Tag Archives: technology

New Zealand: The World’s Lab for Progressive Tech Legislation?

Cross posted with TechPresident.

One of the nice advantage of having a large world with lots of diverse states is the range of experiments it offers us. Countries (or regions within them) can try out ideas, and if they work, others can copy them!

For example, in the world of drug policy, Portugal effectively decriminalized virtually all drugs. The result has been dramatic. And much of it positive. Some of the changes include a decline in both HIV diagnoses amongst drug users by 17% and drug use among adolescents (13-15 yrs). For those interested you can read more about this in a fantastic report by the Cato Institute written by Glenn Greenwald back in 2009 before he started exposing the unconstitutional and dangerous activities of the NSA. Now some 15 years later there have been increasing demands to decriminalize and even legalize drugs, especially in Latin America. But even the United States is changing, with both the states of Washington and Colorado opting to legalize marijuana. The lessons of Portugal have helped make the case, not by penetrating the public’s imagination per se, but by showing policy elites that decriminalization not only works but it saves lives and saves money. Little Portugal may one day be remembered for changing the world.

I wonder if we might see a similar paper written about New Zealand ten years from now about technology policy. It may be that a number of Kiwis will counter the arguments in this post by exposing all the reasons why I’m wrong (which I’d welcome!) but at a glance, New Zealand would probably be the place I’d send a public servant or politician wanting to know more about how to do technology policy right.

So why is that?

First, for those who missed it, this summer New Zealand banned software patents. This is a stunning and entirely sensible accomplishment. Software patents, and the legal morass and drag on innovation they create, are an enormous problem. The idea that Amazon can patent “1-click” (e.g. the idea that you pre-store someone’s credit card information so they can buy an item with a single click) is, well, a joke. This is a grand innovation that should be protected for years?

And yet, I can’t think of single other OECD member country that is likely to pass similar legislation. This means that it will be up to New Zealand to show that the software world will survive just fine without patents and the economy will not suddenly explode into flames. I also struggle to think of an OECD country where one of the most significant industry groups – the Institute of IT Professionals appeared – would not only both support such a measure but help push its passage:

The nearly unanimous passage of the Bill was also greeted by Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) chief executive Paul Matthews, who congratulated [Commerce Minister] Foss for listening to the IT industry and ensuring that software patents were excluded.

Did I mention that the bill passed almost unanimously?

Second, New Zealanders are further up the learning curve around the dangerous willingness their government – and foreign governments – have for illegally surveilling them online.

The arrest of Kim Dotcom over MegaUpload has sparked some investigations into how closely the country’s police and intelligence services follow the law. (For an excellent timeline of the Kim Dotcom saga, check out this link). This is because Kim Dotcom was illegally spied on by New Zealand’s intelligence services and police force, at the behest of the United States, which is now seeking to extradite him. The arrest and subsequent fall out has piqued public interest and lead to investigations including the Kitteridge report (PDF) which revealed that “as many as 88 individuals have been unlawfully spied on” by the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau.

I wonder if the Snowden documents and subsequent furor probably surprised New Zealanders less than many of their counterparts in other countries since it was less a bombshell than another data point on a trend line.

I don’t want to overplay the impact of the Kim Dotcom scandal. It has not, as far as I can tell, lead to a complete overhaul of the rules that govern intelligence gathering and online security. That said, I suspect, it has created a political climate that amy be more (healthily) distrustful of government intelligence services and the intelligence services of the United States. As a result, it is likely that politicians have been more sensitive to this matter for a year or two longer than elsewhere and that public servants are more accustomed at policies through the lens of its impact on rights and privacy of citizens than in many other countries.

Finally, (and this is somewhat related to the first point) New Zealand has, from what I can tell, a remarkably strong open source community. I’m not sure why this is the case, but suspect that people like Nat Torkington – and open source and open data advocate in New Zealand – and others like him play a role in it. More interestingly, this community has had influence across the political spectrum. The centre left labour party deserves much of the credit for the patent reform while the centre-right New Zealand National Party has embraced both open data. The country was among the first to embrace open source as a viable option when procuring software and in 2003 the government developed an official open source policy to help clear the path for greater use of open source software. This contrasts sharply with my experience in Canada where, as late as 2008, open source was still seen by many government officials as a dangerous (some might say cancerous?) option that needed to be banned and/or killed.

