Tag Archives: open

The End of the World and Journalism in the Era of Open

For those not in the United Kingdom a massive scandal has erupted around allegations that one of the country’s tabloids – the News of the World ( a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) – was illegally hacking into and listening in on the voicemails of not only the royal family members and celebrities but also murder victims and family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The fall out from the scandal, among other things, has caused the 168 year old newspaper to be unceremoniously closed, prompted an enormous investigation into the actions of editors and executives at the newspaper, forced the resignation (and arrest) of Andy Coulson – former News of the World editor and director of communications for the Prime Minister – and thrown into doubt Rupert Murdoch’s bid to gain complete control over the British satellite television network BskyB.

For those wanting to know more I encourage you to head over to the Guardian, which broke the story and has done some of the best reporting on it. Also, possibly the best piece of analysis I’ve read on the whole sordid affair is this post from reuters which essentially points out that by shutting down News of the World, Newscorp may shrewdly ensure that all incriminating documents can (legally) be destroyed. Evil genius stuff.

But why bring this all up here at eaves.ca?

Because I think this is an example of a trend in media that I’ve been arguing has been going on for some time.

Contrary to what news people would have you believe, my sense is that most people don’t trust newspapers – no more so then they trust governments. Starting in 1983 Ipsos MORI and the British Medical Association have asked UK citizens who they trust. The results for politicians are grim. The interesting thing is, they are no better for journalists (although TV news anchors do okay). Don’t believe me? Take a look at the data tables from Ipsos MORI. Or look at the chart Benne Dezzle over at Viceland created out of the data.

There is no doubt people value the products of governments and the media – but this data suggests they don’t trust the people creating them, which I really think is a roundabout way of saying: they don’t trust the system that creates the news.

I spend a lot of my time arguing that government’s need to be more transparent, and that this (contrary to what many public servants feel) will make them more, not less, effective. Back in 2009, in reaction to the concern that the print media was dying, I wrote a blog post saying the same was true for journalism. Thanks, in part, to Jay Rosen listing it as part of his flying seminar on the future of news, it became widely read and ended up as getting reprinted along with Taylor Owen and I’s article Missing the Link, in the journalism textbook The New Journalist. Part of what I think is going in the UK is a manifestation of the blog post, so if you haven’t read it, I think now is as good a time as any.

The fact is, newsrooms are frequently as opaque (both in process and, sometimes, in motivations) as governments are. People may are willing to rely on them, and they’ll use them if their outputs are good, but they’ll turn on them, and quickly, if they come to understand that the process stinks. This is true of any organization and news media doesn’t get a special pass because of the job it plays – indeed the opposite may be true. But more profoundly I think it is interesting how what many people consider to be two of the key pillars to western democracy are staffed by people who are among the least trusted in our society. Maybe that’s okay. But maybe it’s not. But if we think we need better forms of government – which many people seem to feel we do – it may also be that we believe we need better ways of generating, managing and engaging in the accountability of that government.

Of course, I don’t want to overplay the situation here. News of the World doomed itself because it broke the law. More importantly, it did so in a truly offensive way: hacking into the cell phone of a murder victim who was an everyday person. Admitedly, when the victims were celebrities, royals and politicians, it percolated as a relatively contained scandal. But if we believe that transparency is the sunlight that causes governments to be less corrupt – or at least forces politicians to recognize their decisions will be more scrutinized – maybe a little transparency might have caused the executives and editors at News Corp to behave a little better as well. I’m not sure what a more open media organization might look like – although wikipedia does an interesting job – but from both a brand protection and values based decision making perspective a little transparency could be the right incentive to ensure that the journalists, editors and executives in a news system few of us seem to trust, behave a little better. And that might cause them to earn more of the trust I think many deserve.







Wikileaks and the coming conflict between closed and open

I’ve been thinking about wikileaks ever since the story broke. Most of the stories – like those written by good friends like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore are pieces very much worth reading but I think miss the point about wikileaks and/or assess it on their own terms and thus fail to understand what wikileaks is actually about and what it is trying to do. We need to be clear in our understanding, and thus the choices we are about to confront.

