Tag Archives: BC

Government Procurement Failure: BC Ministry of Education Case Study

Apologies for the lack of posts. I’ve been in business mode – both helping a number of organizations I’m proud of and working on my own business.

For those interested in a frightening tale of inept procurement, poor judgement and downright dirty tactics when it comes to software procurement and government, there is a wonderfully sad and disturbing case study emerging in British Columbia that shows the lengths a government is willing to go to shut out open source alternatives and ensure that large, expensive suppliers win the day.

The story revolves around a pickle that the province of British Columbia found itself in after a previous procurement disaster. The province had bought a student record management system – software that records elementary and secondary students’ grades and other records. Sadly, the system never worked well. For example, student records generally all get entered at the end of the term, so any system must be prepared to manage significant episodic spikes in usage. The original British Columbia Electronic Student Information System (BCeSIS) was not up to the task and frequently crashed and/or locked out teachers.

To make matters worse, after spending $86M over 6 years it was ultimately determined that BCeSIS was unrecoverably flawed and, as the vendor was ending support, a new system needed to be created.

Interestingly, one of the Province’s school districts – the District of Saanich – decided it would self-fund an open source project to create an alternative to BCeSIS. Called OpenStudent, the system would have an open source license, would be created using locally paid open source developers, could be implemented in a decentralized way but still meet the requirements of the province and… would cost a fraction of that proposed by large government vendors.  The Times Colonist has a simple article that covers the launch of OpenStudent here.

Rather than engage Saanich, the province decided to take another swing at hiring a multinational to engage in a IT mega-project. An RFP was issued to which only companies with $100M in sales could apply. Fujitsu was awarded a 12 year contract with costs of up to $9.4M a year.

And here are the kickers:

So in other words, the province sprung some surprise requirements on the District of Saanich that forced it to kill an open source solution that could have saved tax payers millions and employed British Columbians, all while exempting a multinational from meeting the same requirements. It would appear that the province was essentially engaged in a strategy to kill OpenStudent, likely because any success it enjoyed would have created an ongoing PR challenge for the province and threatened its ongoing contract with Fujitsu.

While I don’t believe that any BC government official personally profited from this outcome, it is hard – very hard indeed – not to feel like the procurement system is deeply suspect or, at worst, corrupted. I have no idea if it is possible, but I do hope that these documents can serve as the basis for legal action by the District of Saanich against the Province of British Columbia to recapture some of their lost expenses. The province has clearly used its purchasing power to alter the marketplace and destroy competitors; whether this is in violation of a law, I don’t know. I do know, however, that it is in violation of good governance, effective procurement and general ethics. As a result, all BC tax payers have suffered.

Addendum: It has been suggested to me that that one reason the BC government may be so keen to support Fujitsu and destroy competing suppliers is because it needs to generate a certain amount of business for the company in order for it to maintain headcount in the province. Had OpenStudent proved viable and cheaper (it was estimated to cost $7-10 per student versus $20 for Fujistu’s service), Fujistu might have threatened to scale back operations which might have hurt service levels for other contracts. Unclear to me if this is true or not. To be clear I don’t hold Fujistu responsible for anything here – they are just a company trying to sell their product and offer the best service they can. The disaster described above has nothing to do with them (they may or may not offer amazing products, I don’t know); rather, it has everything to do with the province using its power to eliminate competition and choice.

Open Data in BC – Good & Bad Examples from Bikes to Libraries

Some small examples of open data use and public servants who do and don’t understand open data from the Province of British Columbia to the City of Vancouver.

Open Libraries?

For the past several years – ever since the open motion was passed in Vancouver – the city has been releasing more and more data sets. One data set I’ve encouraged them to proactively release was library data – the catalog, what books were popular, etc… Others have made the request and, in fact, some of the catalog data is available, if you know where to look – but it isn’t licensed. This hasn’t stopped people from creating cool things – like this awesome Firefox greasemonkey script that shows if a book you are looking at on Amazon’s site is available at your local VPL library – but it has driven these innovations underground, discouraged them, and made them difficult to maintain.