All this is to say that in both the public (e.g. civil society and the private sector) and within government there is greater expertise around thinking about open source solutions and so an ability to ask different questions about intellectual property and definitions of the public good. While I recognize that this exists in many countries now, it has existed longer in New Zealand than in most, which suggests that it enjoys greater acceptance in senior ranks and there is greater experience in thinking about and engaging these perspectives.

I share all this for two reasons:

First, I would keep my eye on New Zealand. This is clearly a place where something is happening in a way that may not be possible in other OECD countries. The small size of its economy (and so relative lack of importance to the major proprietary software vendors) combined with a sufficient policy agreement both among the public and elites enables the country to overcome both internal and external lobbying and pressure that would likely sink similar initiatives elsewhere. And while New Zealand’s influence may be limited, don’t underestimate the power of example. Portugal also has limited influence, but its example has helped show the world that the US -ed narrative on the “war on drugs” can be countered. In many ways this is often how it has to happen. Innovation, particularly in policy, often comes from the margins.

Second, if a policy maker, public servant or politician comes to me and asks me who to talk to around digital policy, I increasingly find myself looking at New Zealand as the place that is the most compelling. I have similar advice for PhD students. Indeed, if what I’m arguing is true, we need research to describe, better than I have, the conditions that lead to this outcome as well as the impact these policies are having on the economy, government and society. Sadly, I have no names to give to those I suggest this idea to, but I figure they’ll find someone in the government to talk to, since, as a bonus to all this, I’ve always found New Zealanders to be exceedingly friendly.

So keep an eye on New Zealand, it could be the place where some of the most progressive technology policies first get experimented with. It would be a shame if no one noticed.

(Again If some New Zealanders want to tell me I’m wrong, please do. Obviously, you know your country better than I do).

What Traffic Lights Say About the Future of Regulation

I have a piece up on TechPresident about some crazy regulations that took place in Florida that put citizens at greater risk all so the state and local governments can make more money.

Here’s a chunk:

In effect, what the state of Florida is saying is that a $20 million increase in revenue is worth an increase in risk of property damage, injury and death as a result of increased accidents. Based onnational statistics, there are likely about 62 deaths and 5,580 injuries caused by red light running in Florida each year. If shorter yellow lights increased that rate by 10 percent (far less than predicted by the USDOT) that could mean an additional 6 deaths and 560 injuries. Essentially the state will raise a measly extra $35,000 for each injury or death its regulations help to cause, and possibly far less.

What the Quantified Self Movement Says and Tech and Gender

Over the past year or two I’ve been to a couple of unconferences sessions about how people are increasingly measuring different parts of their lives: how far they run, how they sleep, what they eat, etc… As some readers may be aware, these efforts are often referred to as part of the “Quantified Self Movement.” For those readers less aware (and curious), you can watch Wired Magazine editor and quantified movement originator Gary Wolf give a brief overview in this 6 minute TED talk.

All of this sounds very geeky I’m sure. And as a general data geek and avid fitbit user I am – I suppose – part of the quantified self movement myself.

Reflecting on these (few) experiences with the movement, I find it interesting that almost every session I’ve been to has been almost entirely populated by men. I’m open to the possibility that I’ve simply been to the wrong conferences or the wrong sessions, but I’m not sure that is the case. Even looking at the quantified self Wikipedia page, virtually all the gadgets referred to deal with fitness and sleep. Obviously these are not things that men exclusively care about, but they are notable because of what is absent.

Humans have, of course, probably been quantifying themselves for as long as we’ve been around. But when I think of a group of people that have been engaged in quantifying themselves in a meaningful way,for well over a millennia,it is women.

More specifically, it is women measuring their menstrual cycles. I mean as important as losing a few pounds or getting a good nights sleep may be (and it is important to me), I’m pretty sure the stakes are much lower than preventing, or trying to get, pregnancy (now that’s a life changing event!). Indeed, given that it is hard to imagine most men having any pressing needs to measure much about their bodies on a regular basis a thousand years ago, it think it would be safe to argue that women were societies first quantified selfers.

And yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen this activity discussed, looked to as a model, or engaged in by the quantified self movement. Lauren Bacon has a great post on her own experience measuring her menstrual cycle as part of her quantified self but it is pretty rare to see women adopt that language. Given that women have been measuring their periods for years, and that there is likely a strong oral and written history to look into around this, I’d think this was a line of research or inquiry that the movement would be interested at looking into. Doubly so since it would give us a window into what a community of quantified selfers looks like, especially when its activities have been more normalized (as during some parts of our history) and marginalized (during other parts).

This all feels like a lost opportunity, and the kind of thing that happens when there are too many men and not enough women in a conversation. You want to talk about the consequences of not having women in tech – this strikes me as a great example. A rich and important history is not (sufficiently) reflected in the conversation and so important lessons and practices are potentially missed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe women have been part of the quantified self movement from the beginning and that this is not a larger reflection of the challenges we face when the ratio of men and women in an industry is out of whack. But my sense is that this is actually a very nice, and potentially wonderfully quantifiable, case study around the issues of women in tech.


The End of the World: The State vs. the Internet

Last weekend at FooCamp, I co-hosted a session titled “The End of the World: Will the Internet Destroy the State, or Will the State Destroy the Internet?” What follows are the ideas I opened with during my intro to the session and some additional thoughts I’ve had and that others shared during the conversation. To avoid some confusion, I’d also like to clarify a) I don’t claim that these questions have never been raised before, I mostly hope that this framing can generate useful thought and debate; and b) that I don’t believe these are the only two or three possible outcomes; it was just a interesting way of framing some poles so as to generate good conversation.


A while back, I thought I saw a tweet from Evgeny Morozov that said something to the effect: “You don’t just go from printing press to Renaissance to iPad; there are revolutions and wars in between you can’t ignore.” Since I can’t find the tweet, maybe he didn’t say it or I imagined it… but it sparked a line of thinking.

Technology and Change

Most often, when people think of the printing press, they think of its impact on the Catholic Church – about how it enabled Martin Luther’s complaints to go viral and how the localization of the Bible cut out the need of the middle man the priest to connect and engage with God. But if the printing press undermined the Catholic Church, it had the opposite impact on the state. To be fair, heads of state took a beating (see French Revolution et al.), but the state itself was nimbler and made good use of the technology. Indeed, it is worth noting that the modern notion of the nation state was not conceivable without the printing press. The press transformed the state – scaling up its capacity to demand control over loyalty from citizens and mobilize resources which, in turn, had an impact on how states related (and fought) with one another.

In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson outlined how the printing press allowed the state to standardize language and history. In other words, someone growing up in Marseilles 100 years before the printing press probably had a very different sense of history and spoke a markedly different dialect of French than someone living in Paris during the same period. But the printing press (and more specifically, those who controlled it) allowed a dominant discourse to emerge (in this case, likely the Parisian one). Think standardized dictionaries, school textbooks and curricula, to say nothing of history and entertainment. This caused people who might never have met to share a common imagined history, language and discourse. Do not underestimate the impact this had on people’s identity. As this wonderful quote from the book states: “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” In other words, states could now fully dispense with feudal middle managers and harness the power of larger swaths of population directly – a population that might never actually meet, but could nonetheless feel connected to one another. The printing press thus helped create the modern nation state by providing a form of tribalism at scale: what we now call nationalism. This was, in turn, an important ingredient for the wars that dominated the late 19th and early 20th century – think World War I and World War II. This isn’t to say without the printing press, you don’t get war – we know that isn’t true – but the type of total war between 20th century nation states does have a direct line to the printing press.

So yes, the techno-utopian world of: printing press -> Renaissance -> iPad is not particularly accurate.

What you do get is: printing press -> Renaissance -> state evolution -> destabilization of international order -> significant bloodshed -> re-stabilization of international system -> iPad.

I raise all this because if this is the impact the printing press had on the state, it begs a new question: What will be the impact of the internet on the state? Will the internet be a technology the state can harness to extract more loyalty from its citizens… or will the internet destroy the imagined communities that make the state possible, replaced by a more nimble, disruptive organization better able to survive the internet era?

