Tag Archives: open government

Back to Reality: The Politics of Government Transparency & Open Data

A number of my friends and advocates in the open government, transparency and open data communities have argued that online government transparency initiatives will be permanent since, the theory goes, no government will ever want to bear the political cost of rolling it back and being perceived as “more opaque.” I myself have, at times, let this argument go unchallenged or even run with it.

This week’s US budget negotiations between Congress and the White House should lay that theory to rest. Permanently.

The budget agreement that has emerged from most recent round of negotiations – which is likely to be passed by congress –  slashes funding to an array of Obama transparency initiatives such as USASpending, the ITDashboard, and data.gov from $34M to $8M. Agree or disagree, Republicans are apparently all too happy to kill initiatives which make the spending and activities of the US government more transparent as well as create a number of economic opportunities around open data. Why? Because they believe it has no political consequences.

So unsurprisingly, it turns out that political transparency initiatives – even when they are online – are as bound to the realities of traditional politics as dot.com’s were bound by the realities of traditional economics. It’s not enough to get a policy created or an initiative launched – it needs to have a community, a group of interested supporters, to nurture and protect it. Otherwise, it will be at risk.

Back in 2009, in the lead up to the drafting and launching of Vancouver’s Open Data motion I talked about creating an open-government bargain. Specifically, I argued that:

..in an open city, a bargain must exists between a government and its citizens. To make open data a success and to engage the community a city must listen, engage, ask for help, and of course, fulfill its promise to open data as quickly as possible. But this bargain runs both ways. The city must to its part, but so too must the local tech community. They must participate, be patient (cities move slower than tech companies), offer help and, most importantly, make the data come alive for each other, policy makers and citizens through applications and shared analysis.

Some friends countered that open data and transparency should simply exist because it is the right thing to do. I don’t disagree – and I wish we lived in a world where the existence of this ideal was sufficient enough to guarantee these initiatives. But it isn’t sufficient. It’s easy to kill something that no one uses (or in the case of data.gov, that hasn’t been given enough time to generate a vibrant user base). It’s much, much harder to kill something that has a community that uses it, especially if that community and the products it creates are valued by society more generally. This is why open data needs users, it needs developers, think tanks and above all, the media, to take interest in it and to leverage it to create content. It’s also why I’ve tried to create projects like Emitter.ca, recollect.net, taxicity and others, because the more value we create with open data for everyone, the more secure government transparency policies will be.

It’s use it or risk losing it. I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s the best defense I can think of.

Open Knowledge Foundation Open Data Advocate

My colleagues over at the Open Knowledge Foundation have been thinking about recruiting an Open Data Advocate, someone who can coordinate a number of the activities they are up to in the open data space. I offered to think about what the role should entail and how that person could be effective. Consequently, in the interests of transparency, fleshing out my thinking and seeing if there might be feed back (feel free to comment openly, or email me personally if you wish to keep it private) I’m laying out my thinking below.

Context

These are exciting times for open government data advocates. Over the past few years a number of countries, cities and international organizations have launched open data portals and implemented open data policies. Many, many more are contemplating joining the fray. What makes this exciting is that some established players (e.g. United States, UK, World Bank) are continue to push forward and will, I suspect, be refining and augmenting their services in the coming months. At the same time there are still a number of laggards (e.g. Canada federally, Southern Europe, Asia) in which mobilizing local communities, engaging with public servants and providing policy support is still the order of the day.

This makes the role of an Open Data Advocate complex. Obviously, helping pull the laggards along is an important task. Alternatively (or in addition) they may need to also be thinking longer term. Where is open data going, what will second and third generation open data portals need to look like (and what policy infrastructure will be needed to support them).

These are two different goals and so either choosing, or balancing, between them will not be easy.

Key Challenges

Some of the key challenges spring quite obviously from that context. But there are also other challenges, I believe to be looming as well. So what do I suspect are the key challenges around open data over the next 1-5 years?

