Tag Archives: collaboration

How Science Is Rediscovering "Open" And What It Means For Government

Pretty much everybody in government should read this fantastic New York Times article Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimer’s. On one hand the article is a window into what has gone wrong with science – about how all to frequently a process that used to be competitive but open, and problem focused has become a competitive but closed and intellectual property driven (one need only look at scientific journals to see how slow and challenging the process has become).

But strip away the talk about the challenges and opportunities for science. At its core, this is an article is about something more basic and universal. This is an article about open data.

Viewed through this lens it is a powerful case study for all of us. It is a story of how one scientific community’s (re)discovery of open principles can yield powerful lessons and analogies for the private sector and, more importantly the public sector.

Consider first, the similarities in problems. From the article:

Dr. Potter had recently left the National Institutes of Health and he had been thinking about how to speed the glacial progress of Alzheimer’s drug research.

“We wanted to get out of what I called 19th-century drug development — give a drug and hope it does something,” Dr. Potter recalled in an interview on Thursday. “What was needed was to find some way of seeing what was happening in the brain as Alzheimer’s progressed and asking if experimental drugs could alter that progression.”

Our government’s are struggling too. They are caught with a 20th-century organizational, decision-making and accountability structures. More to the point, they move at a glacial speed. On the one hand we should be worried about a government that moves too quickly, but a government that is too slow to be responsive to crises or to address structural problems is one that will lose the confidence of the public. Moreover, like in healthcare, many of the simpler problems have been addressed. citizens are looking for solutions to more complex problems. As with the scientists and Alzheimer’s we may need new models to speed the process up for understanding and testing solutions for these issues.

To overcome this 19th century approach – and achieve the success they currently enjoy – the scientists decided to do some radical.

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

Consider this. Here a group of private sector companies recognize the intellectual property slows down innovation. The solution – dilute the intellectual property, focus on sharing data and knowledge, and understand that those who contribute most will be best positioned to capitalize on the gains at the end.

Sadly this is the same problem faced within governments. Sometimes it has to do with actual intellectual property (something I’ve recently argued our governments should abandon). However, the real challenge isn’t about about formal rules, it is more subtle. In complex siloed organizations where knowledge is power the incentives to maximize influence are to not share knowledge and data. Better to use the information you have strategically, in a limited fashion, to maximize influence. The result, data is kept as a scarce, but strategic asset. This is a theme I tackled both in my chapter in Open Government and in blog posts like this one.

In short, the real challenge is structural and cultural. Scientists had previously existed in a system where reputation (and career advancement) was built by hoarding data and publishing papers. While the individual incentives were okay, collectively this behavior was a disaster. The problem was not getting solved.

Today, it would appear that publishing is still important, but there are reputational effects from being the person or group to share data. Open data is itself a currency. This is hardly surprising. If you are sharing data it means you are doing lots of work, which means you are likely knowledgeable. As a result, those with a great deal of experience are respected but there remains the opportunity for those with radical ideas and new perspectives to test hypothesis and gain credibility by using the open data.

Unsurprisingly, this shift wasn’t easy:

At first, the collaboration struck many scientists as worrisome — they would be giving up ownership of data, and anyone could use it, publish papers, maybe even misinterpret it and publish information that was wrong.

Wow, does that sound familiar. This is invariably the first question government officials ask when you begin talking about open data. The answer, both in the scientific community and for government, is that you either believe in the peer-review process and public debate, or you don’t. Yes, people might misrepresent the data, or publish something that is wrong, but the bigger and more vibrant the community, the more likely people will find and point out the errors quickly. This is what innovation looks like… people try out ideas, sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. But the more data you make available to people the more ideas can be tested and so the faster the cycle of innovation can proceed.

Whether it is behind the firewall or open to the public, open data is the core to accelerating the spread of ideas and the speed of innovation. These scientists are rediscovering that fact as our some governments. We’ve much to learn and do, but the case is becoming stronger and stronger that this is the right thing to do.

