try (in a few words) to outline some of the challenges the task force faces as well as some of the opportunities I hope it can capitalize on.

The promise and challenges of open government

Last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the launch of Ontario’s Open Government initiative, including an engagement task force (upon which I sit).

The premier’s announcement comes on the heels of a number of “open government” initiatives launched in recent years. President Barack Obama’s first act in 2009 was to sign the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. Since then numerous city, state and provincial governments across North America are finding new ways to share information. Internationally, 60 countries belong to the Open Government Partnership, a coalition of states and non-profits that seeks to improve accountability, transparency, technology and innovation and citizen participation.

Some of this is, to be blunt, mere fad. But there is a real sense among many politicians and the public that governments need to find new ways to be more responsive to a growing and more diverse set of citizen needs, while improving accountability.

Technology has a certainly been – in part – a driver, if only because it shifts expectations. Today a Google search takes about 30 milliseconds, with many users searching for mere minutes before locating what they are looking for. In contrast, access to information requests can take weeks, or months to complete. In an age of computers, government processes often seem more informed by the photocopier – clinging to complex systems for sorting, copying and sharing information – than using computer systems that make it easy to share information by design.

There is also growing recognition that government data and information can empower people both inside and outside government. In British Columbia, the province’s open data portal is widely used by students – many of whom previously used U.S. data as it was the only free source. Now the province benefits from an emerging workforce that uses local data while studying everything from the environment to demography to education. Meanwhile the largest user of B.C.’s open data portal are public servants, who are able to research and create policy while drawing on better information, all without endless meetings to ask for permission to use other departments’ data. The savings from fewer meetings alone is likely significant.

The benefits of better leveraging government data can affect us all. Take the relatively mundane but important issue of transit. Every day hundreds of thousands of Ontarians check Google Maps or locally developed applications for transit information. The accumulated minutes not spent waiting for transit has likely saved citizens millions of hours. Few probably realize however that it is because local governments “opened” transit data that it has become so accessible on our computers and phones.

Finally, there are a number of new ways to think about how to “talk” to Ontarians. It is possible that traditional public consultations could be improved. But there is also an opportunity to think more broadly about how the government interacts with citizens. Projects like Wikipedia demonstrate how many small contributions can create powerful resources and public assets. Could such a model apply to government?

All of these opportunities are exciting – and the province is right to explore them. But important policy questions remain. For example: how do we safeguard the data government collects to minimize political interference? The country lost a critical resource when the federal government destroyed the reliability of the long form census by making it voluntary. If crowdsourcing and other new forms of public engagement can be adopted for government, how do we manage privacy concerns and preserve equality of opportunity? And how will such changes affect public representation? Canada’s political system has been marked by increasing centralization of power over the past several decades – will new technologies and approaches further this trend? Or could they be shaped to arrest it? These are not simple questions.

It is also easy to dismiss these efforts. This will neither be the first nor the last time people talk about open government. Indeed, there is a wonderfully cynical episode of Yes, Minister from 1980 titled “Open Government.” More recently, various revelations about surveillance and national governments’ desire to snoop in on our every email and phone call reveals much about what is both opaque and to be feared about our governments. Such cynicism is both healthy and necessary. It is also a reason why we should demand more.

Open government is not something we will ever fully achieve. But I do hope that it can serve as an objective and a constantly critical lens for thinking about what we should demand. I can’t speak for the other panelists of the task force, but that will be how I approach my work.

David Eaves is a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert. He is a member of the Ontario government’s new Engagement Task Force.

Ontario's Open Data Policy: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and the (Missed?) Opportunity

Yesterday the province of Ontario launched its Open Data portal. This is great news and is the culmination of a lot of work by a number of good people. The real work behind getting open data program launched is, by and large, invisible to the public, but it is essential – and so congratulations are in order for those who helped out.

Clearly this open data portal is in its early stages – something the province is upfront about. As a result, I’m less concerned with the number of data sets on the site (which however, needs to, and should, grow over time). Hopefully the good people in the government of Ontario have some surprises for us around interesting data sets.

Nor am I concerned about the layout of the site (which needs to, and should, improve over time – for example, once you start browsing the data you end up on this URL and there is no obvious path back to the open data landing page, it makes navigating the site hard).

In fact, unlike some I find any shortcomings in the website downright encouraging. Hopefully it means that speed, iteration and an attitude to ship early has won out over media obsessive, rigid, risk adverse approach governments all to often take. Time will tell if my optimism is warranted.

What I do want to focus on is the license since this is a core piece of infrastructure to an open data initiative. Indeed, it is the license that determines whether the data is actually open or closed. And I think we should be less forgiving of errors in this regard than in the past. It was one thing if you launched in the early days of open data two or four years ago. But we aren’t in early days anymore. There over 200 government open data portal around the world. We’ve crossed the chasm people. Not getting the license right is not a “beta” mistake any more. It’s just a mistake.

