Tag Archives: technology

When Industries Get Disrupted: Toronto Real Estate Boards Sad Campaign

As some of my readers know I’ve been engaged by the real estate industry at various points over the last year to share thoughts about how they might be impacted in a world where listings data might be more open.

So I was saddened to read the other day about this misleading campaign the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) has launched against the Competition Bureau. It’s got all the makings of a political attack ad. Ominous warnings, supportive polling and a selective use of facts. You can check it out at the Protectyourprivacy.ca website. (As an aside, those concerned with online issues like myself should be beating ourselves up for letting TREB snag that URL. There are literally dozens of more compelling uses for that domain, from Bill c-30 to advocacy around privacy setting in Facebook or Google.)

The campaign does, however, make a wonderful mini-case study in how some industries react when confronted with disruptive change. They don’t try to innovate out of the problem, they go to the lawyers (and the pollsters and marketers). To be fair, not everyone in the Real Estate industry is behaving this way. Over the past several months I’ve had the real pleasure of meeting many, many real estate agents across the country who have been finding ways to innovate.

Which is why I suspect this campaign is actually quite divisive. Indeed, since the public doesn’t really know or care who does what in the real estate industry, they’re just going lump everyone in together. Consequently, if this campaign backfires (and there is a risk that if anyone pays attention to it, it could) than the entire industry could be tarred, not just those at TREB.

So what is the big scary story? Well according to TREB the Competition Bureau has gone rogue and is going to force Canadians to disclose their every personal detail to the world! Specifically, in the words of the Protectyourprivacy.ca website:

The Competition Bureau is trying to dismantle the safeguards for consumers’ personal and private information.

If they get their way, your sensitive personal home information could be made publicly available to anyone on the internet.

Are your alarm bells going off yet? If you’re like me, the answer is probably yes. But like me it not for any of the reasons TREB wants.

To begin with, Canada has a fairly aggressive Privacy Commissioner who is very willing to speak her mind. I suspect she (and possibly her provincial counterparts) were consulted before Competition Commissioner issued her request. And like most Canadians I likely trust the Privacy Commissioner more than TREB. She’s been fairly quiet.

But of course, why speculate about issues! Let’s go straight to the source. What did the Competition Bureau actually ask for? Well you can find all the relevant documents here (funny how TREB’s campaign website does not link to any of these), but check it out yourself. Here is my breakdown of the issue:

1. This is actually about enabling new services – TREB essentially uses MLS – the online listing service where you look for homes, as a mechanism to prevent new ways of looking for homes online from emerging. I suspect that consumers are not well served by this outcome. That is certainly how the Competition Bureau feels.

2. The Competition Bureau is not asking for information like your name and street address to be posted online for all to see (although I actually think consumers should be given that choice). Indeed you can tell a lawyer was involved in drafting the protectyourprivacy.ca website. There are all these strategically inserted “could’s” as in “your sensitive personal home information could be made publicly available.” Err… that’s a fair degree less alarming.

What the Competition Bureau appears to want is to enable brokers’ client to browse homes on a password-protected site (called a “virtual office website”). Here they could get more details than what is currently available to the public at large on MLS. However, even these password protected site might not include things like the current occupants name. It would however (or at least hopefully) include previous sales prices, as knowing the history of the market is quite helpful. I think most consumers agree that a little more transparency around pricing in the real estate industry would be good for consumers.

3. Of course, anything that happens on such a website would still have to comply with Privacy Laws and would, ultimately, still require the sellers consent.

According to TREB however, implementing these recommendations will lead to mayhem and death. Literally. Here is a quote from their privacy officer:

“There is a real possibility of break-ins and assaults; you only have to read the headlines to imagine what might happen. You hear stories about realtors getting attacked and killed. Can you imagine if we put that information out there about consumers? You can only imagine the headlines.”

Happily the Globe confirmed that the Toronto Police department is not aware of realtors being targeted for attack.

But here is the real punchline. Everything the Competition Commissioner is asking for already exists in places like Nova Scotia or across the entire United States.

Here’s what these lucky jurisdictions have not experienced: a rash of violence resulting from burglars and others browsing homes online (mostly because if they were going to do that… they could JUST USE GOOGLE STREET VIEW.).

