Tag Archives: government

Some theories on why Canadians are the #1 user of YouTube (it's not all good)

In theory I’m on break – trying to recharge my batteries, summit mount inbox zero and finish off a couple of papers I owe various good people – but a few people have sent me links to this story (same content here at the CBC), about how Canadians are embrace the web like few others citizens of the world.

Naturally I’m thrilled and unsurprised. Canadians live in a large country and connectivity has always been something that has driven us. Indeed the country as we know it only exists because of a deal on connectivity – my own province of British Columbia agreed to enter the Dominion only if a transcontinental railway was built to connect it with the rest of the emerging country. Connectivity is in our blood.

There is, however, I suspect another reason why Canadians have taken to the web and it has to do with our monopolies and content regulation.

The article notes that Canada is the number one viewer of YouTube videos:

“In Canada, YouTube per capita consumption of video is No. 1 in the world, it’s just absolutely crazy in terms of how passionate Canadians are about YouTube,” said Chris O’Neill, Canada’s country director for Google.

I wonder, however, if this is because of Canada’s proximity to and familiarity with American created content, but our limited access to seeing said content. The CRTC restricts Canadians access to US channels (and as a result, TV shows). Consequently, much like I argued that the continued success of Blockbuster in Canada is not a sign of effective corporate management but poor innovation strategy and telecommunication regulation Canadians may be flooding to YouTube because they can’t access the content they want through more traditional channels.

If true (and I concede I don’t know what Canadians are watching on YouTube) then on the brightside, this is good news for Canadian consumers are able to get what they want access to, regardless of how the government tries to shape their tastes. Indeed, I suspect that American content isn’t the only thing driving YouTube traffic, as a country of immigrants I’m sure that new (and longstanding) Canadians of a range of backgrounds use YouTube to stay on top of culture, shows and other content from their countries of origin. If all this is helping Canadians become more web savvy and appreciative of the benefits of an open web – then all the better!

On the flip side, this could be a sign that a whole series of Canadian companies (and the jobs they create) are imperiled because they refuse to innovate as quickly as Canadians would like. This isn’t a reason to preserve them, but it is a reason for us to start demanding more from the executives of these companies.

The False choice: Bilingualism vs. Open Government (and accountability)

Last week a disturbing headline crossed my computer screen:

B.C. RCMP zaps old news releases from its website

2,500 releases deleted because they weren’t translated into French

1) The worst of all possible outcomes

This is a terrible outcome for accountability and open government. When we erase history we diminish accountability and erode our capacity to learn. As of today, Canadians have a poorer sense of what the RCMP has stood for, what it has claimed and what it has tried to do in British Columbia.

Consider this. The Vancouver Airport is a bilingual designated detachment. As of today, all press releases that were not translated were pulled down. This means that any press release related to the national scandal that erupted after Robert Dziekański – the polish immigrant who was tasered five times by the (RCMP) – is now no longer online. Given the shockingly poor performance the RCMP had in managing (and telling the truth about) this issue – this concerns me.

Indeed, I can’t think that anyone thinks this is a good idea.

The BC RCMP does not appear to think it is a good idea. Consider their press officer’s line: “We didn’t have a choice, we weren’t compliant.”

I don’t think there are any BC residents who believe they are better served by this policy.

Nor do I think my fellow francophone citizens believe they are better served by this decision. Now no one – either francophone or anglophone can find these press releases online. (More on this below)

I would be appalled if a similar outcome occurred in Quebec or a francophone community in Manitoba. If the RCMP pulled down all French press releases because they didn’t happen to have English translations, I’d be outraged – even if I didn’t speak French.

That’s because the one thing worse than not having the document in both official languages, is not having access to the document at all. (And having it hidden in some binder in a barracks that I have to call or visit doesn’t event hint of being accessible in the 21st century).

Indeed, I’m willing to bet almost anything that Graham Fraser, the Official Languages Commissioner – who is himself a former journalist – would be deeply troubled by this decision.

2) Guided by Yesterday, Not Preparing for Tomorrow

Of course, what should really anger the Official Languages Commissioner is an attempt to pit open and accountable government against bilingualism. This is a false choice.

