Category Archives: commentary

Open Data Day 2014 – Five Fun Events Around the World

With over 110 Events happening world wide it is impossible to talk about every Open Data Day event. But looking almost every event on the wiki I’ve been deeply moved and inspired by the various efforts, goals and aspirations of the people who have organized these events.

In order to help others understand why Open Data Day matters as well as what can happen on it, here are five open data day events that I’m stumbled across that are doing something particularly fun or interesting.

1. Capetown & Johannesburg, South Africa

Their Description:

Coders, data wranglers and data investigators will pair up to look at one of three openly available datasets we have on hand, and work out the most interesting questions they can ask of it in less than half an hour. After 30 minutes, it’s all change – another desk, another partnership, another exciting data set to turn into a story.

What we’re hoping is that you’ll learn tips and tricks for getting data, querying it, creating quick visualizations and turning it to stories that people want to know about. You’ll learn from different people with a variety of skills, hopefully that you wouldn’t normally work with. And we’re also hoping it will be four hours of fun.

Why I love it: I love the focus on learning. With the participation of hacks and hackers the goal is clearly to help journalists and citizens learn new skills, not so they can do something with the data sets available on open data day, but so they can better play with data sets in the future to pursue stories or help a community. The point of speed data dating is thus not to build a product, the product is the skills and networks developed and, with luck the future stories and analyses that will be told by those who participated.

2. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Their description:

On February 22nd we will go out to the street and play with local data and some street artists to create beautiful visualizations.

Why I love it: Street art open data? What a great way to try to raise awareness of the importance of data literacy and transparency. In addition, how awesome is it to move outside the digital realm and use data to create artifacts that are not necessarily digital. And if there are artists involved? Jer would be so happy to read about this.

3. Greenfield, MA, United States

Their description:

We’re convening a small group to work with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments on a user-friendly way to map private wells in Western Massachusetts…

…Why is it important to map wells?

  • Only about 5% of private wells in Massachusetts are geolocated.
  • Many towns in Western Mass rely 100% on private wells.

Not knowing where our wells are can (and does) lead to water contaminated by nearby septic systems, dumping, and pollutant storage. Aside from the obvious health concerns, there are also financial implications from remediation costs and lowered property values.

Why I love it: Wow, WOW, WOW!!! This is maybe one of the coolest open data day events I’ve ever seen. Here you have a small community focusing on a problem that is real and tangible to them. Moreover, open data could have a direct and meaningful impact on the issue. I love the focus. I love that rallying point. I love the high impact with low resources (their building has minimal heat – so they are advising people to layer up). I wish these crew all the best success and hope to see an update.

4. Nagoya, Japan

Their Description:

Now, highlight of this year is “data of Nagoya Castle!”

The nearly 300 maps and survey drawings of the Nagoya Castle will be made open prior to Open Data Day. The Nagoya Castle office is cooperating with us and has decided that we can use their data for “International Open Data Day.” The references to the image are here.

Why I love it: Well – fill disclosure, my understanding of this event is through the prism of Google translate. But if I understood correctly… there are a few open data events in Japan that have a strong focus on local history which I find totally fascinating. At this event in Nagoya they are bringing in a professor who is an expert in open data as well as expert in the Nagoya castle to talk about the data that is being made open. In addition they are organizing and actual physical tour of the caste. Open Data meets local history buffs!

5. Cairo, Egypt

Their Description:

We will be organizing an online and decentralized event in Cairo, Egypt for the Open Data Day. There are numerous suggested tracks depending on the participants set of expertise:

For translators (المترجمون)

  • Open Data Handbook: The handbook discusses the legal, social and technical aspects of open data. It can be used by anyone but is especially designed for those seeking to open up data. It discusses the why, what and how of open data – why to go open, what open is, and the how to ‘open’ data. Translate it into Arabic here
  • Translate any of the School of Data short tutorials, for example, What is Data?Telling a Story with DataFinding Data, or Any other course/modules

For bloggers (المدونون)

Write blog posts about Open Data related topics and case studies, and don’t forget to use the following hashtag, #ODD2014. Possible ideas for blog posts:

  • Write about the concept of Frictionless Data
  • Case studies how you searched for, extracted and used governmental data
  • Listing of local organizations working or promoting Open Data or advocating for more Transparent and Open Governments

For Developers (مطوري البرامج)

  • Scrape data from capmas and put it into Open Format
  • Scrape data (Budget or the The Financial Monthly Bulletin) from the Minister of Finance and upload it to OpenSpending.org,
  • Create a tool to scrap the traffic data from bey2ollak and put it in an open format.