And here’s what they have experienced: an explosion in new and innovative ways to browse, buy and sell homes. From Trulia to Zillow to Viewpoint consumers can get a radically better online experience than what is available in Toronto.

I suspect that if consumers actually hear about this campaign many – including most under the age of 40 – are going to see it as an effort by an industry to protect itself from new competition, not as an effort to protect them. If the story does break that way, it will be evidence to many consumers that the gap between them and the Real Estate industry is growing, not shrinking.

 

Attack of the Drones – How Surveillance May Change our Culture

I’ve been following the rise of do it yourself (DIY) drones for a few years now, ever since Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, introduced me to the topic in a podcast. And yes, I’m talking about flying drones… Like those the US Air Force uses to monitor – and attack – enemy forces in Afghanistan. Except, in the case of DIY drones, they are smaller, cheaper, and are being built by a growing legion of hobbyists, companies and enthusiasts all around the world, many of whom are sharing open source UAV plans that can be downloaded off the internet.

You many not know it, but there could be drones in your neighborhood. And this has real implications.

Take, for example, a story that really grabbed my attention a few weeks ago. An animal rights group called SHARK chose to deploy a drone to monitor a live pigeon shoot taking place on private land.  It turns out the mere presence of their drone caused the shoot to be cancelled. To begin with, that says a lot of drone’s effectiveness. But what was really interesting was how, in frustration, one or some of the shooters then hid and shot the drone out of the sky.

Think about this.

Here you have a group using what is essentially a mini-helicopter to monitor an activity taking place on what is private property. Then, in response,  the other party fires live rounds at the drone and causes it to crash. And all of playing out near a US highway (not a major one, but still, a public road). This is a privacy, legal, and public safety nightmare. The policy and societal implications are significant.

And this is not an isolated use. As the Economist pointed out in its excellent write up on civilian drones in this week’s Quarterly Technology Review, drones are already being used by an environmental group to locate and track Japanese whalers. In the US several police forces already operate drones – including one in Texas which, frighteningly, has the capacity to launch grenades. George Clooney funds a non-profit that uses satellites to monitor Sudan in an effort to prevent atrocities through transparency. Can drones be far behind?

I share all this because, these days, people are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. This will have real impacts.

As my friend Luke C. pointed out the other day, it is entirely conceivable that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. It could also record and save remotely everything that is going on – in order to prevent anyone from harassing or bullying them. It might even remind them to look both ways before crossing the street, in case they forget. Or, because of its high vantage point, it could pick out and warn your child of cyclists and cars they failed to observe. Once your kid is safely at school the drone could whiz home and recharge in time to walk them home at the end of the day. This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents… that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ll want one for your elderly parents… just in case something happens to them? It’s be good to be able to pull them up on a live feed, from anywhere.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl, a digital pet? Or maybe all of these outcomes? I’m not sure the answer is obvious.

My larger point is that the pressure to create the surveillance society isn’t going to come exclusively from the state. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a surveillance society not because the state demands it, but because we want the tools for our own useful and/or selfish ends. Some people may argue that this may level the playing field between citizens and the state or powerful organizations. I hope that is true. But maybe the mass adoption of such tools will simply normalize surveillance in our society and culture. That might, in turn, make it easier for the state, or other organizations, or just everyone else, to monitor us.

What I do know is that our government, our police forces, our neighborhoods are wholly unprepared for this. That’s okay, they have some time. But it is coming. At some point we will be living in a society where the technology will exist to enable anyone to deploy a drone that can observe anyone else in a public space, and maybe even in a private space. The challenges and complexities for policy makers are significant, and the implications for our communities, probably even more so. Either way it’s going to make many people’s lives a lot more complicated.

Note, I suspect there are typos in this, but it is 2 am and wordpress already deleted the first draft of this post killing a couple hours of work… so my capacity and patience is low. I hope you’ll forgive me a little.

 

 

 

The Surveillance State – No Warrant Required

Yesterday a number of police organizations came out in support of bill C-30 – the online surveillance bill proposed by Minister Vic Toews. You can read the Vancouver Police Department’s full press release here – I’m referencing theirs not because it is particularly good or bad, but simply because it is my home town.

