Category Archives: random

Thoughts on the White House Executive Order on Open Data

As those steeped in the policy wonk geekery of open data are likely already aware, last Thursday the President of the United States issued an Executive Order Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.

This is, quite frankly, a big deal. Further down in the post I’ve got some links and some further explanations why.

That said, the White House called and asked if I would be willing to provide some context about the significance of the order – which I did. You can read my reaction, along with those of a number of people I respect, here. Carl Malamud is, as always, the most succinct and dramatic.

Here are some further thoughts:

Relevant Links

A link to the press release

White House CTO, Todd Park, and CIO, Steve VanRoekel, explaining Open Government Data and its significance.

A fact sheet on the announcement

A link to the Executive Order

A policy memo about the Executive 

And, perhaps most interestingly, a link to Project Open Data, a site with a TON of resources about doing open data within government, including job descriptions, best practices and even tools (e.g. code) you can download to help with an open data deployment in at the city, state or national level. Indeed if you are a public servant reading this (and, I know many of you are), I strongly encourage you to take a look at this site. Tools here could save you tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in software development costs for a range of projects. I love this example, for one: Kickstart – “A simple WordPress plugin to help agencies kickstart their open data efforts by allowing citizens to browse existing datasets and vote for suggested priorities.”

What the White House did right

Here is the genius of this executive order. At its core it deals with something that is hard to communicate to a lot of people in a meaningful way. Here is the executive order for dummies version: This is essentially a core change to procurement and information publication. From a procurement perspective it basically means from now on, if you work in the US government and you buy a computer or software that is going to store or collect data, it sure as hell better be able to export it in a way that others can re-use it. From a information publication perspective, having the ability to publish the data is not sufficient, you actually have to publish the data.

This change is actually quite wide ranging. So much so that it could be hard for many people to understand its significance. This is why I  love the emphasis on what I would refer to as strategic data sets – data sets on healthcare, education, energy and safety. While the order pertains to data that is much, much broader than this, talking about datasets like the 5-Star Safety Ratings System about almost every vehicle in America or data on most appliances’ Energy Star rating brings it down to earth. This is information the average American can wrap their head around and agree should be made more widely available.

The point is that while I’m in favour of making government data more available, I’m particularly interested in using it to drive for policy outcomes that are in the public interest. Finding better ways to get people safety, health, energy or education data in their hands at the moment they are making an important decision is something open data can facilitate. If, when you are making a purchase or about to create a new project, there is some software that can filter your choices by safety rating or prompt you to rethink your criteria in a way that will enhance your safety or reduce your carbon footprint, I find that compelling. So more availability to government data for research or even just access… yes! But access to specific data sets with the goal of improving specific outcomes is also very important, and this is clearly one of the goals of this order.

What this executive order is not

It is important to note what this Executive Order is not. While I think it can help citizens make better choices, improve access to some types of information, offer researchers and policy wonks more data to test theories and propose solutions and improve productivity within and outside government, I do not think it will not change politics in America. Had this order existed, it would not have magically prevented the Iraq War by, for example, making CIA analysis more scrutable. Nor will it directly rein in lobbyists or make money matter less. This is more about changing the way government works, not the effect that politics has on government decisions. Maybe it will have that impact in the long run (or the opposite impact), but it will be through second and third order effects that I’m all too happy to confess that I currently don’t see.

No one is claiming that this release somehow makes the US government “open” – there are still lots of examples about policies and processes in the White House that require greater transparency. Transparency and openness in government move on several axes. Progress along one axis does not automatically mean there is progress along all axes. And even progress will foster new challenges and demand new types of vigilance. For example, I also suspect, over time, the order may impact what data governments elect to collect, if, by default, it is to be made open. The order could, in some cases, make the data more political, something I’ve argued here.

This is to say that there is no panacea and this order does not create some perfectly transparent government. But it is an important step, and one that other governments should be looking at closely. It is an effort to reposition government to better participate in and be relevant in a data driven and networked world, and it does foster a level of access around a class of information, data, that is too often kept hidden from citizens. For that reason, it is worthy of much praise.

LinkedIn is as confused about what I do as everyone else

Often when I meet people, they ask me what I do.

The challenge is, there is no easy answer to that question. I advise companies and non-profits on strategy, I do advocacy work and serve as an expert on open-innovation, open government and open data, I also work a negotiation consultant and mediator, I do some work with open source communities around community management, and then there are about another dozen projects and boards that I sit on.

In reality, my work actually does tie together quite nicely, just not in a “this is my job title” kind of way. I also feel bad about the confusion. It doesn’t feel polite to take 5-10 minutes to explain one’s career and frankly, from a business development perspective, it isn’t very savvy. It’s part of the reason why I created the venn diagram at the bottom of this page. So people could see how my the different parts of my work relate to one another (or at least how I think they relate to one another – and yes, I should update it).

