Tag Archives: cdnpoli

Open Data Movement is a Joke?

Yesterday, Tom Slee wrote a blog post called “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke,” which – and I say this as a Canadian who understands the context in which Slee is writing – is filled with valid complaints about our government, but which I feel paints a flawed picture of the open data movement.

Evgeny Morozov tweeted about the post yesterday, thereby boosting its profile. I’m a fan of Evgeny. He is an exceedingly smart and critical thinker on the intersection of technology and politics. He is exactly what our conversation needs (unlike, say, Andrew Keen). I broadly felt his comments (posted via his Twitter stream) were both on target: we need to think critically about open data; and lacked nuance: it is possible for governments to simultaneously become more open and more closed on different axis. I write all this confident that Evgeny may turn his ample firepower on me, but such is life.

So, a few comments on Slee’s post:

First, the insinuation that the open data movement is irretrievably tainted by corporate interests is so over the top it is hard to know where to begin to respond. I’ve been advocating for open data for several years in Canada. Frankly, it would have been interesting and probably helpful if a large Canadian corporation (or even a medium sized one) took notice. Only now, maybe 4-5 years in, are they even beginning to pay attention. Most companies don’t even know what open data is.

Indeed, the examples of corporate open data “sponsors” that Slee cites are U.S. corporations, sponsoring U.S. events (the Strata conference) and nonprofits (Code for America – of which I have been engaged with). Since Slee is concerned primarily with the Canadian context, I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on how these examples compare to Canadian corporate involvement in open data initiatives – or even foreign corporations’ involvement in Canadian open data.

And not to travel too far down the garden path on this, but it’s worth noting that the corporations that have jumped on the open data bandwagon in the US often have two things in common: First, their founders are bona fide geeks, who in my experience are both interested in hard data as an end unto itself (they’re all about numbers and algorithms), and want to see government-citizen interactions – and internal governmental interactions, too – made better and more efficient. Second, of course they are looking after their corporate interests, but they know they are not at the forefront of the open data movement itself. Their sponsorship of various open data projects may well have profit as one motive, but they are also deeply interested in keeping abreast of developments in what looks to be a genuine Next Big Thing. For a post the Evgeny sees as being critical of open data, I find all this deeply uncritical. Slee’s post reads as if anything that is touched by a corporation is tainted. I believe there are both opportunities and risks. Let’s discuss them.

So, who has been advocating for open data in Canada? Who, in other words, comprises the “open data movement” that Slee argues doesn’t really exist – and that “is a phrase dragged out by media-oriented personalities to cloak a private-sector initiative in the mantle of progressive politics”? If you attend one of the hundreds of hackathons that have taken place across Canada over the past couple years – like those that have happened in Vancouver, Regina, Victoria, Montreal and elsewhere – you’ll find they are generally organized in hackspaces and by techies interested in ways to improve their community. In Ottawa, which I think does the best job, they can attract hundreds of people, many who bring spouses and kids as they work on projects they think will be helpful to their community. While some of these developers hope to start businesses, many others try to tackle issues of public good, and/or try to engage non-profits to see if there is a way they can channel their talent and the data. I don’t for a second pretend that these participants are a representative cross-section of Canadians, but by and large the profile has been geek, technically inclined, leaning left, and socially minded. There are many who don’t fit that profile, but that is probably the average.

Second, I completely agree that this government has been one of the most – if not the most – closed and controlling in Canada’s history. I, like many Canadians, echo Slee’s frustration. What’s worse, is I don’t see things getting better. Canadian governments have been getting more centralized and controlling since at least Trudeau, and possibly earlier (Indeed, I believe polling and television have played a critical role in driving this trend). Yes, the government is co-opting the language of open data in an effort to appear more open. All governments co-opt language to appear virtuous. Be it on the environment, social issues or… openness, no government is perfect and indeed, most are driven by multiple, contradictory goals.

As a member of the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel I wrestle with this challenge constantly. I’m try hard to embed some openness into the DNA of government. I may fail. I know that I won’t succeed in all ways, but hopefully I can move the rock in the right direction a little bit. It’s not perfect, but then it’s pretty rare that anything involving government is. In my (unpaid, advisory, non-binding) role I’ve voiced that the government should provide the Access to Information Commissioner with a larger budget (they cut it) and that they enable government scientists to speak freely (they have not so far). I’ve also advocated that they should provide more open data. There they have, including some data sets that I think are important – such as aid data (which is always at risk of being badly spent). For some, it isn’t enough. I’d like for there to be more open data sets available, and I appreciate those (like Slee – who I believe is writing from a place of genuine care and concern) who are critical of these efforts.

But, to be clear, I would never equate open government data as being tantamount to solving the problems of a restrictive or closed government (and have argued as much here). Just as an authoritarian regime can run on open-source software, so too might it engage in open data. Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being – just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.

Here is where I think Evgeny’s comments on the problem with the discourse around “open” are valid. Open Government and Open Data should not be used interchangeably. And this is an issue Open Government and Open Data advocates wrestle with. Indeed, I’ve seen a great deal of discussion and reflection come as a result of papers such as this one.

Third, the arguments around StatsCan all feel deeply problematic. I say this as the person who wrote the first article (that I’m aware of) about the long form census debacle in a major media publication and who has been consistently and continuously critical of it. This government has had a dislike for Statistics Canada (and evidence) long before open data was in their vocabulary, to say nothing of a policy interest. StatsCan was going to be a victim of dramatic cuts regardless of Canada’s open data policy – so it is misleading to claim that one would “much rather have a fully-staffed StatsCan charging for data than a half-staffed StatsCan providing it for free.” (That quote comes from Slee’s follow-up post, here.) That was never the choice on offer. Indeed, even if it had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The total cost of making StatsCan data open is said to have been $2 million; this is a tiny fraction of the payroll costs of the 2,500 people they are looking to lay off.

