Tag Archives: opendata

Canada Post and the War on Open Data, Innovation & Common Sense (continued, sadly)

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a blog post on Canada Post’s War on the 21st Century, Innovation & Productivity. In it I highlighted how Canada Post launched a lawsuit against a company – Geocoder.ca – that recreates the postal code database via crowdsourcing. Canada Posts case was never strong, but then, that was not their goal. As a large, tax payer backed company the point wasn’t to be right, it was to use the law as a way to financial bankrupt a small innovator.

This case matters – especially to small start ups and non-profits. Open North – a non-profit on which I sit on the board of directors – recently explored what it would cost to use Canada Posts postal code data base on represent.opennorth.ca, a website that helps identify elected officials who serve a given address. The cost? $9,000 a year, nothing near what it could afford.

But that’s not it. There are several non-profits that use Represent to help inform donors and other users of their website about which elected officials represent geographies where they advocate for change. The licensing cost if you include all of these non-profits and academic groups? $50,000 a year.

This is not a trivial sum, and it is very significant for non-profits and academics. It is also a window into why Canada Post is trying to sue Geocoder.ca – which offers a version of its database for… free. That a private company can offers a similar service at a fraction of the cost (or for nothing) is, of couse, a threat.

Sadly, I wish I could report good news on the one year anniversary of the case. Indeed, I should be!

This is because what should have been the most important development was how the Federal Court of Appeal made it even more clear that data cannot be copyrighted. This probably made it Canada Post’s lawyers that they were not going to win and made it even more obvious to us in the public that the lawsuit against geocoder.ca - which has not been dropped-  was completely frivolous.

Sadly, Canada Post reaction to this erosion of its position was not to back off, but to double down. Recognizing that they likely won’t win a copyright case over postal code data, they have decided:

a) to assert that they hold trademark on the words ‘postal code’

b) to name Ervin Ruci – the opertator of Geocoder.ca – as a defendent in the case, as opposed to just his company.

The second part shows just how vindictive Canada Post’s lawyers are, and reveals the true nature of this lawsuit. This is not about protecting trademark. This is about sending a message about legal costs and fees. This is a predatory lawsuit, funded by you, the tax payer.

But part a is also sad. Having seen the writing on the wall around its capacity to win the case around data, Canada Post is suddenly decided – 88 years after it first started using “Postal Zones” and 43 years after it started using “Postal Codes” to assert a trade mark on the term? (You can read more on the history of postal codes in canada here).

Moreover the legal implications if Canada Post actually won the case would be fascinating. It is unclear that anyone would be allowed to solicit anybody’s postal code – at least if they mentioned the term “postal code” – on any form or website without Canada Posts express permission. It leads one to ask. Does the federal government have Canada Post’s express permission to solicit postal code information on tax forms? On Passport renewal forms? On any form they have ever published? Because if not, they are, I understand Canada Posts claim correctly, in violation of Canada Post trademark.

Given the current government’s goal to increase the use of government data and spur innovation, will they finally intervene in what is an absurd case that Canada Post cannot win, that is using tax payer dollars to snuff out innovators, increases the costs of academics to do geospatial oriented social research and that creates a great deal of uncertainty about how anyone online be they non-profits, companies, academics, or governments, can use postal codes.

I know of no other country in the world that has to deal with this kind of behaviour from their postal service. The United Kingdom compelled its postal service to make postal code information public years ago.In Canada, we handle the same situation by letting a tax payer subsidized monopoly hire expensive lawyers to launch frivolous lawsuits against innovators who are not breaking the law.

That is pretty telling.

You can read more about this this, and see the legal documents on Ervin Ruci’s blog has also done a good job covering this story at canada.com.

Open Data Day: Lessons for Hacktivists

This piece is cross-posted on TechPresident where I post articles on the intersection of politics, technology and transparency and serve as an editor.

Three years ago, after a chance encounter with Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun of Sao Paulo and a meeting with Edward Ocampo-Gooding and Mary Beth Baker in Ottawa, with whom I shared a passion about open data, we agreed to simultaneously host events in our three cities on the same day. It would be a hackathon, and because it would take place in at least two countries … we liberally called it “international” inviting others to join us.

In that first year we had about six cities conduct events on every continent save Australia. Now in its third year, Open Data Day events is far bigger than we ever dared imagine. More interesting still is its impact, both expected and unexpected.

