Monthly Archives: May 2010

Canadian Governments: How to waste millions online ($30M and counting)

Back from DC and Toronto I’m feeling recharged and reinvigorated. The Gov 2.0 expo was fantastic, it was great to meet colleagues from around the world in person. The FCM AGM was equally exciting with a great turnout for our session on Government 2.0 and lots of engagement from the attendees.

So, now that I’m in a good mood, it’s only natural that I’m suddenly burning up about some awesomely poor decisions being made at the provincial level and that may also may be in the process of being made at the federal level.

Last year at the BC Chapter of the Municipal Information Systems Association conference I stumbled, by chance, into a session run by the British Columbia government about a single login system it was creating for government website. So I get that this sounds mundane but check this out: it would means that if you live in BC you’ll have a single login name and password when accessing any provincial government service. Convenient! Better still, the government was telling the municipalities that this system (still in development) could work for their websites too. So only one user name and password to access any government service in BC! It all sounds like $30 million (the number I think they quoted) well spent.

So what could be wrong with this…?

How about the fact that such a system already exists. For free.

Yes, OpenID, is a system that has been created to do just this. It’s free and licensed for use by anyone. Better still, it’s been adopted by a number of small institutions such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, PayPal, and Verisign and… none other than the US government which recently began a pilot adoption of it.

So let me ask you: Do you think the login system designed by the BC government is going to be more, or less secure that that an open source system that enjoys the support of Google, Yahoo, AOL, PayPal, Verisign and the US Government? Moreover, do we think that the security concerns these organizations have regarding their clients and citizens are less strict than those of the BC government?

I suspect not.

But that isn’t going to prevent us from sinking millions into a system that will be less secure and will costs millions more to sustain over the coming decades (since we’ll be the only ones using it… we’ll have to have uniquely trained people to sustain it!).

Of course, it gets worse. While the BC government is designing its own system, rumour has it that the Federal Government is looking into replacing Epass; it’s own aging website login system which, by the by, does not work with Firefox, a web browser used by only a quarter of all Canadians. Of course, I’m willing to bet almost anything that no one is even contemplating using OpenID. Instead, we will sink 10’s of millions of dollars (if not more…) into a system. Of course, what’s $100 million of taxpayer dollars…

Oh, and today’s my birthday! And despite the tone of this post I’m actually in a really good mood and have had a great time with friends, family and loved ones. And where will I be today…? At 30,000 ft flying to Ottawa for GovCamp Canada. Isn’t that appropriate? :)

Gov 2.0 Expo Ignite talk on Open Data as an old idea

First, sorry for the scant blogging this week. Being 6 weeks into a 10 week travel marathon that sees me crossing the continent 9 times the long days finally caught up with me. Also, I’ve been at the O’Reilly Media Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC which has been fantastic. Really, a sense of coming home. It has also been great to meet so many people that I’ve corresponded with, admired and/or whose work I’ve simply followed closely. Great moment was spending a hour with Tim Berners-Lee in the speakers lounge talking about open data and meeting up with the Sunlight Foundation team at their offices in DC. Real inspirations all of them.

Tomorrow I’m giving a talk at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on Open Data and the opportunity of Open Source software, so been busy there to, getting my thoughts together. I consider this one of the most important audiences I’ll talk to this year, this is a group that could transform how cities work in Canada – so I’m looking forward to it.

In the mean time, for those who were not at the Gov 2.0 expo I’ve pasted a clip of my talk below. It’s an ignite talk which means it last 5 minutes, I had to give them 20 slides in advance and those slide move forward every 15 seconds (I’m not controlling them!)

But then… forget my talk! There were a bunch of other (more) fantastic talks that can be found on the Gov 2.0 you-tube page here. I strongly encourage you to check them out!

Articles I'm digesting – 25/5/2010

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. A couple of good ones ranging from the last few months. Big thank you’s to those who sent me these pieces. Always enjoy.

The Meaning of Open by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, Product Management

Went back and re-read this. Every company makes mistakes and Google is no exception (privacy settings on Buzz being everyone’s favourite) but this statement, along with Google’s (which unlike Facebook is designed to ensure you can extract your information from Google’s services) shows why Google enjoys greater confidence than Facebook, Apple or any number of its competitors. If you’re in government, the private or the non-profit sector, read this post. This is how successful 21st century organizations think.

