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On Policy Alpha geeks, network thinking and foreign policy

In the past few weeks the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) and the Canadian International Council (CIC) both launched new visions for Canada’s foreign policy. Reading each, I’m struck by how much overlap both documents have with Middle to Model Power, the Canada25 report written 5 years ago by over 500 young Canadians from across the country and around the world.

With Middle to Model Power, a group of young people largely self-organized to lay out a vision and selection of ideas around how Canada could rethink its foreign policy. Take a look at this selection from its executive summary, including an overview and the first recommendation:

We submit that Canada should cease assessing its influence on the basis of its size or position within an obsolete global hierarchy. Instead, Canada25 calls on Canadians to look at the world as a network, where influence is based on the capacity of an individual, company, non-governmental organization (NGO) or country to innovate and collaborate. Building on this perspective, we propose that Canada become a Model Power—a country whose influence is linked to its ability to innovate, experiment, and partner; a country that, by presenting itself as a model, invites the world to assess, challenge, borrow from, and contribute to, its efforts.
In pursuit of our vision of Canada as a Model Power, we outline three priorities for action. These, accompanied by some of our recommendations, include:

MAKE CANADA A NETWORK NODE. Enhance the ability of Canadians to create, nurture, and tap into international networks:
• Issue five-year work visas to foreign graduates of Canadian universities • Reach out to Canada’s expatriate community by creating an international network of
Canadian leaders…

You can download the full report here, but you get the idea. Remember this is a group of 23-35 year-olds writing in 2005.

Now, quickly compare this to the summary’s of both the LPC and CIC’s new reports.

The LPC report, called a Global Networks Strategy opens by stating:

Networks define how the world works today, as hierarchies did in the past. Influence is gained through connectedness, and by being at the centre of networks. That is good news for Canada, because we have a reputation for being able to work with others, we have shaped many multilateral organizations, and our population today reflects the diversity of the world. The Global Networks Strategy is designed to leverage these assets. It sets priority areas in which the federal government must collaborate with the full range of players who contribute vigorously – and most often in networks – to Canada’s presence in the world: other governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, young Canadians, academia, faith- based groups, artists and others.

And in the CIC report, titled Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked World, has as one of its opening paragraphs:

Canada will never be the most powerful nation on Earth. But we live in a digital age, where might is measured in knowledge rather than muscularity. If we keep building on our openness—attracting the best and the brightest citizens, generating and exchanging new ideas and new ways of doing things and welcoming investment in our economy—Canada can position itself at the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century.

And, unsurprisingly, the deeper details of the reports offer many similar prescriptions.

So how, on a shoestring budget, can a group of young Canadians many of whom were not foreign policy experts, write a report that identifies an organizing principle that 5 years both a major political party and one of the country’s newest and best funded think tanks would put at the hearts of their own reports?

A few ideas come to mind:

1) The Medium is the Message: Middle to Model Power was not written on a wiki (in 2005 none of us knew what a wiki was!) but it was written over email. The authors were scattered across the country and the process of organizing local events was relatively decentralized. People raised whatever topics that mattered to them, and during the drafting phase they simple sent me their ideas and we batted them around. There was structure, but were were a pretty flat organization and… we were very connected. For Canada25 a network wasn’t just an idea that emerged out of the process, it was the process. It should hardly be surprising that the way we saw the world reflected how we organized ourselves. (When I say that Canada’s digital economy strategy will fail unless written on GCPEDIA this is part of what I’m hinting at). The medium is the message. It’s hard (but not impossible) to write about networks deep in hierarchy.

2) Look for Policy Alpha Geeks in resource poor environments: So why did Canada25 think in terms of networks? How was it that before Wikinomics or GPS or pretty much most other things I’ve seen, did Canada25 organize itself this way?  Well, it wasn’t because we were strategic or young. It was because we had very little money. We couldn’t afford to organize any other way. To get 500 Canadians around the world to think about foreign policy we had to let them self-organize – we didn’t have an org structure or facilitators to do it for them. We had to take the cheapest tools (email) and over use them. Don’t get me wrong, Canada25 was not poor. Our members were generally very well educated, we had access to computers and the internet and access to interesting people to interview and draw ideas from. But the raw infrastructure we had at our disposal was not significant and it forced us to adopt what I now see were disruptive technologies and processes. We became Policy Alpha Geeks because we had to innovate not to be relevant, but to ensure the project survived.

3) It’s not about the youth: People presume that our thinking emerged because we were young. This is not entirely correct. Again, I submit that we got to thinking about networks because we were operating in a resource weak environment and had exposure to new tools (email) and a risk tolerance to try using them in an ambitious way. This isn’t about age, it just happens that generally it is young people who don’t have lots of resources and are willing to experiment with new tools. Older people, who frequently have more senior titles, generally have access to more resources and so can rely on more established, but more resource intensive tools and processes. But again, this is about mindset, not about age. Indeed, it is really about the innovators’ dilemma in policy making. Don’t believe me? Well, as lead author of Middle to Model Power I can tell you that the most influential book on my thinking was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock which I read in the month preceding the drafting of the report. It was written in 1970 by an author who was, at the time, 42. In sum, young people can be a good guide, but it is environmental factors that you can replicate, not intrinsic qualities of being young, that allow you to innovate.