Reflecting on it all, I thought it might be worthwhile to share a little bit about the impact I think Open Data has, and some lessons hacktvists may find interesting to draw upon.

Build Community

From the beginning our goal was simple. It wasn’t code, or even opening data per se. It was about community.

We wanted to foster a friendly event where anyone would feel welcome to participate. The team in Ottawa had, in particular, done great work in reaching out an engaging new people in previous hackathons, they’d have a wealth of non-software developers and even full families attend their events. This was as much a hackathon as it was a community event.

So Open Data Day was always meant to serve as a catalyst for community and network creation. Yes, creating, adding to or working on a project was strongly encouraged, but the real output to help open data advocates find and connect with one another, as well as grow the movement by engaging new people. An effective community was always going to be the core ingredient for petitioning a government to make data open, teaching students or policy makers how to use data or have a group of developers launch a project. While we wanted to create cool software, visualizations and analysis, what I wanted even more was to foster local leaders, champions, social glue and community hubs.

And that’s what we got.

One of the strengths of Open Data Day is its incredible decentralized nature. I blog about it to encourage people to organize and help moderate a mailing list, but beyond that everything is done by local volunteers. From a capacity building perspective, it is an incredible event to watch unfold. I’d like to think Open Data Day has played a helpful role in connecting local stakeholders and even knitting them together with regional, national and international peers.

While I believe that a beautiful piece of code can be critical in making policy makers, the public or others see the world in a different light I also think that building community and developing allies who can share that story of that code with leaders and the public at large is, depending on the breadth of your goals, equally important.

What Works for Communities Can Work for Governments

Almost immediately upon launch of Open Data Day, government officials began showing up at the hackathons. Some came unofficially, others officially, and in some places, the hackathons were invited to take place at city hall. Because we set a venue Open Data Day created a predictable publicized space where governments that were curious, reluctant, eager or cautious could come and engage at a speed that worked for them.

When you build a safe place for a broader community – if your event has more of the feel of a public consultation or community meet-up than a gathering of subversive technologists – you can create space for governments. More importantly, the one thing that characterizes most open data hackathons I’ve witnessed or investigated,is that the participants share a desire to make their community better. That is something most government officials can easily wrap their heads around.

Thus, in a way that I don’t think anyone planned, Open Data Day events have become a place where governments want to understand more of what is possible, learn about the community that is interested in data and wrestle with how open data can change the way they work. What began with a few pioneering cities three years ago has evolved where now places like the Victoria Palace in Romania (the seat of government) and the White House in Washington DC are hosting Open Data Day events.

This type of engagement creates new opportunities, and new challenges, but that is exactly the type of progress many movements would like to see.

Plant a Flag

Setting a date and having people around the world step up and embrace had another interesting impact. It created a deadline not just for community organizers who were organizing their local open data day event, but also for governments that want to engage these communities.

Indeed in the past it has been amazing to see how many governments now see Open Data Day as a deadline for launching open data portals or releasing additional data sets. This is a fantastic outcome as it creates subtle pressure on governments to act.

This year was no exception. I heard of governments around the world releasing data sets in anticipation of Open Data Day. In particular there was a flurry of activity from European governments and agencies. Indeed the European Union chose to launch its open data portal in time for Open Data Day. But there was also much activity across the continent. This included that launch of data portals for the Building Performance Institute Europe, the Italian Senate, the city of Venice , the city ofTrento, the region of Puglia in the south of Italy, and the province of Bolzano. But the practice has become widespread. I was particularly happy to see a city a few kilometers from my home town do the same: the City of Victoria, BC launched its Open Data portal for the day.

These announcements show the amplifying effect of getting organized across geographies. The advocacy work of a group in one country helps reinforce a message that benefits advocates in other countries. This is pretty basic stuff — political advocacy 101 if you will — but it is a reminder of why congregating around a single date, and meeting in person still have value for those who are unpersuaded.

Ultimately Open Data Day is important because it serves the needs of local advocates and activists wherever they are. That means keeping the event coherent so that it can continue to be a global event that people understand, yet flexible so that it can satisfy local needs and desires. For example, the event in Manila focused on poverty while in Washington DC it focused on building community and capacity. These types of events are not, in of themselves, going to completely solve a problem, but I do believe that they are part of a broader political effort that activates a community, engages government and creates pressure for change.