Local Governments Offer Data to Software Tinkerers by Claire Cain Miller (via David Nauman & Andrew Medd)

Another oldie (December 2009 is old?) but a goodie. Describes a little bit of the emerging eco-system for open local government data along with some of the tensions it is creating. Best head in the sand line:

Paul J. Browne, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, said it releases information about individual accidents to journalists and others who request it, but would not provide software developers with a regularly updated feed. “We provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” he said.

So… if I understand correctly, the NYPD will only give data to people who ask and prefer to tie up valuable resources filling out individual requests rather than just provide a constant feed that anyone can use. Got it. Uh, and just for the record, those “entrepreneurs” are the next generation of journalists and the people who will make the public information useful. The NYPD’s “public information” is effectively useless, much like that my home town police department offers. Does anyone actually looks at PDF’s and pictures of crimes? That you can only get on a weekly basis? Really? In an era of spreadsheets and google maps… no.

Didacticism in Game Design by Clint Hocking (via Lauren Bacon) readers meet Clint Hocking. My main sadness in introducing you is that you’ll discover how a truly fantastic, smart blog reads. The only good news for me us that you are hopefully more interested in public policy, open source and things I dwell on than video games, so Clint won’t steal you all away. Just many of you.

A dash of a long post post that is worth reading

As McLuhan says: the medium is the message. When canned, discrete moral choices are rendered in games with such simplicity and lack of humanity, the message we are sending is not the message specific to the content in question (the message in the canned content might be quite beautiful – but it’s not a ludic message) – it is the message inherent in the form in which we’ve presented it: it effectively says that ‘being moral is easy and only takes a moment out of each hour’. To me, this is almost the opposite of the deeper appreciation of humanity we might aim to engender in our audience.

Clint takes video games seriously. And so should you.

The Analytic Mode by David Brooks (via David Brock)

These four lines alone make this piece worth reading. Great lessons for students of policy and politics:

  • The first fiction was that government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal truths.
  • The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding and compromise that presidents [or anyone!] actually get anything done.
  • The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.
  • The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty

The case against non-profit news sites by Bill Wyman (via Andrew Potter)

Yes, much better that news organizations be beholden to a rich elite than paying readers… Finally someone takes on the idea that a bunch of enlightened rich people or better, rich corporate donors, are going to save “the news.” Sometimes it feels like media organizations are willing to do anything they can to avoid actually having to deal with paying customers. Be it using advertisers and relying on rich people to subsidize them, anything appears to be better than actually fighting for customers.

That’s what I love about Demand Media. Some people decry them as creating tons of cheap content, but at least they looked at the market place and said: This is a business model that will work. Moreover, they are responding to a real customer demand – searches in google.

Wyman’s piece also serves as a good counterpoint to the recent Walrus advertising campaign which essentially boiled down to: Canada needs the Walrus and so you should support it. The danger here is that people at the Walrus believe this line: That they are of value and essential to Canada even if no one (or very few people) bought them or read them. I think people should buy The Walrus not because it would be good for the country but because it is engaging, informative and interesting to Canadians (or citizens of any country). I think the Walrus can have great stories (Gary Stephen Ross’s piece A Tale of Two Cities is a case in point), but if you have a 1 year lead time for an article, that’s going to hard to pull off in the internet era, foundation or no foundation. I hope the Walrus stays with us, but Wyman’s article serves up some arguments worth contemplating.

Open Data: An Example of the Long Tail of Public Policy at Work

VancouverGraffiti_AnalysisAs many readers know, Vancouver passed what has locally been termed the Open3 motion a year ago and has had a open data portal up and running for several months.

Around the world much of the focus of open data initiatives have focused on the development of applications like Vancouver’s Vantrash, Washington DC’s Stumble Safely or Toronto’s Childcare locator. But the other use of data portals is to actually better understand and analyze phenomena in a city – all of which can potentially lead to a broader diversity of perspectives, better public policy and a more informed public and/or decision makers.

I was thus pleased to find out about another example of what I’ve been calling the Long Tail of Public Policy when I received an email from Victor Ngo, a student at the University of British Columbia who just completed his 2nd year in the Human Geography program with an Urban Studies focus (He’s also a co-op student looking for a summer job – nudge to the City of Vancouver).

It turns out that last month, he and two classmates did a project on graffiti occurrence and its relationship to land use, crime rates, and socio-economic variables. As Victor shared with me:

It was a group project I did with two other members in March/April. It was for an introductory GIS class and given our knowledge, our analysis was certainly not as robust and refined as it could have been. But having been responsible for GIS analysis part of the project, I’m proud of what we accomplished.

The “Graffiti sites” shapefile was very instrumental to my project. I’m a big fan of the site and I’ll be using it more in the future as I continue my studies.

