Tag Archives: public policy

Open Data for Development Challenge on Jan 27-28

This just came across my email via Michael Roberts who has been doing great work in this space.

Mail Attachment

Open Data for Development Challenge
January 27–28, 2014 — Montreal, Canada

Do you want to share your creative ideas and cutting-edge expertise, and make a difference in the world?
Do you want to help Canadians and the world understand how development aid is spent and what its impact is?
Do you want to be challenged and have fun at the same time?

If so, take the Open Data for Development Challenge!

This unique 36-hour ”codathon” organized by Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada will bring together Canadian and international technical experts and policy makers to generate new tools and ideas in the fields of open data and aid transparency and contribute to innovative solutions to the world’s pressing development challenges.

The event will feature keynote speakers Aleem Walji, Director of the World Bank’s Innovation Labs, and Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation. It will have two related dimensions:

  • Technical challenges that involve building applications to make existing open aid and development-related data more useful. Proposed topics include building a data viewer compatible with multilingual data, creating a publishing tool suitable for use by mid-sized Canadian non-profit organizations, developing and testing applications for open contracting, and taking a deep dive into the procurement data of the World Bank Group. There is room for challenges proposed by the community. Proposals should be submitted through the event website no later than January 8th. Challenges will be published prior to the event, along with key datasets and other related information, to enable participants to prepare for the event.
  • Policy discussions on how open data and open government can enable development results. This would include the use of big data in development programming, the innovative ways in which data can be mapped and visualized for development, and the impact of open data on developing countries.

The international aid transparency community will be encouraged to take promising tools and ideas from the event forward for further research and development.

An overview of the draft program is attached. The event will be in English and French, with interpretation provided in the plenary sessions and panel discussions.

We invite you to register, at no cost, at this website as soon as possible and no later than January 10. A message confirming your registration and providing additional information about the venue and accommodation will be sent to confirmed participants. Please wait for this confirmation before making any travel arrangements. Participants are asked to make their own accommodation arrangements. A limited number of guest rooms will be available to event participants at a preferential rate.

To find out more about the Open Data for Development Challenge, please go to DFATD’s website.

The End of Canada Post and the Coming War for Your Mailbox

As pretty much everyone in Canada learned yesterday (and no one outside the country cares to know), Canada Post, the country’s national postal service will phase out home mail delivery by 2019.  The reason? It’s obvious. The internet has hammered mail volumes. There was 20% less mail delivered in 2012 than 2006. And 6 of that 20% decline occurred in 2012 alone, suggesting the pace is accelerating.

First, I’m really quite happy about (the long term implications of) the demise of home delivery. For me, Canada Post has become a state sanctioned spamming infrastructure. When the little red dot on my mailbox rubs off (as it recently did) the volume of actual wanted mail versus unsolicited mail I receive runs at at least 20% versus 80%. Indeed, the average Canadian household got 1,178 flyers in 2010. About 22 a week. And that doesn’t even count unaddressed mail.

I shudder to think of the colossal waste of paper and energy created by the production, shipping, delivery and recycling the essentially endless circulation of this vast pulp forrest. All the more so given less than 3% probably ever gets looked at, much less read.

The problem is, in the short term at least, things may get worse. Or at least messier. One way of thinking about this change is that your front door just got massively deregulated. I suspect a whole new level of unwanted and unsolicited mail spam is about to hit the more densely populated swaths of the country. So much so, I expect we are going to see – in fact demand – new legislation to regulate physical spam.

Let me explain.

Up until now the cheapest way to send you spam – unsolicited mail or even just targeted advertising – was via the post person. Indeed Canada Post has long depended on this – generally unwanted – mail. You may remember in May, in one of the saddest public campaigns ever launched, Canada Post tried persuading Canadians that Junk mail was good for them.

One of the big advantages of junk mail is, however fleeting, it ended up in your home. Shift delivery to a mailbox out of the house however and you get this:

mailbox mess

Toronto Star File Photo

So there are two implications of the change. The first, as the photo above testifies, is that some – maybe even many advertisers, will feel like their mailers are less effective. They will of course actually know this, since the ROI on mailers is a pretty exact, and measured, science.

The second is that the largest player in the delivery of pulp to peoples homes business will have retreated away from… the home. Leaving a big demand to be filled by new entrants.