So it was somewhat fun to get this email from LinkedIn about jobs I may be interested in. I appear to have them vexed, or at least confused. I mean check out these jobs! What a mix! If only I WERE qualified for all of them.

The coolest one, by far, is the Chief Administration Officer for the Musqueam Nation. But I’m definitely scrambling LinkedIn’s algorithms. Will be interesting to see if/how they evolve to produce results that likely make more sense.

I’ve never thought of myself as a underground mining engineer…

Linkedin Jobs

You Have No Rights – Because you are Breaking the Law Right Now

For those who missed it, which I suspect is most people, there is a fantastic Op-Ed in the New York Times by Peter Ludlow of Northwestern University.

Titled Hacktivists as Gadflies it is a scary look at how much legal power the US government has over people who use the web (e.g. pretty much anyone) since almost all of us are, via one way or another probably violating law as interpreted by US prosecutors.

Here’s a juicy line:

“The law, as interpreted by the prosecutors, makes it a felony to use a computer system for “unintended” applications, or even violate a terms-of-service agreement. That would theoretically make a felon out of anyone who lied about their age or weight on Match.com.”

And its scary conclusion:

“In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one.”

Basically, there is a real risk that everyone is in legal limbo. All it takes is the government to decide they want to attack you, since they already have the means. Scary, scary stuff.

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.

Global

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 (http://maps.napc.gov.ph). 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.

Exciting.

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!

Playing with Budget Cutbacks: On a Government 2.0 Response, Wikileaks & Analog Denial of Service Attacks

Reflecting on yesterday’s case study in broken government I had a couple of addition thoughts that I thought fun to explore and that simply did not make sense including in the original post.

A Government 2.0 Response

Yesterday’s piece was all about how Treasury Board’s new rules were likely to increase the velocity of paperwork to a far greater cost than the elimination of excess travel.

One commentator noted a more Gov 2.0 type solution that I’d been mulling over myself. Why not simply treat the government travel problem as a big data problem? Surely there are tools that would allow you to look at government travel in aggregate, maybe mashed it up against GEDS data (job title and department information) that would enable one to quickly identify outliers and other high risk travel that are worthy of closer inspection. I’m not talking about people who travel a lot (that wouldn’t be helpful) but rather people who engage in unusual travel that is hard to reconcile with their role.

While I’m confident that many public servants would find such an approach discomforting, it would be entirely within the purview of their employer to engage in such an analysis. It would also be far more effective, targeted and a deterrent (I suspect, over time) than the kind of blanket policy I wrote about yesterday that is just as (if not more) likely to eliminate necessary travel as it is unnecessary travel. Of course, if you just want to eliminate travel because you think any face to face, group or in person learning is simply not worth the expense – than the latter approach is probably more effective.

Wikileaks and Treasury Board

Of course re-reading yesterday’s post I was having a faint twinge of familiarity. I suddenly realized that my analysis of the impact of the travel restriction policy on government has parallels to the goal that drove Assange to create wikileaks. If you’ve not read Zunguzungu blog post exploring Assange’s writings about the “theory of change” of wikileaks I cannot encourage you enough to go and read it. At its core lies a simple assessment – that wikileaks is trying to shut down the “conspiracy of the state” by making it harder for effective information to be transmitted within the state. Of course, restricting travel is not nearly the same as making it impossible for public servants to communicate, but it does compromise the ability to coordinate and plan effectively – as such the essay is illuminating in thinking about how these types of policies impact not the hierarchy of an organization, but the hidden and open networks (the secret government) that help make the organization function.

Read this extract below below for a taste:

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

This is obviously a totally different context – but it is interesting to see that one way to alter an organizations  is to change the way in which information flows around it. This was not – I suspect – the primary goal of the Treasury Board directive (it was a cost driven measure) but the above paragraph is an example of the unintended consequences. Less communication means the ability of the organization to function could be compromised.

Bureaucratic Directive’s as an Analog Denial of Service Attack

There is, of course, another more radical way of thinking about the Treasury Board directive. One of the key points I tried to make yesterday was that the directive was likely to increase the velocity of bureaucratic paperwork, tie up a larger amount of junior and, more preciously, senior resource time, all while actually allowing less work to be done.

Now if a government department were a computer, and I was able to make it send more requests that slowed its CPU (decision making capacity) and thus made other functions harder to perform – and in extreme cases actually prevented any work from happening – that would be something pretty similar to a Denial of Service attack.

Again, I’m not claiming that this was the intent, but it is a fun and interesting lens by which to look at the problem. More to explore here, I’m sure.

Hopefully this has bent a few minds and helped people see the world differently.