Open Data Day 2013 in Vancouver

Better late than never, I’m going to do a few posts this week recapping a number of ideas and thoughts from Open Data Day 2013. As is most appropriate, I’m going to start the week with a recap of Vancouver – the Open Data Day event I attended and helped organize along with my friend Luke Closs and the very helpful and supportive staff at the City of Vancouver – in particular Linda Low and Kevin Bowers. I’ve got further thoughts about the day in general, its impact and some other ideas I’ll share in subsequent posts.

Vancouver! 2013!

What made Open Data Day in Vancouver great for me was that we had a range of things happen that really balanced time between “creating” (e.g. hacking) and engagement. As a result I’m diving this blog post into three parts: setting the scene, engagement and outcomes as well as sharing some lessons and best practices. My hope is that the post will make for fun reading for regular readers, but the lessons will prove helpful to future open data day organizers and/or plain old hackathon organizers.

Setting the scene

City hall photo by Roland

Despite competing with a somewhat rare sunny day in Vancouver at this time of year we had over 80 participants show up at City Hall, who graciously agreed to host the room. Backgrounds varied – we had environmentalists, college and university students, GIS types, open street mappers, journalists, statisticians among others. In addition, the city’s administration made a big commitment to be on hand. Over 20 staff were present, including one of the Deputy City Managers and a councillor – Andrea Reimer – who has been most active and supportive on the Open Data file. In addition we had a surprise guest – Federal Minister Tony Clement, who is the minister responsible for Open Data with the national government.

Our event was fairly loosely organized. We had a general agenda but didn’t over script anything. While Luke and I are comfortable with relatively flexible agenda for the day, we knew the unstructured nature of the event was a departure for some from the city and were grateful that they trusted us both with the format and with the fast, loose and informal way we sought to run the day.

Here are some high level lessons:

  • When Possible host it Somewhere Meaningful. City Hall is always nice. Many attendees will have never engaged with local government before, this creates a space for them to learn and care about municipal government. It also reaffirms the broader culture changing and social/change oriented goals of an open data hackathon. Besides, who isn’t welcome at City Hall? It sets a great tone about who can come – which is pretty much anyone.
  • Give the Politicians Some Room. Don’t be afraid to celebrate politicians and leaders who have championed the cause. Hackathons are about experimenting, not talking, so Andrea’s five minute talk at the beginning was the right mix of sincere engagement, enthusiasm and length.
  • Don’t Only Attract Software Developers. Vancouver’s event was in part a success because of the diversity of participants. As you’ll see below, there are stories that emerged because we tried hard to engage non-software developers as well.
  • Transit. This may sound obvious but… if you want to attract lots of people make it convenient to get to. We right off the subway line – City Hall is pretty central.
  • RSVP. We did one thing wrong and one thing right. On the wrong side, we should have allowed more people to register recognizing that not everyone would show. We’d turned people away and ended up having room for them because of the no shows. On the right side, we blasted our list to see if anyone wasn’t going to come at the last minute and, got some responses, which allowed us to re-allocate those seats.

Engagement: Open Dataing

Speed Dating with Minister Clement

The one thing both Luke and I were committed to doing was getting participants and city staff to talk to one another. Building off an idea Luke witnessed in Ottawa we did 45 minutes of Open “Dataing.” During this period city staff from about eight different departments, as well as Minister Clement, staked out a part of the room. We then had people cluster – in groups of about 5-7 – around a department whose data or mission was of interest to them. They then had 10 minutes to learn about what data was available, ask questions about data they’d like, projects they were thinking of working on, or learn more about the operations of the city. In essence, they got to have a 10 minute speed date on data with a city official.

After 10 minutes blew a whistle and people went and clustered around a new official and did it all over again.  It was a blast.

Key Lessons:

  • Open Dataing is about getting everyone engaged. Helping public servants see what citizens are interested in and how they can see technology working for them, it’s also about getting participants to learn about what is available, what’s possible, and what are some of the real constraints faced by city staff
  • I wish we’d had signs for the various departments being represented, would have made it easier for people to find and gravitate towards the issues that mattered most to them.
  • This type of activity is great early on, it’s a way to get people talking and sharing ideas. In addition, we did the whole thing standing, that way no one could get too comfortable and it ensure that things kept flowing.

