Tag Archives: digital economy

Canada Post’s War on the 21st Century, Innovation & Productivity

The other week Canada Post announced it was suing Geocoder.ca – an alternative provider of postal code data. It’s a depressing statement on the status of the digital economy in Canada for a variety of reasons. The three that stand out are:

1) The Canadian Government has launched an open government initiative which includes a strong emphasis on open data and innovation. Guess which data set is the most requested data set by the public: Postal Code data.

2) This case risks calling into question the government’s commitment to (and understanding of) digital innovation, and

3) it is an indication – given the flimsiness of the case – of how little crown corporations understand the law (or worse, how willing they are to use the taxpayer funded litigation to bully others irrespective of the law).

Let me break down the situation into three parts. 1) Why this case matters to the digital economy (and why you should care), 2) Why the case is flimsy (and a ton of depressingly hilariously facts) and 3) What the Government could be doing about, but isn’t.

Why this case matters.

So… funny thing the humble postal code. One would have thought that, in a digital era, the lowly postal code would have lost its meaning.

The interesting truth however, is that the lowly postal code has, in many ways, never been more important. For better for worse, postal codes have become a core piece of data for both the analog and especially digital economy. These simple, easy to remember, six digit numbers, allow you to let a company, political party, or non-profit to figure out what neighborhood, MP riding or city you are in. And once we know where you are, there are all sorts of services the internet can offer you: is that game you wanted available anywhere near you? Who are your elected representatives (and how did they vote on that bill)? What social services are near you? Postal codes, quite simply, one of the easiest ways for us to identify where we are, so that governments, companies and others can better serve us. For example, after to speaking to Geocoder.ca founder Ervin Ruci, it turns out that federal government ministries are a major client of his, dozens of different departments using his service including… the Ministry of Justice.

Given how important postal code data is given it can enable companies, non-profits and government’s to be more efficient and productive (and thus competitive), one would think government would want to make it as widely available as possible. This is, of course, what several governments do.

But not Canada. Here postal code data is managed by Canada Post, which charges, I’m told, between $5,000-$50,000 dollars for access to the postal code database (depending on what you want). This means, in theory, every business (or government entity at the local, provincial or federal level) in Canada that wants to use postal code information to figure out where its customers are located must pay this fee, which, of course, it passes along to its customers. Worse, for others the fee is simple not affordable. For non-profits, charities and, of course, small businesses and start-ups, they either choose to be less efficient, or test their business model in a jurisdiction where this type of data is easier to access.

Why this case is flimsy

Of course, because postal codes are so important, Geocoder came up with an innovative solution to the problem. Rather than copy Canada Post’s postal code data base (which would have violated Canada Post’s terms of use) they did something ingenious… they got lots of people to help them manually recreate the data set. (There is a brief description of how here) As the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) brilliant argues in their defense of Geocoder: “The Copyright Act confers on copyright owners only limited rights in respect of particular works: it confers no monopoly on classes of works (only limited rights in respect of specific original works of authorship), nor any protection against independent creation. The Plaintiff (Canada Post) improperly seeks to use the Copyright Act to craft patent-like rights against competition from independently created postal code databases.”

And, of course, there are even deeper problems with Canada Post’s claims:

The first is that an address – including the postal code – is a fact. And facts cannot be copyrighted. And, of course, if Canada Post won, we’d all be hooped since writing a postal code down on say… an envelop, would violate Canada Post’s copyright.

The second, was pointed out to me by a mail list contributor who happened to work for a city. He pointed out that it is local governments that frequently create the address data and then share it with Canada Post. Can you imagine if cities tried to copyright their address data? The claim is laughable. Canada post claims that it must charge for the data to recoup the cost of creating it, but the data it gets from cities it gets for free – the creation of postal code data should not be an expensive proposition.

But most importantly… NON OF THIS SHOULD MATTER. In a world of where our government is pushing an open data strategy, the economic merits of making one of the most important open data sets public, should stand on their own without the fact that the law is on our side.

There is also a bonus 4th element which makes for fun reading in the CIPPIC defense that James McKinney pointed out:

“Contrary to the Plaintiff’s (Canada Post’s) assertion at paragraph 11 of the Statement of Claim that ‘Her Majesty’s copyright to the CPC Database was transferred to Canada Post’ under section 63 of the Canada Post Corporation, no section 63 of the current Canada Post Corporation Act  even exists. Neither does the Act that came into force in 1981 transfer such title.”

You can read the Canada Post Act on the Ministry of Justice’s website here and – as everyone except, apparently, Canada Post’s lawyers has observed – it has only 62 sections.

What Can Be Done.

Speaking of The Canada Post Act, while there is no section 63, there is a section 22, which appears under the header “Directives” and, intriguingly, reads:

22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

In other words… the government can compel Canada Post to make its Postal Code data open. Sections 22 (3), (4) and (5) suggest that the government may have to compensate Canada Post for the cost of implementing such a directive, but it is not clear that it must do so. Besides, it will be interesting to see how much money is actually at stake. As an aside, if Canada were to explore privatizing Canada Post, separating out the postal code function and folding it back into government would be a logical decision since you would want all players in the space (a private Canada Post, FedEx, Puralator, etc…) to all be able to use a single postal code system.

Either way, the government cannot claim that Canada Post’s crown corporation status prevents it from compelling the organization to apply an open license to its postal code data. The law is very clear that it can.

What appears to be increasingly obvious is that the era of closed postal code data will be coming to an end. It may be in a slow, expensive and wasteful lawsuit that costs both Canada Post, Canadian taxpayers and CIPPIC resources and energy they can ill afford, or it can come quickly through a Ministerial directive.

Let’s hope that latter prevails.

Indeed, the postal code has arguably become the system for physical organizing our society. Everything from the census to urban planning to figuring out where to build a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks will often use postal code data as the way to organize data about who we are and where we live. Indeed it is the humble postal code that frequently allows all these organizations – from governments to non-profits to companies – to be efficient about locating people and allocating resources. Oh. And it also really helps for shipping stuff quickly that you bought online.

It would be nice to live in a country that really understood how to support a digital economy. Sadly, last week, I was once again reminded of how frustrating it is to try to be 21st century company in Canada.

What happened?

  • 22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

MP Jim Abbott: The Face of the Sad State of Open Data in Canada

“I guess my attack to this has always been from the perspective of are we working in a bubble. In other words, when this was… under this initiative by the President, how quick was the takeup by the population at large? Not by the people that we affectionately call geeks, or people who don’t have a life, or don’t come up out of the dark, or whatever. The average person walking through Times Square I guess is what I’m trying to say. How quick was their take up, and in fact has there been a takeup?”

Jim Abbott, ETHI Meeting No. 47, Open Government Study, March 2, 2011

Yes, the above quote comes from Jim Abbott, Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Kootenay—Columbia during the testimony of Beth Noveck, President Obama’s former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government (her statement can be found here). You can see the remarks in the online video here, at around the 1:17:50 mark.

First, I want to be clear. This is disappointing, not on a political level, but on an individual level. During my testimony for the ETHI committee (which I intend to blog about) I found members of all parties – NDP, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois and Conservative – deeply interested in the subject matter, asking thoughtful questions and expressing legitimate concerns. Indeed, I was struck by Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative MP for Napean-Carleton, who asked a number of engaging questions, particularly around licenses. That’s a level of sophistication around the issue that many people don’t care to ask about. Moreover, many of the committee members grasped the economic and social opportunity around open data.

Jim Abbott, in contrast, may believe that describing technologists and geeks as people who “don’t have a life” or “don’t come up out of the dark” is affectionate, but I’m not so sure these stereotypes are so endearing, especially given how they aren’t true. Moreover, his comments are particularly unfortunate as it’s the people he (affectionately) demeans who created RIM, OpenText, Cognos, and thousands of other successful technology companies that pump billions into the Canadian economy, employ hundreds of thousands, and do actually impact the “person on the street.” But a few simple demeaning words can make one forget these contributions or worse, make them sound insignificant.

Of course, it will be the work of these people that creates the open data applications that, in the US at least, already impact the average person walking through Times Square (consider this lifesaving app that was created by a hacker using opendata). Indeed, there are a growing number of businesses consuming and using open data, some even valued in the billions of dollars and used by millions of americans every day.

The sad part is they will only be available to the people in Times Square, or Trafalgar Square or on the Champs-Élysées since the Americans, British and French all have national open data portals (among numerous other countries). There will be no uptake for people on Wellington St., Queen St., Robson St. or wherever, since without a national open data portal in Canada, there can be no uptake. (It’s not easy to be behind the French government on an issue related to the digital economy, but we’ve somehow managed).

But forget the economic opportunity. There is also the question of government transparency and accountability. What makes the above statement so disappointing is that it exposes how an MP who for so long railed for greater transparency in government, has suddenly decided that transparency is no longer important unless “there is sufficient uptake.”

One wonders what Jim Abbott of 2000 would say of Jim Abbott of 2011? Because back in a pre-2001 era Jim Abbott had fantastic quotes like this:

I suggest in the strongest way possible to the minister that even if we can get him to clear up the history of the Canada Information Office, which I do not have a lot of hope for but I am asking for, from this point forward there must be proper transparency of the Canada Information Office. The country needs openness and transparency because democracy cannot be true democracy without openness and transparency.

Jim Abbott, June 8th, 2000 / 11:10 a.m.

and this

Second, the difficulty the government has created with the Canada Information Office is that many of the contracts and much of the ongoing activity have been conducted in a way that does not befit what we are in Canada, which is a democracy. In a democracy the people depend on the people in the Chamber to hold the government accountable for the affairs of the government and to be as transparent as possible.

Jim Abbott, June 8th, 2000 / 11:10 a.m.

and this

It will never have the transparency that it must have in a democracy. It is just absolutely unacceptable.

Jim Abbott, June 16th, 1995 / 3:25 p.m.

I could go on…

(If you are wondering how I was able to dig up these quotes, please check out OpenParliament.ca – it really is extraordinary tool and again, shows the power of open (parliamentary) data).

But more importantly, and on point, it seems to me that Jim Abbott from the year 2000 would see open data as a important way to ensure greater transparency. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Canada Information Office had had its budget and expenditures available as open data? Wouldn’t that have brought about some of the accountability the 2000 Jim Abbott would have sought? Sadly, and strangely, Jim Abbott of 2011 no longer seems to feel that way.

Yes, if only he could meet Jim Abbott of 2000, I think they’d have a great debate.

Of course, Jim Abbott of 2000 can’t meet Jim Abbott of 2011, and so it is up to us to (re)educate him. And on that front, I have, so far, clearly failed the tech community, the open data community and the government accountability community. Hopefully with time and more effort, that will change. Maybe next time I’m in Ottawa, Jim Abbott and I can grab coffee and I can try again.

The problem with the UBB debate

I reley dont wan to say this, but I have to now.

This debate isso esey!

– Axman13

Really, it is.

The back and forth for and against UBB has – for me – sadly so missed the mark on the real issue it is beyond frustrating. It’s been nice to see a voice or two like Michael Geist begin to note the real issue – lack of competition – but by and large, we continue to have the wrong debate and, more importantly, blame the wrong people.

This really struck home with me while reading David Beers’s piece in the Globe. The first half is fantastic, demanding greater transparency into the cost of delivering bandwidth and of developing a network; this is indeed needed. Sadly, the second half completely lost me, as it makes no argument, notably doesn’t call for foreign investment (though he wants the telcos’ oligarchy broken up – so it’s unclear where he thinks that competition is going to come from) and worse, the CRTC is blamed for the crisis.

It all prompted me – reluctantly – to outline what I think are the three problems with the debate we’ve been having, from least to most important.

1. It’s not about UBB; it’s about cost.

Are people mad about UBB? Maybe. However, I’m willing to wager that most people who have signed the petition about UBB don’t know what UBB is, or what it means. What they do know is that their Internet Service Provider has been charging a lot for internet access. Too much. And they are tired of it.

A more basic question is: do people hate the telcos? And the answer is yes. I know I dislike them all. Intensely. (You should see my cell phone bill; my American friends laugh at me as it is 4x theirs). The recent decision has simply allowed for that frustration to boil over. It has become yet another example of how a telecommunication oligarchy is allowed to charge whatever it wants for service that is substandard to what is often found elsewhere in the world. Of course Canadians are angry. But I suspect they were angry before UBB.

So, if getting gouged is the issue the problem of making the debate about UBB is we risk taking our eye off the real issue – the cost of getting online. Even if the CRTC reverses its decision, we will still be stuck with some of the highest rates in for internet access in the world. This is the real issue and should be the focus of the debate.

2. If the real issue is about price, the real solution is competition.

Here Geist’s piece, along with the Globe editorial, is worth reading. Geist states clearly that the root of the problem is a lack of competition. It may be that UBB – especially in a world of WiMax or other highspeed wireless solutions – could become the most effective way to charge for access and encourage investment. Why would we want to forestall such a business model from emerging?

I’m hoping, and am seeing hints, that that this part of the debate is beginning to come to the fore, but so long as the focus is on banning UBB, and not increasing competition, we’ll be stuck having the wrong conversation.

3. The real enemy is not the CRTC; it’s the Minister of Industry Canada.

This, of course, is both the most problematic part of this debate and the most ironic. The opponents to UBB have made the wrong people the enemy. While people may not agree with the CRTC’s decision, the real problem is not of their making. They can only act within the regulatory regime they have been given.

The truth of the matter is, after 40 years of the internet, Canada has no digital economy strategy. Given it is 2011 this is a stunning fact. Of course, we’ve been promised one but we’ve heard next to nothing about it since the consultation has been closed. Indeed – and I hope that I’ll be corrected here – we haven’t even heard when it will land.

The point, to make it clear, is that this is not a crisis or regulatory oversight. This is a crisis of policy mismanagement. So the real people to blame are the politicians – and in particular the Industry Minister who is in charge of this file. But since those in opposition to UBB have made it their goal to scream at the CRTC, the government has been all too happy to play along and scream at them as well. Indeed, the biggest irony of this all is that it has allowed the government to take a populist approach and look responsive to a crises that they are ultimately responsible for.

P.S. Left-wing bonus reason

So if you are a left leaning anti-UBB advocate – particularly one who publishes opinion pieces – the most ironic part about this debate is that you are the PMO’s favourite person. Not only have you deflected blame over this crisis away from the government and onto the CRTC you’ve created the perfect conditions for the government to demand an overhaul (or simply just the resignation) of key people on the CRTC board.

The only reson this is ironic is beacuase Konrad W. von Finckenstein (head of the CRTC) may be the main reason why Sun Media’s Category 1 application for its “Fox News North” channel was denied. There is probably nothing the PMO would like more than to brush Kinchenstein aside and be to reshape the CRTC so as to make this plan a reality.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if a left-leaning coalition enabled the Harper PMO and Sun Media to create their Fox News North?

And who said Canadian politics was boring?

P.P.S. If you haven’t figured out the spelling mistake easter eggs, I’ll make it more obvious: click here. It’s an example of why internet bandwidth consumption is climbing at double digits.

A Response to a Ottawa Gov 2.0 Skeptic

So many, many months ago a Peter R. posted this comment (segments copied below) under a post I’d written titled: Prediction, The Digital Economy Strategy Will Fail if it Isn’t Drafted Collaboratively on GCPEDIA. At first blush Peter’s response felt aggressive. I flipped him an email to say hi and he responded in a very friendly manner. I’ve been meaning to respond for months but, life’s been busy.  However, over the break (and my quest to hit inbox 0) I finally carved out some time –  my fear is that this late response will sound like a counter attack – it isn’t intended as such but rather an effort to respond to a genuine question. I thought it would be valuable to post as many of the points may resonate with supporters and detractors of Gov 2.0 alike. Here’s my responses to the various charges:

The momentum, the energy and the excitement behind collaborative/networked/web 2.0/etc is only matched by the momentum, the energy and the excitement that was behind making money off of leveraged debt instruments in the US.

Agreed, there is a great deal of energy and excitement behind collaborative networks, although I don’t think this is sparked – as ensued, by something analogous to bogus debt instruments. People are excited because of the tangible results created by sharing and/or co-production networks like Wikipedia, Mozilla, Flickr Google search and Google Translate (your results improve based on users data) and Ushahidi inspire people because of the tremendous results they are able to achieve with a smaller footprint of resources. I think the question of what these types of networks and this type of collaboration means to government is an important question – that also means that as people experiment their will be failures – but to equate the entire concept of Gov 2.0 and the above cited organizations, tools and websites with financial instruments that repackaged subprime mortgages is, in my mind, fairly problematic.

David, the onus lies squarely with you to prove that policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions WITHOUT letting everyone and his twitting brother chime in their two cents.

Actually the onus doesn’t lie squarely with me. This is a silly statement. In fact, for those of us who believe in collaborative technologies such as GCPEDIA or yammer this sentence is the single most revealing point in the Peter’s entire comment. I invite everyone and anyone to add to my rebuttal, or to Peter’s argument. Even those who argue against me would be proving my point – tools like blogs and GCPEDIA allow ideas and issues to be debated with a greater number of people and a wider set of perspectives. The whole notion that any thought or solution lies solely with one person is the type of thinking that leads to bad government (and pretty much bad anything). I personally believe that the best ideas emerge when they are debated and contested – honed by having flaws exposed and repaired. Moreover this has never been more important than today, when more and more issues cross ministerial divides. Indeed, the very fact that we are having this discussion on my blog, and that Peter deemed it worthy of comment, is a powerful counterpoint this statement.

Equally important, I never said policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions. This is serious misinterpretation of what said. I did say that the Digital Economy Strategy would fail (and I’ll happily revise, and soften to say, will likely not be meaningful) unless written on GCPEDIA. I still believe this. I don’t believe you can have people writing policy about how to manage an economy who are outside of and/or don’t understand the tools of that economy. I actually think our public servants can find great policy solutions – if we let them. In fact, most public servants I know spend most of their time trying to track down public servants in other ministries or groups to consult them about the policy they are drafting. In short, they spend all their time trying to network, but using tools of the late 20th century (like email), mid 20th century (telephone), or mid 3rd century BC (the meeting) to do it. I just want to give them more efficient tools – digital tools, like those we use in a digital economy – so they can do what they are already doing.

For the last 8 years I’ve worked in government, I can tell you with absolute certainty (and credibility!) that good policy emerges from sound research and strategic instrument choice. Often (select) public consultations are required, but sometimes none at all. Take 3 simple and highly successful policy applications: seat belts laws, carbon tax, banking regulation. Small groups of policymakers have developed policies (or laws, regs, etc) to brilliant effect….sans web 2.0. So why do we need gcpedia now?

Because the world expects you to do more, faster and with less. I find this logic deeply concerning coming from a public servant. No doubts that government developed policies to brilliant effect before the wide adoption of the computer, or even the telephone. So should we get rid of them too? An increasing number of the world’s major corporations are, or are setting up an internal wiki/collaboration platform, a social networking site, even using microblogging services like Yammer to foster internal collaboration. Indeed, these things help us to do research and develop ideas faster, and I think, better. The question isn’t why do we need GCPEDIA now. The question is why aren’t we investing to make GCPEDIA a better platform? The rest of the world is.

I’ll put this another way: tons of excellent policy solutions are waiting in the shared drives of bureaucrats across all governments.

I agree. Let’s at least put it on a wiki where more people can read them, leverage them and, hopefully, implement them. You sitting on a great idea that three other people in the entire public service have read isn’t a recipe for getting it adopted. Nor is it a good use of Canadian tax dollars. Socializing it is. Hence, social media.

Politics — being what it is — doesn’t generate progressive out solutions for various ideological reasons (applies equally to ndp, lib, con). First, tell us what a “failed” digitial economy strategy (DES) looks like. Second, tell us what components need to be included in the DES for it be successful. Third, show us why gcpedia/wikis offer the only viable means to accumulate the necessary policy ingredients.

For the last part – see my earlier post and above. As for what a failed digital economy strategy looks like – it will be one that is irrelevant. It is one that will go ignored by the majority of people who actually work in the digital economy. Of course, an irrelevant policy will be better than a truly bad one which, which I suspect, is also a real risk based on the proceedings of Canada 3.0. (That conference seemed to be about “how do we save analog business that are about to be destroyed by the digital economy” – a link to one of my favourite posts). And of course I have other metrics that matter to me. That all said, after meeting the public servant in charge of the process at Canada 3.0, I was really, really encouraged – she is very smart and gets it.

She also found the idea of writing the policy on GCPEDIA intriguing. I have my doubts that that is how things are proceeding, but it gives me hope.