Category Archives: cool links

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

 

OGP Rules of the Game – Tactical Mistake or Strategic Necessity?

The other week Martin Tisne, the UK Policy Director at the Omidyar Network, as well as one of the key architects of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), posted a blog post expressing concern that Civil Society participants have misunderstood the OGP. Specifically Tisne is concerned that by focusing on entrance into the OGP rather than on the process which requires them to fulfill commitments towards greater transparency, NGOs are making a tactical mistake.

There is a tremendous amount of good insight in Tisne’s piece and it deserves to be widely read (and has been). There are however, important reasons civil society members spend as much time fretting about entrance into the OGP rather than purely on the process. And contrary to Tisne, I don’t think this is a tactical mistake – it is, in fact, both a tactically and strategically sound choice. Most importantly of all it is a reflection of how power is structured and distributed within the OGP.

For most activists fostering change is about a developing a set of carrots and sticks that can be used to cajole a reluctant actor into making the change you seek. One big carrot is participation in the OGP. This is good. It urges governments to make commitments and sign on to a process. However, it also has a serious impact on civil society’s power in the process. This is because it puts one major carrot – participation – at the beginning of the process while placing the stick – an assessment of how well a government is adhering to its commitments – at the end.

We shouldn’t underestimate the benefit participation confers on many governments. The OGP brand can become a sort of shield that protects a government against all sorts of accusations of opacity. “Of course we are transparent, we participate in the OGP” is an easy line for minister to counter to an uncomfortable question. And that is not the only way participation can diminish civil society’s power. Because a government’s necessarily requires civil society cooperation (they sign off on the commitments), it binds the two together. This means that, in some basic way, civil society has endorsed a – yet to be implemented – government plan. That can provide enormous political cover. In addition, OGP members may cause some citizens (e.g. potential transparency supporters and activists) to adopt a “wait and see” approach to judging their government, or to assume that a reliable process is in place and so they can focus on other issues. Rather than maintain or intensify pressure on a government, the OGP, in the short term, may diminish the power of civil society.

The aforementioned stick in the OGP process is the independent reporting mechanism. And it arrives at the end of the process, a couple of years after the country has joined the OGP. The hope is it provides an objective assessment that civil society members can use to shame and drive for change where the assessment is critical. The challenge, and the reason I suspect many civil society members remain nervous, is that this mechanism remains mostly untested. The OGP carrot and stick model becomes even more challenging if either a) the timeline for fulfilling commitments falls onto the term of the next government or b) a transparency issue arises that runs counter to the OGPs values but falls outside the government’s action plan.  This is what happened in South Africa and so calling for ejection from the OGP became rational (and even necessary) since both the short term carrot (OGP participation) and long term stick – are review of the implementation plan – provided civil society with no leverage or power against a law that distinctly ran counter to the OGPs principles.

Consequently, the threat of striping a government of its OGP membership is not only a rational choice for many civil society members, in some cases it may be one of the few sticks available to them during a period in the process when other forms of influence have been made less effective. Threats of ejection is this not only a rational choice, but possible the only choice.

Indeed, OGP architects should take heart of the fact that civil society members are relatively hawkish about who gets to enter the OGP. As previously mentioned, OGP membership itself denotes a degree credibility – particularly to an unaware public. Civil society members bound to the OGP are potentially more invested in protecting the credibility and brand of the OGP than either the member governments of the OGP secretariat is. This is because, try as the OGP might to not compare countries to one another, civil society members know the company you keep matters.

This is not to say that the OGP should only be a high achievers club. I think the public understands there are differences in capacity, and the entrance of a country like Libya that is making a difficult transition, is broadly seen as positive. However, the participation of an authoritarian government, or even a democracy infamous for jailing journalists, significant corruption and little transparency – damages the the OGP brand for all participants, and particularly for civil society members participating in the process. I can only imagine the Executive Director of a civil society group grimacing as someone asks incredulously: “you are part of a transparency group that includes (insert country with poor record of your choice)?” Civil society actors that are the most invested in protecting the OGP’s brand, if only to ensure that the IRM has credibility when it is finally launched in their country. As such, protesting the potential entry of a country is not a tactical mistake, but a highly strategic decision.