For those short on time, the very last statement, at the bottom of the post, is by far the worst and is something every Canadian should know. The authors of these press releases would have been wise to read Michael Geist’s blog posts from yesterday before publishing. Geist’s analysis shows that, at best, the police are misinformed, at worst, they are misleading the public.

So let’s look at some of the details of the press release that are misleading:

Today I speak to you as the Deputy Chief of the VPD’s Investigation Division, but also as a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and I’m pleased to be joined by Tom Stamatakis, President of both the Vancouver Police Union and Canadian Police Association.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is asking Canadians to consider the views of law enforcement as they debate what we refer to as “lawful access,” or Bill C-30 – “An Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts.”
This Bill was introduced by government last week and it has generated much controversy. There is no doubt that the Bill is complex and the technology it refers to can be complex as well.
I would, however, like to try to provide some understanding of the Bill from a police perspective. We believe new legislation will:
  • assist police with the necessary tools to investigate crimes while balancing, if not strengthening, the privacy rights for Canadians through the addition of oversight not currently in place

So first bullet point, first problem. While it is true the bill brings in some new process, to say it strengthens privacy rights is misleading. It has become easier, not harder, to gain access to people’s personal data. Before, when the police requested personal information from internet service providers (ISPs) the ISPs could say no. Now, we don’t even have that. Worse, the bill apparently puts a gag on order on these warrantless demands, so you can’t even find out if a government agency has requested information about you.

  • help law enforcement investigate and apprehend those who are involved in criminal activity while using new technologies to avoid apprehension due to outdated laws and technology
  • allow for timely and consistent access to basic information to assist in investigations of criminal activity and other police duties in serving the public (i.e. suicide prevention, notifying next of kin, etc.)

This, sadly, is a misleading statement. As Michael Geist notes in his blog post today “The mandatory disclosure of subscriber information without a warrant has been the hot button issue in Bill C-30, yet it too is subject to unknown regulations. These regulations include the time or deadline for providing the subscriber information (Bill C-30 does not set a time limit)…”

In other words, for the police to say the bill will get timely access to basic information – particularly timely enough to prevent a suicide, which would have to be virtually real time access – is flat out wrong. The bill makes no such promise.

Moreover, this underlying justification is itself fairly ridiculous while the opportunities for abuse are not trivial. It is interesting that none of the examples have anything to do with preventing crime. Suicides are tragic, but do not pose a risk to society. And speedily notifying next of kin is hardly such an urgent issue that it justifies warrantless access to Canadians private information. These examples speak volumes about the strength of their case.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the Police (and the Minister) refer to this as “basic” information, the judiciary disagrees. Earlier this month the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal concluded in R v Trapp, 2011 SKCA 143 that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the IP address assigned to him or her by an internet service provider, a point which appeared not to have been considered previously by an appellate court in Canada

The global internet, cellular phones and social media have all been widely adopted and enjoyed by Canadians, young and old. Many of us have been affected by computer viruses, spam and increasingly, bank or credit card fraud.

This is just ridiculous and is designed to do nothing more than play on Canadians fears. I mean spam? Really? Google Mail has virtually eliminated spam for its users. No government surveillance infrastructure was required. Moreover, it is very, very hard to see how the surveillance bill will help with any of the problems cited about – viruses, spam or bank fraud.

Okay skipping ahead (again you can read the full press release here)

2. Secondly, the matter of basic subscriber information is particularly sensitive.
The information which companies would be compelled to release would be: name, address, phone number, email address, internet protocol address, and the name of the service provider to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties.
Actually to claim that these are going to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties is also misleading. This data would be made available to police who, at best, believe they are in the lawful execution of their duties. This is precisely why we have warrants so that an independent judiciary can assess whether or not the police are actually engaged in the lawful execution of their duties. Strip away that check and there will be abuses. Indeed, the Sun Newspaper phone hacking scandal in the UK serves as a perfect example of the type of abuse that is possible. In this case police officers were able to access “under extraordinary circumstances” without a warrant or oversight, the names and phone numbers of people whose phones they wanted to, or had already, hacked.
While this information is important to police in all types of investigations, it can be critical in cases where it is urgent that police locate a caller or originator of information that reasonably causes the police to suspect that someone’s safety is at risk.
Without this information the police may not be able to quickly locate and help the person who was in trouble or being victimized.
An example would be a message over the internet indicating someone was contemplating suicide where all we had was an email address.
Again, see above. The bill does not stipulate any timelines around sharing this data. This statement is designed to lead readers to believe readers that the bill will grant necessary and instant access so that a situation could be defused in the moment. The bill does nothing of the sort.
Currently, there is no audited process for law enforcement to gain access to basic subscriber information. In some cases, internet service providers (ISPs) provide the information to police voluntarily — others will not, or often there are lengthy delays. The problem is that there is no consistency in providing this information to police nationally.