Thus, it is quite conceivable that Canada Post may see its junk mail volumes decline faster still. However, I suspect that while mail will decline, unaddressed mail – what you and I think of as flyers – could increase. These flyers, delivered by private players, have the enormous benefit of going right to your front door, just like good old junk mail did. Oh, and deliverers of these flyers don’t have pesky policies that stop them from delivering items to houses with signs that say “no junk mail.”

What does that mean? Well hopefully, in the long term, junk mail proves less and less effective a means of selling things. But I suspect that there will always be an advantage to shoveling 30 flyers a week onto your front stoop. So I can imagine another long term trend. In 2010 the government passed anti-spam legislation that focused on, the digital form of spam. So while I’m quite confident this law will have close to zero impact on digital spammers, for a growing number of Canadians I suspect there is little difference between online and offline spam in their mind. So much so that, it would not surprise me if an uptick in unsolicited flyers and mailers to people’s door – where they no longer get actual mail – make real anti-spam legislation a political winner. Indeed, a clever opposition party, wanting to show the more ill-conceived elements of the government’s plan, burnish its environmental credentials and own the idea early, might even propose it.

Will we get there? I don’t know. But if we just unleashed a wave of new spam and flyers on Canadians, I hope some new tool emerges that allows Canadians to say no to unsolicited junk.

Announcing the 311 Data Challenge, soon to be launched on Kaggle

The Kaggle – SeeClickFix – Eaves.ca 311 Data Challenge. Coming Soon.

I’m pleased to share that, in conjunction with SeeClickFix and Kaggle I’ll be sponsoring a predictive data competition using 311 data from four different cities. My hope is that – if we can demonstrate that there are some predictive and socially valuable insights to be gained from this data – we might be able to persuade cities to try to work together to share data insights and help everyone become more efficient, address social inequities and address other city problems 311 data might enable us to explore.

Here’s the backstory and some details in anticipation of the formal launch:

The Story

Several months back Anthony Goldbloom, the founder and CEO of Kaggle – a predictive data competition firm – approached me asking if I could think of something interesting that could be done in the municipal space around open data. Anthony generously offered to waive all of Kaggle’s normal fees if I could come up with a compelling contest.

After playing around with some ideas I reached out to Ben Berkowitz, co-founder of SeeClickFix (one of the world’s largest implementers of the Open311 standard) and asked him if we could persuade some of the cities they work for to share their data for a competition.

Thanks to the hard work of Will Cukierski at Kaggle as well as the team at SeeClickFix we were ultimately able to generate a consistent data set with 300,000 lines of data involving 311 issues spanning 4 cities across the United States.

In addition, while we hoped many of who might choose to participate in a municipal open data challenge would do so out curiosity or desire to better understand how cities work, both myself and SeeClickFix agreed to collectively put up $5000 in prize money to help raise awareness about the competition and hopefully stoke some media (as well as broader participant) interest.

The Goal

The goal of the competition will be to predict the number of votes, comments and views an issue is likely to generate. To be clear, this is not a prediction that is going to radically alter how cities work, but it could be a genuinely useful to communications departments, helping them predict problems that are particularly thorny or worthy proactively communicating to residents about. In addition – and this remains unclear – my own hope is that it could help us understand discrepancies in how different socio-economic or other groups use online 311 and so enable city officials to more effectively respond to complaints from marginalized communities.

In addition there will be a smaller competition around visualization the data.

The Bigger Goal

There is, however, for me, a potentially bigger goal. To date, as far as I know, predictive algorithms of 311 data have only ever been attempted within a city, not across cities. At a minimum it has not been attempted in a way in which the results are public and become a public asset.

So while the specific problem  this contest addresses is relatively humble, I’d see it as a creating a larger opportunity for academics, researchers, data scientists, and curious participants to figure out if can we develop predictive algorithms that work for multiple cities. Because if we can, then these algorithms could be a shared common asset. Each algorithm would become a tool for not just one housing non-profit, or city program but a tool for all sufficiently similar non-profits or city programs. This could be exceptionally promising – as well as potentially reveal new behavioral or incentive risks that would need to be thought about.

Of course, discovering that every city is unique and that work is not easily transferable, or that predictive models cluster by city size, or by weather, or by some other variable is also valuable, as this would help us understand what types of investments can be made in civic analytics and what the limits of a potential commons might be.

So be sure to keep an eye on the Kaggle page (I’ll link to it) as this contest will be launching soon.

