Tag Archives: Toronto

Good Backgrounder on Open Data for Cities – (Looking at You #VoteTO)

Yesterday the Martin Prosperity Institute released another installment of its Toronto Election 2010 discussion papers, this one focused on Open Data.

For citizens of any city this is a fantastic primer on what open data is, why it matters and, in the case of Toronto, why it should be an election issue in the upcoming civic election.

Full disclosure: I did sit down with the paper’s authors at the Institute – Kimberly Silk and Jacqueline Whyte Appleby – to talk about a number of the critical aspects surrounding this issue. Their depth and experience in municipal and regional issues has produced an invaluable resource. I hope citizens of cities everywhere are able to make use of it, but I also hope that citizens of Toronto use it to ask questions of the candidates for Mayor and council.

Again, you can download the report here.

For those not familiar with the Institute, you can read more about it here (excerpt below):

The Lloyd & Delphine Martin Prosperity Institute is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors – location, place and city-regions – in global economic prosperity. Led by Director Richard Florida , we take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.

When Police Lie

The single most important tool police have in their arsenal isn’t a gun, it isn’t baton, it isn’t even their badge. It is public confidence.

It is this confidence that ensures the public they can have faith in some of the most important and powerful public servants they meet in their day to day lives, and more importantly, it is vested in hands that will prioritize the rule of law over violence.

This, however, breaks down when police lie.

This week, as far as I can tell, the Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has been caught in two lies. First, in claiming the policy had legal authority to detain people within 5 meters of the perimeter fence at the G20, second, when they put confiscated weapons on display that had been found on “protesters.”

Worse still, was his defense.

Asked Tuesday if there actually was a five-metre rule given the ministry’s clarification, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair smiled and said, “No, but I was trying to keep the criminals out.”

The police have more than a tough job. Consider the idiocy they had to deal with during the G20. Take, for example, Anti-Capitalist Convergence spokesperson Mathieu Francoeur’s claim that vandalism and violent protests were “not violence” but “a means of expression and doesn’t compare to the economic and state violence we’re subjected to.” Yes, it drives me crazy too. Of all the ills in the world to choose from, violence against a state that provides welfare, free health-care and subsidized education just never seems to make my top 10 list…

But the best weapon against this idiocy is honest and upfront police force. Admittedly, this contributes to what makes their job hard, but citizens expect the police to follow the law and behave ethically. That, more than a gun, a badge, or a uniform, this code of conduct is what separates them from everyone else – from the criminals, and even, ordinary citizens. We expect, and we need them to model behaviour.

Mistakes I can understand. Poor decisions under stress I can understand. But deliberately misleading the public I cannot understand, nor do I think there are many who will condone it. Is lying now an appropriate strategy for dealing with the public? If a police force – and more importantly, its chief – is willing to mislead us about weapons captured and the nature of the law during the G20, what will they lie about at other times?  Perhaps when I get pulled over? Or when my 21 year cousin accidentally bumps into an officer who is having a bad day? Do I believe the Toronto police force is on a slippery slope? No. But I don’t want them on the slope at all.

Today, it feels we are a long, long way away from the era of the trusted and honest Mountie (side note about the RCMP, it has the dubious distinction of having a whole wikipedia page dedicated to some of scandals) and the erosion of this trust may be one of the biggest causalities of the G20 Summit.

yellow-pages-banCanadian? Hope you’ll also consider opting out of receiving the yellow pages. Facebook group and instructions on how to save some trees here.

Case Study: How Open data saved Canada $3.2 Billion

Note: I’ll be on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin tonight talking about Government 2.0.

Why does open data matter? Rather than talk in abstract terms, let me share a well documented but little known story about how open data helped expose one of the biggest tax frauds in Canada’s history.

It begins in early 2007 when a colleague was asked by a client to do an analysis of the charitable sector in Toronto. Considering it a simply consulting project, my colleague called the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and asked for all the 2005 T3010s – the Annual Information Returns where charities disclose to the CRA their charitable receipts and other information – in Toronto. After waiting several weeks and answering a few questions, the CRA passed along the requested information.

After spending time cleaning up the data my colleague eventually had a working excel spreadsheet and began to analyze the charitable sector in the Greater Toronto Area. One afternnon, on a lark, they decided to organize the charities by size of tax-receipted charitable donations.

At this point it is important to understand something about scale. The United Way of Greater Toronto is one of the biggest charities in North America, indeed its most recent annual charitable donation drive was the biggest on the continent. In 2008 – the year of the financial crisis started – the United Way of Greater Toronto raised $107.5 million.

So it was with some surprise that after sorting the charities by 2005 donation amounts my colleague discovered that the United Way was not first on the list. It wasn’t even second.

It was third.