I suspect that the current narrative in government is that translating these documents is too expensive. If one relies on government translators, this is probably true. The point is, we no longer have to.

My friend and colleague Luke C. pinged me after I tweeted this story saying “I’d help them automate translating those news releases into french using myGengo. Would be easy.”

Yes, mygengo would make it cheap at 5 cents a word (or 15 if you really want to overkill it). But even smarter would be to approach Google. Google translate – especially between French and English – has become shockingly good. Perfect… no. Of course, this is what the smart and practical people on the ground at the RCMP were doing until the higher ups got scared by a French CBC story that was critical of the practice. A practice that was ended even though it did not violate any policies.

The problem is there isn’t going to be more money to do translation – not in a world of multi-billion dollar deficits and in a province that boasts 63,000 french speakers. But Google translate? It is going to keep getting better and better. Indeed, the more it translates, the better it gets. If the RCMP (or Canadian government) started putting more documents through Google translate and correcting them it would become still more accurate. The best part is… it’s free. I’m willing to bet that if you ran all 2500 of the press releases through Google translate right now… 99% of them would come out legible and of a standard that would be good enough to share. (again, not perfect, but serviceable). Perhaps the CBC won’t be perfectly happy. But I’m not sure the current outcome makes them happy either. And at least we’ll be building a future in which they will be happy tomorrow.

The point here is that this decision reaffirms a false binary: one based on a 20th century assumptions where translations were expensive and laborious. It holds us back and makes our government less effective and more expensive. But worse, it ignores an option that embraces a world of possibilities – the reality of tomorrow. By continuing to automatically translate these documents today we’d continue to learn how to use and integrate this technology now, and push it to get better, faster. Such a choice would serve the interests of both open and accountable governments as well as bilingualism.

Sadly, no one at the head office of the RCMP – or in the federal government – appears to have that vision. So today we are a little more language, information and government poor.

Three asides:

1) I find it fascinating that the media can get mailed a press release that isn’t translated but the public is not allowed to access it on a website until it is – this is a really interesting form of discrimination, one that supports a specific business model and has zero grounding in the law, and indeed may even be illegal given that the media has no special status in Canadian law.

2) Still more fascinating is how the RCMP appears to be completely unresponsive to news stories about inappropriate behavior in its ranks, like say the illegal funding of false research to defend the war on drugs, but one story about language politics causes the organization to change practices that aren’t even in violation of its policies. It us sad to see more evidence still that the RCMP is one of the most broken agencies in the Federal government.

3) Thank you to Vancouver Sun Reporter Chad Skelton for updating me on the Google aspect of this story.

What Governments can Learn about Citizen Engagement from Air Canada

Yes. You read that title right.

I’m aware that airlines are not known for their customer responsiveness. Ask anyone whose been trapped on a plane on the tarmac for 14 hours. You know you’ve really dropped the ball when Congress (which agrees on almost nothing) passes a customer bill of rights explicitly for your industry.

Air Canada, however, increasingly seems to be the exception to this rule. Their recent response to online customer feedback is instructive of why this is the case. For governments interested in engaging citizens online and improving services, Air Canada is an interesting case study.

The Background

Earlier this year, with great fanfare, Air Canada announced it was changing how it managed its frequent flyer reward system. Traditional, it had given out upgrade certificates which allowed customers who’d flown a certain number of flights the air-canada-logoability to upgrade themselves into business class for free. Obviously the people who use these certificates are some of Air Canada’s more loyal customers (to get certificates you have to be flying a fair amount). The big change was that rather than simple giving customers certificates after flying a certain number of miles, customers would earn “points” which they could allocate towards flights.

This was supposed to be a good news story because a) it meant that users had greater flexibility around how they upgraded themselves and b) the whole system was digitized so that travelers wouldn’t have to carry certificates around with them (this was the most demanded feature by users).