Some Scenarios

Note: again, these scenarios aren’t absolutes or the only possibilities, they are designed to raise questions and provoke thinking.

The State Destroys the Internet

One possibility is that the state is as adaptive as capitalism. I’m always amazed at how capitalism has evolved over the centuries. From mercantilism to free market to social market to state capitalism, as a meme it readily adapts  to new environments. One possibility is that the state is the same – sufficiently flexible to adapt to new conditions. Consequently, one can imagine that the state grabs sufficient control of the internet to turn it into a tool that at best enhances – and at worst, doesn’t threaten – citizens’ connection to it. Iran, with its attempt to build a state-managed internal network that will allow it to closely monitor its citizens’ every move, is a scary example of the former. China – with its great firewall – may be an example of the latter. But one not need pick on non-western states.

And a networked world will provide states – especially democratic ones – with lots of reasons to seize greater control of their citizens’ lives. From organized crime, to  terrorism, to identity theft, governments find lots of reasons to monitor their citizens. This is to say nothing of advanced persistent threats which create a state of continual online warfare – or sort of modern day phoney phishy war – between China, the United States, Iran and others. This may be the ultimate justification.

Indeed, as a result of these threats, the United States already has an extensive system for using the internet to monitor its own citizens and even my own country – Canada – tried to pass a law last year to significantly ramp up the monitoring of citizens online. The UK, of course, has just proposed a law whose monitoring provisions would make any authoritarian government squeal with glee. And just last week we found out that the UK government is preparing to cut a blank check for internet service providers to pay for installing the monitoring systems to record what its citizens do online.

Have no doubts, this is about the state trying to ensure the internet serves – or at least doesn’t threaten – its interests.

This is sadly, the easiest future to imagine since it conforms with the world we already know – one where states are ascendant. However, this future represents, in many ways, a linear projection of the future – and our world, especially our networked world, rarely behaves in a linear fashion. So we should be careful about confusing familiarity with probability.

The Internet Destroys the State

Another possibility is that the internet undermines our connection with the state. Online we become increasingly engaged with epistemic communities – be it social, like someone’s World of Warcraft guild, or professional, such as an association with a scientific community. Meanwhile, in the physical world, local communities – possibly at the regional level – become ascendant. In both cases, regulations and rules created by the state feel increasingly like an impediment to conducting our day to day lives, commerce and broader goals. Frustration flares, and increasingly someone in Florida feels less and less connection with someone in Washington state – and the common sense of identity, the imagined community, created by the state begins to erode.

This is, of course, hard for many people to imagine – especially Americans. But for many people in the world – including Canadians – the unity of the state is not a carefree assumption. There have been three referenda on breaking up Canada in my lifetime. More to the point, this process probably wouldn’t start in places where the state is strongest (such as in North America); rather, it would start in places where it is weakest. Think Somalia, Egypt (at the moment) or Belgium (which has basically functioned for two years without a government and no one seemed to really notice). Maybe this isn’t a world with no state – but lots of little states (which I think breaks with our mold of what we imagine the state to be to a certain degree) or maybe some new organizing mechanism, one which leverages local community identities, but can co-exist with a network of diffused but important transnational identities. Or maybe the organizing unit gets bigger, so that greater resources can be called upon to manage ne,w network-based threats.

I, like most people find this world harder to imagine. This is because so many of our assumptions suddenly disappear. If not the state, then what? Who or what protects and manages the internet infrastructure? What about other types of threats – corporate interests, organized and cyber-crime, etc.? This is true paradigm-shifting stuff (apologies for use of the word,) and frankly, I still find myself too stuck in my Newtonian world and the rules make it hard to imagine or even know what quantum mechanics will be like. Again, I want to separate imagining the future with its probability. The two are not always connected, and this is why thinking about this future, as uncomfortable and alienating as it may be, is probably an important exercise.

