Tag Archives: open government

Open Data Movement is a Joke?

Yesterday, Tom Slee wrote a blog post called “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke,” which – and I say this as a Canadian who understands the context in which Slee is writing – is filled with valid complaints about our government, but which I feel paints a flawed picture of the open data movement.

Evgeny Morozov tweeted about the post yesterday, thereby boosting its profile. I’m a fan of Evgeny. He is an exceedingly smart and critical thinker on the intersection of technology and politics. He is exactly what our conversation needs (unlike, say, Andrew Keen). I broadly felt his comments (posted via his Twitter stream) were both on target: we need to think critically about open data; and lacked nuance: it is possible for governments to simultaneously become more open and more closed on different axis. I write all this confident that Evgeny may turn his ample firepower on me, but such is life.

So, a few comments on Slee’s post:

First, the insinuation that the open data movement is irretrievably tainted by corporate interests is so over the top it is hard to know where to begin to respond. I’ve been advocating for open data for several years in Canada. Frankly, it would have been interesting and probably helpful if a large Canadian corporation (or even a medium sized one) took notice. Only now, maybe 4-5 years in, are they even beginning to pay attention. Most companies don’t even know what open data is.

Indeed, the examples of corporate open data “sponsors” that Slee cites are U.S. corporations, sponsoring U.S. events (the Strata conference) and nonprofits (Code for America – of which I have been engaged with). Since Slee is concerned primarily with the Canadian context, I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on how these examples compare to Canadian corporate involvement in open data initiatives – or even foreign corporations’ involvement in Canadian open data.

And not to travel too far down the garden path on this, but it’s worth noting that the corporations that have jumped on the open data bandwagon in the US often have two things in common: First, their founders are bona fide geeks, who in my experience are both interested in hard data as an end unto itself (they’re all about numbers and algorithms), and want to see government-citizen interactions – and internal governmental interactions, too – made better and more efficient. Second, of course they are looking after their corporate interests, but they know they are not at the forefront of the open data movement itself. Their sponsorship of various open data projects may well have profit as one motive, but they are also deeply interested in keeping abreast of developments in what looks to be a genuine Next Big Thing. For a post the Evgeny sees as being critical of open data, I find all this deeply uncritical. Slee’s post reads as if anything that is touched by a corporation is tainted. I believe there are both opportunities and risks. Let’s discuss them.

So, who has been advocating for open data in Canada? Who, in other words, comprises the “open data movement” that Slee argues doesn’t really exist – and that “is a phrase dragged out by media-oriented personalities to cloak a private-sector initiative in the mantle of progressive politics”? If you attend one of the hundreds of hackathons that have taken place across Canada over the past couple years – like those that have happened in Vancouver, Regina, Victoria, Montreal and elsewhere – you’ll find they are generally organized in hackspaces and by techies interested in ways to improve their community. In Ottawa, which I think does the best job, they can attract hundreds of people, many who bring spouses and kids as they work on projects they think will be helpful to their community. While some of these developers hope to start businesses, many others try to tackle issues of public good, and/or try to engage non-profits to see if there is a way they can channel their talent and the data. I don’t for a second pretend that these participants are a representative cross-section of Canadians, but by and large the profile has been geek, technically inclined, leaning left, and socially minded. There are many who don’t fit that profile, but that is probably the average.

Second, I completely agree that this government has been one of the most – if not the most – closed and controlling in Canada’s history. I, like many Canadians, echo Slee’s frustration. What’s worse, is I don’t see things getting better. Canadian governments have been getting more centralized and controlling since at least Trudeau, and possibly earlier (Indeed, I believe polling and television have played a critical role in driving this trend). Yes, the government is co-opting the language of open data in an effort to appear more open. All governments co-opt language to appear virtuous. Be it on the environment, social issues or… openness, no government is perfect and indeed, most are driven by multiple, contradictory goals.

As a member of the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel I wrestle with this challenge constantly. I’m try hard to embed some openness into the DNA of government. I may fail. I know that I won’t succeed in all ways, but hopefully I can move the rock in the right direction a little bit. It’s not perfect, but then it’s pretty rare that anything involving government is. In my (unpaid, advisory, non-binding) role I’ve voiced that the government should provide the Access to Information Commissioner with a larger budget (they cut it) and that they enable government scientists to speak freely (they have not so far). I’ve also advocated that they should provide more open data. There they have, including some data sets that I think are important – such as aid data (which is always at risk of being badly spent). For some, it isn’t enough. I’d like for there to be more open data sets available, and I appreciate those (like Slee – who I believe is writing from a place of genuine care and concern) who are critical of these efforts.