I’d actually go further than Slee here, and repeat something I say all the time: data is political. There are those who, naively, believed that making data open would depoliticize policy development. I hope there are situations where this might be true, but I’ve never taken that for granted or assumed as much: Quite the opposite. In a world where data increasingly matters, it is increasingly going to become political. Very political. I’ve been saying this to the open data community for several years, and indeed was a warning that I made in the closing part of my keynote at the Open Government Data Camp in 2010. All this has, in my mind, little to do with open data. If anything, having data made open might increase the number of people who are aware of what is, and is not, being collected and used to inform public policy debates. Indeed, if StatsCan had made its data open years ago it might have had a larger constituency to fight on its behalf.

Finally, I agree with the Nat Torkington quote in the blog post:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Moreover, it is possible for a policy to have two different possible drivers. It can even have multiple contradictory drivers simultaneously. In Canada, my assessment is that the government doesn’t have this level of sophistication around its thinking on this file, a conclusion I more or less wrote when assessing their Open Government Partnership commitments. I have no doubt that the conservatives would like to turn government provided services over to the private sector, and open data has so far not been part of that strategy. In either case, there is, in my mind, a policy infrastructure that needs to be in place to pursue either of these goals (such as having a data governance structure in place). But from a more narrow open data perspective, my own feeling is that making the data open has benefits for public policy discourse, public engagement, and economic reasons. Indeed, making more government data available may enable citizens to fight back against policies they feel are unacceptable. You may not agree with all the goals of the Canadian government – as someone who has written at least 30 opeds in various papers outlining problems with various government policies, neither do I – but I see the benefits of open data as real and worth pursuing, so I advocate for it as best I can.

So in response to the opening arguments about the open data movement…

It’s not a movement, at least in any reasonable political or cultural sense of the word.

We will have to agree to disagree. My experience is quite the opposite. It is a movement. One filled with naive people, with skeptics, with idealists focused on accountability, developers hoping to create apps, conservatives who want to make government smaller and progressives who want to make it more responsive and smarter. There was little in the post that persuaded me there wasn’t a movement. What I did hear is that the author didn’t like some parts of the movement and its goals. Great! Please come join the discussion; we’d love to have you.

It’s doing nothing for transparency and accountability in government,

To say it is doing nothing for transparency seems problematic. I need only cite one data set now open to say that isn’t true. And certainly publication of aid data, procurement data, publications of voting records and the hansard are examples of places where it may be making government more transparent and accountable. What I think Slee is claiming is that open data isn’t transforming the government into a model of transparency and accountability, and he’s right. It isn’t. I don’t think anyone claimed it would. Nor do I think the public has been persuaded that because it does open data, the government is somehow open and transparent. These are not words the Canadian public associates with this government no matter what it does on this file.

It’s co-opting the language of progressive change in pursuit of what turns out to be a small-government-focused subsidy for industry.

There are a number of sensible, critical questions in Slee’s blog post. But this is a ridiculous charge. Prior to the data being open, you had an asset that was paid for by taxpayer dollars, then charged for at a premium that created a barrier to access. Of course, this barrier was easiest to surmount for large companies and wealthy individuals. If there was a subsidy for industry, it was under the previous model, as it effectively had the most regressive tax for access of any government service.

Indeed, probably the biggest beneficiaries of open data so far have been Canada’s municipalities, which have been able to gain access to much more data than they previously could, and have saved a significant amount of money (Canadian municipalities are chronically underfunded.) And of course, when looking at the most downloaded data sets from the site, it would appear that non-profits and citizens are making good use of them. For example, the 6th most downloaded was the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada used by many environmental groups; number 8 was weather data; 9th was Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory, used most frequently to calculate Green House Gas emissions; and 10th the Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – used, I suspect, to decode the machinery of government. Most of the other top downloaded data sets related to immigration, used it appears, to help applicants. Hard to see the hand of big business in all this, although if open data helped Canada’s private sector become more efficient and productive, I would hardly complain.

If your still with me, thank you, I know that was a long slog.

Canada's Action Plan on Open Government: A Review

The other day the Canadian Government published its Action Plan on Open Government, a high level document that both lays out the Government’s goals on this file as well as fulfill its pledge to create tangible goals as part of its participation in next week’s Open Government Partnership 2012 annual meeting in Brazil.

So what does the document say and what does it mean? Here is my take.

Take Away #1: Not a breakthrough document

There is much that is good in the government’s action plan – some of which I will highlight later. But for those hoping that Canada was going to get the Gov 2.0 bug and try to leapfrog leaders like the United States or the United Kingdom, this document will disappoint. By and large this document is not about transforming government – even at its most ambitious it appears to be much more about engaging in some medium sized experiments.

As a result the document emphasizes a number of things that the UK and US started doing several years ago such  getting license that adheres to international norms or posting government resource allocation and performance management information online in machine readable forms or refining the open data portal.

What you don’t see are explicit references to try to re-think how government leverages citizens experience and knowledge with a site like Challenge.gov, engage experts in innovative ways such as with Peer to Patent, or work with industries or provinces to generate personal open data such as the US has done with the Blue Button (for Healthcare) or the Green Button (for utilities).

Take Away #2: A Solid Foundation

This said, there is much in the document that is good. Specifically, in many areas, it does lay a solid foundation for some future successes. Probably the most important statements are the “foundational commitments” that appear on this page. Here are some key points:

Open Government Directive

In Year 1 of our Action Plan, we will confirm our policy direction for Open Government by issuing a new Directive on Open Government. The Directive will provide guidance to 106 federal departments and agencies on what they must do to maximize the availability of online information and data, identify the nature of information to be published, as well as the timing, formats, and standards that departments will be required to adopt… The clear goal of this Directive is to make Open Government and open information the ‘default’ approach.

This last sentence is nice to read. Of course the devil will be in the detail (and in the execution) but establishing a directive around open information could end being as important (although admittedly not as powerful – an important point) as the establishment of Access to Information. Done right such a directive could vastly expand the range of documents made available to the public, something that should be very doable as more and more government documentation moves into digital formats.

For those complaining about the lack of ATI reform in the document this directive, and its creation will be with further exploration. There is an enormous opportunity here to reset how government discloses information – and “the default to open” line creates a public standard that we can try to hold the government to account on.

And of course the real test for all this will come in years 2-3 when it comes time to disclose documents around something sensitive to the government… like, say, around the issue of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (or something akin to the Afghan Prisoner issue). In theory this directive should make all government research and assessments open, when this moment happens we’ll have a real test of the robustness of any new such directive.

Open Government License:

To support the Directive and reduce the administrative burden of managing multiple licensing regimes across the Government of Canada, we will issue a new universal Open Government License in Year 1 of our Action Plan with the goal of removing restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information (data, info, websites, publications) and aligning with international best practices… The purpose of the new Open Government License will be to promote the re-use of federal information as widely as possible...

Full Disclosure: I have been pushing (in an unpaid capacity) for the government to reform its license and helping out in its discussions with other jurisdictions around how it can incorporate the best practices and most permissive language possible.

This is another important foundational piece. To be clear, this is not about an “open data” license. This is about creating a licensing for all government information and media. I suspect this appeals to this government in part because it ends the craziness of having lawyers across government constantly re-inventing new licenses and creating a complex set of licenses to manage. Let me be clear about what I think this means: This is functionally about neutering crown copyright. It’s about creating a licensing regime that makes very clear what the users rights are (which crown copyright does not doe) and that is as permissive as possible about re-use (which crown copyright, because of its lack of clarity, is not). Achieving such a license is a critical step to doing many of the more ambitious open government and gov 2.0 activities that many of us would like to see happen.

Take Away #3: The Good and Bad Around Access to Information

For many, I think this may be the biggest disappointment is that the government has chosen not to try to update the Access to Information Act. It is true that this is what the Access to Information Commissioners from across the country recommended they do in an open letter (recommendation #2 in their letter). Opening up the act likely has a number of political risks – particularly for a government that has not always been forthcoming documents (the Afghan detainee issue and F-35 contract both come to mind) – however, I again propose that it may be possible to achieve some of the objectives around improved access through the Open Government Directive.

What I think shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the government’s “experiment” around modernizing the administration of Access to Information:

To improve service quality and ease of access for citizens, and to reduce processing costs for institutions, we will begin modernizing and centralizing the platforms supporting the administration of Access to Information (ATI). In Year 1, we will pilot online request and payment services for a number of departments allowing Canadians for the first time to submit and pay for ATI requests online with the goal of having this capability available to all departments as soon as feasible. In Years 2 and 3, we will make completed ATI request summaries searchable online, and we will focus on the design and implementation of a standardized, modern, ATI solution to be used by all federal departments and

These are welcome improvements. As one colleague – James McKinney – noted, the fact that you have to pay with a check means that only people with Canadian bank accounts can make ATIP requests. This largely means just Canadian citizens. This is ridiculous. Moreover, the process is slow and painful (who uses check! the Brits are phasing them out by 2018 – good on em!). The use of checks creates a real barrier – particularly I think, for young people.

Also, being able search summaries of previous requests is a no-brainer.

Take Away #4: The is a document of experiments

As I mentioned earlier, outside the foundational commitments, the document reads less like a grand experiment and more like a series of small experiments.

Here the Virtual Library is another interesting commitment – certainly during the consultations the number one complaint was that people have a hard time finding what they are looking for on government websites. Sadly, even if you know the name of the document you want, it is still often hard to find. A virtual library is meant to address this concern – obviously it is all going to be in the implementation – but it is a response to a genuine expressed need.

Meanwhile the Advancing Recordkeeping in the Government of Canada and User-Centric Web Services feel like projects that were maybe already in the pipeline before Open Government came on the scene. They certainly do conform with the shared services and IT centralization announced by Treasury Board last year. They could be helpful but honestly, these will all be about execution since these types of projects can harmonize processes and save money, or they can become enormous boondoggles that everyone tries to work around since they don’t meet anyone’s requirements. If they do go the right way, I can definitely imagine how they might help the management of ATI requests (I have to imagine it would make it easier to track down a document).

I am deeply excited about the implementation of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This is something I’ve campaigned for and urged the government to adopt, so it is great to see. I think these types of cross jurisdictional standards have a huge role to play in the open government movement, so joining one, figuring out what about the implementation works and doesn’t work, and assessing its impact, is important both for Open Government in general but also for Canada, as it will let us learn lessons that, I hope, will become applicable in other areas as more of these types of standards emerge.