This, thankfully is a sensible statement.

3. Lastly, and one of the most important things to remember, this bill does NOT allow the police to monitor emails, phone calls or internet surfing at will without a warrant, as has been implied or explicitly stated.
There is no doubt that those who are against the legislation want you to believe that it does. I have read the Bill and I cannot find that anywhere in it. There are no changes in this area from the current legislation.

This is the worst part of the press release as it is definitely not true. See Michael Geist’s – the Ottawa professor most on top of this story – blog post from yesterday, which was written before this press release went out. According to Geist, there is a provision in the law that “…opens the door to police approaching ISPs and asking them to retain data on specified subscribers or to turn over any subscriber information – including emails or web surfing activities – without a warrant. ISPs can refuse, but this provision is designed to remove any legal concerns the ISP might have in doing so, since it grants full criminal and civil immunity for the disclosures.” In other words the Police can conduct warantless surveillance. It just requires the permission of the ISPs. This flat out contradicts the press release.

 

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

Open Data Day 2011 – Recaps from Around the World

This last Saturday was International Open Data Day with hackathons taking place in cities around the world.

How many you ask? We can’t know for certain, but organizers around the world posted events to the wiki in over 50 cities around the world. Given the number of tweets with the #odhd hashtag, and the locations they were coming from, I don’t think we were far off that mark. If you assume 20 people at each event (some had many more – for instance there were over 100 in Ottawa, Vancouver had close to 50, 120+ in New York) it’s safe to say more than 1000 people were hacking on open data projects around the world.

It’s critical to understand that Open data Day is a highly decentralized event. All the work that makes it a success (and I think it was a big success) is in the hands of local organizers who find space, rally participants, push them to create stuff and, of course, try to make the day as fun as possible. Beyond their hard work and dedication there isn’t much, if any, organization. No boss. No central authority. No patron or sponsor to say thank you. So if you know any of the fine people who attended, or even more importantly, helped organize an event, please shake their hand or shoot them a thank you. I know I’m intensely grateful to see there are so many others out there that care about this issue, that want to connect, learn, meet new people, have fun and, of course, make something interesting. Given the humble beginnings of this event, we’ve had two very successful years.

So what about the day? What was accomplished? What Happened?

Government Motivator

I think one of the biggest accomplishments of Open Data Day has been how it has become a motivator – a sort of deadline – for governments keen to share more open data. Think about this. A group of volunteers around the world is moving governments to share more data – to make public assets more open to reuse. For example, in Ireland Fingal County Council released data around trees, parking, playing pitches & mobile libraries for the day. In Ontario, Canada the staff for the Region of Waterloo worked extra hard to get their open data portal up in time for the event. And it wasn’t just local governments. The Government of BC launched new high value data sets in anticipation of the event and the Federal Government of Canada launched 4000 new data sets with International Open Data Day in mind. Meanwhile, the open data evangelist of Data.gov was prepared to open up data sets for anyone who had a specific request.

While governments should always be working to make more data available I think we can all appreciate the benefits of having a deadline, and Open Data Day has helped become just that for more and more governments.

In other places, Open Data Day turns into a place where governments can converse with developers and citizens about why open data matters, and do research into what data the public is interested in. This is exactly what happened in Enschede in the Netherlands where local city staff worked with participants around prioritizing data sets to make open.

Local Events & Cool Hacks

A lot of people have been blogging about, or sharing videos of, Open Data Day events around the world. I’ve seen blog posts and news articles on events in places such as Madrid, Victoria BC, Oakland, Mexico City, Vancouver, and New York City. If there are more, please email them to me or post them on the wiki.