But, to be clear, I would never equate open government data as being tantamount to solving the problems of a restrictive or closed government (and have argued as much here). Just as an authoritarian regime can run on open-source software, so too might it engage in open data. Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being – just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.

Here is where I think Evgeny’s comments on the problem with the discourse around “open” are valid. Open Government and Open Data should not be used interchangeably. And this is an issue Open Government and Open Data advocates wrestle with. Indeed, I’ve seen a great deal of discussion and reflection come as a result of papers such as this one.

Third, the arguments around StatsCan all feel deeply problematic. I say this as the person who wrote the first article (that I’m aware of) about the long form census debacle in a major media publication and who has been consistently and continuously critical of it. This government has had a dislike for Statistics Canada (and evidence) long before open data was in their vocabulary, to say nothing of a policy interest. StatsCan was going to be a victim of dramatic cuts regardless of Canada’s open data policy – so it is misleading to claim that one would “much rather have a fully-staffed StatsCan charging for data than a half-staffed StatsCan providing it for free.” (That quote comes from Slee’s follow-up post, here.) That was never the choice on offer. Indeed, even if it had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The total cost of making StatsCan data open is said to have been $2 million; this is a tiny fraction of the payroll costs of the 2,500 people they are looking to lay off.

I’d actually go further than Slee here, and repeat something I say all the time: data is political. There are those who, naively, believed that making data open would depoliticize policy development. I hope there are situations where this might be true, but I’ve never taken that for granted or assumed as much: Quite the opposite. In a world where data increasingly matters, it is increasingly going to become political. Very political. I’ve been saying this to the open data community for several years, and indeed was a warning that I made in the closing part of my keynote at the Open Government Data Camp in 2010. All this has, in my mind, little to do with open data. If anything, having data made open might increase the number of people who are aware of what is, and is not, being collected and used to inform public policy debates. Indeed, if StatsCan had made its data open years ago it might have had a larger constituency to fight on its behalf.

Finally, I agree with the Nat Torkington quote in the blog post:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Moreover, it is possible for a policy to have two different possible drivers. It can even have multiple contradictory drivers simultaneously. In Canada, my assessment is that the government doesn’t have this level of sophistication around its thinking on this file, a conclusion I more or less wrote when assessing their Open Government Partnership commitments. I have no doubt that the conservatives would like to turn government provided services over to the private sector, and open data has so far not been part of that strategy. In either case, there is, in my mind, a policy infrastructure that needs to be in place to pursue either of these goals (such as having a data governance structure in place). But from a more narrow open data perspective, my own feeling is that making the data open has benefits for public policy discourse, public engagement, and economic reasons. Indeed, making more government data available may enable citizens to fight back against policies they feel are unacceptable. You may not agree with all the goals of the Canadian government – as someone who has written at least 30 opeds in various papers outlining problems with various government policies, neither do I – but I see the benefits of open data as real and worth pursuing, so I advocate for it as best I can.

So in response to the opening arguments about the open data movement…

It’s not a movement, at least in any reasonable political or cultural sense of the word.

We will have to agree to disagree. My experience is quite the opposite. It is a movement. One filled with naive people, with skeptics, with idealists focused on accountability, developers hoping to create apps, conservatives who want to make government smaller and progressives who want to make it more responsive and smarter. There was little in the post that persuaded me there wasn’t a movement. What I did hear is that the author didn’t like some parts of the movement and its goals. Great! Please come join the discussion; we’d love to have you.

It’s doing nothing for transparency and accountability in government,

To say it is doing nothing for transparency seems problematic. I need only cite one data set now open to say that isn’t true. And certainly publication of aid data, procurement data, publications of voting records and the hansard are examples of places where it may be making government more transparent and accountable. What I think Slee is claiming is that open data isn’t transforming the government into a model of transparency and accountability, and he’s right. It isn’t. I don’t think anyone claimed it would. Nor do I think the public has been persuaded that because it does open data, the government is somehow open and transparent. These are not words the Canadian public associates with this government no matter what it does on this file.

It’s co-opting the language of progressive change in pursuit of what turns out to be a small-government-focused subsidy for industry.

There are a number of sensible, critical questions in Slee’s blog post. But this is a ridiculous charge. Prior to the data being open, you had an asset that was paid for by taxpayer dollars, then charged for at a premium that created a barrier to access. Of course, this barrier was easiest to surmount for large companies and wealthy individuals. If there was a subsidy for industry, it was under the previous model, as it effectively had the most regressive tax for access of any government service.

