Tag Archives: stimulus

The Stimulus Map: Open Data and enhancing our democracy

The subject of the distribution of stimulus monies has been generating a fair amount of interest. Indeed, the Globe published this piece and the Halifax Chronicle-Herald published this piece analyzing the spending. But something more interesting is also happening…

Yesterday, my friend Ducky Sherwood and her husband Jim published their own analysis, an important development for two reasons.

First, their analysis is just plain interesting… they’ve got an excellent breakdown of who is receiving what (Ontario is a big winner in absolute and per capita terms, Quebec is the big loser). Moreover, they’ve made the discussion fun and engaging by creating this map. It shows you every stimulus project in the country and where you click it will highlight nearby projects. The map also displays and colour-codes every riding in the country by party (blue for Conservatives, magenta for everyone else) and the colour’s strength correlates to the quantity of monies received.

Stimulus Map

Second, and more interesting for me, is how their analysis hints at the enormous possibilities of what citizens can do when Government’s share their data and information about programs with the public in useful formats. (You can get spreadsheets of the data and for those more technically-minded the API can be found here). This is an example of the Long Tail of Public Policy Analysis in action.

This could have a dramatic impact on public discourse. Open data shifts the locus of power in the debate. Previously, simply getting the data was of value since your analysis would likely only compete, at best, with one or two other peoples (usually a news organization, or maybe a professor). But when anyone can access the information the value shifts. Simply doing an analysis is no longer interesting (since anyone can do it). Now the quality, relevance, ideological slant, assumptions, etc… of the analysis are of paramount value. This has serious implications – implications I believe bode well for debate and democracy in this country. Indeed, I hope more people will play with the stimulus data (like these guys have) and that a more rigorous debate about both where it is being spent and how it is being spent will ensue. (Needless to say, I believe that spending money on auto bailouts and building roads does little to promote recovery – the real opportunity would have been in seeding the country with more data to power the businesses of tomorrow).

There are, however, limits to Ducky’s analysis that are no fault of her own. While she can crunch the numbers and create a great map she is… ultimately… limited to the information that government gives her (and all of us). For example the data set she uses is fairly vague about the value of projects: the government labels them “under $100K” or “between $100K and $1M.” These are hardly precise figures.

Nor does the data say anything about the quality of these projects or their impact. Of course, this is what the debate should be about. Where, how effectively, and to what end is our money being spent? Ducky’s analysis allows us to get to these questions more quickly. The point here is that by opening up this stimulus money to popular analysis we can have a debate about effectiveness.

I don’t, for a second, believe that this will be an easy debate – one in which a “right” answer will magically emerge out of the “data.” Quite the opposite, as I pointed out above the debate will now shift to the economic, ideological and other assumptions that inform each opinion.  This could in fact create a less clear picture – but it will also be a picture that is more reflective of the diversity of opinions found in our country and that can scarcely be represented in the two national newspapers. And this is what is most important. Open data allows for a greater debate, one that more citizens can contribute and be a part of rather than just passively observe from their newspapers and TV screens. That is the real opportunity of open data is not that it enables a perfect discussion, but a wider, more democratic and thus, as far as I’m concerned, a better one.

(An additional note, while it is great that the government has created an API to share this data, let us not get too excited; it is very limited in what it tells us. More data, shared openly would be better still. Don’t expect this anytime soon. Yesterday the Government dropped 4,476 pages off at the Parliamentary Budget Office rather than send them a electronic spreadsheet (h/t Tim Wilson). Clearly they don’t want the PBO to be able to crunch the numbers on the stimulus package – which means they probably don’t want you to either.)

Chicago's green roofs and our failed stimulus

I was completely floored (and excited) to read this article about how the Sears Tower in Chicago (recently renamed the Willis Tower) is to undergo a $350M green retrofit that will give it a green roof and it’s own wind turbines. This will reduce the energy consumed by the tower by 80% and its water consumption will drop by 24 million gallons.

As this blog notes:

the U.S Department of State estimates that buildings account for an estimated 36 percent of overall energy use, 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 12 percent of water use in America. Green improvements to Sears Tower are aimed at reducing electricity use by 80% in just four years, equating to 68 million kilowatt hours or 150,000 barrels of oil per year. The architects firm responsible for the retro-design, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, has also designed a 50 storey highly sustainable tower to accompany Sears Tower on its south side which will draw power from the improved efficiency measures and work as a net-zero energy development.

So this renovation – which is to start immediately (note the shovel readiness of it) this project will:

  • create a more efficient and thus profitable building (benefiting Chicago businesses and the tax base)
  • reduce US consumption of oil by 150,000 barrels a year (reducing cash outflows and helping America’s balance of trade)
  • will immediately create 3600 jobs yo complete the work (in the construction industry, which has been hard hit by the financial crises)
  • help train and provide practical experience to, construction workers, contractors, design firms & others in creating green buildings (position them for the next economy)

This is a stimulus plan that works. Recently I argued we need a stimulus plan that is low of carbs and fat on data… this is just another example of the types of shovel ready projects that leave a legacy. Canada’s plan to date? Pave some roads and build some bridges all so that we can burn more gas moving cars around.

Feeding the next economy – Give us a stimulus that stimulates, not placates

Last December – as the debates over the stimulus packages were just beginning, I wrote a piece on why the wrong stimulus today could fail us tomorrow. Well, today has become tomorrow, and we are failing.

A stimulus package should be an investment. It should create new industries and markets, it should find help create efficiencies and improve productivity, in short, in should help the economy grow in a sustainable manner. In the last depression the government accomplished this by funding infrastructure necessary for the 20th century economy, things like roads and highways for cars and transportation, power stations and grids for cities and industry, university buildings for education. Today, we already have much of that infrastructure and – while some of it needs to be renewed – we need to be focusing on what infrastructure is needed for the next economy – the digital economy – that will carry us out of this recession.

So what powers the digital economy? It isn’t coal, steel or cars and power (although these things are necessary), it’s data and connectivity.

Data is the plankton of the new economy. It seems plentiful, tiny and insignificant. But a whole ecosystem of companies, large and small are emerging to feed off of it and support our next economy. People often fail to recognize that the largest company already created by the new economy – Google – is a data company.  Google is effective, rich and powerful not because it sells ads… but because it generates petaflops of data everyday from billions of search queries. This allows it to know more about our society, and sometimes us individually – the merchandise we like, the services we want, the spam we’ll receive, even if the likelihood we’ll get sick in 4 months – than we know about yourself. Give people access to data and they will use it to become more efficient (freeing up more money to reinvest) and to create new services and opportunities (creating new jobs and profits).

Look no further than the City of Washington DC. It created a publicly available database of city collected and created data and asked local individuals and companies to use it. The result? A $50,000 dollar investment in changing processes and offering prize money has so far yielded $2.3M in value. That’s a 46 times return on investment in one year.

Now imagine that at a national level. Imagine Statistics Canada making all its data available freely (since taxpayers have already paid for its creation). As I outlined in a talk to StatsCan last year, not only would this make them a more important ministry, it could foster billions in savings, investments and new jobs all for a tiny sum. Let’s pick a truly excessive number, say $100M (.2% of the stimulus package) and imagine that’s this would be the cost for Statistics Canada to free all its data and provide in formats usable for webpages, cellphones and applications. Even if such a stimulus were only 20% as effective as Washington’s open data project it would still yield $460M in one year of new (not saved) jobs, and improved economic efficiencies and competitiveness. Over a decade, billions in new wealth would be created.

Compare this to our current course of action. To date much of our stimulus has been spent propping up (not creating) industries that are in death spirals such as logging, newspapers, and the auto-sector. The money spent isn’t about creating new or better jobs, it is simply being spent to keep jobs. Indeed, Andrew Coyne calculates that each auto-job saved cost us just under 2 million dollars. It will take years, if not decades, for such an investment to pay off, if it ever does. Worse still, the Canadian economy will be no more efficient or profitable as a result. While we are at it we might as well be giving Canadians money to buy land-line telephones to stimulate the telecommunications sector.

Oh, and it case you are wondering, the Americans already give out much of their government data for free and they are starting to give away more and more. This is a competitive race we are already losing, and only falling further and further behind.

Canada needs a better stimulus, one that is low on carbon and fat on data. Sadly, I fear our current government lacks the vision and creativity to give us what we need to prepare for the 21st century. So far we are off to an ominous start.