Tag Archives: free culture

Beautiful Maps – Open Street Map in Water Colours

You know, really never know what the web is going to throw at you next. The great people over at Stamen Design (if you’ve never heard of Stamen you are really missing out – they are probably the best data visualization company I know) have created a watercolor version of Open Street Maps.


Because they can.

It’s a wonderful example of how you, with the web, you can build on what others have done. Pictured below my home town of Vancouver – I suggest zooming out a little as the city really comes into focus when you can see more of its geography.

Some Bonus Awesomeness Facts about all this Stamen goodness:

  • Stamen has a number of Creative Commons licensed map templates that you can use here (and links to GitHub repos)
  • Stamen housed Code for America in its early days. So they don’t just make cool stuff. The pitch in and help out with cool stuff too.
  • Former Code for America fellow Michael Evans works there now.


International Open Data Hackathon 2011: Better Tools, More Data, Bigger Fun

Last year, with only a month of notice, a small group passionate people announced we’d like to do an international open data hackathon and invited the world to participate.

We were thinking small but fun. Maybe 5 or 6 cities.

We got it wrong.

In the end people from over 75 cities around the world offered to host an event. Better still we definitively heard from people in over 40. It was an exciting day.

Last week, after locating a few of the city organizers email addresses, I asked them if we should do it again. Every one of them came back and said: yes.

So it is official. This time we have 2 months notice. December 3rd will be Open Data Day.

I want to be clear, our goal isn’t to be bigger this year. That might be nice if it happens. But maybe we’ll only have 6-7 cities. I don’t know. What I do want is for people to have fun, to learn, and to engage those who are still wrestling with the opportunities around open data. There is a world of possibilities out there. Can we seize on some of them?


Great question.

First off. We’ve got more data. Thanks to more and more enlightened governments in more and more places, there’s a greater amount of data to play with. Whether it is Switzerland, Kenya, or Chicago there’s never been more data available to use.

Second, we’ve got better tools. With a number of governments using Socrata there are more API’s out there for us to leverage. Scrapperwiki has gotten better and new tools like Buzzdata, TheDataHub and Google’s Fusion Tables are emerging every day.

And finally, there is growing interest in making “openess” a core part of how we measure governments. Open data has a role to play in driving this debate. Done right, we could make the first Saturday in December “Open Data Day.” A chance to explain, demo and invite to play, the policy makers, citizens, businesses and non-profits who don’t yet understand the potential. Let’s raise the world’s data literacy and have some fun. I can’t think of a better way than with another global open data hackathon – an maker’s fair like opportunity for people to celebrate open data by creating visualizations, writing up analyses, building apps or doing what ever they want with data.

Of course, like last time, hopefully we can make the world a little better as well. (more on that coming soon)


The basic premises for the event would be simple, relying on 5 basic principles.

1. Together. It can be as big or as small, as long or as short, as you’d like it, but we’ll be doing it together on Saturday, December 3rd, 2011.

2. It should be open. Around the world I’ve seen hackathons filled with different types of people, exchanging ideas, trying out new technologies and starting new projects. Let’s be open to new ideas and new people. Chris Thorpe in the UK has done amazing work getting young and diverse group hacking. I love Nat Torkington’s words on the subject. Our movement is stronger when it is broader.

3. Anyone can organize a local event. If you are keen help organize one in your city and/or just participate add your name to the relevant city on this wiki page. Where ever possible, try to keep it to one per city, let’s build some community and get new people together. Which city or cities you share with is up to you as it how you do it. But let’s share.

4. You can work on anything that involves open data. That could be a local or global app, a visualization, proposing a standard for common data sets, scraping data from a government website to make it available for others in buzzdata.

It would be great to have a few projects people can work on around the world – building stuff that is core infrastructure to future projects. That’s why I’m hoping someone in each country will create a local version of MySociety’s Mapit web service for their country. It will give us one common project, and raise the profile of a great organization and a great project.

We also hope to be working with Random Hacks of Kindness, who’ve always been so supportive, ideally supplying data that they will need to run their applications.

5. Let’s share ideas across cities on the day. Each city’s hackathon should do at least one demo, brainstorm, proposal, or anything that it shares in an interactive way with at members of a hackathon in at least one other city. This could be via video stream, skype, by chat… anything but let’s get to know one another and share the cool projects or ideas we are hacking on. There are some significant challenges to making this work: timezones, languages, culture, technology… but who cares, we are problem solvers, let’s figure out a way to make it work.

Like last year, let’s not try to boil the ocean. Let’s have a bunch of events, where people care enough to organize them, and try to link them together with a simple short connection/presentation.Above all let’s raise some awareness, build something and have some fun.

What next?

1. If you are interested, sign up on the wiki. We’ll move to something more substantive once we have the numbers.

2. Reach out and connect with others in your city on the wiki. Start thinking about the logistics. And be inclusive. Someone new shows up, let them help too.

3. Share with me your thoughts. What’s got you excited about it? If you love this idea, let me know, and blog/tweet/status update about it. Conversely, tell me what’s wrong with any or all of the above. What’s got you worried? I want to feel positive about this, but I also want to know how we can make it better.

4. Localization. If there is bandwidth locally, I’d love for people to translate this blog post and repost it locally. (let me know as I’ll try cross posting it here, or at least link to it). It is important that this not be an english language only event.

5. If people want a place to chat with other about this, feel free to post comments below. Also the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Day mailing list will be the place where people can share news and help one another out.

Once again, I hope this will sound like fun to a few committed people. Let me know what you think.

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Slovak Republic
South Africa
United Kingdom
United States


Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)


*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Access to Information is Fatally Broken… You Just Don’t Know it Yet

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about access to information, and am working on a longer analysis, but in the short term I wanted to share two graphs – graphs that outline why Access to Information (Freedom of Information in the United States) is unsustainable and will, eventually, need to be radically rethought.

First, this analysis is made possible by the enormous generosity of the Canadian Federal Information Commissioners Office which several weeks ago sent me a tremendous amount of useful data regarding access to information requests over the past 15 years at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS).

The first figure I created shows both the absolute number of Access to Information Requests (ATIP) since 1996 as well as the running year on year percentage increase. The dotted line represents the average percentage increase over this time. As you can see the number of ATIP requests has almost tripled in this time period. This is very significant growth – the kind you’d want to see in a well run company. Alas, for those processing ATIP requests, I suspect it represents a significant headache.

That’s because, of course, such growth is likely unmanageable. It might be manageable if say, the costs of handling each requests was dropping rapidly. If such efficiencies were being wrestled out of the system of routing and sorting requests then we could simply ignore the chart above. Sadly, as the next chart I created demonstrates this is not the case.


In fact the costs of managing these transactions has not tripled. It has more than quadrupled. This means that not only are the number of transactions increasing at about 8% a year, the cost of fulfilling each of those transactions is itself rising at a rate above inflation.

Now remember, I’m not event talking about the effectiveness of ATIP. I’m not talking about how quickly requests are turned around (as the Information Commissioner has discussed, it is broadly getting worse) nor am I discussing less information is being restricted (it’s not, things are getting worse). These are important – and difficult to assess – metrics.

I am, instead, merely looking at the economics of ATIP and the situation looks grim. Basically two interrelated problems threaten the current system.

1) As the number of ATIP requests increase, the manpower required to answer them also appears to be increasing. At some point the hours required to fulfill all requests sent to a ministry will equal the total hours of manpower at that ministry’s  disposal. Yes that day may be far off, but they day where it hits some meaningful percentage – say 1%, 3% or 5% of total hours worked at Treasury Board, may not be that far off. That’s a significant drag on efficiency. I recall talking to a foreign service officer who mentioned that during the Afghan prisoner scandal an entire department of foreign service officers – some 60 people in all – were working full time on assessing access to information requests. That’s an enormous amount of time, energy and money.

2) Even more problematic than the number of work hours is the cost. According to the data I received, Access to Information requests costs The Treasury Board $47,196,030 last year. Yes, that’s 47 with a “million” behind it. And remember, this is just one ministry. Multiply that by 25 (let’s pretend that’s the number of ministries, there are actually many more, but I’m trying to be really conservative with my assumptions) and it means last year the government may have spent over $1.175 Billion fulfilling ATIP requests. That is a staggering number. And its growing.

Transparency, apparently, is very, very expensive. At some point, it risks becoming too expensive.

Indeed, ATIP reminds me of healthcare. It’s completely unsustainable, and absolutely necessary.

To be clear, I’m not saying we should get rid of ATIP. That, I believe, to be folly. It is and remains a powerful tool for holding government accountable. Nor do I believe that requesters should pay for ATIP requests as a way to offset costs (like BC Ferries does) – this creates a barrier that punishes the most marginalized and threatened, while enabling only the wealthy or well financed to hold government accountable.

I do think it suggests that governments need to radical rethink how manage ATIP. More importantly I think it suggests that government needs to rethink how it manages information. Open data, digital documents are all part of a strategy that, I hope, can lighten the load. I’ve also felt that if/as government’s move their work onto online platforms like GCPEDIA, we should simply make non-classified pages open to the public on something like a 5 year timeline. This could also help reduce requests.

I’ve more ideas, but at its core we need a system rethink. ATIP is broken. You may not know it yet, but it is. The question is, what are we going to do before it peels off the cliff? Can we invent something new and better in time?

Lessons from fashion's free culture: Johanna Blakley on TED.com

This TEDx talk by Johanna Blakley is pure gold (thank you Jonathan Brun for passing it along). It’s a wonderful dissection – all while using the fashion industry as a case study – of how patents and licenses are not only unnecessary for innovation but can actually impede it.

What I found particularly fascinating is Johanna’s claim that long ago the US courts decided that clothing was “too utilitarian” to have copyright and patents applied to it. Of course, we could say that of a number of industries today – the software industry coming to mind right off the bat (can anyone imagine a world without software?).

The presentation seems to confirm another thought I’ve held – weaker copyright and patents protections do not reduce or eliminate peoples incentive to innovate. Quite the opposite. It both liberates innovation and increases its rate as others are able to copy and reuse one another. In addition, it makes brands stronger, not weaker. In a world where anybody can copy anybody, innovation and the capacity to execute matters. Indeed, it is the only thing that matters.

It would be nice if, here in Canada, the Ministers of Heritage (James Moore) and Industry (Tony Clement) would watch and learn from this video – and the feedback they received from ordinary Canadians. If we want industries as vibrant and profitable as the fashion industry, it may require us to think a little differently about copyright reform.

Minister Moore and the Myth of Market Forces

Last week was a bad week for the government on the copyright front. The government recently tabled legislation to reform copyright and the man in charge of the file, Heritage Minister James Moore, gave a speech at the International Chamber of Commerce in which he decried those who questioned the bill as “radical extremists.” The comment was a none-too-veiled attack at people like University of Ottawa Professor Michael Geist who have championed for reasonable copyright reform and who, like many Canadians, are concerned about some aspects of the proposed bill.

Unfortunately for the Minister, things got worse from there.

First, the Minister denied making the comment in messages to two different individuals who inquired about it:

Still worse, the Minister got into a online debate with Cory Doctorow, a bestselling writer (he won the Ontario White Pine Award for best book last year and his current novel For the Win is on the Canadian bestseller lists) and the type of person whose interests the Heritage Minister is supposed to engage and advocate on behalf of, not get into fights with.

In a confusing 140 character back and forth that lasted a few minutes, the minister oddly defended Apple and insulted Google (I’ve captured the whole debate here thanks to the excellent people at bettween). But unnoticed in the debate is an astonishing fact: the Minister seems unaware of both the task at hand and the implications of the legislation.

The following innocuous tweet summed up his position:

Indeed, in the Minister’s 22 tweets in the conversation he uses the term “market forces” six times and the theme of “letting the market or consumers decide” is in over half his tweets.

I too believe that consumers should choose what they want. But if the Minister were a true free market advocate he wouldn’t believe in copyright reform. Indeed, he wouldn’t believe in copyright at all. In a true free market, there’d be no copyright legislation because the market would decide how to deal with intellectual property.

Copyright law exists in order to regulate and shape a market because we don’t think market forces work. In short, the Minister’s legislation is creating the marketplace. Normally I would celebrate his claims of being in favour of “letting consumers decide” since this legislation will determine what these choices will and won’t be. However, the Twitter debate should leave Canadians concerned since this legislation limits consumer choices long before products reach the shelves.

Indeed, as Doctorow points out, the proposed legislation actually kills concepts created by the marketplace – like Creative Commons – that give creators control over how their works can be shared and re-used:

But advocates like Cory Doctorow and Michael Geist aren’t just concerned about the Minister’s internal contradictions in defending his own legislation. They have practical concerns that the bill narrows the choice for both consumers and creators.

Specifically, they are concerned with the legislation’s handling of what are called “digital locks.” Digital locks are software embedded into a DVD of your favourite movie or a music file you buy from iTunes that prevents you from making a copy. Previously it was legal for you to make a backup copy of your favourite tape or CD, but with a digital lock, this not only becomes practically more difficult, it becomes illegal.

Cory Doctorow outlines his concerns with digital locks in this excellent blog post:

They [digital locks] transfer power to technology firms at the expense of copyright holders. The proposed Canadian rules on digital locks mirror the US version in that they ban breaking a digital lock for virtually any reason. So even if you’re trying to do something legal (say, ripping a CD to put it on your MP3 player), you’re still on the wrong side of the law if you break a digital lock to do it.

But it gets worse. Digital locks don’t just harm content consumers (the very people people Minister Moore says he is trying to provide with “choice”); they harm content creators even more:

Here’s what that means for creators: if Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or TiVo, or any other tech company happens to sell my works with a digital lock, only they can give you permission to take the digital lock off. The person who created the work and the company that published it have no say in the matter.

So that’s Minister Moore’s version of “author’s rights” — any tech company that happens to load my books on their device or in their software ends up usurping my copyrights. I may have written the book, sweated over it, poured my heart into it — but all my rights are as nothing alongside the rights that Apple, Microsoft, Sony and the other DRM tech-giants get merely by assembling some electronics in a Chinese sweatshop.

That’s the “creativity” that the new Canadian copyright law rewards: writing an ebook reader, designing a tablet, building a phone. Those “creators” get more say in the destiny of Canadian artists’ copyrights than the artists themselves.

In short, the digital lock provisions reward neither consumers nor creators. Instead, they give the greatest rights and rewards to the one group of people in the equation whose rights are least important: distributors.

That a Heritage Minister doesn’t understand this is troubling. That he would accuse those who seek to point out this fact and raise awareness to it as “radical extremists” is scandalous. Canadians have entrusted in this person the responsibility for creating a marketplace that rewards creativity, content creation and innovation while protecting the rights of consumers. At the moment, we have a minister who shuts out the very two groups he claims to protect while wrapping himself in a false cloak of the “free market.” It is an ominous start for the debate over copyright reform and the minister has only himself to blame.

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).