McWorldThe Internet Rewards the Corporation

One of the big assumptions I often find about people who write/talk about the internet is that it almost always assumes that the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis. There are good reasons for this – using social media, an individual’s capacity to be disruptive has generally increased. And, as Clay Shirky has outlined, the need for coordinating institutions and managers has greatly diminished. Indeed, Shirky’s blog post on the collapse of complex business models is (in addition to being a wonderful piece) a fantastic description of how a disruptive technology can undermine the capacity of larger complex players in a system and benefit smaller, simpler stakeholders. Of course, the smaller stakeholder in our system may not be the individual – it may be an actor that is smaller, nimbler than the state, that can foster an imagined community, and can adopt various forms of marshaling resources for self-organization to hierarchical management. Maybe it is the corporation.

During the conversation at FooCamp, Tim O’Reilly pressed this point with great effect. It could be that the corporation is actually the entity best positioned to adapt to the internet age. Small enough to leverage networks, big enough to generate a community that is actually loyal and engaged.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a feedback loop that accelerates the ascendance of the corporation. If our imagined communities of nation states cannot withstand a world of multiple narratives and so become weaker, corporations would benefit not just from a greater capacity to adapt, but the great counterbalance to their power – state regulation and borders – might simultaneously erode. A world where more and more power – through information, money and human capital – gets concentrated in corporations is not hard to imagine. Indeed there are many who believe this is already our world. Of course, if the places (generally government bodies) where corporate conflicts – particularly those across sectors – cannot be mediated peacefully then corporations may turn much more aggressive. The need to be bigger, to marshal more resources, to have a security division to defend corporate interests, could lead to a growth in corporations as entities we barely imagine today. It’s a scary future, but not one that hasn’t been imagined several times in SciFi novels, and not one I would put beyond the realm of imagination.

The End of the World

The larger point of all this is that new technologies do change the way we imagine our communities. A second and third order impact of the printing press was its critical role in creating the modern nation-state. The bigger question is, what will be the second and third order impacts of the internet – on our communities (real and imagined), our identity and where power gets concentrated?

As different as the outcomes above are, they share one important thing in common. None represent the status quo. In each case, the nature of the state, and its relationship with citizens, shifts. Consequently, I find it hard to imagine a future where the internet does not continue to put a real strain on how we organize ourselves, and in turn the systems we have built to manage this organization. Consequently, it is not hard to imagine that as more and more of those institutions – including potentially the state itself – come under strain, it could very likely push systems – like the international state system – that are presently stable into a place of instability. It is worth noting that after the printing press, one of the first real nation states – France – wreaked havoc on Europe for almost a half century, using its enhanced resources to conquer pretty much everyone in its path.

While I am fascinated by technology and believe it can be harnessed to do good, I like to think that I am not – as Evgeny labels them – a techno-utopian. We need to remember that, looking back on our history, the second and third order effects of some technologies can be highly destabilizing, which carries with it real risks of generating significant bloodshed and conflict. Hence the title of this blog post and the FooCamp session: The End of the World.

This is not a call for a renewed Luddite manifesto. Quite the opposite – we are on a treadmill we cannot get off. Our technologies have improved our lives, but they also create new problems that, very often social innovations and other technologies will be needed to solve. Rather, I want to raise this because I believe it to be important that still more people – particularly those in the valley and other technology hubs (and not just military strategists) – be thinking critically about what the potential second and third order effects of the internet, the web and the tools they are creating, so that they can contribute to the thinking around potential technological, social and institutional responses that could hopefully mitigate against the worst outcomes.

I hope this helps prompt further thinking and discussion.


Control Your Content: Why SurveyMonkey Should Add a "Download Your Answers" Button

Let me start by saying, I really like SurveyMonkey.

By this I mean, I like SurveyMonkey specifically, but I also like online surveys in general. They are easy to ignore if I’m uninterested in the topic but – when the topic is relevant –  it is a great, simple service that allows me to share feedback, comments and opinions with whomever wants to solicit them.

Increasingly however, I find people and organizations are putting up more demanding surveys – surveys that necessitate thoughtful, and even occasionally long form, responses.

Take for example the Canadian Government. It used an online survey tool during its consultation on open government and open data.  The experience was pretty good. Rather than a clunky government website, there was a relatively easy form to fill out. Better still, since the form was long, it was wonderful that you could save your answers and come back to it later! This mattered since some of the form’s questions prompted me to write lengthy (and hopefully) insightful responses.