I haven’t been able to keep track of all the projects that got worked on, but here are a sampling of some that I’ve seen via twitter, the wiki and other forums:

Hongbo: The Emergency Location Locator

In Cotonou, Benin the open data day participants developed a web application called Hongbo the Goun word for “Gate.” Hongbo enables users to locate the nearest hospital, drugstore and police stations. As they noted on the open data day wiki, the data sets for this application were public but not easily accessible. They hope Benin citizen can use it quickly identify who to call or where to go in emergencies.

Tweet My Council

In Sydney, Australia participants created Tweetmycouncil. A fantastic simply application that allows a user to know which jurisdiction they are standing in. Simply send a tweet to the hashtag #tmyc and the app will work where you, what council’s jurisdiction you are in and send you a tweet with the response.

Mexican Access to Information Tracker

In Mexico City one team created an application to compare Free of Information requests between different government departments. This could be a powerful tool for citizens and journalists. (Github repo)

Making it Easier for the Next Guy

Another project out of Mexico City, a team from Oaxaca created an API that creates a json file for any public data set. Would be great for this team to connect with Max Ogden and talk about Gut.

Making it Even Easier for the Next Guy

Speaking of, Max Ogden in Oakland shared more on Gut, which is less of a classic app then a process that enables users to convert data between different formats. It had a number of people excited including open data developers at other locations such as Luke Closs and Mike West.

Mapping Census Data in Barcelona

A team of hackers in Barcelona mapped census tracts so they could be visualized, showing things, like say, the number of parks per census tract. You can find the data sets they used in Google Fusion Tabels here.

Foreign Aid Visualizations

In London UK and in Seattle (and possibly other places) developers were also very keen on the growing amount of aid data being made available and in a common structure thanks to IATI. In Seattle developers created this very cool visualization of US Aid over the last 50 years. I know the London UK team has visualizations of their own they’d like to share shortly.

Food Hacking!

One interesting thing about Open Data Day is how it bridges some very different communities. One of the most active are the food hackers which came out in force in both New York and Vancouver.

In New York a whole series of food related tools, apps and visualization got developed, most of which are described here and here. The sheer quantity of participants (120+) and projects developed is astounding, but also fantastic is how inclusive their event is, with lots of people not just working on apps, but analyzing data and creating visualizations to help others understand an issue they share a common passion for: the Food Bill. Please do click on those links to see some of the fun visuals created.

The Ultimate Food API

In Vancouver, the team at FoodTree – who hosted the hackathon there – focused on shipping an API for developers interested in large food datasets.  You can find their preliminary API and datasets in github. You can also track the work they’ve done on their Open Food Wiki.

Homelessness

In Victoria, BC a team created a map of local walk-in community services that you can check out at http://ourservices.ca/.

BC Emergency Tweeting System

Another team in Victoria, BC focused on creating twitter hashtags for each official place in the province with the hopes that the province’s Provincial Emergency Program.

Mapping Shell’s Oils Spills in Nigeria

The good people at the Open Knowledge Foundation worked on getting a ton more data into the Datahub, but they also had people learning how to visualize data, one of whom created this visualization of oil spills in Nigeria. Always great to see people experimenting and learning!

Mapping Vancouver’s Most Dangerous Intersections for Bikes

Open Data hacking and biking accident data have a long history together and this hackathon I uploaded 5 years worth of bike accident I managed to get from ICBC to Buzzdata. As a result – even though I couldn’t be present in Vancouver – two different developers took it and mapped it. You can see @ngriffithshere and @ericp’s will be up soon. It was interesting to learn that Broadway and Cambie is the most dangerous intersection in the city for cyclists?

Looking Forward

Last year open data day attracted individual citizens: those with a passion for an issue (like food) or who want to make their government more effective or citizens lives a little easier. However, this year we already started to see the community grow – the team at Socrata hosted a hackathon at their offices in Seattle. Buzzdata had people online trying to help people share their data. In addition to these private companies some of the more established non-profits were out in force. The Open Knowledge Foundation had a team working on making openspending.org more accessible while MySociety helped a team in Canada set up a local version of MapIt.

