Category Archives: commentary

Open Data Day: Lessons for Hacktivists

This piece is cross-posted on TechPresident where I post articles on the intersection of politics, technology and transparency and serve as an editor.

Three years ago, after a chance encounter with Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun of Sao Paulo and a meeting with Edward Ocampo-Gooding and Mary Beth Baker in Ottawa, with whom I shared a passion about open data, we agreed to simultaneously host events in our three cities on the same day. It would be a hackathon, and because it would take place in at least two countries … we liberally called it “international” inviting others to join us.

In that first year we had about six cities conduct events on every continent save Australia. Now in its third year, Open Data Day events is far bigger than we ever dared imagine. More interesting still is its impact, both expected and unexpected.

Reflecting on it all, I thought it might be worthwhile to share a little bit about the impact I think Open Data has, and some lessons hacktvists may find interesting to draw upon.

Build Community

From the beginning our goal was simple. It wasn’t code, or even opening data per se. It was about community.

We wanted to foster a friendly event where anyone would feel welcome to participate. The team in Ottawa had, in particular, done great work in reaching out an engaging new people in previous hackathons, they’d have a wealth of non-software developers and even full families attend their events. This was as much a hackathon as it was a community event.

So Open Data Day was always meant to serve as a catalyst for community and network creation. Yes, creating, adding to or working on a project was strongly encouraged, but the real output to help open data advocates find and connect with one another, as well as grow the movement by engaging new people. An effective community was always going to be the core ingredient for petitioning a government to make data open, teaching students or policy makers how to use data or have a group of developers launch a project. While we wanted to create cool software, visualizations and analysis, what I wanted even more was to foster local leaders, champions, social glue and community hubs.

And that’s what we got.

One of the strengths of Open Data Day is its incredible decentralized nature. I blog about it to encourage people to organize and help moderate a mailing list, but beyond that everything is done by local volunteers. From a capacity building perspective, it is an incredible event to watch unfold. I’d like to think Open Data Day has played a helpful role in connecting local stakeholders and even knitting them together with regional, national and international peers.

While I believe that a beautiful piece of code can be critical in making policy makers, the public or others see the world in a different light I also think that building community and developing allies who can share that story of that code with leaders and the public at large is, depending on the breadth of your goals, equally important.

What Works for Communities Can Work for Governments

Almost immediately upon launch of Open Data Day, government officials began showing up at the hackathons. Some came unofficially, others officially, and in some places, the hackathons were invited to take place at city hall. Because we set a venue Open Data Day created a predictable publicized space where governments that were curious, reluctant, eager or cautious could come and engage at a speed that worked for them.

When you build a safe place for a broader community – if your event has more of the feel of a public consultation or community meet-up than a gathering of subversive technologists – you can create space for governments. More importantly, the one thing that characterizes most open data hackathons I’ve witnessed or investigated,is that the participants share a desire to make their community better. That is something most government officials can easily wrap their heads around.

Thus, in a way that I don’t think anyone planned, Open Data Day events have become a place where governments want to understand more of what is possible, learn about the community that is interested in data and wrestle with how open data can change the way they work. What began with a few pioneering cities three years ago has evolved where now places like the Victoria Palace in Romania (the seat of government) and the White House in Washington DC are hosting Open Data Day events.

This type of engagement creates new opportunities, and new challenges, but that is exactly the type of progress many movements would like to see.

Plant a Flag

Setting a date and having people around the world step up and embrace had another interesting impact. It created a deadline not just for community organizers who were organizing their local open data day event, but also for governments that want to engage these communities.

Indeed in the past it has been amazing to see how many governments now see Open Data Day as a deadline for launching open data portals or releasing additional data sets. This is a fantastic outcome as it creates subtle pressure on governments to act.

This year was no exception. I heard of governments around the world releasing data sets in anticipation of Open Data Day. In particular there was a flurry of activity from European governments and agencies. Indeed the European Union chose to launch its open data portal in time for Open Data Day. But there was also much activity across the continent. This included that launch of data portals for the Building Performance Institute Europe, the Italian Senate, the city of Venice , the city ofTrento, the region of Puglia in the south of Italy, and the province of Bolzano. But the practice has become widespread. I was particularly happy to see a city a few kilometers from my home town do the same: the City of Victoria, BC launched its Open Data portal for the day.