  1. Getting the laggards up and running
  2. Getting governments to use standardized licenses that are truly open (be it the PDDL, CC-0 or one of the other available licenses out there
  3. Cultivating/fostering an eco-system of external data users
  4. Cultivating/fostering an eco-system of internal government user (and vendors) for open data (this is what will really make open data sustainable)
  5. Pushing jurisdictions and vendors towards adopting standard structures for similar types of data (e.g. wouldn’t it be nice if restaurant inspection data from different jurisdictions were structured similarly?)
  6. Raising awareness about abuses of, and the politicization of, data. (e.g. this story about crime data out of New York which has not received nearly enough press)

The Tasks/Leverage Points

There are some basic things that the role will require including:

  1. Overseeing the Working Group on Open Government Data
  2. Managing opengovernmentdata.org
  3. Helping organize the Open Government Data Camp 2011, 2012 and beyond

But what the role will really have to do is figure out the key leverage points that can begin to shift the key challenges listed above in the right direction. The above mentioned tasks may be helpful in doing that… but they may not be. Success is going to be determined but figuring how to shift systems (government, vendor, non-profit, etc…) to advance the cause of open data. This will be no small task.

My sense is that some of these leverage points might include:

  1. Organizing open data hackathons – ideally ones that begin to involve key vendors (both to encourage API development, but also to get them using open data)
  2. Leveraging assets like Civic Commons to get open data policies up on online so that jurisdictions entertaining the issue can copy them
  3. Building open data communities in key countries around the world – particularly in key countries in such as Brasil and India where a combination of solid democratic institutions and a sizable developer community could help trigger changes that will have ramifications beyond their borders (I suspect there are also some key smaller countries – need to think more on that)
  4. I’m sure this list could be enhanced…

Metrics/Deliverables

Obviously resolving the above defined challenges in 1-5 years is probably not realistic. Indeed, resolving many of those issues is probably impossible – it will be a case of ensuring each time we peel back one layer of the onion we are well positioned to tackle the next layer.

Given this, some key metrics by which the Open Knowledge Foundation should evaluate the person in this role might be:

At a high level, possible some metrics might include:

  • Number of open data portals world wide? (number using CKAN?)
  • Number of groups, individuals, cities participating in Opendata hackathons
  • Number of applications/uses of open data
  • Awareness of CKAN and its mission in the public, developer space, government officials, media?
  • Number of government vendors offering open data as part of their solution

More additional deliverables, could include:

  • Running two Global OpenData Hackathons a year?
  • Developing an OKFN consulting arm specializing in open data services/implementation
  • Create an open data implementation policy “in a box” support materials for implementing an open data strategy in government
  • Develop a global network of OKFN chapters to push their local and national governments, share best practices
  • Run opendata bootcamps for public servants and/or activists
  • Create a local open data hackathon in a box kit (to enable local events)
  • Create a local “how to be an open data activist” site
  • Conduct some research on the benefits of open data  to advance the policy debate
  • Create a stronger feedback loop on CKAN’s benefits and weaknesses
  • Create a vehicle to connect VC’s and/or money with open data drive companies and app developers (or at least assess what barriers remain to use open data in business processes).

Okay, I’ll stop there, but if you have thoughts please send them or comment below. Hope this stimulates some thinking among fellow open data geeks.

Canada's Secret Open Data Strategy?

Be prepared for the most boring sentence to an intriguing blog post.

The other night, I was, as one is wont to do, reading through a random Organization for Economic Coordination and Development report entitled Towards Recovery and Partnership with Citizens: The Call for Innovative and Open Government. The report was, in fact, a summary of its recent Ministerial Meeting of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee.

Naturally, I flipped to the section authored by Canada and, imagine the interest with which I read the following:

The Government of Canada currently makes a significant amount of open data available through various departmental websites. Fall 2010 will see the launch of a new portal to provide one-stop access to federal data sets by providing a “single-window” to government data. In addition to providing a common “front door” to government data, a searchable catalogue of available data, and one-touch data downloading, it will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians. Canada is also exploring the development of open data policies to regularise the publication of open data across government. The Government of Canada is also working on a strategy, with engagement and input from across the public service, developing short and longer-term strategies to fully incorporate Web 2.0 across the government.

In addition, Canada’s proactive disclosure initiatives represent an ongoing contribution to open and transparent government. These initiatives include the posting of travel and hospitality expenses, government contracts, and grants and contribution funding exceeding pre-set thresholds. Subsequent phases will involve the alignment of proactive disclosure activities with those of the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens the right to access information in federal government records.

Lots of interesting things packed into these two paragraphs, something I’m sure readers concerned with open data, open government and proactive, would agree with. So let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly, of all of this, in that order.

The Good

So naturally the first sentence is debatable. I don’t think Canada makes a significant amount of its data available at all. Indeed, across every government website there is probably no more than 400 data sets available in machine readable format. That’s less that the city of Washington DC. It’s about (less than) 1% of what Britain or the United States disclose. But, okay,let’s put that unfortunate fact aside.