For those who think that open data can change the world or, even build medium sized economic ecosystems, over night, we need to reset their expectations. But it is growing. No longer are participants just citizens and hacktavists – there are real organizations and companies participating. Few, but they are there. My hope is that this trend will continues. That open data day will continue to have meaning for individuals and hackers but will also be something that larger more established organizations, non-profits and companies will use as a rallying point as well. Something to shoot for next year.

Feedback

As I mentioned at the beginning, Open Data Day is a very decentralized event. We are, of course, not wedded to that approach and I’d love to hear feedback from people, good or bad, about worked or didn’t work. Please do feel free to email me, post it to the mailing list or simply comment below.

 

 

Postscript

Finally, some of you may have noticed I became conspicuously absent on the day. I want to apologize to everyone. My partner went into labour on Friday night and so by early morning Saturday it was obvious that my open data day was going to be spent with her. Our baby was 11 days over due so we really thought that we’d be in the clear by Dec 3rd… but our baby had other plans. The good news is that despite 35 hours of labour, baby and boy are doing well!

The Canadian Government's New Web 2.0 Guidelines: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Yesterday, the government of Canada released its new Guidelines for external use of Web 2.0. For the 99.99% of you unfamiliar  with what this is, it’s the guidelines (rules) that govern how, and when, public servants may use web 2.0 tools such as twitter and facebook.

You, of course, likely work in organization that survives without such documents. Congratulations. You work in a place where the general rule is “don’t be an idiot” and your bosses trust your sense of judgement. That said, you probably also don’t work somewhere where disgruntled former employees and the CBC are trolling the essentially personal online statements of your summer interns so they can turn it into a scandal. (Yes, summer student border guards have political opinions, don’t like guns and enjoy partying. Shocker). All this to say, there are good and rational reasons why the public service creates guidelines: to protect not just the government, but public servants.

So for those uninterested in reading the 31 page, 12,055 word guidelines document here’s a review:

The Good

Sending the right message

First off, the document, for all its faults, does get one overarching piece right. Almost right off the bat (top of section 3.2) is shares that Ministries should be using Web 2.0 tools:

Government of Canada departments are encouraged to use Web 2.0 tools and services as an efficient and effective additional channel to interact with the public. A large number of Canadians are now regularly using Web 2.0 tools and services to find information about, and interact with, individuals and organizations.

Given the paucity of Web 2.0 use in the Federal government internally or externally this clear message from Treasury Board, and from a government minister, is the type of encouragement needed to bring government communications into 2008 (the British Government, with its amazing Power of Information Taskforce, has been there for years).

Note: there is a very, very, ugly counterpart to this point. See below.

Good stuff for the little guy

Second, the rules for Professional Networking & Personal Use are fairly reasonable. There are some challenges (notes below), but if any public servant ever finds them or has the energy to read the document, they are completely workable.

The medium is the message

Finally, the document acknowledges that the web 2.0 world is constantly evolving and references a web 2.0 tool by which public servants can find ways to adapt. THIS IS EXACTLY THE RIGHT APPROACH. You don’t deal with fast evolving social media environment by handing out decrees in stone tablets, you manage it by offering people communities of practice where they can get the latest and best information. Hence this line:

Additional guidance on the use of Web 2.0 tools and services is in various stages of development by communities of expertise and Web 2.0 practitioners within the Government of Canada. Many of these resources are available to public servants on the Government of Canada’s internal wiki, GCpedia. While these resources are not official Government of Canada policies or guidelines, they are valuable sources of information in this rapidly evolving environment.

Represents a somewhat truly exciting development in the glacially paced evolution of government procedures. The use of social media (GCPEDIA) to manage social media.

Indeed, still more exciting for me is that this was the first time I’ve seen an official government document reference GCPEDIA as a canonical source of information. And it did it twice, once, above, pointing to a community of practice, the second was pointing to the GCPEDIA “Social media procurement process” page. Getting government to use social media internally is I think the biggest challenge at the moment, and this document does it.