Outcomes

After the dating, we did a brief run through of projects people wanted to work on and basically stepped back and hacked. So what got worked on? There were other projects that were worked on, but here are the ones that saw presentations at the end of the day. There are some real gems.

Bike Parking App 

The Bike Rack app came out of some challenges about data gathering that Councillor Reimer shared with me. I suggested the project and a team of students from UBC’s Magic Lab turned it into something real.

The city recently released a data set of the locations of all city owned bike racks. However, the city has little data about if these locations are useful. So the app that got hacked is very simple. When you arrive at your destination on bike you load it up and it searches for the nearest bike rack. For the user, this can be helpful. However, the app would also track that lat/long of where the search was conducted. This would let city planners know where people are when looking for bike rack so they would start to have some data about underserved locations. Very helpful. In addition, the app could have a crowdsourced function for marking the location of private bike racks (managed by businesses) as well as an option to lat/long where and when your bike was stolen. All this data could be used to help promote cycling, as well as help the city serve cyclists more effectively.

Homelessness Dashboard

Luke showing off his rental dashboard

My friend Luke connected a Raspberry Pi device to one of the giant TVs in the room where we were working to share the work he had done to create a dashboard based on the city’s rental standards database.  Luke’s work even got featured on the Atlantic’s website.

Crime mapping – lots of quality questions

One great project involved no software at all. We had some real data crunchers in attendance and they started diving into the Vancouver Police Department’s data with a critical eye. I wish the VPD could have been there since their conclusions were not pretty. The truth is, the Vancouver Police department makes very little data open, and what it does make, is not very good. What was great to see were some very experienced statisticians explain why. I hope to be able to share the deck they created.

Air quality egg

A few weeks prior to Open Data Day I shared that I’d be launching a project – with the help of the Centre for Digital Media – around measuring air quality in Vancouver. Well, the air quality egg we’d ordered arrived and our team started exploring what it would, and might not, allow us to do. The results were very exciting. Open Data Day basically gave us time to determine that the technical hurdles we were worried about are surmountable – so we will be moving forward.

Over the coming months we’ll be crafting a website that uses Air Quality Eggs to measure the air quality in various neighborhoods in Vancouver. We have a number of other community partners that are hoping on board. By Clean Air Day  we’d love to have 50-100 air quality eggs scattered across various neighborhoods in greater Vancouver. If you are interested in sponsoring one (they are about $150) please contact me.

Youth Oriented events RSS feed

One intrepid participant, also not a developer, got the city to agree to create and share an RSS feed of youth oriented events. This was important to them as they were concerned with youth issues – so a great example of a community organizer getting a data resource from the city. Next steps – trying to get other organizations with youth organized events to agree to share their program data in a similar data schema. What a great project.

Provincial Crowdsourced Road Kills and Poaching Maps

I was very excited to have to participants from the David Suzuki Foundation at the hackathon. They worked on creating some maps that would allow people to crowdsource map road kills, and instances of poaching, across the province of British Columbia. I love that they had a chance to explore the technical side of this problem, particularly as they may be well placed to resolve the community building side that would be essential to making a project like this a success.

Neighbourhood quality Heat Maps

Another team took various data sets from the Vancouver Open Data portal to generate heat maps of data quality (proximity to certain services and other variables). This prompted a robust conversation about the methodologies used to assess quality as well as how to account for services vs. population density. Exactly the types of conversations we want to foster!

Figuring our how to translate all of the data.vancouver.ca datasets

Another participant  Jim DeLaHunt - put in some infrastructure that would make it easier to translate Vancouver’s open data into multiple languages in order to make it more accessible. He spent the day trying to identify what data in which data sets was structured versus unstructured human readable text. And… much to his credit he created a wiki page, the  Vancouver Open Data language census to update people on his work so far.

Live Bus Data Mapped

Transit mapping

Another team played with the local transit authority’s real time bus data location API. It was pretty cool to see the dots moving across a google map in real time.

Their goals were mostly just to experiment, play and learn, but I know that apps like this have been sold into coffee shops in Boston, where they let customers know how far away the next bus.

Open Street Map

A Open Street Mapper participant spent the data getting address data merged with OSM.

