“I guess my attack to this has always been from the perspective of are we working in a bubble. In other words, when this was… under this initiative by the President, how quick was the takeup by the population at large? Not by the people that we affectionately call geeks, or people who don’t have a life, or don’t come up out of the dark, or whatever. The average person walking through Times Square I guess is what I’m trying to say. How quick was their take up, and in fact has there been a takeup?”
– Jim Abbott, ETHI Meeting No. 47, Open Government Study, March 2, 2011
Yes, the above quote comes from Jim Abbott, Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Kootenay—Columbia during the testimony of Beth Noveck, President Obama’s former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government (her statement can be found here). You can see the remarks in the online video here, at around the 1:17:50 mark.
First, I want to be clear. This is disappointing, not on a political level, but on an individual level. During my testimony for the ETHI committee (which I intend to blog about) I found members of all parties – NDP, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and Conservative – deeply interested in the subject matter, asking thoughtful questions and expressing legitimate concerns. Indeed, I was struck by Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative MP for Napean-Carleton, who asked a number of engaging questions, particularly around licenses. That’s a level of sophistication around the issue that many people don’t care to ask about. Moreover, many of the committee members grasped the economic and social opportunity around open data.
Jim Abbott, in contrast, may believe that describing technologists and geeks as people who “don’t have a life” or “don’t come up out of the dark” is affectionate, but I’m not so sure these stereotypes are so endearing, especially given how they aren’t true. Moreover, his comments are particularly unfortunate as it’s the people he (affectionately) demeans who created RIM, OpenText, Cognos, and thousands of other successful technology companies that pump billions into the Canadian economy, employ hundreds of thousands, and do actually impact the “person on the street.” But a few simple demeaning words can make one forget these contributions or worse, make them sound insignificant.
Of course, it will be the work of these people that creates the open data applications that, in the US at least, already impact the average person walking through Times Square (consider this lifesaving app that was created by a hacker using opendata). Indeed, there are a growing number of businesses consuming and using open data, some even valued in the billions of dollars and used by millions of americans every day.
The sad part is they will only be available to the people in Times Square, or Trafalgar Square or on the Champs-Élysées since the Americans, British and French all have national open data portals (among numerous other countries). There will be no uptake for people on Wellington St., Queen St., Robson St. or wherever, since without a national open data portal in Canada, there can be no uptake. (It’s not easy to be behind the French government on an issue related to the digital economy, but we’ve somehow managed).
But forget the economic opportunity. There is also the question of government transparency and accountability. What makes the above statement so disappointing is that it exposes how an MP who for so long railed for greater transparency in government, has suddenly decided that transparency is no longer important unless “there is sufficient uptake.”
One wonders what Jim Abbott of 2000 would say of Jim Abbott of 2011? Because back in a pre-2001 era Jim Abbott had fantastic quotes like this:
I suggest in the strongest way possible to the minister that even if we can get him to clear up the history of the Canada Information Office, which I do not have a lot of hope for but I am asking for, from this point forward there must be proper transparency of the Canada Information Office. The country needs openness and transparency because democracy cannot be true democracy without openness and transparency.
Second, the difficulty the government has created with the Canada Information Office is that many of the contracts and much of the ongoing activity have been conducted in a way that does not befit what we are in Canada, which is a democracy. In a democracy the people depend on the people in the Chamber to hold the government accountable for the affairs of the government and to be as transparent as possible.
It will never have the transparency that it must have in a democracy. It is just absolutely unacceptable.
I could go on…
(If you are wondering how I was able to dig up these quotes, please check out OpenParliament.ca – it really is extraordinary tool and again, shows the power of open (parliamentary) data).
But more importantly, and on point, it seems to me that Jim Abbott from the year 2000 would see open data as a important way to ensure greater transparency. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Canada Information Office had had its budget and expenditures available as open data? Wouldn’t that have brought about some of the accountability the 2000 Jim Abbott would have sought? Sadly, and strangely, Jim Abbott of 2011 no longer seems to feel that way.
Yes, if only he could meet Jim Abbott of 2000, I think they’d have a great debate.
Of course, Jim Abbott of 2000 can’t meet Jim Abbott of 2011, and so it is up to us to (re)educate him. And on that front, I have, so far, clearly failed the tech community, the open data community and the government accountability community. Hopefully with time and more effort, that will change. Maybe next time I’m in Ottawa, Jim Abbott and I can grab coffee and I can try again.