The Bad

Too big to succeed

The biggest problem with the document is its structure. It is so long, and so filled with various forms of compliance, that only the most dedicated public servant (read, communications officer tasked with a social media task) will ever read this. Indeed for a document that is supposed to encourage public servants to use social media, I suspect it will do just the opposite. Its density and list of controls will cause many who were on the fence to stay there – if not retreat further. While the directions for departments are more clear, for the little guy… (See next piece)

Sledgehammers for nails

The documents main problem is that it tries to address all uses of social media. Helpfully, it acknowledges there are broadly two types of uses “Departmental Web 2.0 initiatives” (e.g. a facebook group for a employment insurance program) and “personnel/professional use” (e.g. a individual public servant’s use of twitter or linked in to do their job). Unhelpfully, it addresses both of them.

In my mind 95% of the document relates to departmental uses… this is about ensuring that someone claiming to represent the government in an official capacity does not screw up. The problem is, all those policies aren’t as relevant to Joe/Jane public servant in their cubicle trying to find an old colleague on LinkedIn (assuming they can access linkedin). It’s overkill. These should be separate documents, that way the personal use document could be smaller, more accessible and far less intimidating. Indeed, as the guidelines suggest, all it should really have to do is reference the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service (essentially the “idiots guide to how not to be an idiot on the job” for public servants) and that would have been sufficient. Happily most public servants are already familiar with this document, so simply understanding that those guidelines apply online as much as offline, gets us 90% of the way there.

In summary, despite a worthy effort, it seem unlikely this document will encourage public servants to use Web 2.0 tools in their jobs. Indeed, for a (Canadian) comparison consider the BC Government’s guidelines document, the dryly named “Policy No. 33: Use of Social Media in the B.C. Public Service.”  Indeed, despite engaging both use cases it manages covers all the bases, is straightforward, and encouraging, and treats the employee with an enormous amount of respect. All this in a nifty 2 pages and 1,394 words. Pretty much exactly what a public servant is looking for.

The Ugly

Sadly, there is some ugliness.

Suggestions, not change

In the good section I mentioned that the government is encouraging ministries to use social media… this is true. But it is not mandating it. Nor does these guidelines say anything to Ministerial IT staff, most of whom are blocking public servant’s access to sites like facebook, twitter, in many cases, my blog, etc… The sad fact is, there may now be guidelines that allow public servants to use these tools, but in most cases, they’d have to go home, or to a local coffee shop (many do) in order to actually make use of these guidelines. For most public servants, much of the internet remains beyond their reach, causing them to fall further and further behind in understanding how technology will effect their jobs and their department/program’s function in society.

It’s not about communication, it’s about control

In his speech at PSEngage yesterday the Treasury Board Minister talked about the need for collaboration on how technology can help the public service reinvent how it collaborates:

The Government encourages the use of new Web 2.0 tools and technologies such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These tools help create a more modern, open and collaborative workplace and lead to more “just-in-time” communications with the public.

This is great news. And I believe the Minister believes it too. He’s definitely a fan of technology in all the right ways. However, the guidelines are mostly about control. Consider this paragraph:

Departments should designate a senior official accountable and responsible for the coordination of all Web 2.0 activities as well as an appropriate governance structure. It is recommended that the Head of Communications be the designated official. This designate should collaborate with departmental personnel who have expertise in using and executing Web 2.0 initiatives, as well as with representatives from the following fields in their governance structure: information management, information technology, communications, official languages, the Federal Identity Program, legal services, access to information and privacy, security, values and ethics, programs and services, human resources, the user community, as well as the Senior Departmental Official as established by the Standard on Web Accessibility. A multidisciplinary team is particularly important so that policy interpretations are appropriately made and followed when managing information resources through Web 2.0 tools and services.

You get all that? That’s at least 11 variables that need to be managed. Or, put another way, 11 different manuals you need to have at your desk when using social media for departmental purposes. That makes for a pretty constricted hole for information to get out through, and I suspect it pretty much kills most of the spontaneity, rapid response time and personal voice that makes social media effective. Moreover, with one person accountable, and this area of communications still relatively new, I suspect that the person in charge, given all these requirements, is going to have a fairly low level of risk. Even I might conclude it is safer to just post an ad in the newspaper and let the phone operators at Service Canada deal with the public.