Saving Millions: Why Cities should Fork the Kuali Foundation

For those interested in my writing on open source, municipal issues and technology, I want to be blunt: I consider this to be one of the most important posts I’ll write this year.

A few months ago I wrote an article and blog post about “Muniforge,” an idea based on a speech I’d given at a conference in 2009 in which I advocated that cities with common needs should band together and co-develop software to reduce procurement costs and better meet requirements. I continued to believe in the idea, but have recognized that cultural barriers would likely mean it would be difficult to realize.

Last month that all changed. While at Northern Voice I ended up talking to Jens Haeusser an IT strategist at the University of British Columbia and confirmed something I’d long suspected: that some people much smarter than me had already had the same idea and had made it a reality… not among cities but among academic institutions.

The result? The Kuali foundation. “…A growing community of universities, colleges, businesses, and other organizations that have partnered to build and sustain open-source administrative software for higher education, by higher education.”

In other words for the past 5 years over 35 universities in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa have been successfully co-developing software.

For cities everywhere interested in controlling spending or reducing costs, this should be an earth shattering revelation – a wake up call – for several reasons:

  • First, a viable working model for muniforge has existed for 5 years and has been a demonstrable success, both in creating high quality software and in saving the participating institutions significant money. Devising a methodology to calculate how much a city could save by co-developing software with an open source license is probably very, very easy.
  • Second, what is also great about universities is that they suffer from many of the challenges of cities. Both have: conservative bureaucracies, limited budgets, and significant legacy systems. In addition, neither have IT as the core competency and both are frequently concerned with licenses, liability and the “owning” intellectual property.
  • Which thirdly, leads to possibly the best part. The Kuali Foundation has already addressed all the critical obstacles to such an endeavour and has developed licensing agreements, policies, decision-making structures, and work flows processes that address necessary for success. Moreover, all of this legal, policy and work infrastructure is itself available to be copied. For free. Right now.
  • Fourth, the Kuali foundation is not a bunch of free-software hippies that depend on the kindness of strangers to patch their software (a stereotype that really must end). Quite the opposite. The Kuali foundation has helped spawn 10 different companies that specialize in implementing and supporting (through SLAs) the software the foundation develops. In other words, the universities have created a group of competing firms dedicated to serving their niche market. Think about that. Rather than deal with vendors who specialize in serving large multinationals and who’ve tweaked their software to (somewhat) work for cities, the foundation has fostered competing service providers (to say it again) within the higher education niche.

As a result, I believe a group of forwarding thinking cities – perhaps starting with those in North America – should fork the Kuali Foundation. That is, they should copy Kuali’s bylaws, it structure, its licenses and pretty much everything else – possibly even the source code for some of its projects – and create a Kuali for cities. Call it Muniforge, or Communiforge or CivicHub or whatever… but create it.

We can radically reduce the costs of software to cities, improve support by creating the right market incentive to help foster companies whose interests are directly aligned with cities and create better software that meets cities unique needs. The question is… will we? All that is required is for CIO’s to being networking and for a few to discover some common needs. One I idea I have immediately is for the City of Nanaimo to apply the Kuali modified Apache license to its council monitoring software package it developed in house, and to upload it to GitHub. That would be a great start – one that could collectively save cities millions.

If you are a city CIO/CTO/Technology Director and are interested in this idea, please check out these links:

The Kuali Foundation homepage

Open Source Collaboration in Higher Education: Guidelines and Report of the Licensing and Policy Framework Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education by Brad Wheeler and Daniel Greenstein (key architects behind Kuali)

Open Source 2010: Reflections on 2007 by Brad Wheeler (a must read, lots of great tips in here)

Heck, I suggest looking at all of Brad Wheeler’s articles and presentations.

Another overview article on Kuali by University Business

Phillip Ashlock of Open Plans has an overview article of where some cities are heading re open source.

And again, my original article on Muniforge.

If you aren’t already, consider reading the OpenSF blog – these guys are leaders and one way or another will be part of the mix.

Also, if you’re on twitter, consider following Jay Nath and Philip Ashlock.

SXSWi Panel: Fostering Collaborative Open Source Communities

Yesterday I saw this academic journal article and was reminded about how an individuals behaviour can negatively impact and groups productivity. In his article “Overlooked but not untouched: How incivility reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks.” in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (109: 29-44) Amir Erez describes how even just witnessing rudeness resulted in diminished creativity, increased one’s own negative behaviour, damaged productivity and short term memory.

This is a perfect example of why I believe we need open source communities to foster collaborative cultures that nudge people to engage in positive and constructive ways.

In pursuit of talking about this more, I’ve put together a presentation proposal for SXSWi in which I’d like to build on my FSOSS presentation (which has logged over 15000 views since going up on SlideShare.net two years ago) on how the skills and tools from the field of negotiation and collaboration can help improve community management and productivity in open source communities. If this sounds at all interesting to you, I’m hoping that you’ll consider going to the SXSWi Panel Picker website and voting for this panel.

Since FSOSS 2008 I’ve done more research and work in the area and so have more examples to share out of the open source space. In addition, I’ve been working with Diederik Van Liere at the University of Toronto’s business school trying to get data around how behaviour impacts a open source community’s effectiveness.


Fostering Collaborative Open Source Communities


Community management is a core competency of open source. So what skills, tools and culture can facilitate and enable collaboration? Drawing from negotiation theory David shares what open source project participants can do to foster sustainable and effective collaborative communities where conflict is productive and not soul-sucking or time consuming.

Questions Answered:

  1. What skills does an open source project leader need
  2. How to a minimize destructive conversations?
  3. How can I encourage participation in my open source project?
  4. How do enable members of my open source community to work together better?
  5. What is negotiation theory?
  6. Someone is being a troll in my discussion group. What do I do?
  7. How can I attract more users to my open source project?
  8. How can I make my open project contributors more effective?
  9. I don’t like arguing with people, what should I do?
  10. I think I may be abrasive, what should do?


Community / Online Community, Open Source, Self-Help /Self-Improvement, User Experience

why collaborative skills matter in open source

For the past several years now I’ve been talking about how community management – broadly defined as enhancing a community’s collaborative skills, establishing and modeling behaviour/culture and embedding development tools and communications mediums with prompts that “nudge” us towards collaborative behaviour – is imperative to the success of open source communities. (For those interested in this, my FSOSS 2008 on the subject has been slidecasted here, and is on on google video here.

Re-reading Shirkly’s latest book, Here Comes Everybody, has re-affirmed my thinking. Indeed, it’s made me more aggressive. Why? Consider these two paragraphs:

This ability of the traditional management structure to simplify coordination helps answer one of the most famous questions in all of economics: If markets are such a good idea, why do we have organizations at all? Why can’t all exchanges of value happen in the market? This question originally was posed by Ronald Coase in 1937 in his famous paper “The Nature of the Firm,” wherein he also offered the first coherent explanation of the value of hierarchical organization. Coase realized that workers could simply contract with one another, selling their labor, and buying the labor of others in turn, in a market, without needing any managerial oversight. However, a completely open market for labor, reasoned Coase, would underperform labor in firms because of the transaction costs, and in particular the costs of discovering the options and making and enforcing agreements among the participating parties. The more people are involved in a given task, the more potential agreements need to be negotiated to do anything, and the greater the transaction costs…

And later, Shirky essentially describes the thesis of his book:

But what if transaction costs don’t fall moderately? What if they collapse. This scenario is harder to predict from Coase’s original work, at it used to be purely academic. Now’s it not, because it is happening, or rather it has already happened, and we’re starting to see the results.

My conclusion: the lower the transaction costs, the greater the playing field will favour self-organizations systems like open source communities and the less it will favour large proprietary producers.

This is why open source communities should (and do) work collectively to reduce transaction costs among their members. Enabling the further collapse of transaction costs tilts the landscape in our favour. Sometimes, this can be down in the way we architect the software. Indeed, this is why – in FirefoxAdd-Ons are so powerful. The Add-On functionality dramatically reduces transaction costs by creating a dependable and predictable platform, essentially allowing coders to work in isolation from one another (the difference between collaborative vs. cooperative). This strategy has been among the most successful. It is important and should be pursued, but it cannot help collapse transaction costs for all parts of a project – especially the base code.

But what more can be done? There are likely diminishing returns to re-architecting the software and in finding new, easier ways, to connect developers to one another. The areas I think offer real promise include:

  • fostering cultures within open source communities that reward collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour,
  • promoting leaders who model collaborative (low transaction cost) behaviour
  • developing tools and communications mediums/methods that prompt participants to improve the noise to signal, minimize misunderstandings, limit unnecessary conflict, and help resolve differences quickly and effectively (the idea being that all of these outcomes lower transactions costs).

This is why I continue to think about how to port over the ideas, theories and tools from the negotiation/collaboration field, into the open source space.

For open source communities, eliminating transaction costs is a source of strategic advantage – one that we should find ways to exploit ruthlessly.

Cultural theories of risk and the rise of emergence systems

My (very cool) friend Alex T. recently introduced me to the grid/group typology. As explained in wikipedia:

Mary Douglas, an anthropologist studying traditional African religion observed that different societies feared different sorts of threats, and that these differences correlated with differences in their social structure. Later, Douglas argued that social structures differ along two principal axes: “grid” and “group (see graph).”

The important things is – if your society organized itself along one of these structures – it is challenging, if not impossible to see a solution outside of that structure. What I think is exciting is that the egalitarian mode of thinking – thanks to the internet and social software – may be ascendant, explaining some of the reason market based systems (individualists) and bureaucracy based systems (hierarchist) feel threatened.

Grid vs Group

From Christopher Hood: The Art of The State (again via wikipedia):

Fatalists feel isolated in a world that imposes arbitrary constraints on them. They view nature as a ball on a flat surface, rolling randomly in any direction. There is little they can do to control their situation, and resign themselves to riding out whatever fate throws at them.

Hierarchist see a society with a well-defined role for each member. Thus , they believe in the need for a well-defined system of rules, and fear social deviance (such as crime) that disrupts those rules. Hierarchists see nature as “perverse/tolerant”: it can be exploited within certain limits, but if those limits are exceeded the system will collapse. They thus rely heavily on experts, who can identify those limits and establish rules to keep society within proper bounds.

Individualist see their choices as unconstrained by society and they lack close ties to other people. They value individual initiative in the marketplace, and fear threats like war that would hamper free exchange. The individualist view of nature as resilient. Like a ball resting at the bottom of a cup, nature will return to its original stable position after any disturbance. Thus, individualists embrace trial-and-error, as they have confidence that the system will fix itself in the end.

Arguably, much of the left-right axis of our politics is a battle between Individualists on the right (let the market rule!) and Hierarchists on the left (government oversight!) with fatalists abstaining (what’s the point?).

Hood’s description of Egalitarians is intriguing mostly because I think it is quite narrow and, if slightly tweaked, could help describe the rise of an important new block of voters (part of the neo-progressive movement Taylor and I write about).

Hood description (again, via wikipedia)

Egalitarians experience low grid and high group. They live in voluntary associations where everyone is equal and the good of the group comes before the good of any individual. In order to maintain their solidarity, egalitarians are sensitive to low probability-high consequence risks (such as nuclear power), and use them to paint a picture of impending apocalypse. Risk and Culture was, in part, a polemic against the environmental movement, which Douglas and Wildavsky saw as sharing the worldview and social organization of religious cults. Egalitarians see nature as fragile, like a ball balanced precariously on an overturned cup. Any small disturbance will send it crashing down. Thus egalitarians advocate the precautionary principle and cling to traditional ways of life that have proven to be sustainable, rather than risking disaster by trying new technologies.

Hood describes the Egalitarian way as one with high levels of cooperation within a group that is socially distinct from the outside world and which relies on dynamic rules set through constant debate and case-specific solutions to every issue as it arises.

Hood’s contempt is well placed. Many tightly held communities facing what they believe to be massive threats can indeed take on cult-like characteristics. But that is not their only possibility. Indeed, societies that organize along these lines have new powerful tools – namely the internet – to use to organize themselves. More importantly, these communities can coordinate themselves and achieve powerful outcomes even with weak bonds. Many of the “egalitarians” I see today are those creating projects that seek to engage citizens and pool individual resources to address collective problems. Indeed, many open-source projects fit this mold very well.

More importantly, most of these projects are not cult-like, but are self-organizing and emergent. They see that a situation (like the environment or the open web) is vulnerable and they don’t believe a) it is self-correcting (like individualists) b) it can be perfectly moderated or controlled by top down systems (like hierarchists); or c) that collective or individual action is futile (like fatalists).

There are few examples of egalitarians (or emergents) that spring to mind as successful – certainly the organizational and political discourse has been dominated by hierarchists and individualists. Maybe this explains why people have such a hard time defining new forms of organisation – like open-source projects. They are trying to peg their participants as either right-wing market loving individualists or left-wing regulation loving hierarchists. The fact is they are neither. While hardly uniform, my experience is that they are often libertarians (low-grid) who believe in free-association, collaboration and emergent systems (high-group).

The increased manifestation of this new structure in society could diversify how we perceive and try to solve problems. But in the short term observers (like pundits on CNN) will continue to try to put force this peg of a new circular group into an old square hole.



Collaboration – a dirty word rescued by connectivity


1. The act of working together; united labor.

2. the act of willingly cooperating with an enemy, especially an enemy nation occupying one’s own country.

During a conversation over breakfast yesterday I was asked to talk about my experience in open source public policy (through Canada25) which led me to talk about the differences between cooperation and collaboration I’ve ruminated upon before here.

After outlining the idea my friend stopped me and said

“You know, it is interesting, for people in my generation (re: boomers) collaboration was a dirty word.”

He went to explain that he’d talked with young people in his organization and had discovered that they had largely abandoned the word’s negative connotations, but he was again struck by how easily I embraced and used the term. For boomers – he explained – “collaboration” brings forward notions of Vichy France or narcs, people who sold out or who betrayed their origins in some way, often for gain or even to work (usually on behalf of) of a new (usually alien and/or evil) outsider.

What a difference a generation makes. Today I see more and more of my friends using the term. Which begs the question…


One hypothesis I have relates to the changing nature of our economy and how we work.

I don’t know if people have to work in teams more frequently then they use to, but i feel fairly confident that even if the frequency of teamwork has remained consistent, the emergent, or self-organizing, or even self-directed nature of those teams has probably increased. Thanks to the telecommunication revolution, and even just the rise of the knowledge economy, we are increasingly being asked to work together as we exchange, mix, re-mix and mash up ideas.

As a result, I think ours is a generation that is grasping for more nuanced and complex ways to describe working with others. No where is this more important than in the online world where the opportunities for both communicating, and miscommunicating, have never been easier. And within the online world nowhere is this more important than in the open source space where whole new models of how people can work together on large complex problems are emerging. With so much going on, is it any surprise our vocabulary is adjusting?

I say great. We need a more sophisticated and nuanced vocabulary to describe how we work together. The fact is people can work together in lots of different ways, conflating that variation with a single term is likely to make success harder to repeat.

Now… the revival of the word evangilism among non-religious coders is also interesting. I’ve done research as to where that came from and would be curious how it started getting used. The resistance to that word – especially given the culture wars in the US – is likely to be much greater. Outside the technology geek world that word still triggers LOTS of people.

Negotiation Workshop for NGOs in Vancouver

I’ll be doing a Negotiation Workshop on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute in Vancouver this April 25th and 26th. You can find out more, or register, here.

Since moving back to Vancouver I’ve been interested in finding ways to enable the local NGO community so when HLI asked if this is something that might be possible I jumped on the opportunity. While the workshop will be applicable in a number of circumstances, I want it to relate to two specific challenges.

Puzzle Circle

The first relates to what I think is a critical moment in BC, particularly for NGO’s.

With the coming Olympics and the passage of the recent provincial budget I suspect the number of negotiations between NGO’s and the provincial government will likely increase and/or taken on greater urgency. On the one hand this is an enormous opportunity for ENGOs to engage and partner with government and advance their cause – if the two parties can create a collaborative framework for working together.

Creating such a collaborative framework is often challenging.  Further complicating the issue is that parties will need to be able to sustain this collaboration in specific areas while the NGO community (legitimately) continues to critique and condemn government activities in other areas. These cooperative/competitive relationships are always difficult to manage, but all the more so when two groups – government bureaucrats/politicians and scoail activists – come to the table with a complex (and sometimes personal) history.

The second challenge relates to the equally difficult issue of the negotiations between NGO’s or among the activists within a social movement. As anyone experienced in this type of work will tell you, these conversations can be equally, if not more draining. If we can begin to develop skills and foster a culture that improves our capacity to engage in these conversations and negotiations, the movement can only be strengthened.

My hope is that this workshop can enable members of the community to better manage these negotiations and their relationships both with government and one another. If this is of interest, check out the workshop webpage. Also, I’ve mapped out what some of the critical negotiations in social movements are in this earlier blog post.

more on segmenting open source communities

I wanted to following up on yesterday’s post about the topology and segmentation of open source communities  with one or two addition comments.

My friend Rahul R. reminded me of the fact that one critical reason we segment is to more effectively allocate time and resources. In a bell shaped vision of the open source community (to get this you really have to read yesterday’s post) it would make sense to allocate the bulk of time on the centre (or average) user. But in a power law distribution, with a massive majority of community participants poorly networked to the project a community may face an important dilemma. Consolidate and focus on current community members, or invest in enabling a group so massive it may seem impossible to have an impact.

But as I reflect on it, this segmentation may create a false choice.

Concentrating on the more connected and active members may not be beneficial. A community needs to cultivate a pipeline of future users. Focusing on current community leaders at the expense of future community leaders will damage the project’s long term viability. More importantly, as discussed yesterday, consolidating and insulating this group may acutally create barriers to entry for new community members by saturating the current key members relationship capacity.

The reverse however, concentrating on a mass of passive users, trying to transform them into more active community members is a daunting task (especially when you are considering a user base of 20-30 million, or even just a beta tester community of 100,000 people). While I think there are a number of exciting things that one can and should do to tackle this segment, it can, and does feel overwhelming. How can you have impact?

The key may be to leverage the super users (or super-nodes – those who are more likely to be connected to people throughout the community) to create a culture that is more inclusive and participatory. Over the long term, successful open source communities will be those capable of not only drawing in new members, but networking them with key operators, decision makers and influencers so that new branches of the community are seeded.

I suspect this does not necessarily occur on to its own. It requires an explicit strategy, supported by training, all of which must be aligned with the community’s values. This will be especially true as newer entrants will have a diverse background (and set of goals and values) then the original community members. Possibly the most effective way to achieve this is to inoculate the super nodes within the community with a degree of openness to diversity, and a capacity for relationship cultivation and management so as to create an open culture that functions well even with a diverse community.

So let’s segment the community- but let’s also use that segmentation to build skills, awareness, etc… in each segment that allows it to contribute to a strategy that transcends each individual segment. For an open source community, I would suggest that, at a minimum, this means offering some training around relationship management, dispute resolution, facilitation and mediation to its super-nodes – e.g. the people most directly shaping the community’s culture.

Open Cities – A Success…

Finally beginning to relax after a hectic week of speeches, work and helping out with the Open Cities unconference.

Open Cities was dynamite – it attracted an interesting cross section of people from the arts, publishing, IT, non-profit and policy sectors (to name a few). This was my first unconference and so the most interesting take away was seeing how an openly conducted (un)conference – one with virtually no agenda or predetermined speakers – can work so well. Indeed, it worked better than most conferences I’ve been to. (Of course, it helps when it is being expertly facilitated by someone like Misha G.)

Here’s a picture chart of the agenda coming together mid-morning (thank you to enigmatix1 for the photos)

There was no shortage of panels convened by the participants. I know Mark K. is working on getting details from each of them up on the Open Cities wiki as quickly as possible. Hopefully these can be organized more succinctly in the near future (did I just volunteer myself?).

There were several conversation I enjoyed – hope to share more on them over the coming days – but wanted to start with the idea of helping grow the Torontopedia. The conversation was prompted by several people asking why Toronto does not have its own wiki (it does). Fortunately, Himy S. – who is creating the aforementioned Torontopedia – was on hand to share in the conversation.

A Toronto wiki – particularly one that leverages Google Maps’ functionality could provide an endless array of interesting content. Indeed the conversation about what information could be on such a wiki forked many times over. Two ideas seemed particularly interesting:

The first idea revolved around getting the city’s history up on a wiki. This seemed like an interesting starting point. Such information, geographically plotted using Google Maps, would be a treasure trove for tourists, students and interested citizens. More importantly, there is a huge base of public domain content, hidden away in the city’s archives, that could kick start such a wiki. The ramp up costs could be kept remarkably low. The software is open sourced and the servers would not be that expensive. I’m sure an army of volunteer citizens would emerge to help transfer the images, stories and other media online. Indeed I’d wage a $100,000 grant from the Trillium Foundation, in connection with the City Archives, Historica and/or the Dominion Institute, as well as some local historical societies could bring the necessary pieces together. What a small price to pay to give citizens unrestricted access to, and the opportunity to add to, they stories and history of their city.

The interesting part about such a wiki is that it wouldn’t have to be limited to historical data. Using tags, any information about the city could be submitted. As a result, the second idea for the wiki was to get development applications and proposals online so citizens can learn about how or if their neighborhoods will be changing and how they have evolved.

Over the the course of this discussion I was stunned to learn that a great deal of this information is kept hidden by what – in comparison to Vancouver at least – is a shockingly secretive City Hall. In Vancouver, development applications are searchable online and printed out on giant billboards (see photo) and posted on the relevant buildings.Development application According to one participant, Toronto has no such requirements! To learn anything about a development proposal you must first learn about it (unclear how this happens) and then go down to City Hall to look at a physical copy of the proposal (it isn’t online?). Oh, and you are forbidden to photocopy or photograph any documents. Heaven forbid people learn about how their neighbourhood might change…

Clearly a wiki won’t solve this problem in its entirety – as long as Toronto City Hall refuses to open up access to its development applications. However, collecting the combined knowledge of citizens on a given development will help get more informed and hopefully enable citizens to better participate in decisions about how their neighbourhood will evolve. It may also create pressure on Toronto City Hall to start sharing this information more freely.

To see more photo’s go to flickr and search the tags for “open cities.”

Crisis Management? Try Open Source Public Service

Does anyone still believe that government services can’t be designed to rely on volunteers? Apparently so. We continue to build whole systems so that we don’t have to rely on people (take the bus system for example, it doesn’t rely on constant customer input – indeed I think it actively discourages it).

So I was struck the other day when I stumbled into an unfortunate situation that reminded me of how much one of our most critical support system relies on ordinary citizens volunteering their time and resources to provide essential information.

Last Sunday night, through the review mirror, I witnessed a terrible car accident.

A block behind me, two cars hit head on at a 90 degree angle – with one car flipping end over end and landing on its roof in the middle of the intersection.

Although it was late in the evening there were at least 20-30 people on the surrounding streets… and within 5 seconds of the crash I could saw over the soft glow of over 15 cellphone LCD screens light up the night. Within 60 seconds, I could hear the ambulance sirens.

It was a terrible situation, but also an excellent example of how governments already rely on open system – even to deliver essential, life saving services. 911 services rely on unpaid, volunteer citizens to take the time and expend the (relatively low) resources to precisely guide emergency resources. It is an interesting counterpoint to government officials who design systems that pointedly avoid citizen feedback. More importantly, if we trust on volunteers to provide information to improve an essential service, why don’t we trust them to provide a constant stream of feedback on other government services?