These announcements show the amplifying effect of getting organized across geographies. The advocacy work of a group in one country helps reinforce a message that benefits advocates in other countries. This is pretty basic stuff — political advocacy 101 if you will — but it is a reminder of why congregating around a single date, and meeting in person still have value for those who are unpersuaded.

Ultimately Open Data Day is important because it serves the needs of local advocates and activists wherever they are. That means keeping the event coherent so that it can continue to be a global event that people understand, yet flexible so that it can satisfy local needs and desires. For example, the event in Manila focused on poverty while in Washington DC it focused on building community and capacity. These types of events are not, in of themselves, going to completely solve a problem, but I do believe that they are part of a broader political effort that activates a community, engages government and creates pressure for change.

How Hackers Will Blow Up The World: China, Cyber-Warfare and the Cuban Missile Crisis

I have a piece on TechPresident I really enjoyed writing about how certain technologies – as they become weaponized – can in turn become highly destabilizing to global stability. The current rash of Cyber-Warfare, or Cyber-Spying or Cyber-crime (depending on the seriousness and intent with which you rate it) could be one such destabilizing technology.

Here’s a long excerpt:

This would certainly not be the first time technology altered a balance of military power and destabilized global political orders everyone thought was robust. One reason the world plunged into global war in 1914 after a relatively minor terrorist attack — the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand — was because the hot new technology of the day, the speedy railway, caused strategists to believe it would confer a decisive advantage on those who mobilized first. The advent of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles of the 1950s had a similar effect, with fears that a first strike “decapitation attack” against Moscow from Turkey, or against Washington from Cuba, could preempt a counter attack.

Cyber warfare may be evolving into a similarly destabilizing type of technology. Prior to the 21st century, cyber attacks were relatively localized affairs. People imagined the main threats of a cyber attack being with virtual thefts from banks, identify theft against individuals and even industrial piracy. Serious problems to be sure, but not end-of-the-world stuff. Even when targeted against the state, cyber attacks rarely pose an existential threat to a country. The loss of state secrets, the compromising of some officials could, cumulatively, be corrosive on a state’s ability to defend itself or advance its interests, but it was unlikely even a combination of operations would shake a mature state to its core.

Two things have changed….

You can read the full piece here. Always love feedback.

International #OpenDataDay: Now at 90 Cities (and… the White House)

Okay. We are 10 days away from International Open Data Day this February 23rd, 2013. There is now so much going on, I’ve been excited to see the different projects people are working on. Indeed there is so much happening, I thought I’d share just a tiny fraction of it in a little blog post to highlight the variety.

Again if you haven’t yet – please do see if there is an event near you and let the organizer know you are keen to come participate! As you see if you read below, this event is for everyone.

And if you are going – be sure to thank your local organizer. With roughly 90 or more events now scheduled world wide this is and remains a locally organized event. It is the organizers on the ground, who book the rooms, rally people and think of projects that make this day magical.

The White House joins International Open Data Day

Yes. You read that right. As you can read read here:

“We’re inviting a small group to join us in Washington, DC on February 22, 2013 for the White House Open Data Day Hackathon”

So if you are in the US and interested in participating, get on over to their website and apply. How cool would it be to hack on data at he White House?

More Organization Release Data in Anticipation of Open Data Day

One of the by products of open data day that we’ve been particularly happy about has been the reaction of governments and other organizations to release data in anticipation of the day to give developers, designers, data crunchers and every day citizens a new data set to play with.

Yesterday the  Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), a European not-for-profit think-do-tank made its online knowledge assets “open data ready” by launching an open data portal with facts and figures related to buildings and with a particular focus on the delivery of energy efficiency retrofits to existing buildings through addressing technical and financial barriers. This includes things like building stock performance (energy consumption, envelope performance, energy sources) and building stock inventories reflecting floor area, construction year, ownership profiles as well as national policies and regulation.

This could be of interest to people concerned with climate change and construction. I know there is a team in Vancouver and British Columbia that might find this data interesting, if only for benchmarking.


Few people realize just how global Open Data is… here is a small sampling of some of the locations and how organized they are:

Getting it Done in Ghana

If you want to see what a tightly organized Open Data looks like, check out the agenda in Accra, Ghana.

Thinking about Poverty in the Philippines

There are a bunch of cool things happening in Manilla on Open Data Day but I love that one of them is focused on anti-poverty and the engagement with local NGOs:

“National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) Open Data initiative ( We welcome suggestions and comments to further improve our work.”