For Data Wranglers (هواة جمع البيانات)

Why I love it: I love that there are calls to action for a variety of people – including those who have no coding skills at all. How genius is it to organize an event to localize/translate the Open Data handbook? This is something a large number of people could do – and better still can help make open data accessible to a still larger pool of people.

And for the other roles the suggestion of projects – particular with a focus on the national budget and government operations data (capmas) suggests there is a strong civil society presence within the open data community. Will be super interested to see what progress they make and if there is broader interest in their work.

Open Data Day in 110 cities Worldwide! Here’s 6 things to do

It is, as always, with a fair amount of wonder that I watch the open data day wiki grow each year. This year there are 100 self organized events taking place worldwide (at last count). It is an impressive number. This includes events in places like Buenos Aires (which is doing open data street art), Ilorin Nigeria, Kampala Uganda, Barcelona Spain and Aomori Japan to name just a few.

Many of these events have speakers lined up, projects to hack on, seminars and workshops organized. Others are straightforward hackathons and/or unconferences.

If you are heading to an Open Data Day event be sure to take a look at the local events page on the wiki or local website to see what is planned. But if you are looking to get inspired… here are 6+ ideas for what to do on open data day.

1. Use Where Does My Money Go to create a simple visualization of a government budget.

WDMMG Ontario

I love where does my money go. It is just so simple and makes budgets much easier to understand. I persuaded the Ontario Government to use it when it released its budget a few months ago.

The nice part is… it is open source. Check out the code here. No reason why a small team couldn’t fork it and enter in new numbers to visualize the local, regional, state or national budget near where you live!

2. Don’t fixate on an app – fixate on your community

Metro_YVR_Schools2008_20131-533x411Here in Vancouver I’m inviting Andy Yan of the local non-proft BTAWorks to give some opening remarks at our open data day. Why? Because Andy is a legendary user of local open data. And he doesn’t build apps – instead he uses data to better explain Vancouver to Vancouverites.

Andy uses simple mapping software, and even sometimes just plain old excel to take data and analyze it. He’s written about property values in Vancouver (on several occasions), enrolment patters in the city’s public schools, the distribution of coffee houses and books stores in the city and, perhaps most notably, an analysis of the number of empty condos in a city with expensive real estate.

My point with Andy’s work is that you don’t need to create an app to use open data. Indeed, it may not even be a good idea. Rather there is lots to be done just analyzing data or figuring out different ways it may have meaning for the people who live in your city. If you can enable more people to understand an phenomenon or problem that is, in of itself, quite valuable.

3. Find Your People

While Open Data Day has become a “thing” it isn’t an organization or a group. It is just an excuse with some simple rules for a world wide community to mobilize itself at a very local level.

That said there ARE lots of amazing groups out there. And Open Data Day is the perfect day to meet some of them and get involved in the amazing work they are doing. Indeed, groups that use open data have a variety of flavours – so there is often something for everyone. Some of these groups include Hacks and Hackers (journalists and software developers), Open Knowledge Foundation (open data activists), Code for All (civic hackers), Mozilla (open web), the Sunlight Foundation (government transparency), to name but a few. There are also lots of more local and national based groups, as well as industry specific groups such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Often someone at your local event will already be a member of one of these groups – it is a great time to learn more and maybe even join!