Key Lessons:

  • Don’t try to over manage the event – give people space and time to create
  • Even if the energy feels low after a long day – definitely share out what people worked on, even if they didn’t finish what they wanted. There is lots to be learned from what others are doing and many new ideas get generated. It was also great for city staff to see what is possible
  • Get people to share github repos and other links while on site. Too many of the above projects lack links!

Thank you again for everyone who made Open Data Day in Vancouver a success! Looking forward to next year!

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!

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.

 

Launching the Canadian OGP Civil Society Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

We are Canadians who have been actively involved with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process, including by participating in the OGP meeting in Brasilia in April 2012. The OGP is a joint government – civil society initiative to promote greater openness, participation and accountability in countries which have already attained a minimum standard of openness. Canada joined the OGP in September 2011.

Participation by interested stakeholders is a key feature of the design of the OGP. There is equal representation of civil society and government representatives on the lead body of the OGP, the Steering Committee. More importantly, a key mechanism of the OGP is for countries to develop and then implement Action Plans setting out their commitments for moving forward in terms of openness, participation and accountability. Governments are formally required to consult extensively with civil society and other interested stakeholders in developing and delivering on their Action Plans. Civil society will also play a key role in reporting on progress in implementing Action Plans, including through its participation in a parallel Independent Reporting Mechanism, which will present its findings on progress alongside those of the government.

In several countries, civil society groups and other stakeholders have formed networks or coalitions to work together to help ensure effective external input into the development, implementation and evaluation of Action Plans. We are proposing to set up such a network in Canada and we are proposing, as a first step, to establish a discussion list involving external (i.e. non-government) groups and individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to open government and who are interested in getting engaged in this important work. We envisage this as a loose and open network, through which anyone could propose discussions, ideas or action points relating to OGP. The network would have no voice or right of action of its own, and so participation in the network or the discussion list would not involve any obligations or engagements.

As an example of how the network might work, we note that, to date, Canada has not complied with its OGP obligations in the area of consultations. There was very limited civil society or other stakeholder participation in the development of the Action Plan, which Canada presented in Brasilia in April, and there has been little consultation since then on implementation of the Plan. The network might through the e-list discuss this issue and come up with actions which interested groups and/or individuals could participate in (always on a voluntary basis).

Please let us know if you are interested in joining such an initiative. To join, visit: http://lists.opengovcanada.ca/mailman/listinfo/ogp_lists.opengovcanada.ca and follow the subscription instructions. If you have any questions, please send these to admin@ogp.opengovcanaca.ca.

Thanks for your attention and interest in these key issues.

David Eaves,
Open Government Advocate and OpenNorth Board Member
Vancouver, BC

Michael Gurstein Ph.D.
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC

Toby Mendel
Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Halifax, NS

The Journal News Gun Map: Open vs. Personal Data

As many readers are likely aware two weeks ago The Journal News, a newspaper just outside of New York city, published a map showing the addresses and names of handgun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The map, which was part of a story responding to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was constructed with data the paper acquired through Freedom of Information requests. Since their publication the story has generated enormous public interest, including a tremendous amount of anger from gun owners and supporters. The newspaper and its staff have received death threats, had their home addresses published and details of where their kids attend school published. Today the newspapers headquarters are guarded by… armed guards.

While there is a temptation to talk about this even in terms of open data, I don’t think this is a debate about open data. This is a debate about privacy and policy.

Let me clarify.

There is lots of information governments collect about people – the vast majority of which is not, and should not be available. As both an open data advocate and a gov 2.0 advocate I’m strongly interested in ensuring that – around any given data set – peoples sense of privacy is preserved. There are of course interests that benefit from information being made inaccessible, just as there are interests that benefit from it being made accessible, but when it comes to individually identifying pieces of information, I prefer to be cautious.

Ven-pers-vs-open

So, from my perspective, it is critical that this debate not get sloppy. This is not about open data. It is about personable identifiable data – and what governments should and should not do with it. Obviously “open” and “personal identifiable” data can overlap, but they are not the same. A great deal of open data has nothing to do with individuals. However, if we allow the two to become synonymous… well… expect a backlash against open data. No one ever gave anyone a blank check to make any and everything open. I don’t expect my personal healthcare or student record to be downloadable by anyone – I suspect you don’t either.