I’ve even had meetings with Vancouver Public Library (VPL) officials who ranged from deeply opposed to indifferent about sharing their data, usually on the grounds of privacy and security. How releasing the libraries catalog, or offering an API into the catalog or showing the number of times a book has been checked out threatens privacy is beyond me. Mostly I suspect it is driven by the fact that they don’t want anything competing with their website and software – pretty much the opposite approach to innovation than that taken by the leading cities and governments.

The reluctance of VPL to share its data given they are a) a community supported library and b) that City Council passed a motion explicitly directing city staff to make their data open, is all the more surprising (I mean even ICBC gave me bike accident data). This is why I was excited to see that the Provincial Government of British Columbian has taken the opposite view. Recently they released location and statistic for Public Libraries across BC for 2006-2009. It does not sadly, include the collections data or the number of check outs for each book (which would of course be awesome but it does provide lat/longs for every library and a great deal of data on each library system and sometimes individual branch such as staff levels, budget data and usage counts (again not by resource). It’s a good start and something I hope people will want to play with. Of course, getting an API into the actual catalog is the real idea – the things my friends talk about doing to enable them and their kids to better use the library…

Speaking of playing…

Bike Accident Data Keeps Generating Discussion

It is wonderful to see that blog posts and analysis as a result of Eric Promislow’s BC bike accident map continue to emerge. Eric created his map during the December 3rd Open Data Hackathon when he visualized bike accident data I managed to get from Insurance Company of British Columbia and uploaded it to Buzzdata. (Eric subsequently got automobile accident data and mapped that too). Another example appeared last week, when the map and data proved useful to Stephen Wehner who used it in a recent blog post to supplement some anecdotal data around accidents in his neighborhood.

It’s a wonderful example of how local citizens can begin to see the risks and problems in their neighborhoods, and arm themselves with real data when they want to complain to their councilperson, MLA, MP or other representative.

The Economics of Open Data – Mini-Case, Transit Data & TransLink

TransLink, the company that runs public transit in the region where I live (Vancouver/Lower Mainland) has launched a real time bus tracking app that uses GPS data to figure out how far away the next the bus you are waiting for really is. This is great news for everyone.

Of course for those interested in government innovation and public policy it also leads to another question. Will this GPS data be open data?

Presently TransLink does make its transit schedule “open” under a non-commercial license (you can download it here). I can imagine a number of senior TransLink officials (and the board) scratching their head asking: “Why, when we are short of money, would we make our data freely available?”

The answer is that TransLink should make its current data, as well as its upcoming GPS data, open and available under a license that allows for both non-commercial and commercial re-use, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because the economics of it make WAY MORE SENSE FOR TRANSLINK.

Let me explain.

First, there are not a lot of obvious ways TransLink could generate wealth directly from its data. But let’s take two possible opportunities: the first involves selling a transit app to the public (or advertising in such an app), the second is through selling a “next bus” service to companies (say coffee shops or organizations) that believe showing this information might be a convenience to their employees or customers.

TransLink has already abandoned doing paid apps – instead it maintains a mobile website at m.translink.ca – but even if it created an app and charged $1 per download, the revenue would be pitiful. Assuming a very generous customer base of 100,000 users, TransLink would generate maybe $85,000 dollars (once Apple takes its cut from the iPhone downloads, assuming zero cut for Androids). But remember, this is not a yearly revenue stream, it is one time. Maybe, 10-20,000 people upgrade their phone, arrive in Vancouver and decide to download every year. So your year on year revenue is maybe $15K? So over a 5 year period, TransLink ends up with an extra, say $145,000 dollars. Nothing to sneeze at, but not notable.

