Tag Archives: public policy

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.

The UK's Digital Government Strategy – Worth a Peek

I’ve got a piece up on TechPresident about the UK Government’s Digital Strategy which was released today.

The strategy (and my piece!) are worth checking out. They are saying a lot of the right things – useful stuff for anyone in industry or sector that has been conservative vis-a-vis online services (I’m looking at you governments and banking).

As  I note in the piece… there is reason we should expect better:

The second is that the report is relatively frank, as far as government reports go. The website that introduces the three reports is emblazoned with an enormous title: “Digital services so good that people prefer to use them.” It is a refreshing title that amounts to a confession I’d like to see from more governments: “sorry, we’ve been doing it wrong.” And the report isn’t shy about backing that statement up with facts. It notes that while the proportion of Internet users who shop online grew from 74 percent in 2005 to 86 percent in 2011, only 54 percent of UK adults have used a government service online. Many of those have only used one.

Of course the real test will come with execution. The BC Government, the White House and others have written good reports on digital government, but it is rolling it out that is the tricky part. The UK Government has pretty good cred as far as I’m concerned, but I’ll be watching.

You can read the piece here – hope you enjoy!

Broken Government: A Case Study in Penny Wise but Pound Foolish Management

Often I write about the opportunities of government 2.0, but it is important for readers to be reminded of just how challenging the world of government 1.0 can be, and how far away any uplifting future can feel.

I’ve stumbled upon a horrifically wonderful example of how tax payers are about to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money so that a ton of paper can be pushed around Ottawa to little or no effect. Ironically, it will all in the name of savings and efficiency.

And, while you’ll never see this reported in a newspaper it’s a perfect case study of the type of small decision that renders (in this case the Canadian) government both less effective and more inefficient. Governments: take note.

First, the context. Treasury Board (the entity that oversees how money is spent across the Canadian government) recently put out a simple directive. It stipulates all travel costs exceeding $25,000 must get Ministerial approval and costs from $5000-$25,000 must get Deputy Head approval.

Here are the relevant bits of texts since no sane human should read the entire memo (infer what you wish about me from that):

2.5.1 Ministerial approval is required when total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $25,000.

and

2.5.5 Deputy head approval of an event is required when the event has the following characteristics:

Total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $5,000 but are less than $25,000; or

Total hospitality costs associated with the event exceed $1,500 but are less than $5,000; and

None of the elements listed in 2.5.2 a. to g. are present for which delegated authority has not been provided.

This sounds all very prudent-like. Cut down on expenses! Make everyone justify travel! Right? Except the memo suggests (and, I’m told is being interpreted) as meaning that it should be applied to any event – including an external conference, but even internal planning meetings.

To put this in further context for those who work in the private sector: if you worked for a large publicly traded company – say one with over 5,000, 10,000 or even more employees – the Minister is basically the equivalent of the Chairman of the Board. And the Deputy head? They are like the CEO.

Imagine creating a rule at such a company like Ford, that required an imaginary “safety engineering team” to get the chairman of the company to sign off on their travel expenses – months in advance – if, say, 10 of them needed to collectively spend $25,000 to meet in person or attend an important safety conference. It gets worse. If the team were smaller, say 3-5 people and they could keep the cost to $5000 they would still need approval from the CEO. In such a world it would be hard to imagine new products being created, new creative cost saving ideas getting hammered out. In fact, it would be hard for almost any distributed team to meet without creating a ton of paperwork. Over time, customers would begin to notice as work slowly ground to a halt.

This is why this isn’t making government more efficient. It is going to make it crazier.

It’s also going to make it much, much, more ineffective and inefficient.

For example, this new policy may cause a large number of employees to determine that getting approval for travel is too difficult and they’ll simply give up. Mission accomplished! Money saved! And yes, some of this travel was probably not essential. But much, and likely a significant amount was. Are we better governed? Are we safer? Is our government smarter, in a country where say inspectors, auditors, policy experts and other important decision makers (especially those in the regions) are no longer learning at conferences, participating in key processes or attending meetings about important projects because the travel was too difficult to get approval for? Likely not.

But there is a darker conclusion to draw as well.  There is probably a significant amount of travel that remains absolutely critical. So now we are going to have public servants writing thousands of briefing notes every year seeking to get approval by directors, and then revising them again for approval by director generals (DGs), and again for the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), and again for the Deputy Minister (DMs) and again, possibly, for Ministerial approval.

That is a truly fantastic waste of the precious time of a lot of very, very senior people. To say nothing of the public servants writing, passing around, revising and generally pushing all these memos.

I’ll go further. I have every confidence that for every one dollar in travel this policy managed to deter from being requested, $500 dollars in the time of Directors, DGs, ADMs, DMs and other senior staff will have been wasted.  Given Canada is a place where the population – and thus a number of public servants – are thinly spread across an over 4000 kilometer wide stretch I suspect there is a fair bit of travel that needs to take place. Using Access to Information Requests you might even be able to ball park how much time was wasted on these requests/memos.

Worse, I’m not even counting the opportunity cost. Rather than tackling the critical problems facing our country, the senior people will be swatting away TPS reports travel budget requests. The only companies I know that run themselves this way are those that have filed for bankruptcy and essentially are not spending any money as they wait to be restructured or sold. They aren’t companies that are trying to solve any new problems, and are certainly not those trying to find creative or effective ways to save money.

In the end, this tells us a lot of about the limits of hierarchical systems. Edicts are a blunt tool – they seldom (if ever) solve the root of a problem and more often simply cause new, bigger problems since the underlying issues remain unresolved. There are also some wonderful analogies to wikileaks and denial of service attacks that I’ll save that for tomorrow.

 

 

How Government should interact with Developers, Data Geeks and Analysts

Below is a screen shot from the Opendatabc google group from about two months ago. I meant to blog about this earlier but life has been in the way. For me, this is a prefect example of how many people in the data/developer/policy world probably would like to interact with their local, regional or national government.

A few notes on this interaction:

  • I occasionally hear people try to claim the governments are not responsive to requests for data sets. Some aren’t. Some are. To be fair, this was not a request for the most controversial data set in the province. But it is was a request. And it was responded to. So clearly there are some governments that are responsive. The questions is figuring out which one’s are, why they are, and see if we can export that capacity to other jurisdictions.
  • This interaction took place in a google group – so the whole context is social and norm driven. I love that public officials in British Columbia as well as with the City of Vancouver are checking in every once in a while on google groups about open data, contributing to conversations and answering questions that citizens have about government, policies and open data. It’s a pretty responsive approach. Moreover, when people are not constructive it is the group that tends to moderate the behaviour, rather than some leviathan.
  • Yes, I’ve blacked out the email/name of the public servant. This is not because I think they’d mind being known or because they shouldn’t be know, but because I just didn’t have a chance to ask for permission. What’s interesting is that this whole interaction is public and the official was both doing what that government wanted and compliant with all social media rules. And yet, I’m blacking it out, which is a sign of how messed up current rules and norms make citizens relationships with public officials they interact with online -I’m worried of doing something wrong by telling others about a completely public action. (And to be clear, the province of BC has really good and progressive rules around these types of things)
  • Yes, this is not the be all end all of the world. But it’s a great example of a small thing being doing right. It’s nice to be able to show that to other government officials.

 

The US Government's Digital Strategy: The New Benchmark and Some Lessons

Last week the White House launched its new roadmap for digital government. This included the publication of Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People (PDF version), the issuing of a Presidential directive and the announcement of White House Innovation Fellows.

In other words, it was a big week for those interested in digital and open government. Having had some time to digest these docs and reflect upon them, below are some thoughts on these announcement and lessons I hope governments and other stakeholders take from it.