The Challenge

In addition to the regular emails and website announcement an Air Canada representative also posted details about the new changes on a popular air traveler forum called Flyertalk.com. (Note: Here is the first great lesson – don’t expect customers or citizens to come to you… go to where they hang out, especially your most hard core stakeholders).

flyertalk_logoVery quickly these important stakeholders (customers) began running the numbers and started discovering various flaws and problems. Some noticed that the top tier customers were getting a lesser deal than ordinary customers. Others began to sniff out how the new program essentially meant their benefits were being cut. In short, the very incentives the rewards program was supposed to create were being undermined. Indeed the conversation thread extended to over 113 pages. With roughly 15 comments per page, that meant around 1500 comments about the service.

This, of course, is what happens with customers, stakeholder and citizens in a digital world. They can get together. They can analyze your service. And they will notice any flaws or changes that do not seem above board or are worse than what previously existed.

So here, on Flyertalk, Air Canada has some of its most sophisticated and important customers – the people that will talk to everyone about Air travel rewards programs, starting to revolt against its new service which was supposed to be a big improvement. This was (more than) a little bit of a crisis.

The Best Practice

First, Air Canada was smart because it didn’t argue with anyone. It didn’t have communication people trying to explain to people how they were wrong.

Instead it was patient. It appeared silent. But in reality it was doing something more important, it was listening.

Remember many of these users know the benefits program better than most Air Canada employees. And it has real impact on their decisions, so they are going to analyze it up and down.

Second, When it finally did respond, Air Canada did several things right.

It responded in Flyertalk.com – again going to where the conversation was. (It subsequently sent around an email to all its members).

It noted that it had been listening and learning from its customers.

More than just listen, Air Canada had taken its customers feedback and used it to revise its air travel rewards program.

And, most importantly, the tone it took was serious, but engaging. Look at the first few sentences:

Thanks to everyone for the comments that have been posted here the last few days, and especially those who took the time to post some very valuable, constructive feedback. While it’s not our intent to address every issue raised on this forum on the changes to the 2011 Top Tier program, some very valid points were raised which we agree should be addressed to the best of our ability. These modifications are our attempt to do just that.

Governments, this is a textbook case on how to listen to citizens. They use your services. They know how they work. The single biggest take away here is, when they complain and construct logical arguments about why a service doesn’t make sense use that feedback to revise the service and make it better. People don’t want to hear why you can’t make it better – they want you to make it better. More importantly, these types of users are the ones who know your service the best and who talk to everyone about it. They are your alpha users – leverage them!

Again, to recap. What I saw Air Canada do that was positive was:

  • Engage their stakeholders where their stakeholders hang out (e.g. not on the Air Canada website)
  • Listen to what their stakeholders had to say
  • Use that feedback to improve the service
  • Communicate with customers in a direct and frank manner

Air Canada is doing more than just getting this type of engagement right. Their twitter account posts actual useful information, not just marketing glop and spin. I’m not sure who is doing social media for them, but definitely worth watching.

There’s a lot here for organizations to learn from. Moreover, for a company that used to be a crown corp I think that should mean there is hope for your government too – even if they presently ban access to facebook, twitter or say, my blog.

Big thank you to Mike B. for pointing out this cool case study to me.

Pentagon Papers vs Cablegate and wikileaks as the new porn

I’ve been trying trying to play around with a graphic to show the difference between the wikileaks driven cablegate and the pentagon papers (ah to live in an era before the suffix gate appeared everywhere).

Here is the best I’ve got so far – would love to hear others suggestions or their own versions.


While doing this yesterday, something came over my desk that showed me how completely backwards parts of the US government has become around dealing with wikileaks. Turns out that the US Airforce has banned access to the New York Times and the Guardian because of wikileaks. Of course discussions about the leaked documents and their contents are not limited to these websites… one presumes that banning access to the Internet is what comes next?

The Air Force “routinely blocks Air Force network access to websites hosting inappropriate materials or malware (malicious software) and this includes any website that hosts classified materials and those that are released by WikiLeaks,” she said.

Apparently wikileaks is malware. Or it is porn.

More importantly, the government is telling its employees to blind themselves. That they should pretend like the information about wikleaks, the leaked documents and how the world is reacting to it – the type of information an organization whose mission it is to engage with allies and a public that care about this a great deal – doesn’t exist. If some information is bad… more information must be worse!