Conclusion:

I think it was always going to be a stretch to imagine Canada taking a leadership role in Open Government space, at least at this point. Frankly, we have a lot of catching up to do, just to draw even with places like the US and the UK which have been working hard to keep experimenting with new ideas in the space. What is promising about the document is that it does present an opportunity for some foundational pieces to be put into play. The bad news is that real efforts to rethink governments relationship with citizens, or even the role of the public servant within a digital government, have not been taken very far.

So… a C+?

 

Additional disclaimer: As many of my readers know, I sit on the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel. My role on this panel is to serve as a challenge function to the ideas that are presented to us. In this capacity I share with them the same information I share with you – I try to be candid about what I think works and doesn’t work around ideas they put forward. Interestingly, I did not see even a draft version of the Action Plan until it was posted to the website and was (obviously by inference) not involved in its creation. Just want to share all that to be, well, transparent, about where I’m coming from – which remains as a citizen who cares about these issues and wants to push governments to do more around gov 2.0 and open gov.

Also, sorry or the typos, but I’m sick and it is 1am. So I’m checking out. Will proof read again when I awake.

Calculating the Value of Canada’s Open Data Portal: A Mini-Case Study

Okay, let’s geek out on some open data portal stats from data.gc.ca. I’ve got three parts to this review: First, an assessment on how to assess the value of data.gc.ca. Second, a look at what are the most downloaded data sets. And third, some interesting data about who is visiting the portal.

Before we dive in, a thank you to Jonathan C sent me some of this data to me the other day after requesting it from Treasury Board, the ministry within the Canadian Government that manages the government’s open data portal.

1. Assessing the Value of data.gc.ca

Here is the first thing that struck me. Many governments talk about how they struggle to find methodologies to measure the value of open data portals/initiatives. Often these assessments focus on things like number of apps created or downloaded. Sometimes (and incorrectly in my mind) pageviews or downloads are used. Occasionally it veers into things like mashups or websites.

However, one fairly tangible value of open data portals is that they cheaply resolve some access to information requests –  a point I’ve tried to make before. At the very minimum they give scale to some requests that previously would have been handled by slow and expensive access to information/freedom of information processes.

Let me share some numbers to explain what I mean.

The Canada Government is, I believe, only obligated to fulfill requests that originate within Canada. Drawing from the information in the charts later in this post, let’s say assume there were a total of 2200 downloads in January and that 1/3 of these originated from Canada – so a total of 726 “Canadian” downloads. Thanks to some earlier research, I happen to know that the office of the information commissioner has assessed that the average cost of fulfilling an access to information request in 2009-2010 was $1,332.21.

So in a world without an open data portal the hypothetical cost of fulfilling these “Canadian” downloads as formal access to information requests would have been $967,184.46 in January alone. Even if I’m off by 50%, then the cost – again, just for January – would still sit at $483,592.23. Assuming this is a safe monthly average, then over the course of a year the cost savings could be around $11,606,213.52 or $5,803,106.76 – depending on how conservative you’d want to be about the assumptions.

Of course, I’m well aware that not every one of these downloads would been an information request in a pre-portal world – that process is simply to burdensome. You have to pay a fee, and it has to be by check (who pays for anything by check any more???) so many of these users would simply have abandoned their search for government information. So some of these savings would not have been realized. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value. Instead the open data portal is able to more cheaply reveal latent demand for data. In addition, only a fraction of the government’s data is presently on the portal – so all these numbers could get bigger still. And finally I’m only assessing downloads that originated inside Canada in these estimates.

So I’m not claiming that we have arrived at a holistic view of how to assess the value of open data portals – but even the narrow scope of assessment I outline above generates financial savings that are not trivial, and this is to say nothing of the value generated by those who downloaded the data – something that is much harder to measure – or of the value of increased access to Canadians and others.

2. Most Downloaded Datasets at data.gc.ca

This is interesting because… well… it’s just always interesting to see what people gravitate towards. But check this out…

Data sets like the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada may not seem interesting, but the ground breaking agreement between the Forest Products Association of Canada and a coalition of Environmental Non-Profits – known as the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) – uses this data set a lot to assess where the endangered woodland caribou are most at risk. There is no app, but the data is critical in both protecting this species and in finding a way to sustainably harvest wood in Canada. (note, I worked as an adviser on the CBFA so am a) a big fan and b) not making this stuff up).

It is fascinating that immigration and visa data tops the list. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We are of course, a nation of immigrants. I’m sure that immigration and visa advisers, to say nothing of think tanks, municipal governments, social service non-profits and English as a second language schools are all very keen on using this data to help them understand how they should be shaping their services and policies to target immigrant communities.

There is, of course, weather. The original open government data set. We made this data open for 100s of years. So useful and so important you had to make it open.

And, nice to see Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory. If you wanted to figure out the carbon footprint of vehicles, by province, I suspect this is a nice dataset to get. Probably is also useful for computing gas prices as it might let you get a handle on demand. Economists probably like this data set.

All this to say, I’m less skeptical than before about the data sets in data.gc.ca. With the exception of weather, these data sets aren’t likely useful to software developers – the group I tend to hear most from – but then I’ve always posited that apps were only going to be a tiny part of the open data ecosystem. Analysis is king for open data and there does appear to be people out there who are finding data of value for analyses they want to make. That’s a great outcome.

Here are the tables outlining the most popular data sets since launch and (roughly) in February.