So here we have University students in Vancouver using real city data to work on projects that could provide some insights, all while learning. This is another small example of why open data matters. This is the future of public policy development. Today Victor may be a student, less certain about the quality of his work (don’t underestimate yourself, Victor) but tomorrow he could be working for government, a think tank, a consulting firm, an insurance company or a citizen advocacy group. But wherever he is, the open data portal will be a resource he will want to turn to.

With Victor’s permission I’ve uploaded his report, Graffiti in the Urban Everyday – Comparing Graffiti Occurrence with Crime Rates, Land Use, and Socio-Economic Indicators in Vancouver, to my site so anyone can download it. Victor has said he’d love to get people’s feedback on it.

And what was the main drawback of using the open data? There wasn’t enough of it.

…one thing I would have liked was better crime statistics, in particular, the data for the actual location of crime occurrence. It would have certainly made our analysis more refined. The weekly Crime Maps that the VPD publishes is an example of what I mean:

You’re able to see the actual location where the crime was committed. We had to tabulate data from summary tables found at:

To translate: essentially the city releases this information in a non-machine-readable format, meaning that citizens, public servants at other levels of government and (I’m willing to wager) City of Vancouver public servants outside the police department have to recreate the data in a digital format. What a colossal waste of time and energy. Why not just share the data in a structured digital way? The city already makes it public, why not make it useful as well? This is what Washington DC (search crime) and San Francisco have done.

I hope that more apps get created in Vancouver, but as a public policy geek, I’m also hoping that more reports like these (and the one Bing Thom architects published on the future of Vancouver also using data from the open data catalog) get published. Ultimately, more people learning, thinking, writing and seeking solutions to our challenges will create a smarter, more vibrant and more successful city. Isn’t that what you’d want your city government (or any government, really…) to do?

Parliament: invite me to audit your books (I'm not really asking)

“Following careful consideration, the auditor general will not be invited to conduct a performance audit of the House of Commons”

– A parliamentary statement released last Thursday afternoon

There was a time when the above statement made sense. It was a time when accounts were kept on paper, when copying and shipping such papers was expensive and time consuming, and when the number of people who would have gone through a giant binder of accounts would have been quite small.

In such an era, auditors had a unique role – they represented the interests of the public since the public could not review the books themselves. Thus, picking the auditor mattered. Since this person would be one of the few people with the time, resources, and access to review MP’s accounts, it became a powerful and politically sensitive position. The public demanded someone they could trust, the politicians – justifiably – wanted to ensure that this person would not abuse their role by shedding light on certain members or applying standards unevenly. Hence, choosing who would see the books mattered, since few people, if anyone, would review the work of the auditor.

So should Parliament acquiesce to the auditor general and hand over their books to her? She meets all the standards set above so the answer seems like it should be yes. But it isn’t. the auditor general does not oversee parliament, and she should not receive special access, nor should we begin to establish precedent that she does.


We don’t live in an era described above. Today, the accounts are kept in a digital format. It should be easy to convert them to Microsoft Excel or another computer format. They could be posted online where anyone could download and look at them at no cost. And, as the Guardian newspaper proved last year, thousands and thousands of people would be interested in using their computers to analyze and write about them.

What Parliament should do is hand their expense accounts over to everyone. Indeed, I am today making that formal request: I would like Parliament to invite Canadian taxpayers – the people who vote for them, who pay their salaries, and who cover their expenses – to review their books. Please take all the expenses and post them online. Today.

As in the United Kingdom I am confident that many Canadians will take an interest in the accounts. The Guardian asked people to help review the accounts and ordinary citizens from across the UK found a number of unusual claims. Others took the information about expenses and visualized it in interesting ways, ways that allowed citizens to better understand how their money was being spent.

Would the process be painful for MPs? Possibly for some. Would it lead to a clamp down on MP’s expenses? I have my doubts. I think most people recognize that MPs engage in a tremendous amount of travel and, more importantly, want their MPs to use these funds to educate themselves, conduct research, think independently and, of course, better represent their constituents. But there will be little or no money for these important activities if people feel that expense accounts get used up on other activities.

More importantly, posting MP’s accounts could reduce the likelihood of misspending in the future – a truly good outcome. Our goal shouldn’t be to catch problems after the fact, but to prevent them in the first place. Knowing that constituents will be able to see one’s expenses can be a more effective constraint than any ethics or spending guideline. Indeed, this is the same argument I made around why publicly accessible charitable receipts should be downloadable as such an act might have saved taxpayers $3.2 Billion. Here the stakes are smaller, but no less important.