Indeed, probably the biggest beneficiaries of open data so far have been Canada’s municipalities, which have been able to gain access to much more data than they previously could, and have saved a significant amount of money (Canadian municipalities are chronically underfunded.) And of course, when looking at the most downloaded data sets from the site, it would appear that non-profits and citizens are making good use of them. For example, the 6th most downloaded was the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada used by many environmental groups; number 8 was weather data; 9th was Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory, used most frequently to calculate Green House Gas emissions; and 10th the Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – used, I suspect, to decode the machinery of government. Most of the other top downloaded data sets related to immigration, used it appears, to help applicants. Hard to see the hand of big business in all this, although if open data helped Canada’s private sector become more efficient and productive, I would hardly complain.

If your still with me, thank you, I know that was a long slog.

Canada's Action Plan on Open Government: A Review

The other day the Canadian Government published its Action Plan on Open Government, a high level document that both lays out the Government’s goals on this file as well as fulfill its pledge to create tangible goals as part of its participation in next week’s Open Government Partnership 2012 annual meeting in Brazil.

So what does the document say and what does it mean? Here is my take.

Take Away #1: Not a breakthrough document

There is much that is good in the government’s action plan – some of which I will highlight later. But for those hoping that Canada was going to get the Gov 2.0 bug and try to leapfrog leaders like the United States or the United Kingdom, this document will disappoint. By and large this document is not about transforming government – even at its most ambitious it appears to be much more about engaging in some medium sized experiments.

As a result the document emphasizes a number of things that the UK and US started doing several years ago such  getting license that adheres to international norms or posting government resource allocation and performance management information online in machine readable forms or refining the open data portal.

What you don’t see are explicit references to try to re-think how government leverages citizens experience and knowledge with a site like Challenge.gov, engage experts in innovative ways such as with Peer to Patent, or work with industries or provinces to generate personal open data such as the US has done with the Blue Button (for Healthcare) or the Green Button (for utilities).

Take Away #2: A Solid Foundation

This said, there is much in the document that is good. Specifically, in many areas, it does lay a solid foundation for some future successes. Probably the most important statements are the “foundational commitments” that appear on this page. Here are some key points:

Open Government Directive

In Year 1 of our Action Plan, we will confirm our policy direction for Open Government by issuing a new Directive on Open Government. The Directive will provide guidance to 106 federal departments and agencies on what they must do to maximize the availability of online information and data, identify the nature of information to be published, as well as the timing, formats, and standards that departments will be required to adopt… The clear goal of this Directive is to make Open Government and open information the ‘default’ approach.

This last sentence is nice to read. Of course the devil will be in the detail (and in the execution) but establishing a directive around open information could end being as important (although admittedly not as powerful – an important point) as the establishment of Access to Information. Done right such a directive could vastly expand the range of documents made available to the public, something that should be very doable as more and more government documentation moves into digital formats.

For those complaining about the lack of ATI reform in the document this directive, and its creation will be with further exploration. There is an enormous opportunity here to reset how government discloses information – and “the default to open” line creates a public standard that we can try to hold the government to account on.

And of course the real test for all this will come in years 2-3 when it comes time to disclose documents around something sensitive to the government… like, say, around the issue of the Northern Gateway Pipeline (or something akin to the Afghan Prisoner issue). In theory this directive should make all government research and assessments open, when this moment happens we’ll have a real test of the robustness of any new such directive.

Open Government License:

To support the Directive and reduce the administrative burden of managing multiple licensing regimes across the Government of Canada, we will issue a new universal Open Government License in Year 1 of our Action Plan with the goal of removing restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information (data, info, websites, publications) and aligning with international best practices… The purpose of the new Open Government License will be to promote the re-use of federal information as widely as possible...

Full Disclosure: I have been pushing (in an unpaid capacity) for the government to reform its license and helping out in its discussions with other jurisdictions around how it can incorporate the best practices and most permissive language possible.

This is another important foundational piece. To be clear, this is not about an “open data” license. This is about creating a licensing for all government information and media. I suspect this appeals to this government in part because it ends the craziness of having lawyers across government constantly re-inventing new licenses and creating a complex set of licenses to manage. Let me be clear about what I think this means: This is functionally about neutering crown copyright. It’s about creating a licensing regime that makes very clear what the users rights are (which crown copyright does not doe) and that is as permissive as possible about re-use (which crown copyright, because of its lack of clarity, is not). Achieving such a license is a critical step to doing many of the more ambitious open government and gov 2.0 activities that many of us would like to see happen.