The attempt at thought control is all kind of Orwellian. It’s also doomed to fail. In the 21st century, information and knowledge is power. Cut yourself off from it and you cut yourself off from your capacity to think and react effectively. In other words the US Airforce has been played. They are doing pretty much what I think wikileaks was trying to accomplish.

Opening up parliament and getting government IT right

Last week I received two invitations to present.

The first was an invitation to present to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. They are preparing a report on Open Government and would like me to make a short presentation and then answer questions for a couple of hours. This is a ways out but obviously I’m treating it with a significant amount of seriousness – so if you have thoughts or comments on things you think I should share, please feel free to ping me or comment below.

(Speaking of parliament… as an aside, I want again to let developers there know that through some engagement I’ve been having with the parliamentary IT staff they’ve informed me they will be releasing a number of data sets in January including the Hansard.)

Second is, next week, I’ll be at the United Nations as part of the Expert Group Meeting on the 2012 e-Government Survey: Towards a More Citizen-Centric Approach. My main goal here is to stop getting governments to compare themselves to one another on how “successful” they are in delivering services and information online. With a few notable exceptions, most government websites are at best functional at worst, unnavigable.  Consequently, comparing themselves to one another allows them to feel like all is okay, when really they are collectively trapped in a world of design mediocrity.

Yes, they aren’t pretty words, but someone has to say them.

So any thoughts on this subject are welcome as well.

More soon on the hackathon and the census.

Patch Culture, Government and why Small Government Advocates are expensive

So earlier today I saw this post by Kevin Gaudet, Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and retweeted by Andrew Coyne (one of the country’s best commentators).

It pretty much sums up why Governments (incorrectly) fear open data and open government:


The link is to a story on The Sun’s website: Government agencies caught advertising on sex sites!!!! (okay, the exclamation marks are mine).

This is exactly the type of headline every public servant and politician is terrified of. The details, of course, aren’t nearly as salacious. A screenshot Photoforum.ru reveals its a stock photo website (which probably does violate all sorts of copyrights) and, I am sure, there are some photos, somewhere on the site, of nude women, much like there are on say Flickr or Facebook.



Three interesting things here:

1. The challenge: Non-stories suck time and energy. The government, of course, didn’t choose to advertise on Photoforum.ru. It hired an agency, Cossette, that placed the ads through Google AdSense. (this is actually the good part of the story – great to hear that the government is using Google AdSense which is a cheap and effective way to advertise). But today, I assure you that dozens of public servants, at least one member of the Heritage Minister’s political staff and a few Canada Post employees are spending the next few days running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to find out how an ad in a $5000 contract ended up on a relatively harmless site. The total cost of all that investigative work and the reports they will generate to address this “scandal” will probably cost taxpayers $10,000s, if not $100,000s in staff time and energy. No wonder governments fear disclosure. The distraction and cost in time and energy needed to fix a non-story is enormous.

2. The diagnosis: The accountability systems trap: What’s interesting of course, is everybody is acting rationally. The Sun (while stretching the truth) is reporting on the misuse (however minor) of taxpayer dollars. Same with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). But the solutions are terrible. The CTF demand that the government eliminate all advertising is nonsensical. We can debate whether every ad is needed, but a flat out ban is silly. There are lots of things governments need to inform citizens about. So we can talk about reducing the government’s ad budget, but this news story doesn’t advance that aim either. Indeed, the Canadian Taxpayers and the Sun have, indirectly, helped inflate the cost of government. As noted, the government, acting rationally, now has dozens of people spending their time solving a crisis around a some minor ad campaigns.

So we have a system where everyone is behaving rationally. But the outcome are terrible. This is the scandal. Indeed, if one were really concerned about the effective spending of taxpayer dollars what one would quickly realize that what’s actually broken here isn’t government advertising, it’s the process by which governments react to and address problems.

3. One Approach: Patch-Culture and Open Data. So it is understandable that government types fear disclosure as, presently, they often seeing it leading to the above situtation.

But what’s interesting is that we could handle it differently.

This same story, in the software world, would have been quite different. The Sun article would have simple been understand as someone pointing out a (minor) bug. The software developers (in the case the public servants) would have patched it (which they did, ending the ads deployment to these sites) and the whole thing would have been a non-event. But at least, for minimal cost and effort, the software (ad program) would be better making both the developers (public servants/politicians) and users (taxpayers) happy. So why is it so different with government?

Two reasons.

First. Government’s pretend that everything they do is perfect. They live with an industrial worldview where you had to get something perfect before launching it since you were going to stamp out 100,000 copies of the things and any bug would get replicated that many times. Of course, very little of government is like this, much more of it is like software where you can make fixes along the way. What makes software so great (although sometimes frustrating too) is that they acknowledge this and so patch it on the fly. Patch-culture – as my friend David Humphrey likes to call it – where people help software get better by point out flaws, and even offering solutions, is exactly what our government needs to learn.

Second. People jump to the worst conclusions because governments appear secretive. Because they don’t proactively disclose (and because Access to Information process is sooooo slow) they always look like they are hiding something. Consequently, when people find mistakes they presume people have been hiding it, trying to cover it up and/or that it was made with some malicious intent. In an open source community, when people find a bug, they often assume it was a (dumb) mistake – not a nefarious plot to do achieve some dubious ends. Open data makes a patch culture easier to create because when you share what you are doing it is hard to believe you have some evil intent. Yes, people may just assume you are dumb – but that is actually better than evil (especially for powerful institutions like government).

Open data is about changing the culture everywhere, both inside and outside government. It won’t do it over night and it won’t do it perfectly but it can help. And it’s a shift we need to make.


I could easily have imagined the above story playing differently in world where patch culture has taken shape within government. Someone discovers the ads on photoforum.ru, thinks it is an error (someone made a dumb choice), submits a bug to the government, the ads are removed, the bug is patched, everybody is happy and… no wasteful non-story about government spending.

Indeed, we could have instead allocated all that wasted time and energy to have the debate the CTF actually wants to have: how much of the budget should go towards advertising.

What we need to be thinking about is what is the system we are in, what are the incentives it creates for the various actors and then think of the system we’d like, and figure out how to get from here to there. I think Open Data is an important (but not exclusive) part of the puzzle for changing the relationship between the government, the press and citizens. It may even create some new problems, but I think they will be better, less costly and more interesting problems then the ones we have now, we are frankly destroying budgets and the institutions we need to serve us.

Articles I'm Digesting 1/11/2010

Here’s a few articles I recently digested:

Enabling Access and Reuse of Public Sector Information in Canada: Crown Commons Licenses, Copyright, and Public Sector Information by Elizabeth F. Judge

This piece (which you can download as a PDF) is actually a chapter in a book titled: From “Radical Extremism” to “Balanced Copyright” : Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda.

This piece provides a fantastic overview on both the how and why Crown Copyright impedes the remixing and repurposing of government information. The only thing confusing to me about the article is that it focuses a great deal on data which, by the author’s own admission, is not covered by Crown Copyright:

With respect to data, Crown copyright does not protect raw data (unprocessed data, such as numbers entered into a database), but it does protect an original expres- sion of the data (for example, an original map is a copyrightable artistic work based on geospatial data) and compilations (including compilations of data), providing that there is an original selection or arrangement of the data (that is, there has been human intervention where skill and judg- ment has been exercised).

Given I often have to explain to government types that data is not covered by Crown Copyright (this is in part why it often has – more restrictive still – licenses attached to it) my only concern about the paper is that because of its strong focus on data it will inadvertently muddy the waters. However, still a good piece and I suspect many who read it will wander away hoping that some change to Crown Copyright legislation will be forthcoming.

The Global Debt Clock by The Economist Intelligence Unit

Few outside of Canada understand how much Canadian politics was dominated by the issue of “the debt” in the 1990s. When Bill Clinton made his first visit to Canada the headlines were more concerned with Canada’s bond rating being downgraded than the visit of the new US president.

The belief, however, that Canada has tamed its debt may be a myth. The challenge may be that it people are starting to wise up to all that downgrading. That the debt has simple shifted from the national (which people historically looked at) to the provincial level (which is rarely calculated into “national” debt). The Economist chart puts things into sharp (and dim?) perspective:

Canada’s public debt: $1,257,953,424,658 or $37,042.44 per person or 82.3% of GDP

America’s public debt: $9,117,200,547,945 or $29,491.12 per person or 62.0% of GDP

Of course Canada’s debt includes health care expenditures which in the United States are (more) born by private citizens, so the debt burden per individual once you factor in private debt may not be closer. But then household debt in Canada is about to overtake that in America so again…

This all said, pretty much every country in the developed world looks ugly in terms of debt… this may, sadly, be the boomers biggest legacy.

Disconnect: Why our politics is so out of touch and what it means for our future by Richard Florida and Jeremy D. Mayer

Written back in 2007 this article deserves a revisit:

“In our view, American politics today is distinguished by one feature: instability. In place of an enduring political force such as post-1896 Republican dominance or the Democrats after Roosevelt in 1932, American politics in recent years has see-sawed back and forth. Twelve years of Reagan-Bush were followed by 8 of Bill Clinton, and then Bush and Rove, now this. And, only 6 of those years saw one party with simultaneous control of the presidency and Congress.

This instability, in our view, stems from one primary source: Our economic system has undergone a tectonic shift, to which the political system is still trying to adapt. Just as our politics was recast a century ago by the forces of the Industrial Revolution, so to is it being reshaped today by the rise of the technology, innovation and creativity as economic forces. The rise of this innovative, knowledge-based Creative Economy is even more significant and more challenging to politics as the Industrial Economy. Today, this sector accounts roughly a third of the American workforce — or roughly 40 million workers – nearly three times the industrial sector and blue-collar working class. What’s more, these creative occupations account for the lion’s share of all wealth generation, accounting for nearly half of all wages and salaries paid in the United States. That’s nearly $2 trillion, or as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined.

But the creative economy doesn’t just generate phenomenal wealth. It also sorts people across new economic and geographical boundaries and generates inequality between and within states and regions as great as that of the early Industrial Revolution. As a result, we’re living through a period of tumultuous political adjustment.”

and speaking of revisits…

American Backlash by Michael Adams

Offers an alternative explanation regarding the challenges faced by incumbent parties in the US. I remembered this as I was recently reading Wente’s piece about Palin and the Tea Party, where she cites pollster Scott Rasmussen:

“who argues that the major division in the country now is not between the Republicans and Democrats, but between the mainstream public and the political class – the small proportion of the population, perhaps 10 per cent, (including most people who work in mainstream media) that still believes that government tries to serve the public interest, rather than colluding with big business against ordinary people.”

This was, of course, the thesis of Adams book back in 2006. Nice to be ahead of the curve.

Open Data Hackathon page by Volunteers around the world

Hope that there will be a dedicated site for this up this week – have a few people stepping forward on that front. In the interim, please do consider adding you name if you are interested in helping organize one in your city.

How you know a government is broken

Last Friday Gloria Galloway and Bill Curry ran an excellent piece about how the government’s promise to strengthen Canada’s access-to-information laws is now five years old.

It is of course all so laughable it is sad. Here we have an issue that the public is universally supportive of – making government more transparent and accountable – and yet the government contends the issue requires extensive consultation. And so… no action.

Meanwhile, on issues to which the public is almost universally opposed – for example the long form census – the government acts without consultation, without evidence and in the dead of night, hoping that no one will notice.

Again, it would be laughable if the implications weren’t so serious. It’s also a big reversal of what should have been and maybe the clearest sign yet this government is broken.

And it didn’t have to be this way. Looking back at the Conservative’s 2006 election platform under the header “Strengthen Access to Information legislation” The government promised it would (this is verbatim)

  • Implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act. Give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information.
  • Expand the coverage of the act to all Crown corporations, Officers of Parliament, foundations, and organizations that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions.
  • Subject the exclusion of Cabinet confidences to review by the Information Commissioner. Oblige public officials to create the records necessary to document their actions and decisions.
  • Provide a general public interest override for all exemptions, so that the public interest is put before the secrecy of the government.
  • Ensure that all exemptions from the disclosure of government information are justified only on the basis of the harm or injury that would result from disclosure, not blanket exemption rules.
  • Ensure that the disclosure requirements of the Access to Information Act cannot be circumvented by secrecy provisions in other federal acts, while respecting the confidentiality of national security and the privacy of personal information.

How many of these promises have been implemented? To date, only one (the one that is italicized)

As an aside, take a look at that platform. Guess what isn’t mentioned once: The long form census.

One of the great pledges of the Conservative government was that they were going to make government more accountable and more transparent. So far, when it comes to managing information – the collective documents our tax dollars paid to create – today our government is more opaque, more dumb and less inspiring to Canadians than it has ever been. For a government that was supposed to restore Canadians confidence in their country, it has been a sad decline to observe.

How Governments misunderstand the risks of Open Data

When I’m asked to give a talk about or consult on policies around open data I’ve noticed there are a few questions that are most frequently asked:

“How do I assess the risks to the government of doing open data?”


“My bosses say that we can only release data if we know people aren’t going to do anything wrong/embarrassing/illegal/bad with it”

I would argue that these question are either flawed in their logic, or have already been largely addressed.

Firstly, it seems problematic to assess the risks of open data, without also assessing the opportunity. Any activity – from walking out my front door to scaling Mount Everest carries with it risks. What needs to be measured are not the risks in isolation but the risks balanced against the opportunity and benefits.

But more importantly, the logic of the question is flawed in another manner. It suggests that the government only take action if every possible negative use can be prevented.

Let’s forget about data for a second – imagine you are building a road. Now ask: “what are the risk’s that someone might misuse this road?” Well… they are significant. People are going to speed and they are going to jay walk. But it gets worse. Someone may rob a bank and then use the road as part of their escape route. Of course, the road will also provide more efficient transportation for 1000s of people, it will reduce costs, improve access, help ambulances save peoples lives and do millions of other things, but people will also misuse it.

However, at no point in any policy discussion in any government has anyone said “we can’t build this road because, hypothetically, someone may speed or use it as an escape route during a robbery.”

And yet, this logic is frequently accepted, or at least goes unchallenged, as appropriate when discussing open data.

The fact is, most governments already have the necessary policy infrastructure for managing the overwhelming majority of risks concerning open data. Your government likely has provisions dealing with privacy – if applied to open data this should address these concerns. Your government likely has provisions for dealing with confidential and security related issues – if applied to open data this should address these concerns. Finally, your government(s) likely has a legal system that outlines what is, and is not legal – when it comes to the use of open data, this legal system is in effect.

If someone gets caught speeding, we have enforcement officials and laws that catch and punish them. The same is true with data. If someone uses it to do something illegal we already have a system in place for addressing that. This is how we manage the risk of misuse. It is seen as acceptable for every part of our life and every aspect of our society. Why not with open data too?

The opportunity, of both roads and data, are significant enough that we build them and share them despite the fact that a small number of people may not use them appropriately. Should we be concerned about those who will misuse them? Absolutely. But do we allow a small amount of misuse to stop us from building roads or sharing data? No. We mitigate the concern.

With open data, I’m happy to report that we already have the infrastructure in place to do just that.

UK Adopts Open Government License for everything: Why it's good and what it means

In the UK, the default is open.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom made an announcement that radically reformed how it will manage what will become the government’s most important asset in the 21st century: knowledge & information.

On the National Archives website, the UK Government made public its new license for managing software, documents and data created by the government. The document is both far reaching and forward looking. Indeed, I believe this policy may be the boldest and most progressive step taken by a government since the United States decided that documents created by the US government would directly enter the public domain and not be copyrighted.

In almost every aspect the license, the UK government will manage its  “intellectual property” by setting the default to be open and free.

Consider the introduction to the framework:

The UK Government Licensing Framework (UKGLF) provides a policy and legal overview for licensing the re-use of public sector information both in central government and the wider public sector. It sets out best practice, standardises the licensing principles for government information and recommends the use of the UK Open Government Licence (OGL) for public sector information.

The UK Government recognises the importance of public sector information and its social and economic value beyond the purpose for which it was originally created. The public sector therefore needs to ensure that simple licensing processes are in place to enable and encourage civil society, social entrepreneurs and the private sector to re-use this information in order to:

  • promote creative and innovative activities, which will deliver social and economic benefits for the UK
  • make government more transparent and open in its activities, ensuring that the public are better informed about the work of the government and the public sector
  • enable more civic and democratic engagement through social enterprise and voluntary and community activities.

At the heart of the UKGLF is a simple, non-transactional licence – the Open Government Licence – which all public sector bodies can use to make their information available for free re-use on simple, flexible terms.

An just in case you thought that was vague consider these two quotes from the frame work. This one for data:

It is UK Government policy to support the re-use of its information by making it available for re-use under simple licensing terms.  As part of this policy most public sector information should be made available for re-use at the marginal cost of production. In effect, this means at zero cost for the re-user, especially where the information is published online. This maximises the social and economic value of the information. The Open Government Licence should be the default licence adopted where information is made available for re-use free of charge.

And this one for software:

  • Software which is the original work of public sector employees should use a default licence.  The default licence recommended is the Open Government Licence.
  • Software developed by public sector employees from open source software may be released under a licence consistent with the open source software.

These statements are unambiguous and a dramatic step in the right direction. Information and software created by governments are, by definition, public assets. Tax dollars have already paid for their collection and/or development and the government has already benefited by using from them. They are also non-rivalrous good. This means, unlike a road, if I use government information, or software, I don’t diminish your ability to use it (in contrast only so many cars can fit on a road, and they wear it down). Indeed with intellectual property quite the opposite is true, by using it I may actually make the knowledge more valuable.

This is, obviously, an exciting development. It has generated a number of thoughts:

1.     With this move the UK has further positioned itself at the forefront of the knowledge economy:

By enacting this policy the UK government has just enabled the entire country, and indeed the world, to use its data, knowledge and software to do whatever people would like. In short an enormous resource of intellectual property has just been opened up to be developed, enhanced and re-purposed. This could help lower costs for new software products, diminish the cost of government and help foster more efficient services. This means a great deal of this innovation will be happening in the UK first. This could become a significant strategic advantage in the 21st century economy.

2.     Other jurisdictions will finally be persuaded it is “safe” to adopt open licenses for their intellectual property:

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt dealing with governments it is that, for all the talk of innovation, many governments, and particularly their legal departments, are actually scared to be the first to do something. With the UK taking this bold step I expect a number of other jurisdictions to more vigorously explore this opportunity. (it is worth noting that Vancouver did, as part of the open motion, state the software developed by the city would have an open license applied to it, but the policy work to implement such a change has yet to be announced).

3.     This should foster a debate about information as a public asset:

In many jurisdictions there is still the myth that governments can and should charge for data. Britain’s move should provide a powerful example for why these types of policies should be challenged. There is significant research showing that for GIS data for example, money collected from the sale of data simply pays for the money collection system. This is to say nothing of the policy and managerial overhead of choosing to manage intellectual property. Charging for public data has never made financial sense, and has a number of ethical challenges to it (so only the wealthy get to benefit from a publicly derived good?). Hopefully for less progressive governments, the UK’s move will refocus the debate along the right path.

4.     It is hard to displace a policy leader once they are established.

The real lesson here is that innovative and forward looking jurisdictions have huge advantages that they are likely to retain. It should come as no surprise that the UK made this move – it was among the first national governments to create an open data portal. By being an early mover it has seen the challenges and opportunities before others and so has been able to build on its success more quickly.

Consider other countries – like Canada – that may wish to catch up. Canada does not even have an open data portal as of yet (although this may soon change). This means that it is now almost 2 years behind the UK in assessing the opportunities and challenges around open data and rethinking intellectual property. These two years cannot be magically or quickly caught up. More importantly, it suggests that some public services have cultures that recognize and foster innovation – especially around key issues in the knowledge economy – while others do not.

Knowledge economies will benefit from governments that make knowledge, information and data more available. Hopefully this will serve as a wake up call to other governments in other jurisdictions. The 21st century knowledge economy is here, and government has a role to play. Best not be caught lagging.