I know in Vancouver I’ll be talking to people about homelessness (a big priority here) and hope we’ll get some non-profits in the sector looking participating as well – particularly given the recent release of the city’s Rental Standards batabase (which lists outstanding infractions).

Lots of Community in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu they got stalls for a number of organizations related to open data, the open web and development such asOpen DRI, Open Data Nepal, IATI, Mozilla & Wikimedia, the OGP (LIG) and others. I also love that they are doing a course on how to edit a wiki. The focus on education is something we see everywhere… People come to Open Data Day to above all else, learn. 

School of Data in Amsterdam

Speaking of learning, one thing we’ve tried hard to emphasize is that Open Data day is not just for hackers. It is for anyone interested in community, learning and data. One group that has epitomized that has been the team in Amsterdam who are running a number of workshops, including some pretty wonkish ones such as exploring tax evasion working on the Open Data Census.

Building Community in Edinburgh (and every where)

I love how Edinburgh is focusing on getting people to talk about data, problems and code that can help one another. In many open data day events this is typical – as much time is spent learning, understanding and talking about how we can (and should or shouldn’t) use data to help with local problems. People are trying to figure out what this tool – open data – is and is not helpful for… all while connecting people in the community. Awesomeness.

Google Translate Required

And man, I don’t know what is going happening in Taipei (first open data event in Taiwan!!) but they have two tracks going on, so it has got to be serious! And it is hard to believe that in the first two years there were no events in Japan and this year there will be at least five. Something is happening there.

It makes me doubly happy when I see events where the wiki and comments are all in the local language – it reminds me of how locally driven the event is.

Hacking Open Data and Education – Open Science coutse

Billy Meinke of Creative Commons has posted that in Mountainview, “the Science Program at Creative Commons is teaming up with the Open Knowledge Foundation and members of the Open Science Community to facilitate the building of an open online course, an Introduction to Open Science.”

Participation in this event IS NOT LIMITED TO MOUNTAINVIEW. So check out their website if you want to participate.


Code Across America

If you live in the US and you don’t see an event in your community (or even if you do) also know that Code for America is running Code Across America that weekend. We love Code for America and they love open data, so I hope there is some cross pollination at some of these sites!

And much, much more…

This is just a small part of what will be happening. I’m going to be blogging some more on open data day.

I hope you’ll come participate!

#Idlenomore as an existential threat

Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.

If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.

To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the  Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.

Now I want to go further out on a limb.

Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about  how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.

It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.

Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.

It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.

It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.

And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.

Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.

I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.

So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.

Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.

Til Debt Do Us Part: Reality Television and Poverty

I’m traveling for business and that means several things. Most predictably it means come the evening, I’m getting on a tread mill to exercise.

I’m in Edmonton. It’s cold. Like -24C (-11F) cold.

For whatever reason, while running the TV in front of me brings up Til Death Do Us Part a sort of reality TV show about a pleasant but tough financial advisor Gail Vaz-Oxlade who descends upon impoverished couples and families and puts them on a tough regime to get them out of debt. The show is essentially a modern day morality play in which the excesses of the guest couple of paraded before the public as a cautionary tale. It is also the kind of show that I’m sure is mandatory viewing for any loan approval officer at a bank – since the guests are always friendly, exceedingly middle class looking people, plucked, it feels right out of the 905.

And this is what kind of grated on me after watching the show for a while. On the one hand, it is great. These people really are in way over their head. Often carrying burdens they can definitely not afford (one couple with several 100,000s of debt had a time share unit). They need help. And if the show prompts other couples to get serious about their finances, that’s great too.

But this is also the problem with this – and other shows like this. Debt is always described in middle class terms, and one of personal responsibility. The the world of Til Debt Do Us Part debt is always a case of middle class spending gone wild! Cut up the credit cards!

And the implicit message, of course, is that people who get into debt are responsible for their situation. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and recognize that this is often true. But it is certainly not always true. People can be poor because they were unlucky, because they failed at something, they have an addiction problem or because they were born into an environment of weak financial and social capital. But on Til Debt Do Us Part none of this is talked about. The comfortable narrative the audience is fed is… if you’re poor, you’re probably doing it to yourself.