Take Away #3: The Good and Bad Around Access to Information

For many, I think this may be the biggest disappointment is that the government has chosen not to try to update the Access to Information Act. It is true that this is what the Access to Information Commissioners from across the country recommended they do in an open letter (recommendation #2 in their letter). Opening up the act likely has a number of political risks – particularly for a government that has not always been forthcoming documents (the Afghan detainee issue and F-35 contract both come to mind) – however, I again propose that it may be possible to achieve some of the objectives around improved access through the Open Government Directive.

What I think shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the government’s “experiment” around modernizing the administration of Access to Information:

To improve service quality and ease of access for citizens, and to reduce processing costs for institutions, we will begin modernizing and centralizing the platforms supporting the administration of Access to Information (ATI). In Year 1, we will pilot online request and payment services for a number of departments allowing Canadians for the first time to submit and pay for ATI requests online with the goal of having this capability available to all departments as soon as feasible. In Years 2 and 3, we will make completed ATI request summaries searchable online, and we will focus on the design and implementation of a standardized, modern, ATI solution to be used by all federal departments and

These are welcome improvements. As one colleague – James McKinney – noted, the fact that you have to pay with a check means that only people with Canadian bank accounts can make ATIP requests. This largely means just Canadian citizens. This is ridiculous. Moreover, the process is slow and painful (who uses check! the Brits are phasing them out by 2018 – good on em!). The use of checks creates a real barrier – particularly I think, for young people.

Also, being able search summaries of previous requests is a no-brainer.

Take Away #4: The is a document of experiments

As I mentioned earlier, outside the foundational commitments, the document reads less like a grand experiment and more like a series of small experiments.

Here the Virtual Library is another interesting commitment – certainly during the consultations the number one complaint was that people have a hard time finding what they are looking for on government websites. Sadly, even if you know the name of the document you want, it is still often hard to find. A virtual library is meant to address this concern – obviously it is all going to be in the implementation – but it is a response to a genuine expressed need.

Meanwhile the Advancing Recordkeeping in the Government of Canada and User-Centric Web Services feel like projects that were maybe already in the pipeline before Open Government came on the scene. They certainly do conform with the shared services and IT centralization announced by Treasury Board last year. They could be helpful but honestly, these will all be about execution since these types of projects can harmonize processes and save money, or they can become enormous boondoggles that everyone tries to work around since they don’t meet anyone’s requirements. If they do go the right way, I can definitely imagine how they might help the management of ATI requests (I have to imagine it would make it easier to track down a document).

I am deeply excited about the implementation of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This is something I’ve campaigned for and urged the government to adopt, so it is great to see. I think these types of cross jurisdictional standards have a huge role to play in the open government movement, so joining one, figuring out what about the implementation works and doesn’t work, and assessing its impact, is important both for Open Government in general but also for Canada, as it will let us learn lessons that, I hope, will become applicable in other areas as more of these types of standards emerge.

Conclusion:

I think it was always going to be a stretch to imagine Canada taking a leadership role in Open Government space, at least at this point. Frankly, we have a lot of catching up to do, just to draw even with places like the US and the UK which have been working hard to keep experimenting with new ideas in the space. What is promising about the document is that it does present an opportunity for some foundational pieces to be put into play. The bad news is that real efforts to rethink governments relationship with citizens, or even the role of the public servant within a digital government, have not been taken very far.

So… a C+?

 

Additional disclaimer: As many of my readers know, I sit on the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel. My role on this panel is to serve as a challenge function to the ideas that are presented to us. In this capacity I share with them the same information I share with you – I try to be candid about what I think works and doesn’t work around ideas they put forward. Interestingly, I did not see even a draft version of the Action Plan until it was posted to the website and was (obviously by inference) not involved in its creation. Just want to share all that to be, well, transparent, about where I’m coming from – which remains as a citizen who cares about these issues and wants to push governments to do more around gov 2.0 and open gov.

Also, sorry or the typos, but I’m sick and it is 1am. So I’m checking out. Will proof read again when I awake.

Calculating the Value of Canada’s Open Data Portal: A Mini-Case Study

Okay, let’s geek out on some open data portal stats from data.gc.ca. I’ve got three parts to this review: First, an assessment on how to assess the value of data.gc.ca. Second, a look at what are the most downloaded data sets. And third, some interesting data about who is visiting the portal.

Before we dive in, a thank you to Jonathan C sent me some of this data to me the other day after requesting it from Treasury Board, the ministry within the Canadian Government that manages the government’s open data portal.

1. Assessing the Value of data.gc.ca

Here is the first thing that struck me. Many governments talk about how they struggle to find methodologies to measure the value of open data portals/initiatives. Often these assessments focus on things like number of apps created or downloaded. Sometimes (and incorrectly in my mind) pageviews or downloads are used. Occasionally it veers into things like mashups or websites.