The good and really interesting thing here is that the Government is stating that it was going to launch an open data portal. This means the government is thinking seriously about open data. This means – in all likelihood – policies are being written, people are being consulted (internally), processes are being thought through. This is good news.

It is equally good news that the government is developing a strategy for deploying Web 2.0 technologies across the government. I hope this will be happening quickly as I’m hearing that in many departments this is still not embraced and, quite often, is banned outright. Of course, using social media tools to talk with the public is actually the wrong focus (Since the communications groups will own it all and likely not get it right for quite a while), the real hope is being allowed to use the tools internally.

The Bad

On the open data front, the bad is that the portal has not launched. We are now definitely passed the fall of 2010 and, as for whatever reason, there is no Canadian federal open data portal. This may mean that the policy (despite being announced publicly in the above document) is in peril or that it is simply delayed. Innumerable things can delay a project like this (especially on the open data front). Hopefully whatever the problem is, it can be overcome. More importantly, let us hope the government does something sensible around licensing and uses the PDDL and not some other license.

The Ugly

Possibly the heart stopping moment in this brief comes in the last paragraph where the government talks about posting travel and hospitality expenses. While these are often posted (such as here) they are almost never published in machine readable format and so have to be scrapped in order to be organized, mashed up or compared to other departments. Worse still, these files are scattered across literally hundreds of government websites and so are virtually impossible to track down. This guy has done just that, but of course now he has the data, it is more easily navigable but no more open then before. In addition, it takes him weeks (if not months) to do it, something the government could fix rather simply.

The government should be lauded for trying to make this information public. But if this is their notion of proactive disclosure and open data, then we are in for a bumpy, ugly ride.

Canada ranks last in freedom of information

For those who missed it over the weekend it turns out Canada ranks last in freedom of information study that looked at the world’s western Parliamentary democracies. What makes it all the more astounding is that a decade ago Canada was considered a leader.

Consider two from the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault quotes pulled from the piece:

Only about 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago, she noted.

And delays in the release of records continue to grow, with just 56 per cent of requests completed in the legislated 30-day period last year, compared with almost 70 per cent at the start of the decade.

These are appalling numbers.

The sad thing is… don’t expect things to get better. Why?

Firstly, the current government seems completely uninterested in access to information, transparency and proactive disclosure, despite these being core planks of its election platform and core values of the reform movement that re-launched Canadian conservatism. Indeed, reforming and improving access to information is the only unfulfilled original campaign promise of the Conservatives – and there appears to be no interest in touching it. Quite the opposite – that political staff now intervene to block and restrict Access to Information Requests – contravening the legislation and policy – is now a well known and documented fact.

Second, this issue is of secondary importance to the public. While everyone will say they care about access to information and open government, then number of people (while growing) still remains small. These types of reports and issues are of secondary importance. This isn’t to say they don’t matter. They do – but generally after something bigger and nastier has come to light and the public begins to smell rot. Then studies like this become the type of thing that hurts a government – it gives legitimacy and language to a sentiment people widely feel.

Third, the public seems confused about who they distrust more – the fact is, however bad the current government is on this issue, the Liberal brand is still badly tarnished on this issue of transparent government due to the scandals from almost a decade ago. Sadly, this means that there will be less burden on this government to act since – every time the issue of transparency and open government arise – rather than act, Government leaders simply point out the other parties failings.

So as the world moves on while Canada remains stuck, its government becoming more opaque, distant and less accountable to the people that elect it.

Interestingly , this also has a real cost to Canada’s influence in the world. It means something when the world turns to you as an expert – as we once were on access to information – minister’s are consulted by other world leaders, your public servants are given access to information loops they might otherwise not know about, there is a general respect, a soft power, that comes from being an acknowledged leader. Today, this is gone.

Indeed, it is worth noting that of the countries survey in the above mentioned study, only Canada and Ireland do not have open data portals which allow for proactive disclosure.

It’s a sign of the times.

Hello 2011! Coding for America, speaking, open data and licenses

Eaves.ca readers – happy new year! Here’s a little but of an overview into how we are kicking off 2011/

Thank you

First, if you are a regular reader…. thank you. Eaves.ca has just entered its 4th year and it all keeps getting more and more rewarding. I write to organize my thoughts and refine my writing skills but it is always most rewarding to see others benefit from/find it of value to read these posts.

Code for America

I’ve just landed San Francisco (literally! I’m sitting on the floor of the airport, catching the free SFO wifi) where I’ll be spending virtually all of January volunteering to help launch Code for America. Why? Because I think the organizations matters, its projects are important and the people are great. I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with technologists with a positive agenda for change (think Mozilla & OpenMRS) and Code for America takes all that fun and combines it with government – one of my other great passions. I hope to update you on the progress the organizations makes and what will be happening over the coming weeks. And yes, I am thinking about how Code for Canada might fit into all this.

Gov 2.0

I’ll also be in Ottawa twice in January. My first trip out is to present on a paper about how to write collaboratively using a wiki. With a little bit of work, I’ll be repositioning this paper to make it about how to draft public policy on a wiki within government (think GCPEDIA). With luck I’ll publish this in something like Policy Options or something similar (maybe US based?). I think this has the potential of being one of my most important pieces of the year and needless to say, I’m excited and will be grateful for feedback, both good and negative.

Open Data and Government

On my second trip to Ottawa I’ll be presenting on Open Data and Open Government to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Obviously, I’m honored and thrilled they’ve asked me to come and talk and look forward to helping parliamentarians understand why this issue is so important and how they could make serious progress in short order if they put their minds to the task.

Licenses

So for the last two years we’ve been working hard to get cities to do open data with significant success. This year, may be the year that the Feds (more on that in a later post) and some provinces get in on the game, as well as a larger group of cities. The goal for them will be to build on, and take to the next level, the successes of the first movers like Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa. This will mean one thing. Doing the licensing better. The Vancouver license, which has been widely copied was a good starting point for governments venturing into unknown territory (e.g. getting their toes wet). But the license has several problems –and there are several significantly better choices out there (I’m look over at you PDDL – which I notice the City of Surrey has adopted, nice work.). So, I think one big goal for 2011 will be to get governments to begin shifting to (ideally) the PDDL and (if necessary) something more equivalent. On this front I’m feeling optimistic as well and will blog on this in the near future.

Lots of other exciting things going on as well – I look forward to sharing them here in the blog soon.

All in all, its hard to to be excited about 2011 and I hope you are too. Thank you so much for being part of all of this.

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.

An Open Letter on Open Government to the Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics Parliamentary Committee

The other week I received an invitation from the Canadian Standing Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics to come and testify about open government and open data on February 1st.

The Committee has talked a great deal about its efforts to engage in a study of open government and since February 1st is quite a bit away and I’d like to be helpful before my testimony, I thought I draft up some thoughts and suggestion for the committee’s strategy. I know these are unsolicited but I hope they are helpful and, if not, that they at least spark some helpful thoughts.

1. Establish a common understanding of the current state of affairs

First off, the biggest risk at the moment is that the Committee’s work might actually slow down efforts of the government to launch an open data strategy. The Committee’s work, and the drafting of its report, is bound to take several months, it would be a shame if the government were to hold back launching any initiatives in anticipation of this report.

Consequently, my hope is that the committee, at is earliest possible convenience, request to speak to the Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada to get an update regarding the current status of any open government and open data initiatives, should they exist. This would a) create a common understanding regarding the current state of affairs for both committee members and witnesses; b) allow subsequent testimony and recommendations to take into consideration the work already done and c) allow the committee to structure its work so as to not slow down any current efforts that might be already underway.

2. Transform the Committee into a Government 2.0 Taskforce – similar to the Australian effort

Frankly, my favourite approach in this space has been the British. Two Government’s, one Labour, one Conservative have aggressive pursued an open data and open government strategy. This, would be my hope for Canada. However, it does not appear that is is presently the case. So, another model should be adopted. Fortunately, such a model exists.

Last year, under the leadership of Nicholas Gruen, the Australian government launched a Government 2.0 taskforce on which I had the pleasure of serving on the International Reference Group. The Australian Taskforce was non-partisan and was made up of policy and technical experts and entrepreneurs from government, business, academia, and cultural institutions. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of its recommendations were adopted.

To replicate its success in Canada I believe the Committee should copy the best parts of the Australian taskforce. The topic of Canadians access to their government is of central importance to all Canadians – to non-profits, to business interests, to public servants and, of course, to everyday citizens. Rather than non-partisan, I would suggest that a Canadian taskforce should be pan-partisan – which the Committee already is. However, like the Australian Taskforce it should include a number of policy and technical experts from outside government. This fill committee would this represent both a political cross-section and substantive knowledge in the emerging field of government 2.0. It could thus, as a whole, effectively and quickly draft recommendations to Parliament.

Best of all, because of step #1, this work could proceed in parallel to any projects (if any) already initiated by the government and possibly even inform such work by providing interim updates.

I concede such an approach may be too radical, but I hope it is at least a starting point for an interesting approach.

3. Lead by Example

There is one arena where politicians need not wait on the government to make plans: Parliament itself. Over the past year, while in conversations with the Parliamentary IT staff as well as the Speaker of the House, I have worked to have Parliament make more data about its own operations open. Starting in January, the Parliamentary website will begin releasing the Hansard in XML – this will make it much easier for software developers like the creators of Openparliament.ca as and howdtheyvote.ca to run their sites and for students, researchers and reporters to search and analyze our country’s most important public discussions. In short, by making the Hansard more accessible the Speaker and his IT staff are making parliament more accessible. But this is only the beginning of what parliamentarians could do to make for a truly Open Parliament. The House and Senate’s schedules and agendas, along with committee calendars should all be open. So to should both chambers seating arrangement. Member’s photos and bios should be shared with an unrestricted license as should the videos of parliament.

Leadership in this space would send a powerful message to both the government and the public service that Canada’s politicians are serious about making government more open and accessible to those who elect it. In addition, it could also influence provincial legislature’s and even municipal governments, prompting them to do the same and so enhance our democracy at every level.

4. Finally, understand your task: You are creating a Knowledge Government for a Knowledge Society

One reason I advise the Committee to take on external members is because, laudably, many admit this topic is new to them. But I also want the committee members to understand the gravity of their task. Open Government, Open Data and/or Government 2.0 are important first steps in a much larger project.

What you are really wrestling with here is what government is going to look like in an knowledge economy and a knowledge society. How is going to function with knowledge workers as employees? And, most importantly, how is it going to engage with knowledge citizens, many of whom can and want to make real contributions beyond the taxes they pay and don’t need government to self-organize?

In short, what is a knowledge based government going to look like?

At the centre of that question is how we manage and share information. The basic building block of a knowledge driven society.

Look around, and you can see how the digital world is transforming how we do everything. Few of us can imagine living today without access to the internet and the abundance of information it brings to us. Indeed, we have already become so used to the internet we forget how much it has radically changed whole swaths of our life and economy from the travel and music industry to the post to political fund-raising and to journalism.

If today our government still broadly looks and feels like an institution shaped by the printing press it is because, well it is. Deputy Ministers and Ministers still receive giant briefing binders filled with paper. This is a reflection of how we deal within information and knowledge in government, we move it around (for good reasons) in siloes, operating as though networks, advance search, and other innovations don’t exist (even though they already do).

How our government deals with information is at the heart of your task. I’m not saying you have to re-invent government or dismantle all the silos and ministries. Quite the contrary, I believe small changes can be made that will yield significant benefits, efficiencies and savings while enhancing our democracy. But you will be confronting decades, if not centuries of tradition, culture and process in an institution that is about to go through the biggest change since the invention of the printing press. You don’t have to do it all, but even some small first steps will not come easily. I share this because I want you going into the task with eyes wide open.

At the very least we aren’t going first, our cousins both across the Atlantic, the Pacific and our southern border have already taken the plunge. But this should add urgency to our task. We cannot afford to stand by while others renew their democratic institutions while simultaneously enhancing an emerging and critical pillar of a new knowledge economy and knowledge society.

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:

Screen-shot-2010-11-17-at-6.57.05-AM

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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

OpenGovWest (BC edition): Are you out west?

Something good is taking shape in my backyard…

From the city of Vancouver’s open data portal to Apps 4 Climate Action to the Water legislation blog, a great deal of the leadership and cutting edge work in open government is taking place in BC. Many places across the country and around the world look to what is happening on the west coast and are trying to draw lessons and see how it can be replicated.

Recognizing this fact a number of great people have been working behind the scenes for the last couple of months pulling together a conference to share this successes, talk about challenges and opportunities and generally think about what could happen next. The conference…? OpenGovWest BC.

If you are in BC and interested in open government, open data and gov 2.0, here’s a conference designed and built for you.

A number of speakers have already been publicly confirmed, others are, apparently, being held as surprises. There are also slots open for presentations if you have a project you’d like to share with the community out west.

The conference will be taking place on November 10th in Victoria, BC – if you are out west and feel passionate about these topics the same way I do, I hope you’ll consider coming.

And while we are talking about conferences, I also want to share Open Government Data Camp that will be happening in London, UK on November 18th and 19th. I’m excited to say I’ll be there with our friends from the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, along with numerous others. Harder to get too, but also likely to be quite, quite fun…