4. How to be useful even if you don’t code or can’t use excel

Last year I wrote about three ways anyone can participate in projects on open data day. There is nothing that stops you from creating a keynote/powerpoint that mocks up an idea you have for an analysis or app, or from helping a group document its work so that others can replicate it, or from just going out and finding some useful data that you think might be in the public interest and working with others to get it scraped and made usable.

Indeed what I love about all these examples is that they are paths to learning more. The straight fact is, I can’t code and I have only limited proficiency with something like excel. But I’ve always found ways to make myself useful and in doing so… I have learned so much.

Open Data Day is less about doing than it is about learning, networking and organizing. Ultimately there is nothing stopping you from self organizing a workshop about anything you care about, an issue, a data set, a tool, and asking someone to teach you about and others to learn with you!

5. Go New School – Mobilize a Community to Request a Data Set

Many governments that have open data portals have a “request a data set” option on the page. What an opportunity. If there is a data set that would help bring transparency and accountability to your community… say around environmental pollution, local budget data, contracts and procurement data or arrest rates in a community then why not mobilize local non-profits, stakeholders and even citizens to mount a campaign to “make it open.”

A public campaign that notes the number of people who have “requested” a data set could apply pressure on a government to fulfill its promise to make more data sets open. More importantly, if might giver the community important data by which to challenge public policy or advocate for change.

6. Go Old School – Submit an Access to Information Request

Before there was open data there was… access to information requests. This slow, often cumbersome way of getting government information is critically important. This is because – in places where Access to Information laws exist – they are the only legally backed way to secure government information (and data).

Just learning how to do an access to information can be novel since so few ordinary citizens ever do one. But it many jurisdictions it is your right to be able to do so.

For activists and software developers who are particularly interested in this area of governance/law I encourage you to check out the Alaveteli project started by the amazing team at MySociety. It attempts to bring to add some #opengov tech to the Access to Information world.

I hope this are helpful ideas. More importantly, I hope wherever you are that you have an amazing time on open data day.

 

 

 

So… before there was access to information, there was

What’s in my yogurt

Would you like to know more?

 

 

 

What Werewolf teaches us about Trust & Security

After sharing the idea behind this post with Bruce Schneier, I’ve been encouraged to think a little more about what Werewolf can teach us about trust, security and rational choices in communities that are, or are at risk of, being infiltrated by a threat. I’m not a security expert, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about negotiation, collaboration and trust, and so thought I’d pen some thoughts. The more I write below, the more I feel Werewolf could be a fun teaching tool. This is something I hope we can do “research” on at Berkman next week.

For those unfamiliar with Werewolf (also known as mafia), it’s very simple:

At the start of the game each player is secretly assigned a role by a facilitator. Typically there are 3 werewolves (who make up one team) and around 15 villagers, including one seer and one healer (who make up the other team).

Each turn of the game has two alternating phases. The first phase is “night,” during which everyone covers their eyes. The facilitator then “wakes” the werewolves who agree on a single villager they “murder.” The werewolves then return to sleep. The seer “wakes” up and points at one sleeping player and the facilitator informs the seer if that that player is a werewolf or villager. The seer then goes back to sleep. Finally the healer “wakes” up and selects one person to “heal.” If that person was chosen to be murdered by the werewolves during the night they are saved and do not die.

The second phase is “day”; this starts with everyone “waking up” (uncovering their eyes). The facilitator identifies who has been murdered (assuming they were not healed). That person is immediately eliminated from the game. The surviving players – e.g. the remaining villagers and the werewolves hidden among them – then debate who among them is a werewolf. The “day” ends with a vote to eliminate a suspect (who is also immediately removed from the game).

Play continues until all of the werewolves have been eliminated, or until the werewolves outnumber the villagers.

You can see why Werewolf raises interesting questions about trust systems. Essentially, the game is about whether or not the villagers can figure out who is lying: who is claiming to be a villager but is actually a werewolf. This creates a lot of stress and theatre. With the right people, it is a lot of fun.

There are, however, a number of interesting lessons that come out of Werewolf that make it a fun tool for thinking about trust, organization and cooperation. And many strategies – including some that are quite ruthless – are quite rational under these conditions. Here are some typical strategies:

1. Kill the Newbies

If you are playing werewolf for the first time and people find out, the village will kill you. For first time players – and I remember this well – it sucked. It felt deeply unfair… but on further analysis it is also rational.

Villagers have only a few rounds to figure out who are the werewolves, and there are strategies and tactics that greatly improve their odds. The less familiar you are with those strategies the more you threaten the group’s ability to defeat the werewolves. This makes the calculus for dealing with newbies easy: at best the group is eliminating a werewolf, at worst they are eliminating someone who hurts the odds of them winning. Hence, they get eliminated.

I’m assuming that similar examples of this behaviour take place when a network gets compromised. Maybe new nodes are cut off quickly, leaving the established nodes to start testing one another to see if they can be trusted. Of course, the variable could be different; a threat could spark a network to kill connections to all connections that, say, have outdated firmware. The point is, that such activities, while sweeping, unfair and likely punishing many “innocent” members, can feel quite rational for those part of the group or network.

2. Noise Can be Helpful

The most important villager is the seer, since they are the only one that can know – with certainty – who is a werewolf and a villager. Their challenge is to communicate this information to other villagers without revealing who they are to the werewolves (who would obviously kill them during the next night).

Good seers first ask the facilitator if the person next to them is a villager, then the person to the other side and then slowly moving out (see figure 1 below). If the person next to them is a villager they can then confide in them (e.g. round 1). Good seers can start to build a “chain” of verified villagers (round 2-3) who, as a voting block can protect one another and kill suspected (or better identified) werewolves at the end of each “day.”

Figure 1

Figure 1

This strategy, however, is predicated on the seer being able to safely communicate with those on their left and right. Naturally, werewolves are on the lookout for this behaviour. A player that keeps discreetly talking to those on their left and right makes themselves a pretty obvious target for the werewolves. Thus it is essential during each round that everyone talk to the person to their left and right, regardless of whether they have anything relevant to say or not. Getting everyone talk creates noise that anonymizes communication and interferes with the werewolves’ ability to target the seer.

This is a wonderful example of a simple counter-surveillance tactic. Everybody engages in a behaviour so that it is impossible to find the one person doing it who matters. It was doubly interesting for me as I’ve normally seen noise (e.g. unnecessary communication) as a problem – and rarely as a form of counter-power.

Moreover, in a hostile environment, this form of trust building needs to happen discreetly. The werewolves have the benefit of being both anonymous (hidden) from the villagers but are highly connected (they know who the other werewolves are). The above strategy focuses on destroying the werewolves by using creating a parallel network of villagers who are equally anonymous and highly connected but, over time, greater in number.

3. Structured and Random Stress Tests

The good news for villagers is that many people are terrible liars. Being a werewolf is hard, in part because it is fun. You have knowledge and power. Many people get giddy (literally!). They laugh or smirk or overly compensate by being silent. And some… are liable to say something stupid.

As a result, in the first round players will often insist that everyone introduce themselves and say their role. E.g. “Hi my name is David Eaves and I’m a villager.” You’d be surprised how many people screw up. On rare occasions people will omit their role, or stumble over it, or pause to think about it. This is a surefire way of getting eliminated. It comes back to lesson 1. With poor information, any information that might mean you are a werewolf is probably worth acting on. Werewolf: it’s a harsh, ruthless world.

This may be a interesting example of why ritual and consistency can become prized in a community. It is also a caution about the high transaction costs created by low-trust environments (e.g. ones where you worry the person you are talking to is lying). I’ve heard of (and have experienced first hand) border guards employing a form of the above strategy. This includes yelling at someone and intimidating them to the point where they confess to some error. If a a small transgression is admitted to, this can be used as leverage to gain larger confessions or to simply remove the person from the network (or, say, deny them entry into the country).