However, one fairly tangible value of open data portals is that they cheaply resolve some access to information requests –  a point I’ve tried to make before. At the very minimum they give scale to some requests that previously would have been handled by slow and expensive access to information/freedom of information processes.

Let me share some numbers to explain what I mean.

The Canada Government is, I believe, only obligated to fulfill requests that originate within Canada. Drawing from the information in the charts later in this post, let’s say assume there were a total of 2200 downloads in January and that 1/3 of these originated from Canada – so a total of 726 “Canadian” downloads. Thanks to some earlier research, I happen to know that the office of the information commissioner has assessed that the average cost of fulfilling an access to information request in 2009-2010 was $1,332.21.

So in a world without an open data portal the hypothetical cost of fulfilling these “Canadian” downloads as formal access to information requests would have been $967,184.46 in January alone. Even if I’m off by 50%, then the cost – again, just for January – would still sit at $483,592.23. Assuming this is a safe monthly average, then over the course of a year the cost savings could be around $11,606,213.52 or $5,803,106.76 – depending on how conservative you’d want to be about the assumptions.

Of course, I’m well aware that not every one of these downloads would been an information request in a pre-portal world – that process is simply to burdensome. You have to pay a fee, and it has to be by check (who pays for anything by check any more???) so many of these users would simply have abandoned their search for government information. So some of these savings would not have been realized. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value. Instead the open data portal is able to more cheaply reveal latent demand for data. In addition, only a fraction of the government’s data is presently on the portal – so all these numbers could get bigger still. And finally I’m only assessing downloads that originated inside Canada in these estimates.

So I’m not claiming that we have arrived at a holistic view of how to assess the value of open data portals – but even the narrow scope of assessment I outline above generates financial savings that are not trivial, and this is to say nothing of the value generated by those who downloaded the data – something that is much harder to measure – or of the value of increased access to Canadians and others.

2. Most Downloaded Datasets at data.gc.ca

This is interesting because… well… it’s just always interesting to see what people gravitate towards. But check this out…

Data sets like the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada may not seem interesting, but the ground breaking agreement between the Forest Products Association of Canada and a coalition of Environmental Non-Profits – known as the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) – uses this data set a lot to assess where the endangered woodland caribou are most at risk. There is no app, but the data is critical in both protecting this species and in finding a way to sustainably harvest wood in Canada. (note, I worked as an adviser on the CBFA so am a) a big fan and b) not making this stuff up).

It is fascinating that immigration and visa data tops the list. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We are of course, a nation of immigrants. I’m sure that immigration and visa advisers, to say nothing of think tanks, municipal governments, social service non-profits and English as a second language schools are all very keen on using this data to help them understand how they should be shaping their services and policies to target immigrant communities.

There is, of course, weather. The original open government data set. We made this data open for 100s of years. So useful and so important you had to make it open.

And, nice to see Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory. If you wanted to figure out the carbon footprint of vehicles, by province, I suspect this is a nice dataset to get. Probably is also useful for computing gas prices as it might let you get a handle on demand. Economists probably like this data set.

All this to say, I’m less skeptical than before about the data sets in data.gc.ca. With the exception of weather, these data sets aren’t likely useful to software developers – the group I tend to hear most from – but then I’ve always posited that apps were only going to be a tiny part of the open data ecosystem. Analysis is king for open data and there does appear to be people out there who are finding data of value for analyses they want to make. That’s a great outcome.

Here are the tables outlining the most popular data sets since launch and (roughly) in February.

  Top 10 most downloaded datasets, since launch

DATASET DEPARTMENT DOWNLOADS
1 Permanent Resident Applications Processed Abroad and Processing Times (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 4730
2 Permanent Resident Summary by Mission (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1733
3 Overseas Permanent Resident Inventory (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1558
4 Canada – Permanent residents by category (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 1261
5 Permanent Resident Applicants Awaiting a Decision (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 873
6 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – City Page Weather Environment Canada 852
7 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – Weather Element Forecasts Environment Canada 851
8 Permanent Resident Visa Applications Received Abroad – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada  800
9 Water Quality Indicators – Reports, Maps, Charts and Data Environment Canada 697
10 Canada – Permanent and Temporary Residents – English version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 625