What Traffic Lights Say About the Future of Regulation

I have a piece up on TechPresident about some crazy regulations that took place in Florida that put citizens at greater risk all so the state and local governments can make more money.

Here’s a chunk:

In effect, what the state of Florida is saying is that a $20 million increase in revenue is worth an increase in risk of property damage, injury and death as a result of increased accidents. Based onnational statistics, there are likely about 62 deaths and 5,580 injuries caused by red light running in Florida each year. If shorter yellow lights increased that rate by 10 percent (far less than predicted by the USDOT) that could mean an additional 6 deaths and 560 injuries. Essentially the state will raise a measly extra $35,000 for each injury or death its regulations help to cause, and possibly far less.

The Northern Gateway Brief: Unhappy Political Options & Geo-Political Assessment

I spent much of last week in Alberta which, as anyone who has traveled across Canada knows, is a very different place from BC. While there, it became increasingly clear that talking about the oil sands in general, and the northern gateway pipeline in particular, was verboten. I spent my week in a Fawlty Towers episode: whatever I did… I couldn’t mention the war pipeline.

In Alberta, it seems an article of faith that the pipeline is going to be built. It was interesting contrast since, in British Columbia, it is virtually accepted that the Northern Gateway pipeline is not going to be built (and there is equally great opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline). At some point these two realities are going to clash. And that makes for interesting questions.

This post is not designed to be a definitive piece on the subject. I’m not an energy expert and don’t claim to understand this issue as well as others. However, I’ve not read anything like this to date and thought it might be interesting to outline a short intelligence brief for those curious about where things may be headed. Based on conversations I’ve had with people in the natural resource sector, government, environmental groups and first nations this is an effort to explore what I think are the likely scenarios and choices for our government, as well as what it may mean for foreign governments with an interest in the outcome.

Some Assumptions

If, as you begin to read this piece you are saying – err… what does David mean by the pipeline, I suggest a brief scan of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which will run across Northern British Columbia and allow oil from Alberta’s oil sands to be exported from the west coast port of Kitimat. While I won’t talk about them as much, a reader will benefit from being aware of the proposed Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion and Keystone Pipeline. However, knowing about them is not a strict requirement.

In case anyone takes the time to read what I suspect will be a lengthy post… yes, I, like a large and growing number of BC residents, have deep reservations about the pipeline. My interest here however is less about whether the pipeline will happen – although I dive into that – and more about what I think that means for the choices of various players, which I think is quite interesting.

The New National Energy Policy: Why the Pipeline (Probably) Won’t Happen

I confess, sitting in British Columbia, it is very hard to imagine the pipeline being built. The fact is, most British Columbians – 60% – are opposed to the project, and that number has been growing, not shrinking. Each day, the project becomes more tarnished and unpopular.

At this point, a massive negative backlash against any political party set on ramming the project through British a very real possibility. It is hard to imagine the current government could have handled the communications around this project in a more inept manner. Environmental Minister Joe Oliver’s rant statement effectively labeling anyone opposed or concerned as a radical did more damage than any environmentalist campaign could have imagined. Those concerned about, but open to discussing the pipeline, felt attacked and grew suspicious that they would have no voice. As the polls reveal – they have turned sharply against the project.

The National Energy Program of 1980 – when a Liberal federal government forced Alberta to sell oil to central Canada at below market prices – is political lore in Alberta. It turned the province forever against the Liberals and become a major source of “western” grievance. Of course, British Columbians feel like they now are about to become the victims of a new National Energy policy, one that sees the export of Alberta’s oil subsidized by British Columbia, which will have to assume billions of dollars in environmental and economic risk while seeing relatively little economic benefit.

Given BC is about to acquire six new seats in the House of Commons, holding on to, and acquiring more of those seats is critical to Conservative’s efforts to maintain a majority. The concerns of British Columbians will not be taken lightly – one can imagine the discomfort of the BC caucus in the party. Indeed this August 2012 Abacus poll showed that “In BC… 41% of 2011 Conservative Party voters oppose the pipeline with 21% strongly opposed.”

Terrible Choices

This leaves the Federal Government in an exceedingly sticky position on multiple fronts. The government has, of course, been pushing Canadian oil across the Pacific, which has helped spur significant Asian investment in the oil sands; witness the  $15.1-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and $5.2-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Progress Energy Resources by Malaysia’s Petronas.