However, before you read anything I write there are smarter people out there – two in particular – who have said things that I’m not reading anywhere else. The first is Jay Rosen (key excerpt below) whose 15 minutes Pressthink late night video on the subject is brilliant and the second is by zunguzungu piece Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government” (key excerpt further below) is a cool and calculated dissection of wikileaks goals and its intentions. I’ve some thoughts below, but these two pieces are, in my mind, the most important things you can read on the subject and strongly inform my own piece (much, much further below). I know that this is all very long, and that many of you won’t have the patience, but I hope that what I’ve written and shared below is compelling enough to hold your attention, I certainly think it is important enough.

Jay Rosen:

While we have what purports to be a “watchdog press” we also have, laid out in front of us, the clear record of the watchdog press’s failure to do what is says it can do, which is to provide a check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose. So I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving. I think these kind of huge cataclysmic events within the legitimacy regime lie in the background of the Wikileaks case, because if wasn’t for those things Wikileaks wouldn’t have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn’t collaborate the way that they do and the moral force behind exposing what this government is doing just wouldn’t be there.

This is one of the things that makes it hard for our journalists to grapple with Wikileaks. On the one hand they are getting amazing revelations. I mean the diplomatic cables tell stories of what it is like to be inside the government and inside international diplomacy that anyone who tries to understand government would want to know. And so it is easy to understand why the big news organizations like the New York Times and The Guardian are collaborating with Wikileaks. On the other hand they are very nervous about it because it doesn’t obey the laws of the state and it isn’t a creature of a given nation and it is inserting itself in-between the sources and the press. But I think the main reason why Wikileaks causes so much insecurity with our journalists is because they haven’t fully faced the fact that the watchdog press they treasure so much died under George W. Bush. It failed. And instead of rushing to analyze this failure and prevent it from happening ever again – instead of a truth and reconciliation commission-style effort that could look at “how did this happen” – mostly what our journalists did, with a few exceptions, is they moved on to the next story. The watchdog press died. And what we have is Wikileaks instead. Is that good or is that bad? I don’t know, because I’m still trying to understand what it is.


But, to summarize, he (Assange) begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes…

…The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

– zunguzungu

Almost all the media about wikileaks has, to date, focused on the revelations about what our government actually thinks versus what it states publicly. The bigger the gap between internal truth and external positions, the bigger the story.

This is, of course, interesting stuff. But less discussed and more interesting is our collective reaction to wikileaks. Wikileaks is drawing a line, exposing a fissure in the open community between those who believe in overturning current “system(s)” (government and international) and those who believe that the current system can function but simply needs greater transparency and reform.

This is why placing pieces like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore‘s against zunguzungu’s is so interesting. Ultimately both Owen and Gilmore believe in the core of the current system – Scott explicitly so, arguing how secrecy in the current system allows for human right injustices to be tackled. Implicit in this, of course, is the message that this is how they should be tackled. Consequently they both see wikileaks as a failure as they (correctly) argue that its radical transparency will lead to a more closed and ineffective governments. Assange would likely counter that Scott’s effort address systems and not cause and may even reinforce the international structures that help foster hunan rights abuses. Consequently Assange’s core value of transparency, which at a basic level Owen and Gilmore would normally identify with, becomes a problem.

This is interesting. Owen and Scott believe in reform, they want the world to be a better place and fight (hard) to make it so. I love them both for it. But they aren’t up for a complete assault on the world’s core operating rules and structures. In a way this ultimately groups them (and possibly me – this is not a critique of Scott and Taylor whose concerns I think are well founded) on the same side of a dividing line as people like Tom Flanagan (the former adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister who half-jokingly called for Assange to be assassinated) and Joe Liberman (who called on companies that host material related to wikileaks to sever their ties with them). I want to be clear, they do not believe Assange should be assassinated but they (and possibly myself) do seem to agree that his tactics are a direct threat to the functioning of system that I think they are arguing needs to be reformed but preserved – and so see wikileaks as counterproductive.

My point here is that I want to make explicit the choices wikileaks is forcing us to make. Status quo with incremental non-structural reform versus whole hog structural change. Owen and Gilmore can label wikileaks a failure but in accepting that analysis we have to recognize that they view it from a position that believes in incremental reform. This means you believe in some other vehicle. And here, I think we have some tough questions to ask ourselves. What indeed is that vehicle?