So what can we say about the Ontario Open Data license?

First, the Good

There is lots of good things to be said about it. It clearly keys off the UK’s Open Government License much like BC’s license did as does the proposed Canadian Open Government License. This means that above all, it is written in  plain english and is easily understood. In addition, the general format is familiar to many people interested in open data.

The other good thing about the license (pointed out to me by the always sharp Jason Birch) is that it’s attribution clause is softer than the UK, BC or even the proposed Federal Government license. Ontario uses the term “should” whereas the others use the term “must.”

Sadly, this one improvement pales in comparison to some of the problems and, most importantly the potentially lost opportunity I urgently highlight at the bottom of this post.

The Bad

While this license does have many good qualities initiated by the UK, it does suffer from some major flaws. The most notable comes in this line:

Ontario does not guarantee the continued supply of the Datasets, updates or corrections or that they are or will be accurate, useful, complete, current or free and clear of any possible third party copyright, moral right, other intellectual property right or other claim.

Basically this line kills the possibility that any business, non-profit or charity will ever use this data in any real sense. Hobbyests, geeks, academics will of course use it but this provision is deeply flawed.

Why?

Well, let me explain what it means. This says that the government cannot be held accountable to only release data it has the right to release. For example: say the government has software that tracks road repair data and it starts to release it and, happily all sorts of companies and app developers use it to help predict traffic and do other useful things. But then, one day the vendor that provided that road repair tracking software suddenly discovers in the fine print of the contract that they, not the government, own that data! Well! All those companies, non-profits and app developers are suddenly using proprietary data, not (open) government data. And the vendor would be entirely in its rights to go either sue them, or demand a license fee in exchange of letting them continue to use the data.

Now, I understand why the government is doing this. It doesn’t want to be liable if such a mistake is made. But, of course, if they don’t want to absorbe the risk, that risk doesn’t magically disappear, it transfers to the data user. But of course they have no way of managing that risk! Those users don’t know what the contracts say and what the obligations are, the party best positioned to figure that out is the government! Essentially this line transfers a risk to the party (in this case the user) that is least able to manage it. You are left asking yourself, what business, charity or non-profit is going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) and people time to build a product, service or analysis around an asset (government data) that it might suddenly discover it doesn’t have the right to use?

The government is the only organization that can clear the rights. If it is unwilling to do so, then I think we need to question whether this is actually open data.

The Ugly

But of course the really ugly part of the license (which caused me to go on a bit of a twitter rant) comes early. Here it is:

If you do any of the above you must ensure that the following conditions are met:

  • your use of the Datasets causes no harm to others.

Wowzers.

This clause is so deeply problematic it is hard to know where to begin.

First, what is the definition of harm? If I use open data from the  Ontario government to rate hospitals and the some hospitals are sub-standard am I “harming” the hospital? Its workers? The community? The Ministry of Health?

So then who decides what the definition is? Well, since the Government of Ontario is the licensor of the data… it would seem to suggest that they do. Whatever the standing government of the data wants to decree is a “harm” suddenly becomes legit. Basically this clause could be used to strip many users – particularly those interested in using the data as a tool for accountability – of their right to use the data, simply because it makes the licensor (e.g. the government) uncomfortable.

A brief history lesson here for the lawyers who inserted this clause. Back in in March of 2011 when the Federal Government launched data.gc.ca they had a similar clause in their license. It read as follows:

“You shall not use the data made available through the GC Open Data Portal in any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada.”

While the language is a little more blunt, its effect was the same. After the press conference launching the site I sat down with Stockwell Day (who was the Minister responsible at the time) for 45 minutes and walked him through the various problems with their license.

After our conversations, guess how long it took for that clause to be removed from the license? 3 hours.

If this license is going to be taken seriously, that clause is going to have to go, otherwise, it risks being a laughing stock and a case study of what not to do in Open Government workshops around the world.

(An aside: What was particularly nice was the Minister Day personally called my cell phone to let me know that he’d removed that clause a few hours after our conversation. I’ve disagreed with Day on many, many, many things, but was deeply impressed by his knowledge of the open data file and his commitment to its ideals. Certainly his ability to change the license represents one of the fastest changes to policy I’ve ever witnessed.)

The (Missed?) Opportunity

What is ultimately disappointing about the Ontario license however is that it was never needed. Why every jurisdiction feels the need to invent its own license is always beyond me. What, beyond the softening of the attribution clause, has the Ontario license added to the Open Data world. Not much that I can see. And, as I’ve noted above, it many ways it is a step back.

You know data users would really like? A common license. That would make it MUCH easier to user data from the federal government, the government of Ontario and the Toronto City government all at the same time and not worry about compatibility issues and whether you are telling the end user the right thing or not. In this regard the addition of another license is a major step backwards. Yes, let me repeat that for other jurisdictions thinking about doing open data: The addition of another new license is a major step backwards.