First off, the core document – Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People – is a must read if you are a public servant thinking about technology or even about program delivery in general. In other words, if your email has a .gov in it or ends in something like .gc.ca you should probably read it. Indeed, I’d put this document right up there with another classic must read, The Power of Information Taskforce Report commissioned by the Cabinet Office in the UK (which if you have not read, you should).

Perhaps most exciting to me is that this is the first time I’ve seen a government document clearly declare something I’ve long advised governments I’ve worked with: data should be a layer in your IT architecture. The problem is nicely summarized on page 9:

Traditionally, the government has architected systems (e.g. databases or applications) for specific uses at specific points in time. The tight coupling of presentation and information has made it difficult to extract the underlying information and adapt to changing internal and external needs.

Oy. Isn’t that the case. Most government data is captured in an application and designed for a single use. For example, say you run the license renewal system. You update your database every time someone wants to renew their license. That makes sense because that is what the system was designed to do. But, maybe you like to get track, in real time, how frequently the database changes, and by who. Whoops. System was designed for that because that wasn’t needed in the original application. Of course, being able to present the data in that second way might be a great way to assess how busy different branches are so you could warn prospective customers about wait times. Now imagine this lost opportunity… and multiply it by a million. Welcome to government IT.

Decoupling data from application is pretty much close to the first think in the report. Here’s my favourite chunk from the report (italics mine, to note extra favourite part).

The Federal Government must fundamentally shift how it thinks about digital information. Rather than thinking primarily about the final presentation—publishing web pages, mobile applications or brochures—an information-centric approach focuses on ensuring our data and content are accurate, available, and secure. We need to treat all content as data—turning any unstructured content into structured data—then ensure all structured data are associated with valid metadata. Providing this information through web APIs helps us architect for interoperability and openness, and makes data assets freely available for use within agencies, between agencies, in the private sector, or by citizens. This approach also supports device-agnostic security and privacy controls, as attributes can be applied directly to the data and monitored through metadata, enabling agencies to focus on securing the data and not the device.

To help, the White House provides a visual guide for this roadmap. I’ve pasted it below. However, I’ve taken the liberty to highlight how most governments try to tackle open data on the right – just so people can see how different the White House’s approach is, and why this is not just an issue of throwing up some new data but a total rethink of how government architects itself online.

There are of course, a bunch of things that flow out of the White House’s approach that are not spelled out in the document. The first and most obvious is once you make data an information layer you have to manage it directly. This means that data starts to be seen and treated as a asset – this means understanding who’s the custodian and establishing a governance structure around it. This is something that, previously, really only libraries and statistical bureaus have really understand (and sometimes not even!).

This is the dirty secret about open data – is that to do it effectively you actually have to start treating data as an asset. For the White House the benefit of taking that view of data is that it saves money. Creating a separate information layer means you don’t have to duplicate it for all the different platforms you have. In addition, it gives you more flexibility in how you present it, meaning the costs of showing information on different devices (say computers vs. mobile phones) should also drop. Cost savings and increased flexibility are the real drivers. Open data becomes an additional benefit. This is something I dive into deeper detail in a blog post from July 2011: It’s the icing, not the cake: key lesson on open data for governments.

Of course, having a cool model is nice and all, but, as like the previous directive on open government, this document has hard requirements designed to force departments to being shifting their IT architecture quickly. So check out this interesting tidbit out of the doc:

While the open data and web API policy will apply to all new systems and underlying data and content developed going forward, OMB will ask agencies to bring existing high-value systems and information into compliance over a period of time—a “look forward, look back” approach To jump-start the transition, agencies will be required to:

  • Identify at least two major customer-facing systems that contain high-value data and content;
  • Expose this information through web APIs to the appropriate audiences;
  • Apply metadata tags in compliance with the new federal guidelines; and
  • Publish a plan to transition additional systems as practical

Note the language here. This is again not a “let’s throw some data up there and see what happens” approach. I endorse doing that as well, but here the White House is demanding that departments be strategic about the data sets/APIs they create. Locate a data set that you know people want access to. This is easy to assess. Just look at pageviews, or go over FOIA/ATIP requests and see what is demanded the most. This isn’t rocket science – do what is in most demand first. But you’d be surprised how few governments want to serve up data that is in demand.