This is why I think Jay Rosen’s piece is so damn important. One of the key ingredients for change has been the existence of the “watchdog” press. But, as he puts it (repeated from above):

I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving.

the logical conclusion of Rosen’s thesis is a direct challenge to those of us who are privileged enough to benefit from the current system. As ugly and imperfect as the current system may be Liberman, Flanagan, Owen and Gilmore and, to be explicit, myself, benefit from that system. We benefit from the status quo. Significantly. Dismantling the world we know carries with it significant risks, both for global stability, but also personally. So if we believe that Assange has the wrong strategy and tactics we need to make the case, both to ourselves, to his supporters, to those who leak to wiki leaks and to those on the short end of the stick in the international system about how it is the reform will work and how it is that secrecy and power will be managed for the public good.

In this regard the release of wikileak documents is not a terrorist event, but it is as much an attack on the international system as 9/11 was. It is a clear effort to destabilize and paralyze the international system. It also comes at a time when confidence in our institutions is sliding – indeed Rosen argues that this eroding confidence feeds wikileaks.

So what matters is how we react. To carry forward (the dangerous) 9/11 analogy, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. Then our response corrupted the very system we sought to defend, further eroded the confidence in institutions that needed support and enhanced our enemies – we attacked human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and prosecuted a war that killed 100,000s of innocent lives on the premise of manufactured evidence.

Consequently, our response to the current crises can’t be to close up governments and increase secrecy. This will strengthen the hands of those who run wikileaks and cause more public servants and citizens to fear the institutions wikileaks and look for alternatives… many of whoe will side with wikileaks and help imped the capacity of the most important institution in our society to respond to everyday challenges.

As a believer in open government and open data the only working option to us to do the opposite. To continue to open up these institutions as the only acceptable and viable path to making them more credible. This is not to say that ALL information should be made open. Any institution needs some private place to debate ideas and test unpopular theses. But at the moment our governments – more through design and evolution than conspiracy – enjoy far more privacy and secrecy than the need. Having a real and meaningful debate about how to change that is our best response. In my country, I don’t see that debate happening. In the United States, I see it moving forward, but now it has more urgency. Needless to say, I think all of this gives new weigh to my own testimony I’ll be making before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

I still hope the emerging conflict between open and closed can be won without having to resort to the types of tactics adopted by wikileaks. But for those of use who believe it, we had better start making the case persuasively. The responses of people like Flanagan and Liberman remind me of Bush after 9/11 “you are either with us, or with the terrorists.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, an analogous response will create a world in which power and information are further removed from the public and will lead to the type of destabilizing change Assange wants.

I’m bound to write more on this – especially around wikileaks, open data and transparency that I think some authors unhelpfully conflate but this post is already long enough and I’m sure most people haven’t even reached a place where they’ll be reading this.

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

In the UK, the default is open.

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

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

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

Consider the introduction to the framework:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this one for software:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Data: An Example of the Long Tail of Public Policy at Work

VancouverGraffiti_AnalysisAs many readers know, Vancouver passed what has locally been termed the Open3 motion a year ago and has had a open data portal up and running for several months.

Around the world much of the focus of open data initiatives have focused on the development of applications like Vancouver’s Vantrash, Washington DC’s Stumble Safely or Toronto’s Childcare locator. But the other use of data portals is to actually better understand and analyze phenomena in a city – all of which can potentially lead to a broader diversity of perspectives, better public policy and a more informed public and/or decision makers.

I was thus pleased to find out about another example of what I’ve been calling the Long Tail of Public Policy when I received an email from Victor Ngo, a student at the University of British Columbia who just completed his 2nd year in the Human Geography program with an Urban Studies focus (He’s also a co-op student looking for a summer job – nudge to the City of Vancouver).

It turns out that last month, he and two classmates did a project on graffiti occurrence and its relationship to land use, crime rates, and socio-economic variables. As Victor shared with me:

It was a group project I did with two other members in March/April. It was for an introductory GIS class and given our knowledge, our analysis was certainly not as robust and refined as it could have been. But having been responsible for GIS analysis part of the project, I’m proud of what we accomplished.

The “Graffiti sites” shapefile was very instrumental to my project. I’m a big fan of the site and I’ll be using it more in the future as I continue my studies.

So here we have University students in Vancouver using real city data to work on projects that could provide some insights, all while learning. This is another small example of why open data matters. This is the future of public policy development. Today Victor may be a student, less certain about the quality of his work (don’t underestimate yourself, Victor) but tomorrow he could be working for government, a think tank, a consulting firm, an insurance company or a citizen advocacy group. But wherever he is, the open data portal will be a resource he will want to turn to.