In the end, as this is our government, this is also our money, and these are our documents. Parliament, we would like you to invite us to see what is already ours, so that we can collectively do our own analysis. If the auditor-general wants to do hers as well… power to her. But we agree that you are not accountable to her. You are accountable to us.

Mick Jagger & why copyright doesn't always help artists

I recently read this wonderful interview with Mick Jagger on the BBC website which had this fantastic extract about the impact of the internet on the music industry. What I love about this interview is that Mick Jagger is, of course, about as old a legend as you can find in the music industry.

…I’m talking about the internet.

But that’s just one facet of the technology of music. Music has been aligned with technology for a long time. The model of records and record selling is a very complex subject and quite boring, to be honest.

But your view is valid because you have a huge catalogue, which is worth a lot of money, and you’ve been in the business a long time, so you have perspective.

Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

Are you quite relaxed about it?

I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records.

But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.

So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

So what does this have to do with copyright? Well, remember, the record labels and other content distributors (not creators!) keep saying how artists will starve unless there is copyright. But understand that for the entire 110-year period that Mick Jagger is referencing there was copyright… and yet artists were paid to record LPs and records for only a small fraction (less than a quarter) of that period. During the rest of the time, the way they made money was by performing. There is nothing about a stronger copyright regime that ensures artists (the creators!) will receive for more money or compensation.

So when the record labels say that without stricter copyright legislation artists will suffer, what they really mean to say is one specific business model – one that requires distributors and that they happen to do well by – will suffer. Artists, who traditionally never received much from the labels (and even during this 25 year period only a tiny few profited handsomely) have no guarantees that with stricter copyright they will see more revenue. No, rather, the distributors will simply own their content for longer and have greater control over its use.

This country is about to go into a dark, dark place with the new copyright legislation. I suspect we will end up stalled for 30 years and cultural innovation will shift to other parts of the world where creativity, remix culture and forms of artistic expression are kept more free.

Again, as Lessig says:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

Welcome to copyright reform. A Canada where the past controls the creativity that gets built upon it.

Mozilla and leadership: Rethinking the CEO

Last week John Lily – CEO of Mozilla – announced he will be stepping down to take a job at Greylock, a venture capital firm. I’ve only met John twice, and both times he was generous with both his time and willingness to engage some of my thoughts and (many) questions. I know he is a huge asset to Mozilla and has done a great deal to help mature the organization.

With the Mozilla now planning a CEO succession it seems like an opportune time to raise an idea that first came to me a few months ago: Should Mozilla rename the role of CEO?

Why change the title? My interest is that the title communicate the message of Mozilla mission and its method. CEO’s are usually (although, admittedly not exclusively) associated with traditional companies, and to a lesser degree, hierarchical decision making structures. Indeed, if asked what words I were to associate with the CEO I think “authority,” “command” and “hierarchy” would be among the top to jump into my mind.

Mozilla has never been, and I hope never will be, a traditional software company. It is not profit driven but mission driven – its goal is to keep the web open in part by providing a competitive, open standards compliant web-browser. More importantly, the Mozilla models depends not on a large staff to succeed, but on a community of volunteers whose donations of time and code are coordinated by a (relatively) small staff.

So what do I think the core values the titles of Mozilla’s leadership needs to communicate? I think authority and command are definitely part of the mix. Ultimately the senior leadership of Mozilla needs to make difficult strategic and management choices, just like a CEO. But one of the things that I think makes the role so difficult (and different) is that it requires other key attributes as well, including “engagement,” “fun,” and “community.” Let’s face it, if your capacity to create software depends on a volunteer community, that community had better be fun, engaging and with – ideally – low transaction costs.

None of this, I think, is new. Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s chairman and Lily’s predecessor, retains the title she popularly used while in her previous job: Chief Lizard Wrangler (also the name of her blog). That title says it all: Fun, community-oriented, hints at decision-making that is consultative, but still a dose of authority…

So, can we find a new title that reflects these values? I know at Mozilla solutions are prized above observations but I’ll confess I’m a little short on suggestion (I actually love Chief Lizard Wrangler and wonder if that should not be the title). Community Director (as opposed to Executive Director) has come to mind. I’m ultimately not attached to a given solution, I just believe it is important that the title be consistent with the spirit and values of the Mozilla project. I know that the leadership and staff have a lot of its plate and that this is not the most critical issue, but I wanted to put the thought out there nonetheless as symbols such as these matter, I believe especially in mission driven organizations.