If the pipeline were now not to be built, the promises of access to Alberta oil across the Pacific would be greatly damaged; so too, I suspect, would be the access to foreign capital needed to develop the capital-intensive oil sands.

On the other hand, if the pipeline were to be built, the Conservatives would be significantly exposed to suffering major, and possible majority-ending losses, in British Columbia.

This means that all the current scenarios are not great for the government.

The first scenario assumes that the National Energy Board (NEB) - which is conducting a review of the pipeline (including an environmental review) – approves the project and that it gets built. This is a disaster. The risks of a new “National Energy Program” this time directed against British Columbia by Conservatives could wipe the party off the political map in BC much as it did the Liberals in Alberta after the 80s.

The second assumes the NEB approves it – however, the pipeline is bogged down for at least 10 years in litigation from First Nations and environmental groups (if not much, much longer). What makes this so friendly is that it may allow the government to appear to support the pipeline while nothing actually happens. It may thus be able to preserve its political base in BC since the facts on the ground don’t change much and can continue to cast its favourite enemies – environmentalists and, less publicly spoken, First Nations – as the enemies of progress. Ranting against the former could serve as a useful rallying cry for fundraising – much like the gun registry – for many years.

That said, foreign investment would probably suffer – how much I don’t know – but it is hard to imagine much Asian money flowing into the oil sands at this point.

Of course, if the NEB doesn’t approve the project, things get worse. Much worse. Now the only way for things to move forward is for the cabinet to overrule or find a workaround of the NEB’s decision (assuming this is possible).

If the Government doesn’t overrule the NEB, it is essentially telling Asia that its promises and commitments to exporting oil are empty. Do not expect a “Team Canada” trade mission to be welcome in the capitals of Malaysia or Beijing any time soon. Worse, expect Alberta – particularly Conservatives in Alberta – to be livid. The implications for the party’s internal dynamics could be significant.

However, if the government does find a way to overrule the NEB, this would constitute a direct attack on the interests of British Columbia. Conservatives would become even less electable than in scenario one. It would be a disaster. It is no wonder that even Joe Oliver – the aforementioned minister with the rant that killed the project – is softly using language that backs away from such an outcome.

The Escape Hatch

This leaves a final – and what I believe to be most probable – scenario. I expect that under intense pressure from the Conservative government, Enbridge will withdraw its proposal before the NEB rules on it.

Why?

Because this would save the government from having to make any of the damning political choices above – choices that would either damage the Conservative base in BC, damage the government’s credibility with foreign investors, or both. Yes, this would be a crushing blow to Enbridge, and significantly embarrassing for the government, but the alternatives are likely much worse, especially if the NEB does not approve the project. Of course, I’ve no idea if Enbridge would go along with such a plan, but I suspect that opposing a sitting government – one stacked with allies – is probably not appealing either.

I’m open to the possibility of being wrong about this; it is, of course, impossible to know the future, but my sense is that the interests and pressures facing the various parties involved leave this as a highly appealing option.

Out of the Frying Pan…

Of course, all of this has even more interesting implications south of the border.

There, President Obama still has to decide whether or not he wishes to approve the Keystone Pipeline, which would connect the oil sands with refineries in the United States. Approval for this pipeline was denied prior to the US election – in part, I believe, so as to not to alienate environmentalists. However, many – including myself – assumed that it would be approved after the election. I assumed in part this was to make the already controversial Gateway project less necessary (I suspect people in BC will be even less interested in Gateway if Keystone is approved) and thereby hurt China’s access to oil while securing more for the US.

However, because of the mismanagement of the Gateway project, the risks of it getting built have vastly diminished. Add on the prediction that the US will likely become self-sufficient in oil within two decades, and the calculus has changed. Now the president could further boost his environmental credentials, not worry about energy and not worry about enhancing China’s involvement in the North America energy market. Whereas I previously thought Keystone was a slam dunk decision, now… I’m not so sure.

If Keystone is not approved, this would be an unmitigated disaster for the government. The Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines – along with the political quagmire surrounding them – would become even more significant. Needless to say, if all three failed to materialize it would be hard to imagine much more development in the oil sands, if only because there would be no capacity to get the oil to any market.

You Do It To Yourself

Again, I’m sure there are flaws in the above assessment. What is most unclear to me is if cabinet can “overrule” the NEB or not. Having read some on this, it remains a mystery to me. I’ve assumed it can, but if it cannot, that would change the scenarios or, at least, eliminate some.