With Victor’s permission I’ve uploaded his report, Graffiti in the Urban Everyday – Comparing Graffiti Occurrence with Crime Rates, Land Use, and Socio-Economic Indicators in Vancouver, to my site so anyone can download it. Victor has said he’d love to get people’s feedback on it.

And what was the main drawback of using the open data? There wasn’t enough of it.

…one thing I would have liked was better crime statistics, in particular, the data for the actual location of crime occurrence. It would have certainly made our analysis more refined. The weekly Crime Maps that the VPD publishes is an example of what I mean:


You’re able to see the actual location where the crime was committed. We had to tabulate data from summary tables found at:


To translate: essentially the city releases this information in a non-machine-readable format, meaning that citizens, public servants at other levels of government and (I’m willing to wager) City of Vancouver public servants outside the police department have to recreate the data in a digital format. What a colossal waste of time and energy. Why not just share the data in a structured digital way? The city already makes it public, why not make it useful as well? This is what Washington DC (search crime) and San Francisco have done.

I hope that more apps get created in Vancouver, but as a public policy geek, I’m also hoping that more reports like these (and the one Bing Thom architects published on the future of Vancouver also using data from the open data catalog) get published. Ultimately, more people learning, thinking, writing and seeking solutions to our challenges will create a smarter, more vibrant and more successful city. Isn’t that what you’d want your city government (or any government, really…) to do?

Opening Parliament and other big announcements

This is going to be an exciting week for online activists seeking to make government more open and engaged.

First off, openparliament.ca launched yesterday. This is a fantastic site with a lot going for it – go check it out (after reading my other updates!). And huge kudos to its creator Michael Mulley. Just another great example of how our democratic institutions can be hacked to better serve our needs – to make them more open, accessible and engaging. There is a ton of stuff that could be built on top of Michael’s and others – like Howdtheyvote, sites. I’ve written more about this in a piece on the Globe’s website titled If You Won’t Tell Us About Our MPs Well Do It For You.

Second, as follow on to the launch of openparliament.ca, I’ve been meaning to share for some time that I’ve been having conversations with the House of Parliament IT staff over the past couple of months. About a month ago parliament IT staff agreed to start sharing the Hansard, MP’s bios, committee calendars and a range of other information via XML (sorry for not sharing this sooner, things have been a little crazy). They informed me that they would start doing this before the year is over – so I suspect it won’t happen in the next couple of months, but will happen at some point in the next 6 months. This is a huge step forward for the house and hopefully not the last (also, there is no movement on the senate as of yet). There are still a ton more ways that information about the proceedings of Canada’s democracy could be made more easily available, but we have some important momentum with great sites like those listed above, and internal recognition to share more data. I’ll be having further conversations with some of the staff over the coming months so will try to update people on progress as I find out.

Finally, I am gearing up to launch datadotgc.ca. This is a project I’ve been working on for quite some time with a number of old and new allies. Sadly, the Canadian government does not have an open data policy and there is no political effort to create a data.gc.ca like that created by the Obama administration (http://www.data.gov/) or of the British Government (http://data.gov.uk/). So, I along with a few friends have decided to create one for them. I’ll have an official post on this tomorrow. Needless to same, I’m excited. We are still looking for people to help us populate the site with open government data sets – and have even located some that we need help scraping – so if you are interested in contributing feel free to join the datadotgc.ca google group and we can get you password access to the site.

Vancouver Open Data Version 2: New Apps to create

Wow, wow, wow.

The City of Vancouver has just launched version 2 of its open data portal. A number of new data sets have been added to the site which is very exciting. Better still previously released data sets have been released in new formats.

Given that at 5pm tomorrow (Tuesday. Jan 26th) there will be the third Open Data Hackathon at the city archives to which anyone is invited, I thought I’d share the 5 new open data apps I’d love to see:

1. Home Buyers App.

So at some point some smart real estate agent is going to figure out that there is a WEALTH of relevant information for home buyers in the open data catalogue. Perhaps someone might create this iPhone app and charge for it, perhaps a real estate group will pay for its creation (I know some coders who would be willing – drop me an email).

Imagine an iPhone app you use when shopping around for homes. Since the app knows where you are it can use open data to tell you: property assessment, the distance to the nearest park (and nearest park with off leash area), nearest school, school zone (elementary, plus secondary immersion and regular), distance to the local community centre, neighborhood name, nearest bus/subway stops and routes, closest libraries, nearest firehall among a host of other data. Having that type of information at your finger tips could be invaluable!