However, I suspect this strategy has diminishing returns. People who haven’t screwed up in the first two rounds probably aren’t going to. However, I suspect perpetuating this strategy  is something werewolves love. This is because it is an approach that is devoid of fact. Ultimately any minor deviation from an undefined “right” answer becomes justification for eliminating people – thus the werewolves can convince villagers to eliminate people for trivial reasons, and not spend their time looking at who is eliminating who, and who is coming to the aid of who in debate, patterns that are likely more effective at revealing the werewolves.

A note on physical setup

Virtually every time I’ve played werewolf it has been in a room, with the players sitting around a large table. This has meant that a given player can only talk, discreetly, with the player to their left and right. I have once played in a living room where people basically were in an unstructured heap.

What’s interesting is that I suspect that unstructured groups aid the werewolves. The seer strategy outlined in section 2 would be much more difficult to execute in a room where people could roam. A group of people that clustered around a single player would quickly become obvious. There are probably strategies that could be devised to overcome this, but they would probably be more complicated to execute, and so would create further challenges for the villagers.

So perhaps some rigidity to the structure of a community or network can go a long way to making it easier to build trust. This feels right to me, but I’m not sure what more to add on this.

All of this is a simple starting point (I’m sure I have few readers left at this point). But it would be fun to think of more ways that Werewolf could be used as a fun teaching tool around networks, trust and power. Definitely interested in hearing more thoughts.

Government Procurement Reform – It matters

Earlier this week I posted a slidecast on my talk to Canada’s Access to Information Commissioners about how, as they do their work, they need to look deeper into the government “stack.”

My core argument was how decisions about what information gets made accessible is no longer best managed at the end of a policy development or program delivery process but rather should be embedded in it. This means monkeying around and ensuring there is capacity to export government information and data from the tools (e.g. software) government uses every day. Logically, this means monkeying around in procurement policy (see slide below) since that is where the specs for the tools public servants use get set. Trying to bake “access” into processes after the software has been chosen is, well, often an expensive nightmare.

Gov stack

Privately, one participant from a police force, came up to me afterward and said that I was simply guiding people to another problem – procurement. He is right. I am. Almost everyone I talk to in government feels like procurement is broken. I’ve said as much myself in the past. Clay Johnson is someone who has thought about this more than others, here he is below at the Code for America Summit with a great slide (and talk) about how the current government procurement regime rewards all the wrong behaviours and often, all the wrong players.

Clay Risk profile

So yes, I’m pushing the RTI and open data community to think about procurement on purpose. Procurement is borked. Badly. Not just from a wasting tax dollars money perspective, or even just from a service delivery perspective, but also because it doesn’t serve the goals of transparency well. Quite the opposite. More importantly, it isn’t going to get fixed until more people start pointing out that it is broken and start contributing to solving this major bottle neck of a problem.

I highly, highly recommend reading Clay Johnson’s and Harper Reed’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times about procurement titled Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right.

All of this becomes more important if the White House’s (and other governments’ at all levels) have any hope of executing on their digital strategies (image below).  There is going to be a giant effort to digitize much of what governments do and a huge number of opportunities for finding efficiencies and improving services is going to come from this. However, if all of this depends on multi-million (or worse 10 or 100 million) dollar systems and websites we are, to put it frankly, screwed. The future of government isn’t to be (continue to be?) taken over by some massive SAP implementation that is so rigid and controlled it gives governments almost no opportunity to innovate. And this is the future our procurement policies steer us toward. A future with only a tiny handful of possible vendors, a high risk of project failure and highly rigid and frail systems that are expensive to adapt.

Worse there is no easy path here. I don’t see anyone doing procurement right. So we are going to have to dive into a thorny, tough problem. However, the more governments that try to tackle it in radical ways, the faster we can learn some new and interesting lessons.

Open Data WH

Why Journalists Should Support Putting Access to Information Requests Online Immediately

Here’s a headline you don’t often expect to see: “Open-Government Laws Fuel Hedge-Fund Profits.”