Given that the Federal Government has proposed a new Open Government License that is virtually identical to this license but has less problematic language, why not simply use it? It would make the lives of the people who this license is supposed to enable  - the policy wonks, the innovators, the app developers, the data geeks – lives so much easier.

That opportunity still exists. The Government of Ontario could still elect to work with the Feds around a common license. Indeed given that the Ontario Open Data portal says they are asking for advice on how to improve this program, I implore, indeed beg, that you consider doing that. It would be wonderful if we could move to a single license in this country, and if a partnership between the Federal Government and Ontario might give such an initiative real momentum and weight. If not, into the balkanized abyss of a thousand licenses we wil stumble.

 

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.

Exploding the Myth: MMP and Inceasing Voter Turnout

A number of web sites (such as this one, this one and this one) in favour of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) claim that one reason to vote yes in the upcoming Ontario electoral reform referendum is because MMP will arrest the decline in voter turnout. At best, this claim is problematic. At worst, it is flat out false.

Let me be clear. I’m deeply concerned about the decline in voter turnout. Moreover, I wish MMP would help. But the evidence shows that it doesn’t. Specifically, New Zealand and Germany, the two countries that use MMP, have both experienced a decline in voter turnout equal to that experienced here in Canada.

Probably the best example for this is New Zealand, a country which, in 1993, voted to transition from a First Past the Post electoral system (which we use here in Canada) to MMP. In effect, the Ontario electoral referendum is asking if Ontario should follow in New Zealand’s footsteps.

The problem is, that after adopting MMP in 1993 the decline in New Zealand’s voting rate accelerated. Consider the following chart, courtesy of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. MMP did reverse voter turn out, but only for the first election. After this point voter turnout declined faster than before the adoption.

Participation Rate in New Zealand Elections

1960 85.6%
1963 83.3%
1966 79.3%
1969 85.6%
1972 85.3%
1975 81.7%
1978 82.3%
1981 88.9%
1984 87.4%
1987 81.4%
1990 78.6%
1993 79.6%
1996 83.0% (first MMP election)
1999 76.1%
2002 72.5%
2005 n/a

Although Germany continues to enjoy a higher absolute voter turnout rates than Canada, it is also experiencing a decline in voter turn out similar to that of Canada.

Participation Rate in German Elections

1949 76.5%
1953 80.6%
1957 87.6%
1961 86.9%
1965 80.9%
1969 79.9%
1972 88.7%
1976 83.8%
1980 81.8%
1983 81.0%
1987 75.0%
1990 73.1%
1994 72.4%
1998 75.3%
2002 73% * (conservative estimate, divided total votes by Germany’s 1998 population, more likely 72%)
2005 72% * (conservative estimate, divided total votes by Germany’s 1998 population, more likely 70%)

Finally, some pro-MMP sites discuss how countries with MMP have higher electoral participation rates than Canada. This is true. However, this is based on only 2 data points (Germany and New Zealand). However, it is worth noting that New Zealand experienced higher voting rates than Canada even when it had the FPTP system and that, as noted above, participation rates declined faster after the adoption MMP than under FPTP.

So is it the voting system in Germany and New Zealand that creates a high voter turnout? In New Zealand – whose political culture and history is more similar to our own, the answer is definitely no. In Germany, it is possible, but hard to ascertain. What is known is that Germany, New Zealand and Canada are all experiencing a decline in voter turn out at the same rate, and based on the experience of New Zealand, whose switch from FPTP to MMP had no impact on this decline, there is little reason to believe that electoral reform would have a different impact here in Canada.

There may be good arguments in favour of voting for MMP but improving voter turn out is not one of them.

Isn’t it time we put this argument to bed?

electoral reform: maybe people just don't care

Yesterday, the Toronto Star had this fun story about the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. My favourite part was the beginning:

To find out what people think about the Ontario referendum being held a month from today, the Toronto Star stopped some 50 people at Yonge and Bloor Sts.

Just one person knew about it.

Only three others were interested enough to listen to what was being proposed.

Clearly this issue represents a burning platform for the electorate… Or not.

And let’s be fair – it is not like Canadians can’t get passionate about issues: The Charlotte Town Accord, Meech Lake, Free Trade, all caught voters attentions. If electoral reform hasn’t, maybe that means something…

Of course, proponents of Electoral Reform will claim this is because of a lack of press coverage and/or awareness on the part of the public. But then, this is the same bitter claim of any group whose issue isn’t dominating the news agenda.

Problematically, they’ll keep making that claim until their issue makes the news agenda and pierces the public’s consciousness. The basic precept being – everybody would care about this as much as I do – if only they were as well informed as I am.

Perhaps, or perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Maybe electoral reform is not a pressing issue to most people. Certainly a system the strengthens the power of the parties and the backroom boys isn’t easily going to inspire people I know…