This was an enormous surprise. Somewhere in Toronto, without anyone being aware of it, two charities had raised more money than the United Way (which in 2005 raised target of $96.1M). The larger one, the International Charity Association Network (ICAN) raised $248M in 2005. The other, the Choson Kallah Fund of Toronto had receipts of $120M (up from $6M in 2003).

Indeed, four out the top 15 charities on the list, including Millennium Charitable Foundation, Banyan Tree, were unknown to my colleague, someone who had been active in the Toronto charitable community for over a decade.

All told, my colleague estimated that these illegally operating charities alone sheltered roughly Half a billion dollars in 2005. Indeed, newspapers later confirmed that in 2007, fraudulent donations were closer to a billion dollars a year, with some some 3.2 billion dollars illegally sheltered, a sum that accounts for 12% of all charitable giving in Canada.

Think about this. One billion dollars. A year. That is almost .6% of the Federal Government’s annual budget.

My colleague was eager to make sure that CRA was taking action on these organizations, but it didn’t look that way. The tax frauds were still identified by CRA as qualified charities and were still soliciting donors with the endorsement of government. They knew that a call to CRA’s fraud tip line was unlikely to prompt swift action. The Toronto Star had been doing its own investigations into other instances of charity fraud and had been frustrated by CRA’s slow response.

My colleague took a different route. They gave the information to the leadership of the charitable sector and those organizations as a group took it to the leadership at CRA. From late 2007 right through 2009 the CRA charities division – now under new leadership – has systematically shut down charity tax shelters and are continuing to do so.  One by one, International Charity Association Network, Banyan Tree Foundation, Choson Kallah Fund, the Millennium Charitable Foundation and others identified by my colleague have lost their charitable status. A reported $3.2 billion in tax receipts claimed by 100,000 Canadian tax filers have so far been disallowed or are being questioned. A class action suit launched by thousands of donors against the organizers and law firm of Banyan Tree Foundation was recently certified. It’s a first. Perhaps the CRA was already investigating these cases. It must build its cases carefully as, if they end up in court and fail to successfully present their case, they could help legalize a tax loophole. It may just have been moving cautiously. But perhaps it did not know.

This means that, at best, government data – information that should be made more accessible and open in an unfettered and machine readable format – helped reveal one of the largest tax evasion scandals in the country’s history. But if the CRA was already investigating, scrutiny of this data by the public served a different purpose – helping to bring these issues out into the open, forcing CRA to take public action (suspending these organizations’ right to solicit more donations), sooner rather than later.  Essentially from before 2005-2007 dozens of charities were operating illegally. Had the data about their charitable receipts been available for the public’s routine review,  someone in the public might have taken notice and raised a fuss earlier. Perhaps even a website tracking donations might have been launched. This would have exposed those charities that had abnormally large donations with few programs to explain then. Moreover, it might have given some of the 100,000 Canadians now being audited a tool for evaluating the charities they were giving money to.

In the computer world there is something called Linus’ Law, which states: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs (problems) are shallow.” The same could be said about many public policy or corruption issues. For many data sets, citizens should not have to make a request. Nor should we have to answer questions about why we want the data. It should be downloadable in its entirety. Not trapped behind some unhelpful search engine. When data is made readily available in machine readable formats, more eyes can look at it. This means that someone on the ground, in the community (like, say, Toronto) who knows the sector, is more likely to spot something a public servant in another city might not see because they don’t have the right context or bandwidth. And if that public servant is not allowed to talk about the issue, then they can share this information with their fellow citizens.

This is the power of open data: The power to find problems in complicated environments, and possibly even to prevent them from emerging.

Mozilla Drumbeat: Help keep the web open

Mozilla Drumbeat is the Mozilla Foundations new venture. An effort to reach out beyond those who have helped make the Firefox web browser to a broader community – those that care about keeping the internet open but who want to contribute in other ways.

Drumbeat will have three components:

1) Projects – many of which are already underway

2) Local events – like the upcoming on in Toronto on April 24th

3) A website – that ties it all together, a place where people can gather virtually to organize

So what can you do?

First, if you are interested in hosting a local Mozilla Drumbeat event, contact Nathaniel James at the Mozilla Foundation, there is going to be Facilitator Training event in Toronto on April 23-24th and in Berlin on May 7th-8th.

Second, consider participating in one of the Drumbeat projects listed on the Drumbeat website (still in beta).

I’m looking forward to see Drumbeat evolve and for it to become easier for people to participate in its various projects. Ultimately we need a way to protect the openness of the web – the thing that makes the web so fun and interesting for all us – and Drumbeat is a great starting point.