What I think is most interesting about all of this is that these wounds were virtually all self-inflicted. By alienating anyone with concerns about the pipeline, the government made enemies out of much of the BC public it needed for support. Of course, Enbridge has been the entity that has had to bear the majority of this negative public opinion. This has been a master stroke, since while Enbridge has been largely incompetent in its communications, it has not been malicious. It is the government, not Enbridge, that has employed an aggressive stance with environmental groups and others.

Either way, supporters of the pipeline will have a hard time blaming others for its likely failure to materialize. The project was always going to be a tough sell in a province that – while big on developing natural resources – has been home to some of the world’s largest environmental protests. But I really couldn’t imagine a worse bungled communications strategy – one that might end up having big implications for Canada’s domestic political scene, but also for its relations in Asia, and south of the border.

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.

The South -> North Innovation Path in Government: An Example?

I’ve always felt that a lot of innovation happens where resources are scarcest. Scarcity forces us to think differently, to be efficient and to question traditional (more expensive) models.

This is why I’m always interested to see how local governments in developing economies are handling various problems. There is always an (enormous) risk that these governments will be lured into doing things they way they have been done in developing economies (hello SAP!). Sometimes this makes sense, but often, newer, disruptive and cheaper ways of accomplishing the goal have emerged in the interim.

What I think is really interesting is when a trend started in the global south migrates to the global north. I think I may have just spotted one example.

The other week the City of Boston announced its City Hall to Go trucks – mobile vans that, like food trucks, will drive around the city and be at various civic events available to deliver citizen services on the go! See the video and “menu” below.

 

city-hall-menu-225x300

This is really cool. In Vancouver we have a huge number of highly successful food carts. It is not hard to imagine an experiment like this as well – particularly in underserved neighborhoods or at the numerous public festivals and public food markets that take place across the city.

But, as the title of this post suggests, Boston is not the first city to do this. This United Nations report points out how the state government of Bahia started to do something similar in the mid 90s in the state capital of Salvador.

In 1994 the Government of Bahia hosted the first of several annual technology fairs in the state capital, Salvador. A few government services were offered there, using new ICT systems (e.g., issuing identification cards). The service was far more efficient and well-received by the public. The idea was then raised: Why not deliver services this way on a regular basis?

…A Mobile Documents SAC also was developed to reach the most remote and deprived communities in Bahia. This Mobile SAC is a large, 18-wheel truck equipped with air-conditioning, TV set, toilets, and a covered waiting area. Inside the truck, four basic citizenship services are provided: issuance of birth certificates, identification card, labor identification card, and criminal record verification.

I feel very much like I’ve read about smaller trucks delivering services in other cities in Brazil as well – I believe one community in Brazil had mobile carts with computers on them that toured neighborhoods so citizens could more effectively participate in online petitions and crowdsourcing projects being run by the local government.

I’m not sure if the success of these projects in developing economy cities influenced the thinking in Boston – if yes, that is interesting. If not, it is still interesting. It suggests that thinking and logic behind this type innovation is occurring in several cities simultaneously, even if when these cities have markedly different levels of GDP per capita and internet access (among many other things). My hope is that those in government will be more and more willing to see how their counterparts elsewhere in the world – no matter where – are doing things. Money is tight for governments everywhere, so good ideas may be more likely to go from those who feel the burden of costs the greatest.

Uber in Vancouver: Some Thoughts for the Passenger Transportation Board

So last week the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) effectively shut down Uber in Vancouver by compelling the rides they arrange must charge a minimum $75 a trip, regardless of distance. Shortly after being announced, twitter lit up as Uber notified its customers of the decision and the hashtag #UberVanLove began directing angry (and deserved) tweets at government officials.

My thoughts on all this are evolving but I think the PTB has made a poor decision and hope that a compromise can be found.

Here’s a long piece explaining why.

Uber is different. Most people think that Uber is simply a new middleman, trying to cut out the current dispatchers (or work with them). This is not true, they are much more than that. As you can read in this Time magazine article, Uber is not just about connecting riders with drivers. For example:

Abyzov says the company has a “science team” working on dispatch algorithms to produce a predictive heat-map that helps local car companies and their drivers better anticipate rider demand. “We’re helping our partners build successful small businesses,”

So let’s be clear. This is about a learning company that is figuring out how to preposition cars in neighborhoods because it can anticipate demand. As far as I know (or have experienced) There is no taxi or town-car company in the lower-mainland that is even thinking that way. And this type of thinking has big implications. In San Francisco, it means the average wait time for an Uber car is 3 minutes.