Both the LPC and the CIC’s documents are good and indeed, more up to date than Middle to Model Power. But in terms of core organizing principles the three documents are similar. So if you are genuinely interested in this take a look at all three documents. I do think they put forward what could become an emerging centrist consensus regarding organizing principles for Canadian foreign policy. Certainly that was the ambition back in 2005.

Canada's Digital Economy Strategy: Two quick actions you can take

For those interested – or better still, up till now uninterested – in Canada’s digital economy strategy I wanted to write a quick post about some things you can do to help ensure the country moves in the right direction.

First, there are a few proposals on the digital economy strategy consultation website that could do with your vote. If you have time I encourage you to go and read them and, if swayed, to vote for them. They include:

  • Open Access to Canada’s Public Sector Information and Data – Essentially calling for open data at the federal level
  • Government Use and Participation in Open Source – A call for government to save taxpayers money by engaging with and leveraging the opportunity of open source software
  • Improved access to publicly-funded data – I’m actually on the fence on this one. I agree that data from publicly funded research should be made available, however, this is not open government data and I fear that the government will adopt this recommendation and then claim that is does “open data” as the UK and the US. This option would, in fact, be something far, far short of such a claim. Indeed, the first option above is broader and encompasses this recommendation.

Second, go read Michael Geist’s piece Opening Up Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy. It is bang on and I hope to write something shortly that builds upon it.

Finally, and this is on a completely different tack, but if you are up for “clicking your mouse for change,” please also consider joining the facebook group I recently created that encourages people to opt out of receiving the yellow pages. It gives instructions what to do and, the more people who join bigger a message it sends to Yellow Pages – and the people that advertise in them – that this wasteful medium is no longer of interest to consumers (and never gets used anyways).

ChangeCamp Vancouver, GovCamp Toronto & Open Data Hackathon

For those in Vancouver, ChangeCamp will be taking place Saturday at the W2 Storyeum on 151 W Cordova. You can register here and propose sessions in advance here. I know I’ll be there and I am looking forward to hearing about interesting local projects and trying to find ways to contribute to them.

I’ll probably submit a brain storming session on datadotgc.ca – there are some exciting developments in the work around the website I’d like to test out on an audience. I’d also be interested in a session that asks people about apps they’d like to create using open data. It will be interesting to get a better sense of additional data sets people would like to request from the city.

Out in Toronto, I’ll be speaking at GovCamp Toronto on June 17th at the Toronto Reference Library. I’m not sure how registration is going to work but I would keep an eye on this page if you are interested.

Finally, on the 17th SAP will be hosting an open data hackathon for developers in Vancouver. A great opportunity to come out and work on projects related to Apps 4 Climate Action or open data projects using city of Vancouver data (or both!). I was really impressed to hear that in Ottawa a 130 people came to the first open data hackathon – would love to help foster a community like that here in Vancouver. You can RSVP for this event here.

Hope to see you at these events!

Apps for Climate Action Update – Lessons and some new sexy data

ttl_A4CAOkay, so I’ll be the first to say that the Apps4Climate Action data catalog has not always been the easiest to navigate and some of the data sets have not been machine readable, or even data at all.

That however, is starting to change.

Indeed, the good news is three fold.

First, the data catalog has been tweaked and has better search and an improved capacity to sort out non-machine readable data sets. A great example of a government starting to think like the web, iterating and learning as the program progresses.

Second, and more importantly, new and better sets are starting to be added to the catalog. Most recently the Community Energy and Emissions Inventories were released in an excel format. This data shows carbon emissions for all sorts of activities and infrastructure at a very granular level. Want to compare the GHG emissions of a duplex in Vancouver versus a duplex in Prince George? Now you can.

Moreover, this is the first time any government has released this type of data at all, not to mention making it machine readable. So not only have the app possibilities (how green is your neighborhood, rate my city, calculate my GHG emissions) all become much more realizable, but any app using this data will be among the first in the world.

Finally, probably one of the most positive outcomes of the app competition to date is largely hidden from the public. The fact that members of the public have been asking for better data or even for data sets at all(!) has made a number of public servants realize the value of making this information public.

Prior to the competition making data public was a compliance problem, something you did but you figured no one would ever look at or read it. Now, for a growing number of public servants, it is an innovation opportunity. Someone may take what the government produces and do something interesting with it. Even if they don’t, someone is nonetheless taking interest in your work – something that has rewards in of itself. This, of course, doesn’t mean that things will improve over night, but it does help advance the goal of getting government to share more machine readable data.

Better still, the government is reaching out to stakeholders in the development community and soliciting advice on how to improve the site and the program, all in a cost-effective manner.

So even within the Apps4Climate Action project we see some of the changes the promise of Government 2.0 holds for us:

  • Feedback from community participants driving the project to adapt
  • Iterations of development conducted “on the fly” during a project or program
  • Success and failures resulting in queries in quick improvements (release of more data, better website)
  • Shifting culture around disclosure and cross sector innovation
  • All on a timeline that can be measured in weeks

Once this project is over I’ll write more on it, but wanted to update people, especially given some of the new data sets that have become available.