Top 10 most downloaded datasets, for past 30 days

DATASET DEPARTMENT DOWNLOADS
1 Permanent Resident Applications Processed Abroad and Processing Times (English) Citizenship and Immigration Canada 481
2 Sales of commodities of large retailers – English version Statistics Canada  247
3 Permanent Resident Summary by Mission – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 207
4 CIC Operational Network at a Glance – English Version Citizenship and Immigration Canada 163
5 Gross domestic product at basic prices, communications, transportation and trade – English version Statistics Canada 159
6 Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada – As interpreted from 2008-2010 Landsat satellite imagery Environment Canada  102
7 Canada – Permanent residents by category – English version Citizenship and Immigration Canada  98
8 Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) – City Page Weather Environment Canada  61
9 Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory – English version  Statistics Canada 52
10 Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – English Version  Library and Archives Canada  51

3. Visitor locations

So this is just plain fun. There is not a ton to derive from this – especially as IP addresses can, occasionally, be misleading. In addition, this is page view data, not download data. But what is fascinating is that computers in Canada are not the top source of traffic at data.gc.ca. Indeed, Canada’s share of the traffic is actually quite low. In fact, in January, just taking into account the countries in the chart (and not the long tail of visitors) Canada accounted for only 16% of the traffic to the site. That said, I suspect that downloads were significantly higher from Canadian visitors – although I have no hard evidence of this, just a hypothesis.

datagcca-december-visits

•Total visits since launch: 380,276 user sessions

Open Government Advocacy: The Danger of Letting Narrative Trump Fact

So I loath making this the first post of the new year, but here we go.

Today Canada.com published a story “Tony Clement vows innovative new open government, but critics point to poor record.” In it,  Jason Fekete the journalist responsible for the story, quotes a Democracy Watch spokesperson who sadly gets the facts completely wrong despite the fact that I warned Democracy Watch about their error a month ago after their press release caused similar errors to appear in a CBC story. I’ll outline why this is problem later in the post. Bur first the error.

In the article Fekete reports

Democracy Watch said it will appeal to the international open government group to reject Canada’s entry because the federal government failed to keep one of its required commitments to consult Canadians. Ottawa announced its online consultation one day after the watchdog complained about it.

This is, in fact, not true. To date, the government has not failed to meet its commitment. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (to which Democracy Watch responded as is aware) Democracy Watch accuses the government of failing because it believed consultations needed to be conducted before a November OGP meeting in Brazil. Unfortunately, the meeting in which Governments will be sharing their plans (and thus need to complete their consultations) will be taking place in Brazil in April. The OPG clearly states this on their website (under section 5). There was a meeting in November, so the confusion was understandable.

Of course, just to be safe, I did what the CBC and Postmedia should have done. I emailed the OGP secretariat to check. Within minutes they confirmed to me that the April meeting is the deadline for consultations and developing plans. What is more interesting to me is the no one from Democracy Watch, the CBC or Post Media bothered to simply email or call the OGP secretariat and confirm these facts. For the CBC and Postmedia this is a matter of laziness. For Democracy Watch, I’m not sure what is driving this willed blindness. Ultimately, I suspect that once they went public with their narrative, backing down would be seen as weakness and then government secrecy would win!

This is dangerous for two reasons.

The first is, it isn’t true. Government secrecy doesn’t win if Democracy Watch got its facts mixed up. I agree that this government has a lot to answer for around its willingness to disclose government documents. Be it documents around the procurement of the F-35 or the treatment of Afghan prisoners there are many cases where the lack of transparency has been blatant and, I believe, counter to the principles of democracy and open government. Conceding that the Government is still on track for its Open Government Partnership objectives does not diminish that fact. The only thing that misrepresenting the facts does is cause conservative leaning voters who believe in government transparency (an important constituency) to tune out of the debate and believe that Democracy Watch is simply out to score points against the government, not fulfill its mission.

The bigger reason I think it is dangerous is that it undermines the very thing that makes the Open Government Partnership an effective tool of open government advocates. I want to be clear. The Open Government Partnership is, in part, designed to empower advocates and help them compel their government’s to be more open. Used correctly it could be powerful. The fact that Canadian government signed on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a result, in part, of the fact that other OGP countries were signing on. We were able to use peer pressure to create an upward spiral. We can also use the timelines of the OGP to ensure the government carries out the pledges that it has made. And of course, there is an Open Government consultation that is currently taking place (please participate) that the government will have to share the results of with its partners – potentially giving us a way to verify that our input is being taken seriously. Indeed, participating OPG countries may even try to out do one another to demonstrate how seriously they are taking this input.

But when this tool is misused it gives the government license to ignore and write off critics. As someone who wants to use the OGP commitments as a carrot and stick to hold our government to account, stories like those I linked to above hurt our capacity to be effective.