But therein lies the rub. In the jargon of the social media world I was “creating content.” This wasn’t just about clicking boxes. I was writing. And surprisingly many of my answers were causing me to develop new ideas. I was excited! I wanted to take the content I had created and turn it into a blog post.

Sadly, most survey tools make it very, very hard for you to capture the content you’ve created. It feels like it would be relatively easy to have a “download my answers” button at the end of a survey. I mean, if I’ve taken 10-120 minutes to complete a survey or public consultation shouldn’t we make it easy for me to keep a record of my responses? Instead, I’ve got to copy and paste the questions, and my answers, into a text document as I go. And of course, I’d better decide that I want to do that before I start since some survey tools don’t allow you to go back and see previous answers.

I ultimately did convert my answers into a blog post (you can see it here), but there was about 20 minutes of cutting, pasting, figuring things out, and reformatting. And there was some content (like Semantic Differential questions – where you rate statements) which were simply to hard to replicate.

There are, of course, other uses too. I had a similar experience last week after being invited to complete a survey posted by the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee on its Independent Reporting Mechanism. About half way through filling it out some colleagues suggested we compare answers to better understand one another’s advice. A download your answer tool would have convert a 15 minute into a 10 second task. All to access content I created.

I’m not claiming this is the be all, end all of online survey features, but it is the kind of simple thing that I survey company can do that will cause some users to really fall in love with the service. To its credit SurveyMonkey was at least willing to acknowledge the feedback – just what you’d hope for from a company that specializes in soliciting opinion online! With luck, maybe the idea will go somewhere.


Lessons from Michigan's "Innovation Fund" for Government Software

So it was with great interest that several weeks ago a reader emailed me this news article coming out of Michigan. Turns out the state recently approved a $2.5 million dollar innovation fund that will be dispersed in $100,000 to $300,000 chunks to fund about 10 projects. As Government Technology reports:

The $2.5 million innovation fund was approved by the state Legislature in Michigan’s 2012 budget. The fund was made formal this week in a directive from Gov. Rick Snyder. The fund will be overseen by a five-person board that includes Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) Director John Nixon and state CIO David Behen.

There are lessons in this for other governments thinking about how to spur greater innovation in government while also reducing the cost of software.

First up: the idea of an innovation fund – particularly one that is designed to support software that works for multiple governments – is a laudable one. As I’ve written before, many governments overpay for software. I shudder to think of how many towns and counties in Michigan alone are paying to have the exact same software developed for them independently. Rather than writing the same piece of software over and over again for each town, getting a single version that is usable by 80% (or heck, even just 25%) of cities and counties would be a big win. We have to find a way to get governments innovating faster, and getting them back in the driver’s seat on  the software they need (as opposed to adapting stuff made for private companies) would be a fantastic start.

Going from this vision – of getting something that works in multiple cities – to reality, is not easy. Read the Executive Directive more closely. What’s particularly interesting (from my reading) is the flexibility of the program:

In addition to the Innovation Fund and Investment Board, the plan may include a full range of public, private, and non-profit collaborative innovation strategies, including resource sharing…

There is good news and bad news here.

The bad news is that all this money could end up as loans to mom and pop software shops that serve a single city or jurisdiction, because they were never designed from the beginning to be usable across multiple jurisdictions. In other words, the innovation fund could go to fund a bunch of vendors who already exist and who, at best, do okay, or at worse, do mediocre work and, in either case, will never be disruptive and blow up the marketplace with something that is both radically helpful and radically low cost.

What makes me particularly nervous about the directive is that there is no reference to open source license. If a government is going to directly fund the development of software, I think it should be open source; otherwise, taxpayers are acting as venture capitalists to develop software that they are also going to pay licenses to use. In other words, they’re absorbing the risk of a VC in order to have the limited rights of being a client; that doesn’t seem right. An open source requirement would be the surest way to ensure an ROI on the program’s money. It assures that Michigan governments that want access to what gets developed can get use it at the lowest possible cost. (To be clear, I’ve no problem with private vendors – I am one – but their software can be closed because they (should) be absorbing the risk of developing it themselves. If the government is giving out grants to develop software for government use, the resulting software should be licensed open.)