It’s a fascinating article that opens with a story about SAC Capital Advisors LP – a hedge fund. Last December SAC Capital used Freedom of Information Laws (FOIA) to request preliminary results on a Vertex Pharmaceuticals drug being tested by the US Food and Drug Administration. The request revealed there were no “adverse event reports,” increasing the odds the drug might be approved. SAC Capital used this information – according to the Wall Street Journal – to snatch up 15,000 shares and 25,000 options of Vertex. In December – when the request was made – the stock traded around $40. Eight months later it peaked at $89 and still trades today at around $75. Thus, clever usage of government access to information request potentially netted the company a cool ROI of 100% in 9 months and a profit of roughly 1.2 million dollars (assuming they sold around $80).

This is an interesting story. And I fear it says a lot about the future of access to information laws.

This is because it contrasts sharply with the vision of access to information the media likes to portray: Namely, that access requests are a tool used mainly by hardened journalists trying to uncover dirt about a government. This is absolutely the case… and an important use case. But it is not the only usage of access laws. Nor was it the only intended use of the law. Indeed, it is not even the main usage of the law.

In my work on open data I frequently get pulled into conversations about access to information laws and their future. I find these conversations are aggressively dominated by media representatives (e.g. reporters) who dislike alternative views. Indeed, the one-sided nature of the conversation – with some journalists simply assuming they are the main and privileged interpreters of the public interest around access laws – is deeply unhealthy. Access to information laws are an important piece of legislation. Improving and sustaining them requires a coalition of actors (particularly including citizens), not just journalists. Telling others that their interests are secondary is not a great way to build an effective coalition. Worse, I fear the dominance of a single group means the conversation is often shaped by a narrow view of the legislation and with a specific set of (media company) interests in mind.

For example, many governments – including government agencies in my own province of British Columbia – have posted responses to many access to information requests publicly. This enrages (and I use that word specifically) many journalists who see it as a threat. How can they get a scoop if anyone can see government responses to their requests at the same time? This has led journalists to demand – sometimes successfully – that the requestor have exclusive access to government responses for a period of time. Oy vey. This is dangerous.

For certain types of stories I can see how complete transparency of request responses could destroy a scoop. But most stories – particularly investigative stories – require sources and context and understanding. Such advantages, I suspect, are hard to replicate and are the real source of competitive advantage (and if they aren’t… shouldn’t they be?).

It also suggests that a savvy public – and the media community – won’t be able to figure out who always seems to be making the right requests and reward them accordingly. But let’s put issues of a reputation economy and the complexity of reporting on a story aside.

First, it is worth noting that it is actually in the public interest to have more reporters cover a story and share a piece of news – especially about the government. Second, access to information laws were not created to give specific journalists scoops – they were designed to maximize the public’s capacity to access government information. Protecting a media company’s business model is not the role of access laws. It isn’t even in the spirit of the law.

Third, and worst, this entire debate fails to discuss the risks of such an approach. Which brings me back to the Wall Street Journal article.

I have, for years, warned that if public publication of access to information requests results are delayed so that one party (say, a journalist) has exclusive access for a period of time, then the system will also be used by others in pursuit of interests that might not be in the public good. Specifically, it creates a strong incentive for companies and investors to start mining government to get “exclusive” rights to government information they can put to use in advancing their agenda – making money.

As the SAC Capital Case outlined above underscores, information is power. And if you have exclusive access to that information, you have an advantage over others. That advantage may be a scoop on a government spending scandal, but it can also be a stock tip about a company whose drug is going to clear a regulatory hurdle, or an indication that a juicy government contract is about to be signed, or that a weapons technology is likely to be shelved by the defence department. In other words – and what I have pointed out to my journalist friends – exclusivity in access to information risks transforming the whole system into a giant insider information generation machine. Great for journalists? Maybe. (I’ve my doubts – see above.) But great for companies? The Wall Street Journal article shows us it already is. Exclusivity would make it worse.