In contrast a free application encourages use. So there is also a cost to not giving it away. It could be that, having transit data more readily available might cause some people to choose taking transit over say, walking, or taking a taxi or driving. Last year TransLink handled 211.3 million trips. Let’s assume that more accessible data from wider access to the data meant there was a .1% increase in the number of trips. An infinitesimally small increase – but it means 211,300 more trips. Assuming each rider pays a one zone $2.50 fare that would still translate in an additional revenue of $528,250. Over the same five year period cited above… that’s revenue of $2.641M, much better than $145,000. And this is just calculating money. Let’s say nothing of less congested roads, less smog and a lower carbon footprint for the region…

When the this analysis is applied to licensing data it produces the same result. Will UBC pay to have TransLink’s real time data on terminals in the Student Union building? I doubt it. Would some strategically placed coffee shops… possibly. Obviously organizations would have to pay for the signs, but adding on annual “data license fee” to display’s cost would cause some to opt out. And once you take into account managing the signs, legal fees, dealing with the contract and going through the sales process, it is almost inconceivable that TransLink would make more money from these agreements than it would from simply having more signs everywhere created by other people that generated more customers for its actual core business: moving people from A to B for a fee. Just to show you the numbers, if shops that weren’t willing to pay for the data put up “next bus” screens that generated a mere 1000 new regular bus users who did only 40 one way trips a year (or 40,000 new trips), this would equal revenue of $100,000 every year at no cost to translink. Someone else could install and maintain the signs, no contracts or licenses would need to be managed.

From a cost recovery perspective it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where TransLink is better off not allowing commercial re-use of its data.

My point is that TransLink should not be focused on creating a few bucks from licensing its data (which it doesn’t do right now anyway). It should be focused on shifting the competitive value in the marketplace from access to accessibility.

Being the monopoly holder of transit data does not benefit TransLink. All it means is that fewer people see and engage with its data. When it makes the data open and available “access” no longer becomes the defining advantage. When anybody (e.g. TransLink, Google, independent developers) can access the data, the market place shifts to competing on access to competing on accessibility. Consumers don’t turn to who has the data, they turn to who makes the data easiest to use.

For example, Translink has noted that in 2011 it will have a record number of trips. Part of me wonders to what degree the increase in trips over the past few years is a result of making transit data accessible in Google Maps. (Has anyone done a study on this in any jurisdiction?) The simple fact is that Google maps is radically easier to use for planning transit journeys than Translink’s own website AND THAT IS A GOOD THING FOR TRANSLINK. Now imagine if lots of companies were sharing translink’s data? The local Starbucks and Blenz Coffee, to colleges and universities and busy buildings downtown. Indeed, the real crime right now is that Translink has handed Google a defacto monopoly. It is allowed to use the data for commercial re-use. Local tax-paying developers…? Not so according to the license they have to click through.

Translink, you want a world where everyone is competing (including against you) on accessibility. In the end… you win with greater use and revenue.

But let me go further. There are other benefits to having Translink share its data for commercial re-use.


Some riders will note that there are already bus stops in Vancouver which display “next bus” data (e.g. how many minutes away the next bus is). If TransLink made its next bus data freely available via an API it could conceivably alter the procurement process for buying and maintaining these signs. Any vendor could see how the data is structured and so take over the management of the signs, and/or experiment with creating more innovative or cheaper ways of manufacturing them.

The same is true of creating the RFP for TransLink’s website. With the data publicly available, TransLink could simple ask developers to mock up what they think is the most effective way of displaying the data. More development houses might be enticed to respond to the RFP increasing the likelihood of innovations and putting downward pressure of fees.


Of course, making GPS data free could have an additional benefit. Local news companies might be able to use the bus’s GPS data to calculate traffic flow rates and so predict traffic jams. Might they be willing to pay TransLink for the data? Maybe, but again probably not enough to justify the legal and sales overhead. Moreover, TransLink would benefit from this analysis – as it could use the reports to adjust its schedule and notify its drivers of problems beforehand. Of course everyone would benefit as well as better informed commuters might change their behaviour (including taking transit!) reducing congestion, smog, carbon footprint, etc…

Indeed, the analysis opportunities using GPS data are potentially endless – much of which might be done by bloggers and university students. One could imagine correlating actual bus/subway times with any other number of data sets (crime, commute times, weather) that could yield interesting information that could help TransLink with its planning. There is no world where TransLink has the resources to do all this analysis, so enabling others to do it, can only benefit it.


So if you are at TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company (or any transit authority in the world), this post is for you. Here’s what I suggest as next steps:

1) Add GPS bus tracking API to your open data portal.