And if you are a developer or someone who would like to do a cool visualization with the data, check out the Apps4Climate Action website or drop me an email, happy to talk you through your idea.

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.

Articles I'm digesting – 25/5/2010

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. A couple of good ones ranging from the last few months. Big thank you’s to those who sent me these pieces. Always enjoy.

The Meaning of Open by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, Product Management

Went back and re-read this. Every company makes mistakes and Google is no exception (privacy settings on Buzz being everyone’s favourite) but this statement, along with Google’s DataLiberartion.org (which unlike Facebook is designed to ensure you can extract your information from Google’s services) shows why Google enjoys greater confidence than Facebook, Apple or any number of its competitors. If you’re in government, the private or the non-profit sector, read this post. This is how successful 21st century organizations think.

Local Governments Offer Data to Software Tinkerers by Claire Cain Miller (via David Nauman & Andrew Medd)

Another oldie (December 2009 is old?) but a goodie. Describes a little bit of the emerging eco-system for open local government data along with some of the tensions it is creating. Best head in the sand line:

Paul J. Browne, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, said it releases information about individual accidents to journalists and others who request it, but would not provide software developers with a regularly updated feed. “We provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” he said.

So… if I understand correctly, the NYPD will only give data to people who ask and prefer to tie up valuable resources filling out individual requests rather than just provide a constant feed that anyone can use. Got it. Uh, and just for the record, those “entrepreneurs” are the next generation of journalists and the people who will make the public information useful. The NYPD’s “public information” is effectively useless, much like that my home town police department offers. Does anyone actually looks at PDF’s and pictures of crimes? That you can only get on a weekly basis? Really? In an era of spreadsheets and google maps… no.

Didacticism in Game Design by Clint Hocking (via Lauren Bacon)

eaves.ca readers meet Clint Hocking. My main sadness in introducing you is that you’ll discover how a truly fantastic, smart blog reads. The only good news for me us that you are hopefully more interested in public policy, open source and things I dwell on than video games, so Clint won’t steal you all away. Just many of you.

A dash of a long post post that is worth reading

As McLuhan says: the medium is the message. When canned, discrete moral choices are rendered in games with such simplicity and lack of humanity, the message we are sending is not the message specific to the content in question (the message in the canned content might be quite beautiful – but it’s not a ludic message) – it is the message inherent in the form in which we’ve presented it: it effectively says that ‘being moral is easy and only takes a moment out of each hour’. To me, this is almost the opposite of the deeper appreciation of humanity we might aim to engender in our audience.

Clint takes video games seriously. And so should you.

The Analytic Mode by David Brooks (via David Brock)

These four lines alone make this piece worth reading. Great lessons for students of policy and politics:

  • The first fiction was that government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal truths.
  • The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding and compromise that presidents [or anyone!] actually get anything done.
  • The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.
  • The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty

The case against non-profit news sites by Bill Wyman (via Andrew Potter)

Yes, much better that news organizations be beholden to a rich elite than paying readers… Finally someone takes on the idea that a bunch of enlightened rich people or better, rich corporate donors, are going to save “the news.” Sometimes it feels like media organizations are willing to do anything they can to avoid actually having to deal with paying customers. Be it using advertisers and relying on rich people to subsidize them, anything appears to be better than actually fighting for customers.

That’s what I love about Demand Media. Some people decry them as creating tons of cheap content, but at least they looked at the market place and said: This is a business model that will work. Moreover, they are responding to a real customer demand – searches in google.

Wyman’s piece also serves as a good counterpoint to the recent Walrus advertising campaign which essentially boiled down to: Canada needs the Walrus and so you should support it. The danger here is that people at the Walrus believe this line: That they are of value and essential to Canada even if no one (or very few people) bought them or read them. I think people should buy The Walrus not because it would be good for the country but because it is engaging, informative and interesting to Canadians (or citizens of any country). I think the Walrus can have great stories (Gary Stephen Ross’s piece A Tale of Two Cities is a case in point), but if you have a 1 year lead time for an article, that’s going to hard to pull off in the internet era, foundation or no foundation. I hope the Walrus stays with us, but Wyman’s article serves up some arguments worth contemplating.

Open Government interview and panel on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin

My interview on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin has been uploaded to Youtube (BTW, it is fantastic that The Agenda has a YouTube channel where it posts all its interviews. Kudos!). If you live outside Ontario, or were wrapped up in the Senators-Pens playoff game that was on at the same time (which obviously we destroyed in the ratings), I thought I’d throw it up here as a post in case it is of interest. The first clip is a one on one interview between myself and Paikin. The second clip is the discussion panel that occurred afterward with myself, senior editor of Reason magazine Katherine Mangu-Ward , American Prospect executive editor Mark Schmitt and the Sunlight Foundation’s Policy Director John Wonderlich.

Hope you enjoy!

One on one interview with Paikin:

Panel Discussion: