Tag Archives: economy

Transparency isn't a cost – it's a cost saver (a note for Governments and Drummond)

Yesterday Don Drummond – a leading economist hired by the Ontario government to review how the province delivers services in the face of declining economic growth and rising deficits – published his report.

There is much to commend, it lays out stark truths that frankly, many citizens already know, but that government was too afraid to say aloud. It is a report that, frankly, I think many provincial and state governments may look at with great interest since the challenges faced by Ontario are faced by governments across North America (and Europe).

From an IT perspective – particular one where I believe open innovation could play a powerfully transformative role – I found the report lacking. I say this with enormous trepidation, as I believe Drummond to be a man of supreme intellect, but my sense is he (and/or his team) have profoundly misunderstand government transparency and why it should be relevant. In Chapter 16 (no I have not yet read all 700 pages) a few pieces come together to create, what I believe, are problematic conditions. The first relates to the framing around “accountability”:

Accountability is an essential aspect of government operations, but we often treat that goal as an absolute good. Taxpayers expect excellent public-sector management as well as open and transparent procurement practices. However, an exclusive focus on rigorous financial reporting and compliance as the measure of successful management requires significant investments of time, energy and resources. At some point, this investment is subject to diminishing returns.

Remember the context. This section largely deals with how government services – and in particular the IT aspects of these services – could be consolidated (a process that rarely yields the breadth of savings people believe it will). Through this lens the interesting things about the word “accountability” in this section above is that I could replace it with searchability – the capacity to locate pieces of information. I agree with Drummond that there is a granularity around recording items – say tracking every receipt versus offering per diems – that creates unnecessary costs. Nor to I believe we should pay unlimited costs for transparency – just for the sake of transparency. But I do believe that government needs a much, much stronger capacity to search and locate pieces of information. Indeed, I think that capacity, the ability for government to mine its own data intelligently, will be critical. Transparency thus becomes one of the few metrics citizens have into not only how effective a government’s inputs are, but how effective its systems are.

Case in point. If you required every Canadian under the age of 30 to conduct an ATIP request tomorrow, I predict that you’d have a massive collapse in Canadians confidence in government. The length of ATIP requests (and the fact that in many places, they aren’t even online) probably says less about government secrecy to these Canadians than it does about the government’s capacity to locate, identify and process its own data and information. When you can’t get information to me in a timely manner, it strongly suggests that managers may not be able to get timely information either.

If Ontario’s public service is going to be transformed – especially if it is going to fulfill other Drummond report recommendations, such as:

Further steps should be taken to advance partnering with municipal and federal services —efficiencies can be found by working collaboratively with other levels of government. For example, ServiceOntario in Ottawa co-locates with the City of Ottawa and Service Canada to provide services from one location, therefore improving the client experience. Additionally, the new BizPal account (which allows Ontario businesses to manage multiple government requirements from a single account) allows 127 Ontario municipalities (such as Kingston, Timmins, Brampton and Sudbury) to partner with ServiceOntario and become more efficient in issuing business permits and licensing. The creation of more such hubs, with their critical mass, would make it easier to provide services in both official languages. Such synergies in service delivery will improve customer experience and capitalize on economies of scale.

Then it is going to require systems that can be easily queried as well as interface with other systems quickly. Architecting systems in open standards, that can be easily searched and recoded, will be essential. This is particularly true if the recommendation that private sector partners (who love proprietary data models, standards and systems which regularly trap governments in expensive traps) are to be used more frequently. All this is to say, we shouldn’t to transparency for transparencies sake. We should do transparency because it will make Ontario more interoperable, will lower costs, and will enable more accountability.

Accountability doesn’t have to be a cost drive. Quite the opposite, transparency should and can be the bi-product of good procurement strategies, interoperable architecture choices and effective processes.

Let’s not pit transparency against cost savings. Very often, it’s a false dichotomy.

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ ”

– Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

Gov 2.0: Network Analysis for Income Inequality?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two types of graphs at the moment.  This first is a single chart that shows income growth for various segments of the US population broken down by wealth.

This second is a group of graphs that talk about pageviews and visits to various websites on the internet.

bits-tue71-custom2Top-10-Social-Networking-Sites-by-Market-Share-of-Visits-June-2011July-Search-Engine-Market-Share

What is fascinating about the internet stats is that they are broadly talking about distribution among the top websites – forget about everyone else where the pageviews become infinitesimally small. So even among top websites have a power law distribution, which must be even stronger once one starts talking about all websites.

And this is what I’m frequently told. That the distribution of pageviews, visits and links on the internet looks a lot like the first graph, although possibly even more radically skewed.

In other words while the after-tax income chart isn’t a clean curve, the trends of the two are likely very similar – except that the top 1% of websites do even better than the top 1% of after tax income earners. So both charts look like power law distributions.

Does this matter? I’m not sure, but I’m playing with some thoughts. While I’m confident that the income chart as power law distribution has replicated itself several times in history (such as during the lead up to the great depression, what is less clear to me is if the exponential growth has ever happened so fast? (would be fascinating to know if others have written on this). The rich have often gotten richer – but have they gotten richer this quickly before?

And is this what happens in a faster, more networked economy? Maybe the traits of the online network and its power law distribution are beginning to impact the socioeconomic network of our society at large?

Could this also mean that we need some new ways to ensure social and economic mobility in our economy and society. Network effects are obviously powerful online, but have also, historically, been important offline. In society, your location on that curve creates advantages, it likely gives you access to peers and capital which position you to maintain your status in the network. Perhaps the internet, rather than making the network that is our society more fluid, is actually doing the opposite. It is increasingly the power law distribution, meaning the network effects are getting stronger, further reinforcing advantages and disadvantages. This might have important implications for social and economic mobility.

Either way, applying some network analysis to income inequality and social mobility as well as the social programs we put in place to ensure equality of opportunity, might be a good frame on these problems. I’d love to read anything anyone has written on this – very much open to suggestions.

When Measuring the Digital Economy, Measure the (Creative) Destruction Too

Yesterday I had a great lunch with Justin Kozuch of the Pixels to Product research study which aims “to create a classification system for Canada’s digital media industry and shed light on the industry’s size and scope.”

I think the idea of measuring the size and scope of Canada’s digital media industry is a fantastic idea. Plenty of people – including many governments – are probably very curious about this.

But one thought I had was: if we really want to impress on governments the importance of the digital economy, don’t measure it’s size. Measure its creative destructive/disruptive power.

In short, measure the amount of the “normal” economy it has destroyed.

Think of every newspaper subscription canceled, every print shop closed, every board game not played, every add not filmed, whatever… but think of all the money saved by businesses and consumers because the digital made their options dramatically cheaper.

I’m not sure what the methodology for such a measurement would look like, or even if it is possible. But it would be helpful.

I suspect the new digital businesses that replace them are smaller and more efficient. Indeed, they often have to be dramatically so to justify the switching cost. This is part of what makes them disruptive. Take, for example, Google. Did you know it only has 20,000 employees? I always find that an incredible figure. These 20,000 people are creating systems that are wiping out (and creating) whole industries.

I say all this because often the digital replacement of the economy won’t (initially) be as big as what it replaced – that’s the whole point. The risk is governments and economic planning groups will look at the current size of the digital economy and be… unimpressed. Measuring destruction might be one way to change the nature of the conversation, to show them how big this part of the economy really is and why they need to give it serious consideration.

When Canada makes the US border thicker

Canadians spend a lot of time worrying about the “thickening” border with the United States. This is for good reason. Given the importance of the US market and the sheer number of exports between the two countries, issues that thicken the border – like the requirement to use a passport or more strict rules around shipping goods – have an enormous impact on Canada’s economy.

Usually, Canadian officials complain that it is hard to get Americans to engage on this issue. So it is exceedingly frustrating when the Canadian government takes actions that thicken the border and simultaneously discouraging and encouraging when it is senior American officials have to intervene to make it thinner.

Last week, despite lobbying from the Mayor of Vancouver, the Premier of British Columbia, a number of business and tourism representatives and even conservative party caucus members, the Federal Goverment looked set on killing a program that saw a set of Border Guards pre-clearing trains that run from Vancouver to Seattle. Without this pre-clearance the trains would run much, much slower and so Amtrak, who runs the trains, said it would end the service.

It now appears that the border service was saved only after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson personally intervene. Yes, you read that right. US officials were racing trying to persuade Canadian officials to keep the border more open. The problematic nature of such a headline cannot be underscored. Yes, it is great that senior officials in the US care about ensure the Canada-US border remains as open as possible. But, as a country still dependent on an open and friction free border with the Unites States it is disturbing their intervention was necessary.

Indeed, as the country with the most to suffer when the border gets thicker (we feel the loss of exports and trade more than the Americans do) we need to model behaviour and be a leader in striving to make it as open and as accessible as possible. Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson intervention now means that two senior US officials may now believe that Canada’s commitment to friction free and accessible border is not as strong as we have claimed. If we aren’t concerned here, maybe we aren’t as concerned  on other, even greater areas of concern regarding the increased thickening of the Canada-US border.

And the damage has not been undone. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the decision, has only only preserved the service for one year. Indeed, in his statement he added “In this period of time, the residents of British Columbia and Washington State primarily will demonstrate whether, in fact, this is a necessary service.” Of course, the second train has already doubled the number of people traveling via rail between the two cities and, according to BC’s transportation minister, has injected $11.8 million into the BC economy.

Canadians should be thrilled that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the government ultimately made the right decision around keeping this service in place. But as a country still concerned about the weakened economy, the US border and our relationship with the United States, we should be concerned that the government took the most painful and costly route to arrive at this decision.

Census Update: It's the Economy, Stupid

Yesterday during a press conference newly minted House leader John Baird announced “The next few months will be sharply focused on Canadians’ No. 1 priority: jobs and the economy… The economic recovery remains fragile and it is increasingly clear that we are not out of the woods yet.”

Fantastic news.

I just hope someone sends Industry Minister Tony Clement the memo.

The effects and impacts of ending the mandatory long form census continues to spill out with a number of Canada’s most senior business and economic leaders pointing out how the decision will negatively impact the economy and… job growth.

First, there was Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (voted one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine) noting that the bank relies on data found in the mandatory long form to assess the economy and, presumably, to inform decisions on interest rates and other issues. The bank’s capacity to make informed decisions has now been compromised – not exactly a win for jobs or the economy.

As an interesting side note, Carney goes on to say that this may cause the bank to have to supplement StatsCan’s research with its own. Expect to hear more and more statements like this from Government agencies (which are still allowed to talk to the press) as more and more ministries and agencies get plunged into the dark regarding what is going on in the country and are no longer able to assess programs and issues they’ve been tasked to monitor. Various arms of the government (and thus you, taxpayer) will be spending 10s if not 100s of millions to pay for Industry Minister Clement’s mistake.

Then, in the same Globe article in which Carney makes these statements, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management notes that ending the long form census hampers Canadian companies capacity to both compete globally and boost productivity. More damning, and further echoing arguments I’ve been making here, he states it will prevent Canadians from having “a sophisticated economy that uses information to its best.” Unkind words from one of the world’s recognized business leaders.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. The always excellent Stephen Gordon lists the emerging academic literature chronicling the havoc the demise of the long form census is about to wreck. Especially relevant is “The Importance of the Long-Form Census to Canada” by UBC economists David Green and Kevin Milligan. Interestingly, it turns out that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation uses long form data to fulfill its legislative mandate, and also by local governments and private sector actors to learn about trends in housing. Something that might be of interest to those concerned about the economy and jobs given Canada is rumored to possible have a housing bubble.

Still more damning is how Green and Milligan show the mandatory long form serves as the foundation for the Labour Force Survey (LFS) from which we derive unemployment levels. Compromising the long form survey has, in short, compromised our ability to assess how many Canadians actually have jobs, something that, if you really believed Canadians felt the economy and jobs were the number 1 priority, your government should care about measuring accurately.

Maybe John Baird will sit down with Tony Clement and the Prime Minister and explain to them how, if the economy and jobs are priority 1 then perhaps the government should rethink its decision on the long form census.

Just don’t hold your breath. Instead, do write another email or letter to your local MP. Our country’s economic recovery and competitiveness is being eroded by a government either too dumb to understand the implications of its decision and too stubborn to admit a mistake. Those of us who will be paying the price should remind them of how they can best serve their own priorities.

Open Canada – Hello Globe and Mail?

Richard Poynder has a wonderful (and detailed) post on his blog Open and Shut about the state of open data in the UK. Much of it covers arguments about why open data matters economically and democratically (the case I’ve been making as well). It is worthwhile reading for policy makers and engaged citizens.

There is however a much more important lesson buried in the article. It is in regard to the role of the Guardian newspaper.

As many of you know I’ve been advocating for Open Data at all levels of government, and in particular, at the federal level. This is why I and others created datadotgc.ca: If the government won’t create an open data portal, we’ll create one for them. The goal of course, was to show them that it already does open data, and that it could do a lot, lot more (there is a v2 of the site in the works that will offer some more, much cooler functionality coming soon).

What is fascinating about Poynder’s article is the important role the Guardian has played in bringing open data to the UK. Consider this small excerpt from his post.

For The Guardian the release of COINS marks a high point in a crusade it began in March 2006, when it published an article called “Give us back our crown jewels” and launched the Free Our Data campaign. Much has happened since. “What would have been unbelievable a few years ago is now commonplace,” The Guardian boasted when reporting on the release of COINS.

Why did The Guardian start the Free Our Data campaign? Because it wanted to draw attention to the fact that governments and government agencies have been using taxpayers’ money to create vast databases containing highly valuable information, and yet have made very little of this information publicly available.

The lesson here is that a national newspaper in the UK played a key role in pressuring a system of government virtually identical to our own (now also governed by a minority, conservative lead government) to release one of the most important data in its possession – the Combined Online Information System (COINS). This on top of postal codes and what we would find in Stats Canada’s databases.

All this leads me to ask one simple question. Where is the Globe and Mail? I’m not sure its editors have written a single piece calling for open data (am I wrong here?). Indeed, I’m not even sure the issue is on their radar. It certainly has done nothing close to launching a “national campaign.” They could do the Canadian economy, democracy and journalism and world of good. Open data can be championed by individual advocates such as myself but having a large media player repeatedly raising the issue, time and time again brings out the type of pressure few individuals can muster.

All this to say, if the Globe ever gets interested, I’m here. Happy to help.