I say this not because Martin is wrong, especially about his four points – civil society participation, OGP stretch goals, relevance check and the IRM – these are indeed critical to the bedrock of the OGP. And I remain exceedingly hopeful about the OGP, although a great deal hinges on the IRM and the degree with which it empowers local civil society actors. Rather I think it bears reminding all involved that we need to continuously have explicit and productive conversations about power, and how it is structured and where it flows, when it comes to the OGP process, as this reveals a lot about why actors act the way they do, and could provide insights in how we can make the OGP more effective.

Some Nice Journalistic Data Visualization – Global’s Crude Awakening

Over at Global, David Skok and his team have created a very nice visualization of the over 28,666 crude oil spills that have happened on Alberta pipelines over the last 37 years (that’s about two a day). Indeed, for good measure they’ve also visualized the additional 31,453 spills of “other” substance carried by Alberta pipeline (saltwater, liquid petroleum, etc..)

They’ve even created a look up feature so you can tackle the data geographically, by name, or by postal code. It is pretty in depth.

Of course, I believe all this data should be open. Sadly, they have to get at it through a complicated Access to Information Request that appears to have consumed a great deal of time and resources and that would probably only be possible by a media organizations with the  dedicated resources (legal and journalistic) and leverage to demand it. Had this data been open there would have still been a great deal of work to parse, understand and visualize it, but it would have helped lower the cost of development.

In fact, if you are curious about how they got the data – and the sad, sad, story it involved – take a look at the fantastic story they wrote about the creation of their oilspill website. This line really stood out for me:

An initial Freedom of Information request – filed June 8, 2012, the day after the Sundre spill – asked Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development for information on all reported spills from the oil and gas industry, from 2006 to 2012.

About a month later, Global News was quoted a fee of over $4,000 for this information. In discussions with the department, it turned out this high fee was because the department was unable to provide the information in an electronic format: Although it maintained a database of spills, the departmental process was to print out individual reports on paper, and to charge the requester for every page.

So the relevant government department has the data in a machine readable form. It just chooses to only give it out in a paper form. Short of simply not releasing the data at all it is hard to imagine a more obstructionist approach to preventing the public from accessing environmental data their tax dollars paid to collect and that is supposed to be in the public interest. You essentially look at thousands of pieces of paper and re-enter tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of data points into spreadsheets. This is a process designed to prevent you from learning anything and frustrating potential users.

Let’s hope that when the time comes for the Global team to update this tool and webpage there will be open data they can download and access to the task is a little easier.

 

Visualizing Open Energy Data in Canada

If you haven’t seen it yet, Glen Newton has done some really awesome visualizations of Canada’s energy production/consumption data. Here’s a version I “edited”:

What is cool is that, what I mean when I say “edited” is that any of the colour bars can be dragged vertically, so one can move around the components to accentuate different elements or paint a different story. This relatively simple interactivity is really quite powerful.

In addition, I was able to understand what is actually a quite complicated piece of information very quickly. If you tried to write this out I would take pages to explain or, would be numbers in a spreadsheet I would never really wrap my head around. This form is so intuitive to understand it really is fantastic. And of course, the fact that you can move it around means you can interact with it, play with it, and so engage it and try to understand it more readily than something that is static.

These flows are visualized in terms of petajoules, but it would be interesting to see if graphed in terms of value (dollars) as well, as I suspect, that the “pipes” would be very different in size.

Really awesome work by Glen here.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Open Data

I have an article titles Lies, Damn Lies and Open Data in Slate Magazine as part of their Future Tense series.

Here, for me, is the core point:

On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

The long form census debacle here in Canada was, I think, a great example of data getting politicized, and was really helped clarify my thinking around this. This piece has been germinating since then, but the core thesis has occasionally leaked out during some of my talks and discussion. Indeed, you can see me share some of it during the tail end of my opening keynote at the Open Knowledge Foundation International Open Data Camp almost three years ago.

Anyways, please hop on over to Slate and take a look – I hope you enjoy the read.

Fall 2012 – Some Fun Updates

Hi friends – am super excited about a number of upcoming events I’ve been asked to participate in this fall.

All this means I’ll be in Charlotte, Boston and Washington DC in case friends are around.

Democratic National Convention

Tomorrow, Wednesday, September 6th, the National Democratic Institute has invited me to speak at the International Leaders Summit at the Democratic National Convention. Tim O’Reilly and I will both be giving talks on technology and government – I believe it will be live streamed via a Google Chat room so will try to post details.

Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

I’ll be giving a talk on the State of Open Government at the Kennedy School on September 25th, as well as, possibly another talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Promise to blog on any talk I plan to give.

World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship

I’ve also been asked by the State Department to be on a panel on innovation in diplomacy at the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Boston on September 26th. Hope to write up a summary and thoughts about this once it is over.

The White House

I’ll also be speaking to the White House Innovation Fellows in late October – more details on that, but very excited as this is a fantastic group of people doing some very interesting work.

Lots of other exciting stuff happening this fall as well – so hoping to have a bunch of great blog posts I’ll be able to share with people soon.

Transparency Case Study: There are Good and Bad Ways Your Organization can be made "Open"

If you have not had the chance, I strongly encourage you to check out a fantastic piece of journalism in this week’s Economist on the state of the Catholic Church in America. It’s a wonderful example of investigative and data driven journalism made possible (sadly) by the recent spat of sexual-abuse and bankruptcy cases. As a result some of the normally secret financial records of the Church have been made public enabling the Economist to reconstruct the secret and opaque general finances of the Catholic church in America. It is a fascinating, and at times disturbing read.

The articles also suggests – I believe – a broader lessons for non-profits, governments and companies. Disclosure and transparency are essential to the effective running of an organization. As you read the piece it is clear that more disclosure would probably have compelled the Church to manage its finances in a more fiscally sound manner. It probably would have also made acts that are, at best negligent, at worst corrupt, difficult to impossible. This is, indeed, why many charities, organizations and public companies must conduct audits and publish the results.

But conforming to legal requirements will not shield you from an angry public. My sense is that many member contribution based organizations – from public companies to clubs to governments, are going to feel enormous pressure from their “contributors” to disclose more about how funds are collected, managed, disbursed and used. In a post financial collapse and post Enron era it’s unclear to me that people trust auditors the way they once did. In addition, as technology makes it easier to track money in real time, contributors are going to want more than just an annual audit. Even if they look at it rarely, they are going to want to know there is a dashboard or system they can look at and understand that shows them where the money goes.

I’m open to being wrong about this – and I’m not suggesting this is a panacea that solves all problems, but I nonetheless suspect that many organizations are going to feel pressure to become more transparent. There will be good ways in which that takes place… and bad ways. The Catholic Church story in the Economist is probably an example of the worst possible way: transparency forced upon an organization through the release of documents in a court case.

For anyone running an non-profit, community group, public agency or government department – this makes the article doubly worth reading. It is a case study in the worst possible scenario for your organization. The kind of disaster you never want to have to deal with.

The problem is, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, is that, at some point in the next 10-20 years, there is a non-trivial risk any organization (including your’s, reader) will face a publicity or legitimacy crisis because of a real or imagined problem. Trust me when I tell you: that moment will not be the moment when it is easiest or desirable from a cost, political and cultural perspective, to make your organization more transaparent. So better for you to think about how you’d like to shift policies, culture and norms to make it more transparent and accountable today, when things are okay, than in the crisis.

Consider again the Catholic Church. There are some fascinating and disturbing facts shared in the story that provide some interesting context. On the fascinating side, I had no idea of the scope and size of the Catholic Church. Consider that, according to the article:

“Almost 100m Americans, a third of the nation, have been baptised into the faith and 74m identify themselves as Catholic.”

and

“there are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities.”

We are talking about a major non-profit that is providing significant services into numerous communities. It also means that the Catholic church does a lot of things that many other non-profits do. Whatever you are doing, they are probably doing it too.

Now consider some of the terrible financial practices the Church tried/tries to get away with because it thinks no one will be able to see them:

Lying about assets: “In a particularly striking example, the diocese of San Diego listed the value of a whole city block in downtown San Diego at $40,000, the price at which it had been acquired in the 1940s, rather than trying to estimate the current market value, as required. Worse, it altered the forms in which assets had to be listed. The judge in the case, Louise Adler, was so vexed by this and other shenanigans on the part of the diocese that she ordered a special investigation into church finances which was led by Todd Neilson, a former FBI agent and renowned forensic accountant. The diocese ended up settling its sexual-abuse cases for almost $200m.”

Playing fast and loose with finances: “Some dioceses have, in effect, raided priests’ pension funds to cover settlements and other losses. The church regularly collects money in the name of priests’ retirement. But in the dioceses that have gone bust lawyers and judges confirm that those funds are commingled with other investments, which makes them easily diverted to other uses.”

Misleading contributors about the destination of funds: “Under Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese of Boston contributed nothing to its clergy retirement fund between 1986 and 2002, despite receiving an estimated $70m-90m in Easter and Christmas offerings that many parishioners believed would benefit retired priests.”

Using Public Subsidies to Indirectly Fund Unpopular Activities: “Muni bonds are generally tax-free for investors, so the cost of borrowing is lower than it would be for a taxable investment. In other words, the church enjoys a subsidy more commonly associated with local governments and public-sector projects. If the church has issued more debt in part to meet the financial strains caused by the scandals, then the American taxpayer has indirectly helped mitigate the church’s losses from its settlements. Taxpayers may end up on the hook for other costs, too. For example, settlement of the hundreds of possible abuse cases in New York might cause the closure of Catholic schools across the city.”

Of course all of this pales in comparison to the most disturbing part of the article: in several jurisdictions, the church is spending money to lobby governments to no extend the statute of limitations around sexual-abuse cases. This is so that it, and its priests, cannot be charged by authorities diminishing the likelihood that they get sued. The prospect that an organization that is supposed to both model the highest ideals of behaviour as well as protect the most marginalized is trying to limit the statues on such a heinous crime is so profoundly disgusting it is hard to put words to it. The Economist gives it a shot:

Various sources say that Cardinal Dolan and other New York bishops are spending a substantial amount—estimates range from $100,000 a year to well over $1m—on lobbying the state assembly to keep the current statute of limitations in place. His office will not comment on these estimates. This is in addition to the soft lobbying of lawmakers by those with pulpits at their disposal. The USCCB, the highest Catholic body in America, also lobbies the federal government on the issue. In April the California Catholic Conference, an organisation that brings the state’s bishops together, sent a letter to California’s Assembly opposing a bill that would extend the statute and require more rigorous background checks on church workers.

This disgusting discover aside, most organizations are probably not going to have the same profound problems found in the Catholic Church. But in almost every organization, no matter the controls, some form of mismanagement is probably taking place. The question is, will you already have in place policies and a culture that support transparency and disclosure before the problem is discovered – or will the crises become the moment where you have to try to implement them, probably under less than ideal circumstances?

As they said after Watergate “It’s not the Crime that kills you, but the cover up,” good transparency and disclosure can’t stop the crime, but it might help prevent them. Moreover, it can also make the cover up harder and, potentially, make it easier to ease the concerns of contributors and rebuilt trust. One could imagine that if the Church had been more transparent about its finances it might have better protected itself against bankruptcy from some of these cases. More importantly, it’s transparency might have make it easier to rebuilt trust, whereas any chance now will just seem like a reaction to the crises, not a genuine desire to operate differently.

Again, I think the pressure on many orgs to be more transparent is going to grow. And managers should recognize there are good and bad conditions under which such transparency can take place. Read this Economist story. In addition to be fascinating, it is a great case study in the worst case scenario for opaque institutions.