2) Change your license. Drop the non-commercial part. It hurts your business more than you realize and is anti competitive (why does can Google use the data for a commercial application while residents of the lower mainland cannot?). My suggestion, adopt the BC Government Open Government License or the PDDL.

3) Add an RSS feed to your GTFS data. Like Google, we’d all like to know when you update your data. Given we live here and are users, it be nice to extend the same service to us as you do them.

4) Maybe hold a Transit Data Camp where you could invite local developers and entrepreneurs to meet your staff and encourage people to find ways to get transit data into the hands of more Lower Mainlanders and drive up ridership!



Province of BC launches Open Data Catalog: What works

As revealed yesterday, the province of British Columbia became the first provincial government in Canada to launch an open data portal.

It’s still early but here are some things that I think they’ve gotten right.

1. License: Getting it Right (part 1)

Before anything else happens, this is probably the single biggest good news story for Canadians interested in the opportunities around open data. If the license is broken, it pretty much doesn’t matter how good the data is, it essential gets put in a legal straightjacket and cannot be used. For BC open data portal this happily, is not the case.

There’s actually two good news stories here.

The first is that the license is good. Obviously my preference would be for everything to be unlicensed and in the public domain as it is in the United States. Short of that however, the most progressive license out there is the UK Government’s Open Government License for Public Sector Information. Happily the BC government has essentially copied it. This means that many of that BC’s open data can be used for commercial purposes, political advocacy, personal use and so forth. In short the restrictions are minimal and, I believe, acceptable. The license addresses the concerns I raised back in March when I said 2011 would be the year of Open Data licenses in Canada.

2. License: The Virtuous Convergence (part 2)

The other great thing is that this is a standardized license. The BC government didn’t invent something new they copied something that already worked. This is music to the ears of many as it means applications and analysis developed in British Columbia can be ported to other jurisdictions that use the same license seamlessly. At the moment, that means all of the United Kingdom. There has been some talk of making the UK Open Government Licenses (OGL) a standard that can be used across the commonwealth – that, in my mind, would be a fantastic outcome.

My hope is that this will also put pressure on other jurisdictions to either improve their licenses or converge them with BC/UK or adopt a better license still. With the exception of the City of Surrey, which uses the PDDL license, the BC government’s license far superior to the licenses being used by other jurisdictions:  – the municipal licenses based on Vancouver’s license (used by Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and a few others) and the Federal Government’s open data license (used by Treasury Board and CIDA) are both much more restrictive. Indeed, my real hope is that BC’s move will snap the Federal Government out of their funk, make them realize their own licenses are confusing, problematic and a waste of time, and encourage them to contribute to making the UK’s OGL a new standard for all of Canada. It would be much better than what they have on offer.

3. Tools for non-developers

Another nice thing about the data.gov.bc.ca website is that it provides tools for non-developers, so that they can play with, and learn from, some of the data. This is, of course, standard fare on most newer open data portals – indeed, it’s seems to be the primary focus on Socrata, a company that specializes in creating open government data portals. The goal everywhere is to increase the number of people who can make use of the data.

4. Meaty Data – Including Public Accounts

One of the charges sometimes leveled against open data portals is that they don’t publish data that is important, or that could drive substantive public policy debates. While this is not true of what has happened in the UK and the United States, that charge probably is someone fair in Canada. While I’m still exploring the data available on data.gov.bc.ca one thing seems clear, there is a commitment to getting the more “high-value” data sets out to the public. For example, I’ve already noticed you can download the Consolidated Revenue Fund Detailed Schedules of Payments-FYE10-Suppliers which for the fiscal year 2009-2010 details the payees who received $25,000 or more from the government. I also noticed that the Provincial Obstacles to Fish Passage are available for download – something I hope our friends in the environmental movement will find helpful. There is also an entire section dedicated to data on the provincial educational system, I’ll be exploring that in more detail.

Wanted to publish this for now, definitely keen to hear about others thoughts and comments on the data portal, data sets you find interesting and helpful, or anything else. If you are building an app using this data, or doing an analysis that is made easier because of the data on this site, I’d love to hear from you.

This is a big step for the province. I’m sure I’ll discover some shortcomings as I dive deeper, but this is a solid start and, I hope, an example to other provinces about what is possible.