Think about that for a second (I’m looking at you PTB).

This means that:

  • Efficiency: People are getting around the city much faster – increasing their productivity. For a city trying to compete globally, this matters.
  • Reliable: I’ve had taxi companies not commit to send me a car when I’m not at a fixed address because they assume I’ll hop in a roaming taxi before the one I ordered arrives. Because Uber let’s you rate the taxi, but also lets the taxi rate you, it increases the reliability of both taxis and passengers. This means fewer taxies chasing passengers who aren’t there, and fewer passengers left stranded by untrusting dispatchers.
  • Fewer cars: People are much more likely to get out of their car (or not own one at all) if they know they have reliable alternatives. Public transit and car sharing are important to this, and a highly effective car service, available at one’s finger tips would be a powerful addition to the mix. Speaking of reliable: a 3 minute average is pretty god damn reliable. Certainly more reliable than the taxi experience many receive in Vancouver.
  • Greener: Pre-positioning cars in neighborhoods where you can predict demand means fewer cars trolling for fares. In addition, because they are nearer to their fares, Uber cars are doubly more efficient. This means fewer carbon emissions. Also, more Uber rides means less pressure on downtown parking and, as I mentioned above, possibly fewer cars on the road.
  • Serve more neighborhoods: When you can predict demand it means you’ll better serve those pesky “under-served” suburban neighbourhoods Rather than having everybody chasing fares in the busiest part of town, you can be more strategic about how you deploy your cars.
  • Convient: Using the app is just easier. I can order a taxi in a crowded bar without having to talk to (and thus be misheard) by the dispatcher. As a user, the thing I’ve loved most about Uber is that when you book a car, you get to see where it is. So rather than relying on the dispatcher “assuring” you the car is only 5 minutes away, you can see on the make exactly where it is. (This is a bonus for those with awkward addresses, I’ve actually guided lost drivers to my location when I’ve been in a complicated cul-de-sac).

The other mistake is to assume that Uber is about town cars. Here in Vancouver the cosy oligarchy of taxis companies – and (from what I understand) the complete lack of independent taxis – means that they don’t want to work with Uber. And yet, while I’m an Uber user I’ve actually only used its town-car service once (to try it out), I mostly use Uber for taxis – while traveling on business in Toronto. Again, there are benefits.

  • Foreigner friendly: As someone less familiar with street addresses in Toronto, and totally unaware of taxi phone numbers, Uber locates me and brings a taxi to me. I don’t have to know much about my address. This makes it exceedingly tourist friendly. In addition, drivers are rated… so I can choose not to use poorly rated drivers – a major benefit. Last time I checked, tourism was big business in Vancouver. Wouldn’t it be nice if we made our city even easier to navigate for tourists?
  • Better for independent drivers: While some observers rail that Uber is a “foreign firm” it could be a valuable supplier for independent taxi drivers (were we to have any). As such, it might support a broader taxi driver community, one that was not beholden to one of the four players in our market. That, one would think, would be good for taxi drivers (but admittedly, potentially less good for big four companies who presently can take $522 taxi license the city issues and then resell it to drivers for $250,000-$500,000 per shift. That’s a pretty serious mark up. And while I’m sure it is great for the taxi companies… it is less clear to me how the city government, taxpayer, taxi user, or taxi drivers. Feels like a lot of lost tax revenue, or expensive barrier to entry. Heaven forbid we break up that arrangement. For more on the shady world of the taxi business in Vancouver, I suggest you read this excellent article by Luke Brocki.

The PTB should engage Uber and find a compromise because you know, I know, and everyone knows, that the types of innovations I describe above aren’t going to emerge organically out of the taxi industry in Vancouver (or, in any city for that matter). Kill Uber and you kill any incentive for the taxi industry to engage with the future. And frankly, that’s a pretty crappy outcome for everyone who takes taxis.

But, it gets worse. The PTB needs to know that failing to engage in Uber won’t make this problem go away. Uber is a downright straightforward problem/opportunity to manage. What is the PTB going to do when Hailo, Lyft, or SideCar elects to expand to Vancouver? Will we have to sit back and watch with envy as Torontonians, New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Londoners, Washingtonians (the list goes on and on) and others enjoy these services?

I’m not saying the PTB should accomodate Uber, I’m saying the PTB needs a strategy to accomodate a whole wave of innovators that are going to descend on the transportation business. Uber is just an opportunity to being figuring this out. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make these issues go away. More disruptive alternatives are on the way. You’d better start engaging this stuff today, while we passengers only hate you a little bit.

Vancouverites deserve a world class taxi and town car service. One that innovates and offers world class service. Today we have a company that is trying to do that, and more that are likely on the way. It would be nice if we had a PTB that worked with them rather than against them.

Some Additional Thought and Caveats on this Piece and this Issue.

1. Minister’s Response.

To describe the response by the minister responsible, Mary Polak as disappointing would be an understatement. Given she appoints the PTB and likely has some influence, she washed her hands of the issue so fast it she has little interest understanding what is actually going on. (For those who are upset at the PTB decision, I’d focus your tweets at her – particularly as she has gotten off relatively lightly.). My hope is that her, or someone in her staff, will see this piece and see that this issue won’t be going away, it is going to get bigger.

2. Some Thoughts on Uber

For those who who don’t like Uber and those interested in a little history:

Firstly. Yes, I am aware that Uber founder Travis Kalanick is a both fan of Ayn Rand and a fairly uncompromising person. Personally, I’m not a fan Ayn Rand’s writings. I think her books are terrible and that her understanding of how markets and society work (to say nothing of human relationships) is deeply, deeply flawed and certainly lacks nuance. And while some people use this as a basis to write mean articles about Kalanick I think it is a pretty poor line of attack. While I may disagree with its founders ideology (if that is what it is), I’m much more interested in the company’s impact and business model.

In regards to Kalanick being hardheaded (or other, less flattering descriptors), I’m aware of that too. Of course, the people who judge him are usually those who have not tried to do a start up, much less one that tries to alter a sometimes more than 100 year old industry that does not always benefit consumers (or its drivers). Do I agree with Uber’s approach? Not always. I think they screwed up badly in New York. At the same time, in many cities, I think they have had little choice. The current operators – who, let me remind you, compose a market oligarchy – are not exactly interested in innovation or new entrants. If you are going to try to change the way taxi service is delivered… being hardheaded is probably a job requirement. The fact that some taxi companies go after them is not a sign of them being a bully, it could be a sign that they will make the market place more competitive. Nor do I think that they mobilize their users makes them a “bully.” I find it interesting to contrast Uber with the case of PickupPal, a Canadian company that was equally at odds with similar transportation rules and who also started a massive petition (and ultimately had the law changed – much to the chagrin of bus companies). It’s noteworthy that PickupPal is not portrayed as the bully and is indeed celebrated as the triumph of the consumer over the vested interests of the status quo players.

3. Other Reading

Finally, Karen Fung has a good piece about the complexity of transport policy that I don’t really think makes the case for not letting Uber into the market, but is worth the read.

Also, as I mentioned in the piece, Luke Brocki’s piece, Taxiland, is definitely worth reading.

4. Poorly Formed Tweets

Oh, and I was disappointed to see this tweet by a journalist who I normally find quite thoughtful. A desire for more buses and for services like Uber are hardly mutually exclusive. Indeed, trying to pit the two options against each strikes me as downright counter productive. I’m in favour of all solutions that make increase options and diminish the dependency on car ownership. I’m happy to pay more taxes for better bus service, and at the same time, Uber strikes me as another (low cost) way to spark innovation and increase options.

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.

 

Re-Architecting the City by Changing the Timelines and Making it Disappear

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by one of the city’s near where I live to sit on an advisory board around the creation of their Digital Government strategy. For me the meeting was good since I felt that a cohort of us on the advisory board were really pushing the city into a place of discomfort (something you want an advisory board to do in certain ways). My sense is a big part of that conversation had to do with a subtle gap between the city staff and some of the participants around what a digital strategy should deal with.

Gord Ross (of Open Roads) – a friend and very smart guy – and I were debriefing afterwards about where and why the friction was arising.

We had been pushing the city hard on its need to iterate more and use data to drive decisions. This was echoed by some of the more internet oriented members of the board. But at one point I feel like I got healthy push back from one of the city staff. How, they asked, can I iterate when I’ve got 10-60 years timelines that I need to plan around? I simply cannot iterate when some of the investments I’m making are that longterm.

Gord raised Stewart Brands building layers as a metaphor which I think sums up the differing views nicely.

Brand presents his basic argument in an early chapter, “Shearing Layers,” which argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of pieces, each of which inherently changes at different rates. In his business-consulting manner, he calls these the “Six S’s” (borrowed in part from British architect and historian F. Duffy’s “Four S’s” of capital investment in buildings).

The Site is eternal; the Structure is good for 30 to 300 years (“but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons”); the Skin now changes every 15 to 20 years due to both weathering and fashion; the Services (wiring, plumbing, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling) change every seven to 15 years, perhaps faster in more technological settings; Space Planning, the interior partitioning and pedestrian flow, changes every two or three years in offices and lasts perhaps 30 years in the most stable homes; and the innermost layers of Stuff (furnishings) change continually.

My sense is the city staff are trying to figure out what the structure, skin and services layers should be for a digital plan, whereas a lot of us in the internet/tech world live occasionally in the services layer but most in the the space planning and stuff layers where the time horizons are WAY shorter. It’s not that we have to think that way, it is just that we have become accustomed to thinking that way… doubly so since so much of what works on the internet isn’t really “planned” it is emergent. As a result, I found this metaphor useful for trying to understanding how we can end up talking past one another.
It also goes to the heart of what I was trying to convey to the staff: that I think there are a number of assumptions governments make about what has been a 10 or 50 year lifecycle versus what that lifecycle could be in the future.
In other words, a digital strategy could allow some things “phase change” from being say in the skin or service layer to being able to operate on the faster timeline, lower capital cost and increased flexibility of a space planning layer. This could have big implications on how the city works. If you are buying software or hardware on the expectation that you will only have to do it every 15 years your design parameters and expectations will be very different than if it is designed for 5 years. It also has big implications for the systems that you connect to or build around that software. If you accept that the software will constantly be changing, easy integration becomes a necessary feature. If you think you will have things for decades than, to a certain degree, stability and rigidity are a byproduct.
This is why, if the choice is between trying to better predict how to place a 30 year bet (e.g. architect something to be in the skin or services layer) or place a 5 year bet (architect it to be in the space planning or stuff layer) put as much of it in the latter as possible. If you re-read my post on the US government’s Digital Government strategy, this is functionally what I think they are trying to do. By unbundling the data from the application they are trying to push the data up to the services layer of the metaphor, while pushing the applications built upon it down to the space planning and stuff layer.
This is not to say that nothing should be long term, or that everything long term is bad. I hope not to convey this. Rather, that by being strategic about what we place where we can foster really effective platforms (services) that can last for decades (think data) while giving ourselves a lot more flexibility around what gets built around them (think applications, programs, etc…).
The Goal
The reason why you want to do all this, is because you actually want to give the city the flexibility to a) compete in a global marketplace and b) make itself invisible to its citizens. I hinted at this goal the other day at the end of my piece in TechPresident on the UK’s digital government strategy.
On the competitive front I suspect that across Asia and Africa about 200 cities, and maybe a lot more, are going to get brand new infrastructure over the coming 100 years. Heck some of these cities are even being built from scratch. If you want your city to compete in that environment, you’d better be able to offer new and constantly improving services in order to keep up. If not, others may create efficiencies and discover improvements that given them structural advantages in the competition for talent and other resources.
But the other reason is that this kind of flexibility is, I think, critical to making (what Gord now has me referring to as the big “C” city) disappear. I like my government services best when they blend into my environment. If you live a privilidged Western World existence… how often do you think about electricity? Only when you flick the switch and it doesn’t work. That’s how I suspect most people want government to work. Seamless, reliable, designed into their lives, but not in the way of their lives. But more importantly, I want the “City” to be invisible so that it doesn’t get in the way of my ability to enjoy, contribute to, and be part of the (lower case) city – the city that we all belong to. The “city” as that messy, idea swapping, cosmopolitan, wealth and energy generating, problematic space that is the organism humans create where ever the gather in large numbers. I’d rather be writing the blog post on a WordPress installation that does a lot of things well but invisibly, rather than monkeying around with scripts, plugins or some crazy server language I don’t want to know. Likewise, the less time I spend on “the City,” and the more seamlessly it works, the more time I spend focused on “the city” doing the things that make life more interesting and hopefully better for myself and the world.
Sorry for the rambling post. But digesting a lot of thoughts. Hope there were some tasty pieces in that for you. Also, opaque blog post title eh? Okay bed time now.