This is why – when I advise governments – I try to focus on data that is the least contentious (e.g. not even at risk of being personally identifying) since this gives public servants, politicians and the public some time to build knowledge and capacity around understand the issues.

open-vs.-pers-details

This is not to say that no personalbly identifiable data should be made available – the question is, to what end? And the question matters. I suspect privacy played a big part if the outcry and reaction to the Journal’s gun map. But I suspect that for many – particularly strong pro-gun advocates – there was a recognition that this data was being used as a device (of VERY unclear efficacy) to accelerate public support for stricter gun laws. So they object not just to the issue of privacy, but to the usage.

In the case of guns, I don’t know what the right answer is. But here is an example I feel more confident about. Personally I (and many others) believe businesses license data should be open, including personal identifiable data. But again, these are issues that need to be hammered out, debated and the public given choices. This is not where the open data discussion needs to start, and this is certainly not how it should be defined in the public, as it is much, much more that that and includes touches many issues that are far, far less contentious. But we need to be building the capacity – in the public, among politicians and among public servants – to have these conversations, because disclosure, or the lack thereof, will increasingly be a political and policy choice.

And many of these questions will be tricky. I also believe data should be made available in aggregate. While I understand there are risks I believe  researchers should be allowed to use large data sets to try to find out how age or other factors might effective a terrible medical condition, or to gain insights into how graduation rates of at risk groups might be improved. These are big benefits that are – again, for me, worth the risk. But they will of course need to constantly be weighed and debated. What personal data should also be allowed to become open data, under what circumstances and to whose benefit… these are big questions.

So, if you are an open data advocates out there – please don’t let people confuse Open Data with Personal Data. The two can and almost certainly will overlap at times. But that does not make them the same thing. If these two terms become synonymous in the public’s mind in ANY way, it could take years to recover. So educate yourself on privacy issues, and be sure to educate the people you work with. But above all, help them get ready for these debates. More are coming.

Some additional Thoughts

Of course, when it comes to data, if you are really worried about personally identifiable stuff, there is a lot more to fear that isn’t maintained by governments. The world of free and purchasable data contains a lot of goodies (think maps, stock prices, etc…) but there is also plenty of overlap with personal data as well.

3way-ven

Indeed, much of the retaliatory data about the employees of The Journal News was data that was personally identifiable and readily available. A simple look at who I follow on twitter would likely reveal a fair bit about my social graph to anyone. And this isn’t even the juicy stuff. One wonders how many people realize just how much about them can be purchased. Indeed accessing some information has become so common place people don’t even think about it anymore: my understanding is that almost anyone can get a copy of your credit score, right?

3way-ven-detailed

That siad, I recognize the difference between data the state forces you to disclose (gun ownership) and that which you “voluntarily” submit and cede control over so as to take part in a service (facebook friends). I don’t always like the latter, but I recognize it is different from the government – it is one thing to have a monopoly on violence it is another to have a terrible EULA. That said, I suspect that many people would  be disturbed if they saw exactly how many people were tracking all of the things they do online. Mozilla’s Collusion project is a fun – if ultimately fruitless – tool for getting a sense of this. It is worth doing for a day just to see who is watching what you watch and do online.

I share all this not because I want to scare anyone – indeed I suspect these additional notes are old hat to anyone still reading, but recognize how complex the public’s relationship with data is. And as much as it will upset my privacy advocacy friends to hear me say this: my sense is that public is actually still quite comfortable with vast amounts of data about them being collected (Facebook seems to be able to do whatever it wants with almost no impact on usage). Where people get finicky is around how that data gets used. Apparently, be sold to more effectively doesn’t bother them all that much (although I wish some algorithm could figure out that I’ve already bought a fitbit so there ads need no longer follow me all over the web). However, try to use it to take away their guns… and some of them will get very angry. Somewhere in there a line has been drawn. It has all the makings of an epic public policy and corporate policy nightmare.

International Open Data Hackathon Wiki now live – 14 cities added in 24 hours

Just a brief update for those interested in participating in or organizing an event for International Open Data Day on February 23rd, 2013.

The Wiki

The Open Data Day wiki (sans logo, so a little rough around the edges) is now live and ready for action.

The wiki is where organizers can list the city in which they’ll be putting together an event and where interested participants can find local events and let people know that they’ll be attending (to give organizers a sense of numbers) and what projects, workshops, discussions or other activities they are interested in participating in.