Indeed, in the United States, the private sector is already an enormous generator of access requests. Indeed one company, that serves as a clearing house for requests, accounts for 10% of requests on its own:

The precise number of requests from investors is impossible to tally because many come from third-party organizations that send requests on behalf of undisclosed clients—a thriving industry unto itself. One of them, FOI Services Inc., accounted for about 10% of the 50,000 information requests sent to the FDA during the period examined by the Journal. Marlene Bobka, a senior vice president at Washington-based FOI Services, says a “huge, huge reason people use our firm is to blind their requests.”

Imagine what would happen if those making requests had formal exclusive rights? The secondary market in government information could become huge. And again, not in a way that advances the public interest.

In fact, given the above-quoted paragraph, I’m puzzled by the fact that journalists don’t demand that every access to information request be made public immediately. All told, the resources of the private sector (to say nothing of the tens of thousands of requests made by citizens or NGOs) dwarf those of media companies. Private companies may start (or already are) making significantly more requests than journalists ever could. Free-riding on their work could probably be a full time job and a successful career for at least a dozen data journalists. In addition, by not duplicating this work, it frees up media companies’ capacity to focus on the most important problems that are in the public good.

All of this is to say… I fear for a world where many of the journalists I know – by demanding changes that are in their narrow self-interest – could help create a system that, as far as I can tell, could be deeply adverse to the public interest.

I’m sure I’m about to get yelled at (again). But when it comes to access to information requests, we are probably going to be better off in a world where they are truly digitized. That means requests can be made online (something that is somewhat arriving in Canada) and – equally importantly – where results are also published online for all to see. At the very minimum, it is a conversation that is worth having.

New Zealand: The World’s Lab for Progressive Tech Legislation?

Cross posted with TechPresident.

One of the nice advantage of having a large world with lots of diverse states is the range of experiments it offers us. Countries (or regions within them) can try out ideas, and if they work, others can copy them!

For example, in the world of drug policy, Portugal effectively decriminalized virtually all drugs. The result has been dramatic. And much of it positive. Some of the changes include a decline in both HIV diagnoses amongst drug users by 17% and drug use among adolescents (13-15 yrs). For those interested you can read more about this in a fantastic report by the Cato Institute written by Glenn Greenwald back in 2009 before he started exposing the unconstitutional and dangerous activities of the NSA. Now some 15 years later there have been increasing demands to decriminalize and even legalize drugs, especially in Latin America. But even the United States is changing, with both the states of Washington and Colorado opting to legalize marijuana. The lessons of Portugal have helped make the case, not by penetrating the public’s imagination per se, but by showing policy elites that decriminalization not only works but it saves lives and saves money. Little Portugal may one day be remembered for changing the world.

I wonder if we might see a similar paper written about New Zealand ten years from now about technology policy. It may be that a number of Kiwis will counter the arguments in this post by exposing all the reasons why I’m wrong (which I’d welcome!) but at a glance, New Zealand would probably be the place I’d send a public servant or politician wanting to know more about how to do technology policy right.

So why is that?

First, for those who missed it, this summer New Zealand banned software patents. This is a stunning and entirely sensible accomplishment. Software patents, and the legal morass and drag on innovation they create, are an enormous problem. The idea that Amazon can patent “1-click” (e.g. the idea that you pre-store someone’s credit card information so they can buy an item with a single click) is, well, a joke. This is a grand innovation that should be protected for years?

And yet, I can’t think of single other OECD member country that is likely to pass similar legislation. This means that it will be up to New Zealand to show that the software world will survive just fine without patents and the economy will not suddenly explode into flames. I also struggle to think of an OECD country where one of the most significant industry groups – the Institute of IT Professionals appeared – would not only both support such a measure but help push its passage:

The nearly unanimous passage of the Bill was also greeted by Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) chief executive Paul Matthews, who congratulated [Commerce Minister] Foss for listening to the IT industry and ensuring that software patents were excluded.

Did I mention that the bill passed almost unanimously?

Second, New Zealanders are further up the learning curve around the dangerous willingness their government – and foreign governments – have for illegally surveilling them online.

The arrest of Kim Dotcom over MegaUpload has sparked some investigations into how closely the country’s police and intelligence services follow the law. (For an excellent timeline of the Kim Dotcom saga, check out this link). This is because Kim Dotcom was illegally spied on by New Zealand’s intelligence services and police force, at the behest of the United States, which is now seeking to extradite him. The arrest and subsequent fall out has piqued public interest and lead to investigations including the Kitteridge report (PDF) which revealed that “as many as 88 individuals have been unlawfully spied on” by the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau.

I wonder if the Snowden documents and subsequent furor probably surprised New Zealanders less than many of their counterparts in other countries since it was less a bombshell than another data point on a trend line.

I don’t want to overplay the impact of the Kim Dotcom scandal. It has not, as far as I can tell, lead to a complete overhaul of the rules that govern intelligence gathering and online security. That said, I suspect, it has created a political climate that amy be more (healthily) distrustful of government intelligence services and the intelligence services of the United States. As a result, it is likely that politicians have been more sensitive to this matter for a year or two longer than elsewhere and that public servants are more accustomed at policies through the lens of its impact on rights and privacy of citizens than in many other countries.

Finally, (and this is somewhat related to the first point) New Zealand has, from what I can tell, a remarkably strong open source community. I’m not sure why this is the case, but suspect that people like Nat Torkington – and open source and open data advocate in New Zealand – and others like him play a role in it. More interestingly, this community has had influence across the political spectrum. The centre left labour party deserves much of the credit for the patent reform while the centre-right New Zealand National Party has embraced both open data. The country was among the first to embrace open source as a viable option when procuring software and in 2003 the government developed an official open source policy to help clear the path for greater use of open source software. This contrasts sharply with my experience in Canada where, as late as 2008, open source was still seen by many government officials as a dangerous (some might say cancerous?) option that needed to be banned and/or killed.

All this is to say that in both the public (e.g. civil society and the private sector) and within government there is greater expertise around thinking about open source solutions and so an ability to ask different questions about intellectual property and definitions of the public good. While I recognize that this exists in many countries now, it has existed longer in New Zealand than in most, which suggests that it enjoys greater acceptance in senior ranks and there is greater experience in thinking about and engaging these perspectives.

I share all this for two reasons:

First, I would keep my eye on New Zealand. This is clearly a place where something is happening in a way that may not be possible in other OECD countries. The small size of its economy (and so relative lack of importance to the major proprietary software vendors) combined with a sufficient policy agreement both among the public and elites enables the country to overcome both internal and external lobbying and pressure that would likely sink similar initiatives elsewhere. And while New Zealand’s influence may be limited, don’t underestimate the power of example. Portugal also has limited influence, but its example has helped show the world that the US -ed narrative on the “war on drugs” can be countered. In many ways this is often how it has to happen. Innovation, particularly in policy, often comes from the margins.

Second, if a policy maker, public servant or politician comes to me and asks me who to talk to around digital policy, I increasingly find myself looking at New Zealand as the place that is the most compelling. I have similar advice for PhD students. Indeed, if what I’m arguing is true, we need research to describe, better than I have, the conditions that lead to this outcome as well as the impact these policies are having on the economy, government and society. Sadly, I have no names to give to those I suggest this idea to, but I figure they’ll find someone in the government to talk to, since, as a bonus to all this, I’ve always found New Zealanders to be exceedingly friendly.

So keep an eye on New Zealand, it could be the place where some of the most progressive technology policies first get experimented with. It would be a shame if no one noticed.

(Again If some New Zealanders want to tell me I’m wrong, please do. Obviously, you know your country better than I do).

Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness

“The more you move to the right the more radical you are. Because everywhere on the left you actually have to educate people about the law, which is currently unfair to the user, before you even introduce them to the alternatives. You aren’t even challenging the injustice in the law! On the right you are operating at a level that is liberated from identity and accountability. You are hacking identity.” – Sunil Abraham

I have a new piece up on TechPresident titled: Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness.

This piece, as the really fun map I recreated is based on a conversation with Sunil Abraham (@sunil_abraham), the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

If you find this map interesting… check the piece out here.

map of open