My Unfinished Business Talk in Toronto

ocad logoI’m really pleased to share that I’ll be giving a talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design this January 14th, 2010. The talk is one I’ve been giving for government officials a fair bit of late – it is on how technology, open methodologies and social change are creating powerful pressures for reform within our government bureaucracies. The ideas in it also form the basis of a chapter I’ve written for the upcoming O’Reilly Media book on Open Government due out in January (in the US, assuming here in Canada too – more on this in a later post).

I completely thrilled to be giving a talk at OCAD and especially want to thank Michael Anton Dila for making this all happen. It was his idea, and he pushed me to make it happen. It is especially of Michael and OCAD since they have kept the talk free and open to the public.

The talk details are below and you can register here. More exciting has been the interest in the talk – I saw that 100 tickets disappeared in the first 4 hours yesterday – people care about government and policy!

We have much unfinished business with our government – look forward to digging into it.

ABOUT UNFINISHED BUSINESS

The Unfinished Lecture is a monthly event hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD and sponsored by Torch Partnership. Part of the Unfinished Business initiative, the lectures are intended to generate an open conversation about strategic innovation in the business and design of commercial enterprises and public organizations.

AFTER THE COLLAPSE: Technology, Open and the Future of Government

What do Facebook, 911 and NASA all have in common? They all offer us a window into how our industrial era government may be redesigned for the digital age. In this lecture David Eaves will look at how open methodologies, technology and social change is reshaping the way public service and policy development will be organized and delivered in the future: more distributed, adaptive and useful to an increasingly tech savvy public. Whether a interested designer, a disruptive programmer, a restless public servant or a curious citizen David will push your thinking on what the future has in store for the one institution we all rely on: Government.
As a closing remark, I’d also like to thank Health Canada & Samara, both of who asked me to put my thoughts on this subject together into a single talk.
Hope to see you in Toronto.

Upcoming talk: Toronto Innovation Showcase

Just a little FYI to let people know I’m going to be in Toronto on Monday, November 2nd for the City of Toronto’s Innovation Showcase.

I’ll be doing a panel Open Government with Maryantonett Flumian (President of the Institute On Governance, I remember meeting her when she was Deputy Minister of Service Canada), Nick Vitalari (Executive Vice President at nGenera), and Peter Corbett (CEO of iStrategyLabs – which runs the Apps for Democracy Competitions for Washington DC).

The Showcase will be running November 2nd and 3rd and our panel will be on Monday the 2nd from 10:15am until noon in the City Council chambers. Registration is free for those who’d like to come and for those interested but not in Toronto, you will be able to watch a live webcast of the event online from their website. You’ll also be able to follow the event on twitter hashtags #TOshowcase and #opendataTO

The goal of the showcase is to provide:

“a venue for you to come and meet with your colleagues to discuss these questions, hear their success stories, share experiences about opportunities and challenges in the public sector using social media, propose suggestions, exchange information on IT and trends, create connections, knowledge, tools and policies that address the increased demand by citizens for better public service, transparency, civic engagement and democratic empowerment.”

Should be fun – hope to catch you there and to have something fun to blog about after it’s over.

The internet is messy, fun and imperfect, just like us

Last October 23rd David Weinberger gave the 2008 Bertha Bassam Lecture at the University of Toronto. I happened to be in Toronto but only found out about the lecture on the 24th. Fortunately Taylor pointed out that the lecture is online.

I’ve never met David Weinberger (his blog is here) but I hope to one day. I maintain his book – Small Pieces Loosely Joined – remains one of, if not the best book written about the internet and society. Everything is Miscellaneous is a fantastic read as well.

The Bertha Bassam lecture is classic Weinberger: smart, accessible, argumentative and fun. But what I love most about Weinberger is how he constantly reminds us that the internet is us…  and that, as a result, it is profoundly human: messy, fun, argumentative, and above all imperfect. Indeed, the point is so beautifully made in this lecture I felt a little emotional listening to it.

Contrast that to the experience of listening to someone like Andrew Keen, a Weinberger critic who this lecture again throws into stark relief. After reflecting on Weinberger, Keen dislikes the internet and web 2.0 mostly because I think he dislikes people. It may sound harsh but if you ever hear him speak – or even read his writing – it is smart, argumentative and interesting, but it oozes with an anger and condescension that is definitely contemptuous and sometimes even borders on hatred. If the debate is reduced to whether or not we should, however imperfectly, try to connect to and learn from one another or whether we should just hold others in contempt, I think Weinberger is going to win every time. At least, I know where I stand.

Indeed, this blog is a triumph of Weinberger’s internet humanism. It is a small effort to write, to share, and to celebrate the complexity and opportunity of the world with those I know and those I don’t, but who share a similar sense of possibility. Will millions read this blog. No. But I enjoy the connections, old and new, I make with the much more modest number of people who do.

I hope you’ll watch this lecture or, if you haven’t the time, download the audio to your ipod and listen to it during your commute home. (lacking the slides won’t have a big impact)