You know what I’d love to see Gail Vaz-Oxlade do? I’d love her to find 5 couples, or even just individuals, of various ages, who are truly poor. Five people who really do have to little to nothing to live on. People with real barriers to not just to clawing themselves out of debt, by of crawling out of poverty. The sad fact is, that is a reality show you will never see – unless of course, you want to count the various clones of “Cops” or the occasionally story on the evening news.

I’d love to see this so that we, the audience, through Gail, can see all the barriers that exist between that person and even the most basic elements of success that most of us take for granted. Gail seems like a smart person – who also is unwilling to take much crap. I’d love to see her reactions to these struggles, the advice she’d offer, and the ways she try to motivate people.

This isn’t to harsh on Gail – I think she is doing a genuine public service, teaching the guests – and the audience – communication skills and some basic fiscal responsibility. But every once in a while it might be nice is she was given a case so hard she was virtually guaranteed to fail, mostly because it might expose us all to what real chronic poverty and debt looks like, not the kind that emerges from what apparently looks like a credit card spending spree at a sub-urban auto-mall.

At best, she might occasionally succeed and really pull someone up and into a better, more hopeful and stable place. At worst, such episodes could help her shatter the uncomfortable subtext of her show that implies poverty is always the fault of the poor.

Added Jan 11 10:08am PST: Gail Vaz-Oxlade has a blog post where she talks about the difference between being poor and broke.

The Journal News Gun Map: Open vs. Personal Data

As many readers are likely aware two weeks ago The Journal News, a newspaper just outside of New York city, published a map showing the addresses and names of handgun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties. The map, which was part of a story responding to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was constructed with data the paper acquired through Freedom of Information requests. Since their publication the story has generated enormous public interest, including a tremendous amount of anger from gun owners and supporters. The newspaper and its staff have received death threats, had their home addresses published and details of where their kids attend school published. Today the newspapers headquarters are guarded by… armed guards.

While there is a temptation to talk about this even in terms of open data, I don’t think this is a debate about open data. This is a debate about privacy and policy.

Let me clarify.

There is lots of information governments collect about people – the vast majority of which is not, and should not be available. As both an open data advocate and a gov 2.0 advocate I’m strongly interested in ensuring that – around any given data set – peoples sense of privacy is preserved. There are of course interests that benefit from information being made inaccessible, just as there are interests that benefit from it being made accessible, but when it comes to individually identifying pieces of information, I prefer to be cautious.


So, from my perspective, it is critical that this debate not get sloppy. This is not about open data. It is about personable identifiable data – and what governments should and should not do with it. Obviously “open” and “personal identifiable” data can overlap, but they are not the same. A great deal of open data has nothing to do with individuals. However, if we allow the two to become synonymous… well… expect a backlash against open data. No one ever gave anyone a blank check to make any and everything open. I don’t expect my personal healthcare or student record to be downloadable by anyone – I suspect you don’t either.

This is why – when I advise governments – I try to focus on data that is the least contentious (e.g. not even at risk of being personally identifying) since this gives public servants, politicians and the public some time to build knowledge and capacity around understand the issues.


This is not to say that no personalbly identifiable data should be made available – the question is, to what end? And the question matters. I suspect privacy played a big part if the outcry and reaction to the Journal’s gun map. But I suspect that for many – particularly strong pro-gun advocates – there was a recognition that this data was being used as a device (of VERY unclear efficacy) to accelerate public support for stricter gun laws. So they object not just to the issue of privacy, but to the usage.

In the case of guns, I don’t know what the right answer is. But here is an example I feel more confident about. Personally I (and many others) believe businesses license data should be open, including personal identifiable data. But again, these are issues that need to be hammered out, debated and the public given choices. This is not where the open data discussion needs to start, and this is certainly not how it should be defined in the public, as it is much, much more that that and includes touches many issues that are far, far less contentious. But we need to be building the capacity – in the public, among politicians and among public servants – to have these conversations, because disclosure, or the lack thereof, will increasingly be a political and policy choice.

And many of these questions will be tricky. I also believe data should be made available in aggregate. While I understand there are risks I believe  researchers should be allowed to use large data sets to try to find out how age or other factors might effective a terrible medical condition, or to gain insights into how graduation rates of at risk groups might be improved. These are big benefits that are – again, for me, worth the risk. But they will of course need to constantly be weighed and debated. What personal data should also be allowed to become open data, under what circumstances and to whose benefit… these are big questions.

So, if you are an open data advocates out there – please don’t let people confuse Open Data with Personal Data. The two can and almost certainly will overlap at times. But that does not make them the same thing. If these two terms become synonymous in the public’s mind in ANY way, it could take years to recover. So educate yourself on privacy issues, and be sure to educate the people you work with. But above all, help them get ready for these debates. More are coming.

Some additional Thoughts

Of course, when it comes to data, if you are really worried about personally identifiable stuff, there is a lot more to fear that isn’t maintained by governments. The world of free and purchasable data contains a lot of goodies (think maps, stock prices, etc…) but there is also plenty of overlap with personal data as well.


Indeed, much of the retaliatory data about the employees of The Journal News was data that was personally identifiable and readily available. A simple look at who I follow on twitter would likely reveal a fair bit about my social graph to anyone. And this isn’t even the juicy stuff. One wonders how many people realize just how much about them can be purchased. Indeed accessing some information has become so common place people don’t even think about it anymore: my understanding is that almost anyone can get a copy of your credit score, right?


That siad, I recognize the difference between data the state forces you to disclose (gun ownership) and that which you “voluntarily” submit and cede control over so as to take part in a service (facebook friends). I don’t always like the latter, but I recognize it is different from the government – it is one thing to have a monopoly on violence it is another to have a terrible EULA. That said, I suspect that many people would  be disturbed if they saw exactly how many people were tracking all of the things they do online. Mozilla’s Collusion project is a fun – if ultimately fruitless – tool for getting a sense of this. It is worth doing for a day just to see who is watching what you watch and do online.

I share all this not because I want to scare anyone – indeed I suspect these additional notes are old hat to anyone still reading, but recognize how complex the public’s relationship with data is. And as much as it will upset my privacy advocacy friends to hear me say this: my sense is that public is actually still quite comfortable with vast amounts of data about them being collected (Facebook seems to be able to do whatever it wants with almost no impact on usage). Where people get finicky is around how that data gets used. Apparently, be sold to more effectively doesn’t bother them all that much (although I wish some algorithm could figure out that I’ve already bought a fitbit so there ads need no longer follow me all over the web). However, try to use it to take away their guns… and some of them will get very angry. Somewhere in there a line has been drawn. It has all the makings of an epic public policy and corporate policy nightmare.

Teach to Do – Lessons from Louise Glück

Somewhere along the lines I remember learning the line “those who cannot do, teach.” I’m sure there are many instances where this is true, it’s just not what I remember when I think of the great teachers I have had, or my own experience.

Part of this crystallized for me a couple of weeks ago when I had the pleasure of being part of the Academy of Achievement Summit. Of the numerous, insanely gifted people who came and spoke, one was Louise Glück – a poet and former poet laureate of the United States.

After her brief presentation and reading she said something that really struck me in response to the question “What do you do when you can’t write?”  I tried to copy down her answer verbatim, so forgiving some possible minor errors, it went like this:

What do I do when I can’t write? After two years of not being able to write I started to teach. Rather than being jealous of students I found I wanted to help them and I applied my brain to them in the same way I apply it to my work. And I found over time things become unstuck and it renewed me.

There are all sorts of good reasons to teach – I’ve often heard professors talk about how students always ask them the hardest questions – sometimes without knowing it. But what I loved about Louise’s example was rather than having her students push her – she found energy from them in a different way, in a way that matters a great deal to those in creative spaces. My sense is her students forced her to really think through her process, to unpackage and test it, and by doing that she wrestled with what was blocking her.

I don’t necessarily teach in the traditional way. I occasionally have classrooms where I teach people – but it is pretty rare. But I do teach – mostly I teach people how I think about innovation, about strategy, about incentives and cooperation. We don’t call it teaching, sometimes, in my case, we call it consulting and sometimes it is public speaking, but there are important pieces of teaching embedded in it. And I find it enormously rewarding to unpack how I think – which students and clients (and blog post readers) often force me to.

So if you can, get a chance to teach. You’ll be richer for it. In many ways.



The Beneficial Impact of Newspaper Paywalls on Users

There continues to be fierce debate about the cost/benefits of newspaper paywalls, a debate Mathew Ingram has been helping drive with a great deal of depth and with excellent links.