Conclusion

So it ain’t all bad. Indeed, there is much that is commendable and could be worked with. I think, in the end, 80% of the problems with the document could be resolved if the government simply created two versions, one for official departmental uses, the other for individual public servants. If it could then restrain the lawyers from repeating everything in the Values and Ethics code all over again, you’d have something that social media activists in the public service could seize upon.

My sense is that the Minister is genuinely interested in enabling public servants to use technology to do their jobs better – he knows from personal experience how helpful social media can be. This is great news for those who care about these issues, and it means that pressing for a better revised version might yield a positive outcome. Better to try now, with a true ally in the president’s office than with someone who probably won’t care.

 

Brain Candy – Great Quotes from Yesterday

I’m in San Francisco to co-chair the Code for America Summit this week, so lots going on, and some deep blog posts in the works. But first. Fun! Here are some of my favourite quotes I stumbled upon or heard in the last 24 hours.

“The 4-Hour Body” reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog.

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times review of the Four Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

The entire review is pure genius. Definitely worth reading.

But more quotes await!

“Micro-managing isn’t that third thing that Amazon does better than us, by the way. I mean, yeah, they micro-manage really well, but I wouldn’t list it as a strength or anything. I’m just trying to set the context here, to help you understand what happened. We’re talking about a guy [Jeff Bezos] who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people “who runs the company” when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular… well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.”

Steve Yegge in a now no longer public but still accessible assessment of why Google doesn’t get platforms.

The broader read is fantastic, but this quote – mentioned to me by a friend – I thought was both fun and insightful. There is something to be said for super obsessive bosses. They care about their business. It is worth noting that both Jobs and Bezos founded their companies. A lot of other companies could do with this kind of love and attention – even if, in high doses, it can be totally toxic. It’s a fascinating tension.

So yes, tech and the four hour work week? I must be proximity to the valley… so let’s get away from that.

How about #occupywallst? There is a very interesting analysis of the data behind the We are the 99% tumblr feed over at rortybomb, definitely worth a read. But I was really struck by this quote about the nature of the demands:

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay.  They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share.  The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy.  There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.”  It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.

Ooph. Now that is depressing. But check out his concluding remark.

We have piecemeal, leaky versions of each of these in our current liberal social safety net.  Having collated all these responses, I think completing these projects should be the ultimate goal of the 99%

This is what really strikes me. Here you have a welfare state that isn’t even that big by Western standards but is still not trivial in the resources it consumes, and yet it delivers a pretty crappy outcome to a huge number of citizens. It may be that enough funding from the wealthy restores that system and makes it work. But the financial crises in Europe would seem to suggest otherwise. For many, especially in America, the status quo is unacceptable, and the ability to go back may no longer exist. So until we start thinking about what the future looks like, one free of the systems of the past, we’re probably in trouble.

But any effort here is going to run into a pretty serious brick wall when it comes to coalition building. Consider this amazing line from this Change.org petition:

Rhee uses Change.org to post deceptively worded petitions with such titles as: “Join the Fight to Save Great Teachers” and “Pay Effective Teachers What They Deserve.” When you delve into it, she’s working to weaken unions and institute merit pay for teachers. These are insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reforms. Change.org should not be participating in Rhee’s union busting.

Merit pay is an insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reform? You have to be pretty far out on the left to believe that. Indeed, the notion of merit sat at the heart of the progressive revolution. Now I’m no fan of Rhee, but I’m also a believer that good work should be rewarded and, well, bad work should be punished. That isn’t saying your pay should be linked to test scores, but it also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be linked to nothing other than tenure. If that is union busting, then the progressive movement it totally dead. This is why I think progressive reform is stopped dead in its tracks. The traditional left wants to defend the status quo of government (while happily attacking the equally problematic status quo of wall st.) while I suspect others, many of whom are sympathetic to the #occupywallst message, are actually equally uncomfortable with the status quo in both the public and private sphere.

This is bad news for those of us who don’t want to return to the Gilded Age. There may not be a coalition that can counter the conservatives on the left and the right. Maybe there needs to be a collapse of this complex system before there can be a rebuilding. It’s a pretty depressing and sobering thought.

Okay. so, you got suckered in by a few fun quotes only to find yourself in the serious world of protest politics. Sorry about that, but that’s the kind of technology fueled, politically driven 24 hours its been.

Hope to see you tomorrow…