  Top 10 most downloaded datasets, since launch

DATASET DEPARTMENT DOWNLOADS
1 Permanent Resident Applications Processed Abroad and Processing Times (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 4730
2 Permanent Resident Summary by Mission (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1733
3 Overseas Permanent Resident Inventory (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1558
4 Canada – Permanent residents by category (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1261
5 Permanent Resident Applicants Awaiting a Decision (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 873
6 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – City Page Weather Environment Canada 852
7 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – Weather Element Forecasts Environment Canada 851
8 Permanent Resident Visa Applications Received Abroad – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada  800
9 Water Quality Indicators – Reports, Maps, Charts and Data Environment Canada 697
10 Canada – Permanent and Temporary Residents – English version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 625

Top 10 most downloaded datasets, for past 30 days

DATASET DEPARTMENT DOWNLOADS
1 Permanent Resident Applications Processed Abroad and Processing Times (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 481
2 Sales of commodities of large retailers – English version Statistics Canada  247
3 Permanent Resident Summary by Mission – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 207
4 CIC Operational Network at a Glance – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 163
5 Gross domestic product at basic prices, communications, transportation and trade – English version Statistics Canada 159
6 Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada – As interpreted from 2008-2010 Landsat satellite imagery Environment Canada  102
7 Canada – Permanent residents by category – English version Citizenship and Immigration Canada  98
8 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – City Page Weather Environment Canada  61
9 Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory – English version  Statistics Canada 52
10 Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – English Version  Library and Archives Canada  51

3. Visitor locations

So this is just plain fun. There is not a ton to derive from this – especially as IP addresses can, occasionally, be misleading. In addition, this is page view data, not download data. But what is fascinating is that computers in Canada are not the top source of traffic at data.gc.ca. Indeed, Canada’s share of the traffic is actually quite low. In fact, in January, just taking into account the countries in the chart (and not the long tail of visitors) Canada accounted for only 16% of the traffic to the site. That said, I suspect that downloads were significantly higher from Canadian visitors – although I have no hard evidence of this, just a hypothesis.

datagcca-december-visits

•Total visits since launch: 380,276 user sessions

Media Watch: The Globe and Mail’s Shifting Headline

Earlier today the Globe and Mail had one of these truly terrible “balanced” articles about the proposed federal crime bill. The headline screamed: Quebec expert backs Tory crime bill amid U.S. warning on sentencing. (Image below)

So who was this expert you might ask? A university professor with years of research on the subject? Maybe some breakthrough research by a young grad student? How about a researcher from a think tank that has been investigated the issue?

Wrong on all accounts. It was, in fact, former Justice Minister Marc Bellemare from the province of Quebec. Of course, you might say… “being a Justice Minister problem should make you an expert.” If only this were the case. If Minister Vic Toews has taught us anything it is that you definitely don’t have to be an expert in something to become a Minister. Nor does being a Minister make you an expert.  But the real kicker is that Marc Bellemare was minister for just under a year. Sworn in on April 29th 2003 he resigned on April 27th 2004. Of course, the article makes no reference to the current Justice Minister of Quebec, Jean-Marc Fournier, who is both opposed to the Crime bill and has been minister since August 11th, 2010. That’s a year and a half longer making him 50% more of an expert than Bellemare!

I suspect one of two things happened (both of which I now know are wrong – see update below). Either the Globe reporter simple used language that came packaged in a press release that referred to Marc Bellemare as an expert or worse, in pursuit of “balance” the journalist felt compelled to label Bellemare’s an expert given the second part focused on how a large number of US republican “tough on crime” legislators who created mandatory minimum sentences in the 90s are trying to role them back because they have been a total failure in addressing crime and a disaster financially.

Of course Globe and Mail readers noticed the problem with the “expert” right away. The most voted for comment was the following one (yes, I voted too, might have been my first time):

comment-1

And slightly further done was a better comment pointing out some further idiotic ideas the Minister had for reforming the justice system.

comment-two

More interesting is that sometime in the later afternoon EST the Globe changed its landing page, acknowledging the “expert’s” true credentials.

GM-landing-page

I think this speaks volumes about the Globe – in a good way. Nobody is perfect, we make mistakes. Sun prides itself on getting facts wrong to tell a story and the Globe is demonstrating that they take the opposite tact. So this post isn’t to say “the globe messed up,” it’s about how newspaper can and should react to feedback from readers. It doesn’t mean you change everything all the time, but there are times when the feedback points to changes that will bring about greater clarity. It also says a lot about the power of the audience.

However, it is worth noting, the headline on the story page… remains unchanged.

7:14pm Update

I’ve made some errors of my own in the above post. I assumed above that the journalist had chosen the headline, this is, in fact, not true. As one of the editors from the Globe has pointed out to me on twitter, it was the editor who made the choice. Any assignment of blame on the journalist is misplaced, I definitely apologize for that on my part.

I Stand for My Rights & Privacy: The Coming Online Police State

“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

This was Mr. Toews’s, the Minister of Justice, counterattack to a question in the house regarding concerns of letting the police monitor citizens internet use without a warrant.

Apparently this is our choice: a big brother state or child pornography.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Not to mention frightening. But this is the world Canadians will be entering in a few short weeks once the new Conservative Crime bill passes. The provisions that require a warrant, are interesting: the bill forces internet service providers to record and make available, to both police and governments, their customers internet activity such as the websites they visit. Citizen, understand, this now means that Bell, Rogers or anyone else that provides you with internet on your phone or at your home will now be recording every website you visit. Disturbed about that invasion of privacy? It gets worse.

Most disconcerting is that police would be allowed to obtain your email address, your IP addresses (which often identifies you on the Internet – your home, for example, likely has an IP address), or your mobile phone number and other information without a warrant. They just have to demand it. Suddenly a lot of what you can do online can be monitored by the police – again, without a warrant.