It is interesting to watch Ingram take on, and have to rebut, the problematic thinking that seems to so frequently comes out of the Columbia Journalism Review which, sadly, as America’s most important journal on the industry and trainer of next generation journalist, is probably the most conservative voice in the debate. That said, while its contributions are defensive and disappointing, they are understandable. And well, it makes for fascinating reading of how people deal with an industry in decline/collapse/[insert whatever word you prefer here]. Someone should package these and make it mandatory stuff for MBA types.

Personally, I’m somewhat indifferent. If paywalls can save newspapers (every indication suggests that they cannot) then great! If they can’t… okay. The sky will not fall and the world will not end. We will have to figure out some new models for thinking about how we dispense news and discuss issues. Or, perhaps better still, might rethink what “news” and “media” is and means (psst… already happening).

I don’t want to join the holy war around paywalls, so I’m not trying to add to that debate directly – you should read Ingram and the others yourself.

What I do want to contribute is what I’m experiencing as a consumer. And what I can say is that I’ve found paywalls to be profoundly beneficial to me as an avid and significant news consumer, but in ways that I’m pretty sure the news industry is going to find disturbing and disappointing.


So, what do I mean by that?

Well, in Canada several newspapers have thrown up paywalls – including the Globe and Mail (the main national newspaper) as well as the main “traditional” newspaper in my market – the Vancouver Sun. Each offers something like 20 free articles a month – akin to what the New York Times does. I also assume (but confess I don’t actually know) that if you arrive at an article via facebook or twitter, it does not count towards that total.

Now, every morning when I visit the home page of the Globe and the Sun and I see an article that might be interesting, I hover my mouse over it and ask myself the same question I suspect tens of thousands of others ask in that moment: “Is reading this article worth burning one my of my 20 free articles this month?” (or, framed another way: “is this article, sponge worthy?”)

And you know what? About 90% of the time, more actually, the answer is no.

And you know what else?

I’m grateful that this is the choice I’m being forced to make.

The internet is filled with news and articles that are wonderfully distracting and that I should probably not spend time reading. It turns out that by “internet” I also mean “pieces of news and articles in the pages of the Globe and the Sun.

What pay walls are reminding me of is that time is my most valuable (or scarce) resource, not access to content. By putting a price on their content the Globe, the Sun and everyone else with a paywall is simultaneously helping me put a “value” on my time. And that is a real service.

Interestingly, it makes getting a subscription is even less interesting to me. A subscription is basically a license for the Globe or Sun to eat up an even bigger chunk my time (which is scarce) with content (which is not scarce), much of which I really don’t need. This is not to say that there is not good content in either newspaper. There is. Sometimes some VERY good content. But about 99% of their content is either not relevant (or basically a form of entertainment) or worse, a kind of unhelpful distraction – what Clay Johnson would call “junk information” in his book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (my review here). So why would I pay to get access behind a paywall when only 1% of the content is valuable to me and the other 99% is likely an unwanted time suck? Is the 1% worth it… so far… no. Indeed, if you are going to do paywalls, newspapers had better REALLY up their game.

And, well, if I just want to burn time and read fun things… well, the internet is the best thing in the world for that! There is almost unlimited quantities of high quality articles about things I don’t urgently need to know scattered all over it!

So I’m loving the paywall because it has made me more judicious about what I read. But that happens to mean less from these newspapers. In the end, if many people are like me (and, I’m a pretty avid news reader, so not really representational) I can’t see this boding well for the industry. Maybe some big papers, like the Guardian and the New York Times can survive on this model. I can’t see local newspapers, with their value chain and costs, surviving.

Indeed the other thing I’m paying for… the editorial piece, also becomes a starker choice to me. I may be an avid news reader, but the editor of these papers is not my editor – their audience is someone else (probably a boomer). Twitter continues to be my main news editor, particularly my “thought-leaders” list of people I respect (but don’t always agree with) give me a constant stream of interesting content.

I also want to make clear, I’m also not a “it must be free” kind of guy. I mean… I like free. But I don’t worship at its altar.

I pay for books all the time. I pay for my subscription to the Economist. There I feel about 60% of the content is really good. Of course – bigger caveat – I only get the digital edition, and I really care (e.g. pay a premium for) the fact that they read every edition to me. This means I can listen while exercising (running) or walking through airports. As a result the Economist doesn’t compete for my time in the same way the Globe or Sun is – but that is clever of them! They worked themselves into my less valuable “workout” and “commuting time”, not my more valuable “productivity” time. It means I also digest almost the entire thing every week.

So my sense is that pay walls can be a good thing for thoughtful users. I’m sure it will drive many to lower quality free content, but for many others it will help them think more judicious about how they spend their time. Frankly, not reading half the stuff I read and spending that time writing, reading something else, or spending time with my son would probably be a big boost to both my productivity and quality of life.

But that doesn’t solve any problems for newspapers.

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 Power of Weakness and the World’s Relationship with America

This past week, I had the enormous privilege of being invited to Washington, DC to attend the Academy of Achievement summit. This event – of which I knew nothing before receiving my invite – is an annual gathering of roughly 80 delegates (whose careers have shown some promise) from around the world, along with about an equal number of honorees (those whose accomplishments, in the arts, the sciences, politics and business are widely recognized).

At times, the privilege bordered on indescribable: dining at the US Supreme Court with Justices Sotomayor, Kennedy, and Ginsberg; being invited onto the floor of the House of Representatives to ask questions of Tim Berners-Lee; conversing privately with the a president of one of the world’s most prestigious universities about online education; having no fewer than 5 Nobel laureates explain their research; or enjoying a private concert with Aretha Franklin. And I have probably described less than 5% of the programming.

In many ways, the Academy of Achievement is like an event the capital’s architects might have designed. Washington, DC was famously built to so large and so grand that it would awe visitors into submission, and the Academy – with its access to the most celebrated minds of not just the US, but of the world – is almost a social equivalent to DC’s architecture. The itinerary and the access are hard to imagine anyone else in the world organizing. To be on the receiving end was always mentally stimulating and, with some of the speakers and guests, humbling to the point of tears.

That said, as striking as the impressive lineup was, the program nonetheless had the greatest impact not when it dwelled on America’s strengths, but on its weaknesses.

David Brooks – the New York Times columnist and an honoree – opened up the event with a moving talk about several of the men and women who had become the capital’s most famous and successful figures. In each case, Brooks chronicled how life in the capital forced each one to confront their own internal weaknesses, and how the country’s greatest leaders were those who both constantly engaged in self-criticism and developed the capacity to constantly check their deficiencies.

The theme of this speech hit home more deeply the following day. After dinner, we gathered at a monument dedicated in part to commemorating the terrible cost incurred when leaders fail to do exactly what Brooks described. Here, in the dark of night, we huddled tightly around Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who received and wrote about the Pentagon Papers – the documents that chronicled the full cost and failure of the war, and the publication of which tested the limits of free speech in America. Sheehan then proceeded to give a moving talk about the terrible cost of the war and its consequences for the soldiers, the Vietnamese, and the fabric of American society. Behind me, an elderly passerby who happened to stop to listen, started to weep.

And this, for me, was the most powerful moment of the conference. It was also the most awe-inspiring. There are few countries that would invite leaders from around the world and would explicitly take them to a memorial that, in many ways, commemorates one of that country’s darkest hours. Perhaps Germany? It is hard to imagine even my own polite country doing this. Indeed, I couldn’t even tell you if we have a major monument to commemorate a national tragedy of that nature. There is no monument I know of regarding the treatment of First Nations, or to the residential schools program, or to the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War.

This may also hint at why America can be so polarizing to so many people. It is not only that the country matters so much: there are few countries where the leaders’ decisions have consequences to so many outside their borders (a fact that Canadians have a comparatively benign, but nonetheless acute, awareness of). But it is a country that has demonstrated capacity for real introspection – the ability, as David Brooks pointed out, to be self-critical about its actions and its adherence to its ideals. Knowing the capacity exists makes it all the more striking and concerning when it is not exercised, and down right terrifying when – such as during George Bush’s presidency – its absence is encouraged and celebrated.

I don’t know what the future holds for America. But the whole program – in addition to being enormously enriching and motivating (it is impossible to walk away from meeting the 20somethings behind the protests in Russia and Libya and not have your perspective broadened) – has served as an important reminder about the nature of influence and relationships. You don’t get to know someone by seeing their strengths. Deep relationships are cultivated when someone has the confidence and trust to share their weaknesses. There are many choices America has made, and is making, that I vigorously disagree with (#drones, #warondrugs) but it is hard not to be moved when a country is willing to open itself up to you, to not just be great but to also be vulnerable. When it happens it is hard to not want to engage and help it make better choices, not out of anger (or worse hatred) but out of respect.

A country should count itself lucky if it can foster such thinking from those who visit its shores. It could do much, much worse.