Which brings us to the good. My interest in the line of the executive directive cited above was piqued by the reference to public and non-profit “collaborative innovation strategies.” I read that and I immediately think of one of my favourite organizations: Kuali.

Many readers have heard me talk about Kuali, an organization in which a group of universities collectively set the specs for a piece of software they all need and then share in the costs of developing it. I’m a big believer that this model could work for local and even state level governments. This is particularly true for the enterprise management software packages (like financial management), for which cities usually buy over-engineered, feature rich bloatware from organizations like SAP. The savings in all this could be significant, particularly for the middle-sized cities for whom this type of software is overkill.

My real hope is that this is the goal of this fund – to help provide some seed capital to start 10 Kuali-like projects. Indeed, I have no idea if the governor and his CIO’s staff have heard of or talked to the Kuali team before signing this directive, but if they haven’t, they should now. (Note: It’s only a 5 hour drive from the capital, Lansing, Michigan to the home of Kuali in Bloomington, Indiana).

So, if you are a state, provincial or national government and you are thinking about replicating Michigan’s directive – what should you do? Here’s my advice:

  • Require that all the code created by any projects you fund be open source. This doesn’t mean anyone can control the specs – that can still reside in the hands of a small group of players, but it does mean that a variety of companies can get involved in implementation so that there is still competition and innovation. This was the genius of Kuali – in the space of a few months, 10 different companies emerged that serviced Kuali software – in other words, the universities created an entire industry niche that served them and their specific needs exclusively. Genius.
  • Only fund projects that have at least 3 jurisdictions signed up. Very few enterprise open source projects start off with a single entity. Normally they are spec’ed out with several players involved. This is because if just one player is driving the development, they will rationally always choose to take shortcuts that will work for them, but cut down on the likelihood the software will work for others. If, from the beginning, you have to balance lots of different needs, you end up architecting your solution to be flexible enough to work in a diverse range of environments. You need that if your software is going to work for several different governments.
  • Don’t provide the funds, provide matching funds. One way to ensure governments have skin in the game and will actually help develop software is to make them help pay for the development. If a city or government agency is devoting $100,000 towards helping develop a software solution, you’d better believe they are going to try to make it work. If the State of Michigan is paying for something that may work, maybe they’ll contribute and be helpful, or maybe they’ll sit back and see what happens. Ensure they do the former and not the latter – make sure the other parties have skin in the game.
  • Don’t just provide funds for development – provide funds to set up the organization that will coordinate the various participating governments and companies, set out the specs, and project manage the development. Again, to understand what that is like – just fork Kuali’s governance and institutional structure.
  • Ignore government agencies or jurisdictions that believe they are a special unique flower. One of the geniuses of Kuali is that they abstracted the process/workflow layer. That way universities could quickly and easily customize the software so that it worked for how their university does its thing. This was possible not because the universities recognized they were each a unique and special flower but because they recognized that for many areas (like library or financial management) their needs are virtually identical. Find partners that look for similarities, not those who are busy trying to argue they are different.

There is of course more, but I’ll stop there. I’m excited for Michigan. This innovation fund has real promise. I just hope that it gets used to be disruptive, and not to simply fund a few slow and steady (and stodgy) software incumbents that aren’t going to shake up the market and help change the way we do government procurement. We don’t need to spend $2.5 million to get software that is marginally better (or not even). Governments already spend billions every year for that. If we are going to spend a few million to innovate, let’s do it to be truly disruptive.

Beautiful Maps – Open Street Map in Water Colours

You know, really never know what the web is going to throw at you next. The great people over at Stamen Design (if you’ve never heard of Stamen you are really missing out – they are probably the best data visualization company I know) have created a watercolor version of Open Street Maps.


Because they can.

It’s a wonderful example of how you, with the web, you can build on what others have done. Pictured below my home town of Vancouver – I suggest zooming out a little as the city really comes into focus when you can see more of its geography.

Some Bonus Awesomeness Facts about all this Stamen goodness:

  • Stamen has a number of Creative Commons licensed map templates that you can use here (and links to GitHub repos)
  • Stamen housed Code for America in its early days. So they don’t just make cool stuff. The pitch in and help out with cool stuff too.
  • Former Code for America fellow Michael Evans works there now.