It isn’t just opposition members who are concerned. The Federal Privacy Commissioner and provincial counterparts are deeply concerned. They understand what this means. As Jennifer Stoddart, the federal Privacy Commissioner wrote to Minister Toews:

I am also concerned about the adoption of lower thresholds for obtaining personal information from commercial enterprises.  The new powers envisaged are not limited to specific, serious offences or urgent or exceptional situations.  In the case of access to subscriber data, there is not even a requirement for the commission of a crime to justify access to personal information – real names, home address, unlisted numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and much more – without a warrant.

In a few short weeks, this will be our reality: we will live in a country where the government can gain access to information that enables them to monitor its citizens online without a warrant. Obviously, the opportunities for abuse are astounding. If you are a radical element non-profit advocacy group that disagrees with the government, you’re probably doubly concerned. Of course, if you are an regular citizen I hope you haven’t written any anonymous comments in opposition to the Gateway Pipelines, since this legislation, combined with the government’s new focus on eco-terrorists (they are as much a threat as neo-nazi groups apparently) could make you a “vulnerable individual” and so an obvious target for security forces.

Of course the real irony of all this is that while the government seeks to increase its powers to monitor Canadians online it has used the opposite argument – the fear of government intrusion into citizens lives – to end the long gun registry. Not 6 days ago, Conservative Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound) expressed his concern about how the gun registry would help foster a police state:

[…] Before I discuss the bill I would like to review how we arrived at where we are today. I would like to share with the House a quote from former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock: “I came to Ottawa last year, with a firm belief that the only people in Canada who should have firearms are police officers and the military.”

Does that sound familiar? Adolf Hitler, 1939.

You know what really reminds me of Adolf Hitler, 1939? A government that seeks to monitor the actions of all its citizens. That ask companies to record their activities in their homes and their places of work and that gives the police the right to access their personal information without a warrant. As a father I agree we need to fight child pornography, but I’m not willing to sign away my – or my children’s – civil rights and online privacy. I  suspect most Canadians, as they learn more about this bill, will feel the same way. They don’t want any government, Conservative, Liberal or NDP, recording what they do, or accessing information about them without a warrant from an independent judiciary.

The Exciting Launch of Represent and What It Says About Open Data in Canada

Last week a group of volunteer programs from across Canada announced the launch of Represent – a website that tries to map all of Canada’s boundaries. Confused? Don’t be. It’s simple. This is a nifty piece of digital infrastructure – try visiting the website yourself! After identifying where you are located it will then tell you which MP riding, MLA/MPP district and census subdivision you are located in.

So why does this matter?

What’s important about a site like Represent (much like its cousin site Mapit, which offers a similar service in the UK) is that other websites and applications can use it to offer important services, like letting a user know who their MP is, and thus who their complaint email should be sent to, or identify what by-laws are applicable in the place where they are standing. Have you ever visited the site of a radical group non-profit which urged you to write your MP? With Represent that organization can now easily and cheaply create a widget that would figure out where you are, who you MP is, and ensure you had the right address or email address for your letter. This significantly lowers the barrier to advocacy and political mobilization.

This is why I consider sites like Represent to be core digital infrastructure for a 21st century democracy. Critical because the number of useful services that can educate and engage citizens on politics and government is virtually limitless.

But if we accept that Represent is critical, the site’s limits tell us a lot about the state of our democratic institutions in general, and our open data policy infrastructure in particular. In this regard, there are three insights that come to mind.

1) The information limits of Represent

While Represent can locate any of the federal and provincial ridings (along with the elected official in them) there are remarkably few cities for which the service works. Calgary, Charlottetown, Edmonton, Mississauga, Montreal, Ottawa, Stratford, Summerside, Toronto and Windsor are all that are identified. (The absence of Vancouver – my home town – is less alarming as the city does not have wards or boroughs, we elect 10 councillors in an at large system). The main reason you won’t find more cities available is simply because many cities choose not to share their ward boundary data with the public. And of course, things don’t need to stop with just city wards, there is no reason what Represent couldn’t also tell you which school district you are in, or even which specific school catchment area you are in, in say Vancouver, or North Vancouver.

The paucity of data is an indication of how hard it is to get data from most cities and provinces about the communities in which we live in. There has been great success in getting open data portals launched in several cities – and we should celebrate the successes we’ve had – but the reality is, only a tiny fraction of Canadian cities share data about themselves. In the overwhelming majority, useful data about electoral boundaries, elected officials, schools, etc… exists and are sued internally by governments (paid for by our tax dollars) but they are never shared publicly and so cannot help drive democratic engagement.

So here’s a new rule. If your city boundary data isn’t in Represntyour city is screwing up. It’s a pretty simple metric.

Oh, and Canada Post, you’re the biggest offender of them all. Your data is the default location specific data set in the country – the easiest way to locate where someone is. Being able to map all this data to postal codes is maybe the most important piece of the puzzle, but sadly, Canada Post clings to data our tax dollars subsidize the creation and maintenance of. Of course, in the UK, they made Postal Code data completely open.

2) Lack of Standards

And of course, even when the data does exist, it isn’t standardized. Previously non-profits, think tanks and even companies would have to manage data in various forms from innumerable sources, (or pay people lots of money to organize the data for them). It shouldn’t be this way. While it is great the Represent helps standardize the data, standard data schemas should already exist for things like MPP/MLA/MNA ridings and descriptions. Instead we have to rely on a group of volunteer hackers to solve a problem the countries leading governments are unable, or unwilling to address.

3) Licenses & Legality

However, the real place where Represent shows the short comings in Canada’s open data infrastructure is the way the site struggles to deal with the variety of licenses under which it is allowed to use data from various sources.