Another interesting inference one can make from the report is that its recommendations embrace the possibility of participants outside of government – both for and non-profit – can build services on top of government information and data. Referring back to the chart above see how the Presentation Layer includes both private and public examples? Consequently, a non-profits website dedicated to say… job info veterans could pull live data and information from various Federal Government websites, weave it together and present in a way that is most helpful to the veterans it serves. In other words the opportunity for innovation is fairly significant. This also has two addition repercussions. It means that services the government does not currently offer – at least in a coherent way – could be woven together by others. It also means there may be information and services the government simply never chooses to develop a presentation layer for – it may simply rely on private or non-profit sector actors (or other levels of government) to do that for it. This has interesting political ramifications in that it could allow the government to “retreat” from presenting these services and rely on others. There are definitely circumstances where this would make me uncomfortable, but the solution is not to not architect this system this way, it is to ensure that such programs are funded in a way that ensures government involvement in all aspects – information, platform and presentation.

At this point I want to interject two tangential thoughts.

First, if you are wondering why it is your government is not doing this – be it at the local, state or national level. Here’s a big hint: this is what happens when you make the CIO an executive who reports at the highest level. You’re just never going to get innovation out of your government’s IT department if the CIO reports into the fricking CFO. All that tells me is that IT is a cost centre that should be focused on sustaining itself (e.g. keeping computers on) and that you see IT as having no strategic relevance to government. In the private sector, in the 21st century, this is pretty much the equivalent of committing suicide for most businesses. For governments… making CIO’s report into CFO’s is considered a best practice. I’ve more to say on this. But I’m taking a deep breath and am going to move on.

Second, I love how the document also is so clear on milestones – and nicely visualized as well. It may be my poor memory but I feel like it is rare for me to read a government road map on any issues where the milestones are so clearly laid out.

It’s particularly nice when a government treats its citizens as though they can understand something like this, and aren’t afraid to be held accountable for a plan. I’m not saying that other governments don’t set out milestones (some do, many however do not). But often these deadlines are buried in reams of text. Here is a simply scorecard any citizen can look at. Of course, last time around, after the open government directive was issued immediately after Obama took office, they updated these score cards for each department, highlight if milestones were green, yellow or red, depending on how the department was performing. All in front of the public. Not something I’ve ever seen in my country, that’s for sure.

Of course, the document isn’t perfect. I was initially intrigued to see the report advocates that the government “Shift to an Enterprise-Wide Asset Management and Procurement Model.” Most citizens remain blissfully unaware of just how broken government procurement is. Indeed, I say this dear reader with no idea where you live and who your government is, but I enormously confident your government’s procurement process is totally screwed. And I’m not just talking about when they try to buy fighter planes. I’m talking pretty much all procurement.

Today’s procurement is perfectly designed to serve one group. Big (IT) vendors. The process is so convoluted and so complicated they are really the only ones with the resources to navigate it. The White House document essentially centralizes procurement further. On the one hand this is good, it means the requirements around platforms and data noted in the document can be more readily enforced. Basically the centre is asserting more control at the expense of the departments. And yes, there may be some economies of scale that benefit the government. But the truth is whenever procurement decision get bigger, so to do the stakes, and so to does the process surrounding them. Thus there are a tiny handful of players that can respond to any RFP and real risks that the government ends up in a duopoly (kind of like with defense contractors). There is some wording around open source solutions that helps address some of this, but ultimately, it is hard to see how the recommendations are going to really alter the quagmire that is government procurement.

Of course, these are just some thoughts and comments that struck me and that I hope, those of you still reading, will find helpful. I’ve got thoughts on the White House Innovation Fellows especially given it appears to have been at least in part inspired by the Code for America fellowship program which I have been lucky enough to have been involved with. But I’ll save those for another post.