It has been awesome to see that in the first 24 hours of the wiki being up how 14 different people have stepped forward and listed their city as a place where they will be hosting an event. Better still, I’ve been contacted by numerous people saying they would like to host an event who have not yet added their city to list, so if you have not yet done it, please do so! The wiki is super easy to edit. If you are thinking of organizing event you can use my city, Vancouver, as a template for how to organize your city’s wiki page. But feel free to innovate and do you own thing!

Translations

A number of people have asked me about translating the opendata day website. We have not yet translated the version (except to portuguese which will be posted soon). So if you are interested in making a translation please do so. I’m happy to share that it is really easy!

The html for the site is on github. For those who know how (and it is VERY easy to learn) please feel free to fork the code and write a version in your language. I will approve it! Already THackday Portugal has done an updated portuguese version of the new site.

One warning, there is a good chance that I’ll edit (not heavily – but a little) the page once or twice before the event. I will let people know if I make changes.

Super excited about the response so far and hope the wiki helps people see what is going on and coordinate activities more effectively.

International Open Data Day – An Update

(Can’t read the whole post? Important stuff is highlighted in grey below.)

Two years ago, I met some open data advocates from Brazil and Ottawa, and we schemed of doing an international open data hackathon. A few weeks later, this blog post launched International Open Data Day with the hope that supporters would emerge in 5-6 cities to host local events.

Instead, on December 4th, 2010, an amazing group of volunteers organized events in 60 cities on every continent except Australia (OK, and Antartica). A year later, our second effort enjoyed similar success – including Australia this time! We also benefited from a generous informal partnership with the Random Hacks of Kindness, who let our open data hackers participate in spaces where they were organizing hackathons on the same day.

A number of people have been asking me about this year’s International Open Data Day. First, I want to apologize to the community of wonderful people who have been asking me if will we do it again. Between an outrageous travel schedule, work commitments and, most happily, the advent of my little boy – whose 36 hour birth(!) prevented me from participating in Vancouver’s Open Data hackathon last year(!) – I have been remiss in not organizing and communicating information regarding this year’s event.

So, over the past 4 weeks I’ve been consulting with some of the previous year’s organizers (I deeply apologize if I have not spoken to you), and here is the status update:

  1. I’ve been reminded of the awesomeness, organizational skill, patience and general wonderfulness of open data advocates around the world
  2. We are DEFINITELY DOING International Open Data Day and WANT YOU TO PARTICIPATE
  3. For a number of reasons* we are MOVING THE EVENT TO FEB 23rd, 2013.
  4. We are more keen than ever to have this not just be about hacking code, but reusing other projects and BROADENING THE COMMUNITY by using data to do all sorts of things from analysis to visualizations and even just sharing an interesting insight.

So with that in mind, here are a few things that are going on as we speak.

  • If you are interested in participating in, or organizing an International Open Data Day event in your community, please join the Open Data Day mailing list. We’ll post any updates there, and it is a great place to ask questions and get to know other organizers.
  • You may have noticed that opendataday.org is not working. Yikes! We know! We are in the midst of transferring the site over to the Open Knowledge Foundation, who has generously offered to manage it.
  • Once we get the site up – and especially the wiki – I’ll be hitting the mailing list again asking people to start registering their cities, noting locations and sharing information. In the past, the wiki has been amazingly well organized, which has been exceedingly helpful and awesome.
  • For those interested in hosting an event, there is a great guide on how to do so, thanks to Kevin McArthur, Herb Lainchbury and Donna Horn - that can be found here.
  • We are starting to reach out to some of our past partners including The Open Knowledge Foundation, Data.gov/White House, the World Bank, ScraperWiki, the Sunlight Foundation, various Hackerspaces, Hacks and Hackers - and anyone else who wants to be involved, we’d love to hear from you.
  • Feel free to send me an email if you have any thoughts, questions or concerns.

Okay, apologies for the long blog post and the delay in communicating about this. If you have participated or organized an event in the past, thank you. I hope you’re excited about doing it again and that the new date works for you!

Am looking forward to hearing from you.

*Those reasons being: too close to various holidays, too much at the best time of summer in the southern hemisphere, too little time to organize, timing around the Code for America fellows being in their partner cities.