The simple fact is, in Canada, most “open data” is in fact not open. Rather that have serious restrictions placed upon them that limit the ability of sites like Rperesent.ca to be useful.

For example, many, many cities still have “share alike” clauses in their licenses, clauses that mean any product created using their data may not have  “further restrictions of any kind.” But of course, each city with a “share alike” clause has slightly different restrictions in their license meaning that none of them can be combined. In the end it means that data from Vancouver cannot be used with data from Edmonton or from Montreal. It’s a complete mess.

Other jurisdictions have no license on their data. For example electoral boundary data for British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia is unlicensed, leaving users very unclear about their rights. Hint to these and other jurisdictions: just make it open.

What Represent really demonstrates is that there is a need for a single, standard open data license across Canada. It’s something I’m working on. More to report soon I hope.

Despite these hurdles, Represent is a fantastic project and site – and they are looking for others to help them gather more data. If you want to support them (and I strongly encourage you to do so) check out the bottom of their home page. Big congratulations to everyone involved.

 

 

 

My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Attached below is my submission to the Open Government Consultation conducted by Treasury Board over the last couple of weeks. There appear to be a remarkable number of submission that were made by citizens, which you can explore on the Treasury Board website. In addition, Tracey Lauriault has tracked some of the submissions on her website.

I actually wish the submissions on the Government website were both searchable and could be downloaded in there entirety. That way we could re-organize them, visualize them, search and parse them as well as play with the submissions so as to make the enormous number of answers easier to navigate and read. I can imagine a lot of creative ways people could re-format all that text and make it much more accessible and fun.

Finally, for reference, in addition to my submission I wrote this blog post a couple months ago suggesting goals the government set for itself as part of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Happily, since writing that post, the government has moved on a number of those recommendations.

So, below is my response to the government’s questions (in bold):

What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.

FINDING DATA:

My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.

More specifically, what works includes:

1. Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
2. Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc…) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
3. Preview: Once I choose a data set I’m given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
4. Social: Here there is a ton on offer
– I’m able to sort data sets by popularity – being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
– Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I’m more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
– Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
– Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
5. Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one’s skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.

USING DATA

Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.

Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API’s into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here – https://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ – product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.

Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn’t going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.

More importantly, and missing from Socrata’s sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation – such as the NPRI – are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.

 

How would you use or manipulate this data?

I’m already involved in a number of projects that use and share government data. Among those are Emitter.ca – which maps and shares NPRI pollution data and Recollect.net, which shares garbage calendar information.

While I’ve seen dramatically different uses of data, for me personally, I’m interested mostly in using data for thinking and writing about public policy issues. Indeed, much has been made of the use of data in “apps” but I think it is worth noting that the single biggest use of data will be in analysis – government officials, citizens, academics and others using the data to better understand the world around them and lobby for change.

This all said, there are some data sets that are of particular usefulness to people, these include:

1. Data sets on sensitive issues, this includes health, inspection and performance data (Say surgery outcomes for specific hospitals, or restaurant inspection data, crime and procurement data are often in great demand).
2. Dynamic real-time Data: Data that is frequently updated (such a border, passport renewal or emergency room wait times). This data is shared in the right way can often help people adjust schedules and plans or reallocate resources more effectively. Obviously this requires an API.
3.Geodata: Because GIS standards are very mature it is easy to “mashup” geo data to create new maps or offer new services. These common standards means that geo data from different sources will work together or can be easily compared. This is in sharp contrast to say budget data, where there are few common standards around naming and organizing the data, making it harder to share and compare.

What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

It is absolutely essential that all government records be machine readable.

Some of the most deplorable moment in open government occur when the government shares documents with the press, citizens or parliamentary officers in paper form. The first and most important thing to make government information easier to find online is to ensure that it is machine readable and searchable by words. If it does not meet this criteria I increasingly question whether or not it can be declared open.

As part of the Open Government Partnership commitments it would be great for the government to commit to guarantee that every request for information made of it would include a digital version of the document that can be searched.

Second, the government should commit that every document it publishes be available online. For example, I remember in 2009 being told that if I wanted a copy of the Health Canada report “Human Health in a Changing Climate:A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity” I had to request of CD, which was then mailed to me which had a PDF copy of the report on it. Why was the report not simply available for download? Because the Minister had ordered it not to appear on the website. Instead, I as a taxpayer and to see more of my tax dollars wasted for someone to receive my mail, process it, then mail me a custom printed cd. Enabling ministers to create barriers to access government information, simply because they do not like the contents, is an affront to the use of tax payer dollars and our right to access information.

Finally, Allow Government Scientists to speak directly to the media about their research.

It has become a reoccurring embarrassment. Scientists who work for Canada publish an internationally recognized ground break paper that provides some insight about the environment or geography of Canada and journalists must talk to government scientists from other countries in order to get the details. Why? Because the Canadian government blocks access. Canadians have a right to hear the perspectives of scientists their tax dollars paid for – and enjoy the opportunity to get as well informed as the government on these issues.

Thus, lift the ban that blocks government scientists from speaking with the media.

 

Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

1. Honour Consultation Processes that have started

The process of public consultation is insulted when the government itself intervenes to bring the process into disrepute. The first thing the government could do to improve how it consults is not sabotage processes that already ongoing. The recent letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver regarding the public consultation on the Northern Gateway Pipelines has damaged Canadians confidence in the governments willingness to engage in and make effective use of public consultations.