2. My Commute App:

One of the sexiest and most interesting data sets released in version 2 is a GeoRss feed of upcoming road closures (which you can also click and see as a map!). It would be great if a commuter could outline their normal drive or select their bus route and anytime the rss feed posts about roadwork that will occur on that route the user receives an email informing them of this fact. Allows you to plan an alternative route or know that you’re going to have to leave a little early.

3. Development Feedback App

There is always so much construction going on in Vancouver it is often hard to know what is going to happen next. The city, to its credit, requires developers to post a giant white board outlining the proposed development. Well now a data feed of planned developments is available on the data portal (it also can already be viewed in map form)! Imagine an iPhone app which shows you the nearest development applications (with details!) and heritage buildings so you can begin to understand how the neighbourhood is going to change. Then imagine a form you can fill in – right then(!) – that emails your concerns or support for that development to a councilor or relevant planning official…

For a city like Vancouver that obsesses about architecture and its neighborhoods, this feels like a winner.

4. MyPark App

We Vancouverites are an outdoorsey bunch. Why not an app that consolidates information about the cities parks into one place. You could have park locations, nearest park locator, nearest dog park locator, the Parks Boards most recent announcements and events RSS Feed. I’m hoping that in the near future Parks Board will release soccer/ultimate frisbee field conditions updates in a machine readable format.

5. VanTrash 2.0?

Interestingly Apartment recycling schedule zones was also released in the new version of the site. Might be interesting to see if we can incorporate it into the already successful Vantrash and so expand the user base.

I’m also thinking there could be some cool things one could do with Graffiti information (maybe around reporting? a 311 tie in?) and street lights (safest route home walking app?)

So there is a start. If you are interested in these – or have your own ideas for how the data could be used – let me know. Better yet, consider coming down to the City Archives tomorrow evening for the third open data hackathon. I’ll be there, it would be great to chat.

BC Government's blog on renewing the Water Act

On Friday the Government of British Columbia announced that it was beginning the process to renew the province’s water act. This is, in of itself, important and good.

More interesting however, is that the government has chosen to launch a blog to discuss ideas, prospective changes and generally engage the public on water issues.

It is, of course, early days. I’m not one to jump up and proclaim instant success nor pick apart the effort and find its faults after a single post. What I will say is that this type of experimentation in public engagement and policy development is long overdue. It is exciting to see a major government in Canada tentatively begin to explore how online technology and social media might enhance policy development as more (hopefully) than just a communication exercise. Even if it does not radically alter the process – or even if it does not go well – at least this government is experimenting and beginning learn what will work and what won’t. I hope and suspect other jurisdictions will be watching closely.

If you are such a government-type and are wondering what it is about the site that gives me hope… let me briefly list three things:

  1. Site design: Unlike most government websites which OVERWHELM you with information, menus and links, this one is (relatively) simple.
  2. Social media: A sidebar with recent comments! A tag cloud! RSS feed! Things that most blogs and website have had for years and yet… seem to elude government websites.
  3. An effective platform (bonus points for being open source): This may be the first time I’ve seen an official government website in Canada use wordpress (which, by the by, is free to download). When running a blog wordpress is certainly my choice (quite literally) and has been a godsend. The choice of wordpress also explains a lot of why point #2 is possible.

So… promising start. Now, what would I like to see happen around the government’s blog?

Well, if you want to engage the public why not give them data that you are using internally? It would be great to get recent and historic flow rate data from major rivers in BC. And what about water consumption rates by industry/sector but also perhaps by region and by city and dare we ask… by neighborhood? It would also be interesting to share the assumptions about future growth so that professors, thinktanks and those who care deeply about water issues could challenge and test them. Of course the government could share all this data on its upcoming Apps For Climate Change data portal (more on that soon). If we were really lucky, some web superstar like this guy, would create some cool visualization to help the public understand what is happening to water around the province and what the future holds.

In short, having a blog is a fantastic first start, but lets use it to share information so that citizens can do their own analysis using their own assumptions with the same data sets the government is using. That would certainly elevate the quality of the discussion on the site.

All in all, the potential for a site like this is significant. I hope the water geeks show up in force and are able to engage in a helpful manner.