This government does not have a great record of transparency. At the same time, there is a legitimate effort to create open government goals as part of the OGP, let’s let the process run its course (and criticize when they actually violate the process) and use the tools that are at our disposal constructively to maximize impact, rather than try to snare a quick headline that in the long term, could damage the open government movements credibility.

I certainly wouldn’t encourage Democracy Watch to petition the OGP to ask Canada to leave the partnership. I suspect the secretariat would be confused by the request. The deadline has not passed, indeed, most OGP countries are in the middle of their consultations right now.

 

 

Open Government Consultation, Twitter Townhalls & Doing Advocacy Wrong

Earlier this week the Canadian Federal Government launched its consultation process on Open Government. This is an opportunity for citizens to comment and make suggestions around what data the federal government should make open and what information it should share, and provide feedback on how it can consult more effectively with Canadians. The survey (which, handily, can be saved midway through completion) contains a few straightforward multiple choice questions and about eight open ended questions which I’ve appended to the end of this post so that readers can reflect upon them before starting to fill out the form.

In addition to the online consultations, Tony Clement – the Minister responsible for the Open Government file – will host a Twitter townhall on Open Government this Thursday (December 15). Note! The townhall will be hosted by the treasury board twitter account @TBS_Canada (English) and @SCT_Canada (French) not Minister Clement’s personal (and better known) twitter account. The townhall will first take place in French from 4-4:45pm EST using the hashtags #parlonsgouvert and then in English from 5-5:45 EST using the hashtag #opengovchat.

Some of you may have also noticed that Democracy Watch issued a strongly worded press release last week with the (somewhat long) headline “Federal Conservatives break all of their international Open Government Partnership commitments by failing to consult with Canadians about their draft action plan before meeting in Brazil this week.” This seems to have prompted the CBC to write this article.

Now, to be clear, I’m a strong advocate for Open Government, and there are plenty of things for which one could be critical about this government for not being open about. However, to be credible – especially around issues of transparency and disclosure – one must be factual. And Democracy Watch did more than just stretch the truth. The simple fact is, that while I too wish the government’s consultations had happened sooner, this does not mean it has broken all of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Indeed, it hasn’t broken any of its commitments. A careful read of the Open Government Partnership requirements would reveal that the recent December meeting was to share drafts plans (including the plans by which to consult). The deadline that Democracy Watch is screaming about does not occur until March of 2012.

It would have been fair to say the government has been slow in fulfilling its commitments, but to say it has broken any of them is flatly not true. Indeed the charge feels particularly odd given that in the past two weeks the government signed on greater aid transparency via IATI and released an additional 4000 data sets, including virtually all of StatsCan’s data, giving Canadian citizens, non profits, other levels of governments and companies access to important data sets relevant for social, economic and academic purposes.

Again, there are plenty of things one could talk about when it comes to transparency and the government.  Yes, the consultation could have gotten off the ground faster. And yes, there is much more to done. But this screaming headline is somewhat off base. Publishing it damages both the credibility of the organization making the charge, and risk hurting the credible of open government advocates in general.

 

List of Open Ended Questions in the Open Government Consultation.

1. What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

2. What types of open data sets would be of interest to you? Please pick up to three categories below and specify what data would be of interest to you.

3. How would you use or manipulate this data?

4. What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

7. Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

8. Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

9. Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

 

The State of Open Data 2011

What is the state of the open data movement? Yesterday, during my opening keynote at the Open Government Data Camp (held this year in Warsaw, Poland) I sought to follow up on my talk from last year’s conference. Here’s my take of where we are today (I’ll post/link to a video of the talk as soon as the Open Knowledge Foundation makes it available).

Successes of the Past Year: Crossing the Chasm

1. More Open Data Portals

One of the things that has been amazing to witness in 2011 is the veritable explosion of Open Data portals around the world. Today there are well over 50 government data catalogs with more and more being added. The most notable of these was probably the Kenyan Open Data catalog which shows how far, and wide, the open data movement has grown.

2. Better Understanding and More Demand

The things about all these portals is that they are the result of a larger shift. Specifically, more and more government officials are curious about what open data is. This is not to say that understanding has radically shifted, but many people in government (and in politics) now know the term, believe there is something interesting going on in this space, and want to learn more. Consequently, in a growing number of places there is less and less headwind against us. Rather than screaming from the rooftops, we are increasingly being invited in the front door.

3. More Experimentation

Finally, what’s also exciting is the increased experimentation in the open data space. The number of companies and organizations trying to engage open data users is growing. ScraperWiki, the DataHub, BuzzData, Socrata, Visua.ly, are some of the products and resources that have emerged out of the open data space. And the types of research and projects that are emerging – the tracking of the Icelandic volcano eruptions, the emergence of hacks and hackers, micro projects (like my own Recollect.net) and the research showing that open data could be generating savings of £8.5 million a year to governments in the Greater Manchester area, is deeply encouraging.

The Current State: An Inflection Point

The exciting thing about open data is that increasingly we are helping people – public servants, politicians, business owners and citizens imagine a different future, one that is more open, efficient and engaging. Our impact is still limited, but the journey is still in its early days. More importantly, thanks to success (number 2 above) our role is changing. So what does this mean for the movement right now?

Externally to the movement, the work we are doing is only getting more relevant. We are in an era of institution failure. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall St. there is a recognition that our institutions no longer sufficiently serve us. Open data can’t solve this problem, but it is part of the solution. The challenge of the old order and the institutions it fostered is that its organizing principle is built around the management (control) of processes, it’s been about the application of the industrial production model to government services. This means it can only move so fast, and because of its strong control orientation, can only allow for so much creativity (and adaption). Open data is about putting the free flow of information at the heart of government – both internally and externally – with the goal of increasing government’s metabolism and decentralizing societies’ capacity to respond to problems. Our role is not obvious to the people in those movements, and we should make it clearer.

Internally to the movement, we have another big challenge. We are at a critical inflection point. For years we have been on the outside, yelling that open data matters. But now we are being invited inside. Some of us want to rush in, keen to make advances, others want to hold back, worried about being co-opted. To succeed, it is essential we must become more skilled at walking this difficult line: engaging with governments and helping them make the right decisions, while not being co-opted or sacrificing our principles. Choosing to not engage would, in my opinion, be to abscond from our responsibility as citizens and open data activists. This is a difficult transition, but it will be made easier if we at least acknowledge it, and support one another in it.

Our Core Challenges: What’s next

Looking across the open data space, my own feeling is that there are three core challenges that are facing the open data movement that threaten to compromise all the successes we’ve currently enjoyed.

1. The Compliance Trap

One key risk for open data is that all our work ends up being framed as a transparency initiative and thus making data available is reduced to being a compliance issue for government departments. If this is how our universe is framed I suspect in 5-10 years governments, eager to save money and cut some services, will choose to cut open data portals as a cost saving initiative.

Our goal is not to become a compliance issue. Our goal is to make governments understand that they are data management organizations and that they need to manage their data assets with the same rigour with which they manage physical assets like roads and bridges. We are as much about data governance as we are open data. This means we need to have a vision for government, one where data becomes a layer of the government architecture. Our goal is to make data platform one that not only citizens outside of government can build on, but one that government reconstructs its policy apparatus as well as its IT systems at top of. Achieving this will ensure that open data gets hardwired right into government and so cannot be easily shut down.

2. Data Schemas

This year, in the lead up to the Open Data Camp, the Open Knowledge Foundation created a map of open data portals from around the world. This was fun to look at, and I think should be the last time we do it.

We are getting to a point where the number of data portals is becoming less and less relevant. Getting more portals isn’t going to enable open data to scale more. What is going to allow us to scale is establishing common schemas for data sets that enable them to work across jurisdictions. The single most widely used open government data set is transit data, which because it has been standardized by the GTFS is available across hundreds of jurisdictions. This standardization has not only put the data into google maps (generating millions of uses everyday) but has also led to an explosion of transit apps around the world. Common standards will let us scale. We cannot forget this.

So let’s stop mapping open data portals, and start mapping datasets that adhere to common schemas. Given that open data is increasingly looked upon favourably by governments, creating these schemas is, I believe, now the central challenge to the open data movement.

3. Broadening the Movement

I’m impressed by the hundreds and hundreds of people here at the Open Data Camp in Warsaw. It is fun to be able to recognize so many of the faces here, the problem is that I can recognize too many of them. We need to grow this movement. There is a risk that we will become complacent, that we’ll enjoy the movement we’ve created and, more importantly, our roles within it. If that happens we are in trouble. Despite our successes we are far from reaching critical mass.

The simple question I have for us is: Where is the United Way, Google, Microsoft, the Salvation Army, Oxfam, and Greenpeace? We’ll know were are making progress when companies – large and small – as well as non-profits – start understanding how open government data can change their world for the better and so want to help us advance the cause.

Each of us needs to go out and start engaging these types of organizations and helping them see this new world and the potential it creates for them to make money or advance their own issues. The more we can embed ourselves into other’s networks, the more allies we will recruit and the stronger we will be.

 

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
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*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.