2. Focus on collecting and sharing relevant data

It would be excellent if the government shared relevant data from its data portal on the public consultation webpage. For example, in the United States, the government shares a data set with the number and location of spills generated by Enbridge pipelines, similar data for Canada would be ideal to share on a consultation. Also useful would be economic figures, job figures for the impacted regions, perhaps also data from nearby parks (visitations, acres of land, kml/shape boundary files). Indeed, data about the pipeline route itself that could be downloaded and viewed in Google earth would be interesting. In short, there are all sorts of ways in which open data could help power public consultations.

3. Consultations should be ongoing

It would be great to see a 311 like application for the federal government. Something that when loaded up, would use GPS to identify the services, infrastructure or other resources near the user that is operated by the federal government and allow the user to give feedback right then and there. Such “ongoing” public feedback could then be used as data when a formal public consultation process is kicked off.

 

Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

1. The UK governments expense disclosure and release of the COINS database more generally is probably the most radical act of government transparency to date. Given the government’s interest in budget cuts this is one area that might be of great interest to pursue.

2. For critical data sets, those that are either required by legislation or essential to the operation of a ministry or the government generally, it would be best to model the city of Chicago or Washington DC and foster the creation of a data warehouse where this data could be easily shared both internally and externally (as privacy and security permits). These cities are leading governments in this space because they have tackled both the technical challenges (getting the data on a platform where it can be shared easily) and around governance (tackling the problem of managing data sets from various departments on a shared piece of infrastructure).

 

Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

Some additional ideas:

Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

a) Any document it produces should be available digitally, in a machine readable format. The sham that the government can produce 3000-10,000 printed pages about Afghan detainees or the F-35 and claim it is publicly disclosing information must end.

b) Any data collected for legislative reasons must be made available – in machine readable formats – via a government open data portal.

c) Any information that is ATIPable must be made available in a digital format. And that any excess costs of generating that information can be born by the requester, up until a certain date (say 2015) at which point the excess costs will be born by the ministry responsible. There is no reason why, in a digital world, there should be any cost to extracting information – indeed, I fear a world where the government can’t cheaply locate and copy its own information for an ATIP request as it would suggest it can’t get that information for its own operations.

Use Open Data to drive efficiency in Government Services: Require the provinces to share health data – particularly hospital performance – as part of its next funding agreement within the Canada Health Act.

Comparing hospitals to one another is always a difficult task, and open data is not a panacea. However, more data about hospitals is rarely harmful and there are a number of issues on which it would be downright beneficial. The most obvious of these would be deaths caused by infection. The number of deaths that occur due to infections in Canadian hospitals is a growing problem (sigh, if only open data could help ban the antibacterial wipes that are helping propagate them). Having open data that allows for league tables to show the scope and location of the problem will likely cause many hospitals to rethink processes and, I suspect, save lives.

Open data can supply some of the competitive pressure that is often lacking in a public healthcare system. It could also better educate Canadians about their options within that system, as well as make them more aware of its benefits.

Reduce Fraud: Creating a Death List

In an era where online identity is a problem it is surprising to me that I’m unable to locate a database of expired social insurance numbers. Being able to query a list of social security numbers that belong to dead people might be a simple way to prevent fraud. Interestingly, the United States has just such a list available for free online. (Side fact: Known as the Social Security Death Index this database is also beloved by genealogist who use it to trace ancestry).

Open Budget and Actual Spending Data

For almost a year the UK government has published all spending data, month by month, for each government ministry (down to the £500 in some, £25,000 in others). More over, as an increasing number of local governments are required to share their spending data it has lead to savings, as government begin to learn what other ministries and governments are paying for similar services.

Create a steering group of leading Provincial and Municipal CIOs to create common schema for core data about the country.

While open data is good, open data organized the same way for different departments and provinces is even better. When data is organized the same way it makes it easier to citizens to compare one jurisdiction against another, and for software solutions and online services to emerge that use that data to enhance the lives of Canadians. The Federal Government should use its convening authority to bring together some of the countries leading government CIOs to establish common data schemas for things like crime, healthcare, procurement, and budget data. The list of what could be worked on is virtually endless, but those four areas all represent data sets that are frequently requested, so might make for a good starting point.

Oh, the hypocrisy… Oilsands, EthicalOil.org and Foreign Funding

Wow. Talk about the hypocrisy. So EthicalOil.org which has been leading the charge about how foreign money is influencing environmental groups and the regulatory process. But… apparently it refuses to disclose its donor list.

The double truths get better. While they state on their website they only receive money from Canadian and Canadian companies they won’t reveal if any of those Canadian companies are owned by foreign entities.

From the New York Times:

While most Canadian environmental groups are charities and must disclose the major sources of their funds, Ethical Oil does not. Ms. Marshall said that the group accepted money from only Canadians and Canadian companies, although she declined to directly say if that included Canadian corporations controlled by foreign entities. Many of the large energy companies active in the oil sands are foreign-owned or -controlled.

So just to be clear: If an American or Chinese multinational funnels money through its Canadian subsidiary into ethicaloil.org that is okay. But if a US foundation gives money to a Canadian environmental non-profit, that’s foreign meddling?

Someone needs to talk to Minister Joe Oliver. If ethicaloil is going to be shaping government talking points and policy (Alykhan Velshi who helped run ethicaloil.org now works in the Prime Minister’s office) then it appears “foreign money” infiltrating the process than he already believed!

Let’s have a full debate about the pipeline – as someone who wants to learn more about it I’d like the process to be as open, participatory and transparent as possible.

Ethical Oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Process

This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.

This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.

Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?

It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.

But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.

There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?

Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.

Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.

As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here: