Tag Archives: transparency

Eaves.ca Blogging Moment #1 (2009 Edition): Open Data Comes to Vancouver

Back in 2007 I published a list of top ten blogging moments – times I felt blogging resulted in something fun or interesting. I got numerous notes from friends who found it fun to read (though some were not fans) so I’m giving it another go. Even without these moments it has been rewarding, but it is nice to reflect on them to understand why spending so many hours, often late at night, trying to post 4 times a week can give you something back that no paycheck can offer. Moreover, this is a chance to celebrate some good fortune and link to people who’ve made this project a little more fun. So here we go…

Eaves.ca Blogging Moment #1 (2009 Edition): Open Data Comes to Vancouver

On May 14th I blogged about the tabling of Vancouver’s Open Data motion to city council. After thousands of tweets, dozens of international online articles and blog posts, some national press and eventually some local press, the City of Vancouver passes the motion.

This was a significant moment for myself and people like Tim Wilson, Andrea Reimer and several people in the Mayor’s Office who worked hard to craft the motion and make it reality. The first motion of its type in Canada I believe it helped put open data on the agenda in policy circles across the country. Still more importantly, the work of the city is providing advocates with models – around legal issues, licensing and community engagement – that will allow them to move up the learning curve faster.

All this is also a result of the amazing work by city staff on this project. The fact that the city followed up and launched an open data portal less than 3 months later – becoming the first major city in Canada to do so – speaks volumes. (Props also to smaller cities like Kamloops and Nanaimo that were already sharing data.)

Today, several cities are contemplating creating similar portals and passing similar motions (I spoke at the launch of Toronto’s open portal, Ottawa, Calgary, & Edmonton are in various stages of exploring the possibility of doing something, over the border the City of Seattle invited me to present on the subject to their city councilors.). We are still in early days but I have hopes that this initiative can help drive a new era of government transparency & citizen engagement.

Has Canada entered a Bush-Like Vortex?

No new piece on eaves.ca today as I wrote a special for the Globe and Mail.

The piece is entitled Has Canada entered a ‘Bush-like vortex’? and explores how the Colvin testimony suggests the public service has become compromised in a critical way. Specifically, it suggests that increasingly, public servants are being forced to shape facts and the truth to fit a narrative already constructed by our government. It’s a dangerous path down which president Bush took the American public administration with disastrous results. Here, with out traditions of a greater separation between the political and the bureaucratic, the outcome could be even worse.

Anyway, you read it here on the Globe site. I’ll cross post it tomorrow.

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.

Why not open flu data?

On Monday, Nov. 23 the Globe ran this piece I wrote as a Special to The Globe and Mail. I’m cross-posting it back here for those who may have missed it. Hope you enjoy!

An interesting thread keeps popping up in The Globe’s reporting on H1N1. As you examine the efforts of the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their response to the crisis only one thing appears to be more rare than the vaccine itself: information.

For example, on Nov. 11, Patrick Brethour reported that “The premiers resolved to press the federal government to give them more timely information on vaccine supplies during their own conference call last Friday. Health officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week.”

And of course, it isn’t just the provinces complaining about the feds. The feds are similarly complaining about the vaccine suppliers. In response to an unforeseen and last-minute vaccine shortage by GlaxoSmithKline (a manufacturer of the vaccine), David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, acknowledged in The Globe on Oct. 31 that “what I know today is not what I knew yesterday morning. And tomorrow I may find out something new.”

For those of you who are wondering what this shortage of information reminds you of, the answer is simple: life before the Internet. Here, in the digital age, we continue to treat the Public Health Officer like a town crier, waiting for him to share how much vaccine the country is going to receive. And the government is treating GSK like a 20th century industrial manufacturer you would bill with a paper invoice.

This in an era of just-in-time delivery, radio-frequency identification chips and a FedEx website that lets me track packages from my home computer. We could resolve this information shortage quite simply by insisting the vaccine suppliers publish a website or data feed, updated hourly or daily, of the vaccine production pipeline, delivery schedule and inventory. That way, if there is a sudden change in the delivery amount the press, health officials or any average citizen could instantly know and plan accordingly. Conversely, the government of Canada could publish its inventory and the process it uses to allocate it to the provinces online for anyone to see. Using this data, local health authorities could calculate how much vaccine they can expect without having to talk to the feds at all. Time and energy would be saved by everyone.

Better still, no more conference calls with the premiers sitting around complaining to the Prime Minister about a lack of information. By insisting on open data – that is sharing the data and information relating to the vaccine supply publicly – the government could both improve transparency, reduce transaction costs and greatly facilitate co-ordination between the various ministries and levels of government. No more waiting for that next meeting or an email from the Chief Public Health Officer to get an update on how much vaccine to expect – just pop online and take a look for yourself.

As noted by Doug Bastien over at GC2.0, the federal government has done an excellent job informing the Canadian public about the need to get vaccinated, including using social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. Indeed, they were so successful they helped contribute to the current vaccine shortage. To ensure we respond to the next crisis successfully, however, we need more than a citizen-centric social media strategy. We need a social media and open data strategy that ensures our governments communicate effectively with one another.

19th Century Net Neutrality (and what it means for the 21st Century)

So what do bits of data and coal locomotive have in common?

It turns out a lot.

In researching an article for a book I’ve discovered an interesting parallel between the two in regard to the issue of Net Neutrality. What is Net Neutrality? It is the idea that when you use the Internet, you do so free of restrictions. That any information you download gets treated the same as any other piece of information. This means that your Internet service provider (say Rogers, Shaw or Bell) can’t choose to provide you with certain content faster than other content (or worse, simply block you from accessing certain content altogether).

Normally the issue of Net Neutrality gets cast in precisely those terms – do bits of data flowing through fibre optic and copper cables get treated the same, regardless of whose computer they are coming from and whose computer they are going to. We often like to think these types of challenges are new, and unique, but one thing I love about being a student of history, is that there are almost always interesting earlier examples to any problem.

Take the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the term would have been foreign to them, Net Neutrality was a raging issue, but not in regard to the telegraph cables of the day.  No, it was an issue in regards to railway networks.

In 1903 the United States Congress passed the Elkins Act. The Act forbade railway companies from offering, and railway customers from demanding, preferential rates for certain types of goods. Any “good” that moved over the (railway) network had to be priced and treated the same as any other “good.” In short, the (railway) network had to be neutral and price similar goods equally. What is interesting is that many railway companies welcomed the act because some trusts (corporations) paid the standard rail rate but would then demand that the railroad company give them rebates.

What’s interesting to me is that

a) Net Neutrality was a problem back in the late 19th and early 20th century; and

b) Government regulation was seen as an effective solution to ensuring a transparent and fair market place on these networks

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to ensure that the 21st century (fibre optic) networks will foster economic growth, create jobs and improve productivity in much the same way the 19th and 20th century (railway) networks did for that era? If the answer is yes, we’d be wise to look back and see how those networks were managed effectively and poorly.  The Elkins Act is an interesting starting point, as it represented progressives efforts to ensure transparency and equality of opportunity in the marketplace so that it could function as an effective platform for commerce.

Open Data – USA vs. Canada

open-data-300x224When it comes to Open Data in Canada and the United States, things appear to be similar. Both countries have several municipalities with Open Data portals: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and now New York City in the US, Vancouver and Nanaimo in Canada with Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa thinking about or initiating plans.

But the similarities end there. In particular there is a real, yawning gap at the federal level. America has data.gov but here in Canada there is no movement on the Open Data front. There are some open data sets, but nothing comprehensive, and nothing that follows is dedicated to following the three laws of open data. No data.gc.ca in the works. Not even a discussion. Why is that?

As esoteric as it may sound, I believe the root of the issues lies in the country’s differing political philosophies. Let me explain.

It is important to remember that the United States was founded on the notion of popular sovereignty. As such its sovereignty lies with the people, or as Wikipedia nicely puts it:

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. With their Revolution, Americans substituted the sovereignty in the person of the English king, George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Henceforth, American revolutionaries by and large agreed and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. (italics are mine)

Thus data created by the US government is, quite literally, the people’s data. Yes, nothing legally prevents the US government from charging for information and data but the country’s organizing philosophy empowers citizens to stand up and say – this is our data, we’d like it please. In the United States the burden is on the government to explain why it is withholding that which the people own (a tradition that admittedly is hardly perfect as anyone alive from the years 2000-2008 will attest to).  But don’t underestimate the power of this norm. Its manifestations are everywhere, such as in the legal requirement that any document created by the United States government be published in the public domain (e.g. it cannot have any copyright restrictions placed on it) or in America’s vastly superior Freedom of Information laws.

This is very different notion of sovereignty than exists in Canada. This country never deviated from the European context described above. Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III’s descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared. This is the (radically different) context under which our government (both the political and public service), and its expectations around disclosure, have evolved. As an example, note that government documents in Canada are not public domain, they are published under a Crown Copyright that, while less restrictive than copyright, nonetheless constrains reuse (no satire allowed!) and is a constant reminder of the fact that Canadian citizens don’t own what their tax dollars create. The Queen does.

The second reason why open data has a harder time taking root in Canada is because of the structure of our government. In America, new projects are easier to kick start because the executive welds greater control over the public service. The Open Data initiative that started in Washington, D.C. spread quickly to the White House because its champion and mastermind, the District’s of Columbia’s CTO Vivek Kundra, was appointed Federal CIO by President Obama. Yes, Open Data tapped into an instinctual reflex to disclose that (I believe) is stronger down south than here, but it was executed because America’s executive branch is able to appoint officials much deeper into government (for those who care, in Canada Deputy Ministers are often appointed, but in the United States appointments go much deeper, down into the Assistant Deputy and even into the Director General level). Both systems have merits, and this is not a critic of Canada’s approach, simply an observation. However, it does mean that a new priority, like open data, can be acted upon quickly and decisively in the US. (For more on these difference I recommend reading John Ibbitson’s book Open & Shut).

These difference have several powerful implications for open data in Canada.

As a first principle, if Canadians care about open data we will need to begin fostering norms in our government, among ourselves, and in our politicians, that support the idea that what our government creates (especially in terms of research and data) is ours and that we should not only have unfettered access to it, but the right to analyze and repurpose it. The point here isn’t just that this is a right, but that open data enhances democracy, increases participation and civic engagement and strengthens our economy. Enhancing this norm is a significant national challenge, one that will take years to succeed. But instilling it into the culture of our public service, our civic discourse and our political process is essential. In the end, we have to ask ourselves – in a way our American counterparts aren’t likely to (but need to) – do we want an open country?

This means that secondly, Canadians are going to have to engage in a level of education of – particularly senior – public servants on open data that is much broader and more comprehensive than our American counterparts had to. In the US, an executive fiat and appointment has so far smoothed the implementation of open data solutions. That will likely not work here. We have many, many, many allies in the public service who believe in open data (and who understand it is integral to public service sector renewal). The key is to spread that knowledge and support upwards, to educate senior decision-makers, especially those at the DG, ADM and DM level to whom both the technology and concept is essentially foreign. It is critical that these decision-makers become comfortable with and understand the benefits of open data quickly. If not we are unlikely to keep pace with (or even follow) our American counterparts, something, I believe is essential for our government and economy.

Second, Canadians are going to have to mobilize to push for open data as a political issue. Even if senior public servants get comfortable with the idea, it is unlikely there will be action unless politicians understand that Canadians want both greater transparency and the opportunity to build new services and applications on government data.

(I’d also argue that another reason why Open Data has taken root in the US more quickly than here is the nature of its economy. As a country that thrives on services and high tech, open data is the basic ingredient that helps drive growth and innovation. Consequently, there is increasing corporate support for open data. Canada, in contrast, with its emphasis on natural resources, does not have a corporate culture that recognizes these benefits as readily.)

The Three Laws of Open Government Data

Yesterday, at the Right To Know Week panel discussion – Conference for Parliamentarians: Transparency in the Digital Era – organized by the Office of the Information Commissioner I shared three laws for Open Government Data that I’d devised on the flight from Vancouver.

The Three Laws of Open Government Data:

  1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
  2. If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
  3. If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower

To explain, (1) basically means: Can I find it? If Google (and/or other search engines) can’t find it, it essentially doesn’t exist for most citizens. So you’d better ensure that you are optimized to be crawled by all sorts of search engine spiders.

After I’ve found it, (2) notes that, to be useful, I need to be able to play with the data. Consequently, I need to be able to pull or download it in a useful format (e.g. an API, subscription feed, or a documented file). Citizens need data in a form that lets them mash it up with Google Maps or other data sets, or analyze in Excel. This is essentially the difference between VanMaps (look, but don’t play) and the Vancouver Data Portal, (look, take and play!). Citizens who can’t play with information are citizens who are disengaged/marginalized from the discussion.

Finally, even if I can find it and play with it, (3) highlights that I need a legal framework that allows me to share what I’ve created, to mobilize other citizens, provide a new service or just point out an interesting fact. This is the difference between Canada’s House of Parliament’s information (which, due to crown copyright, you can take, play with, but don’t you dare share or re-publish) and say, Whitehouse.gov which “pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected.”

Find, Play and Share. That’s want we want.

Of course, a brief scan of the internet has revealed that others have also been thinking about this as well. There is this excellent 8 Principle of Open Government Data that are more detailed, and admittedly better, especially for a CIO level and lower conversation.  But for talking to politicians (or Deputy Ministers or CEOs), like those in attendance during yesterday’s panel or, later that afternoon, the Speaker of the House, I found the simplicity of three resonated more strongly; it is a simpler list they can remember and demand.

Today: "right to know" panel for parliamentarians

Today from 10am-12am EST I’ll be a panelist for Conference for Parliamentarians: Transparency in the Digital Era a panel convened by the Office of the Information Commissioner as part of Right to Know Week. Apparently the Canadian School of Public Service will provide access to this conference as part of its Armchair Discussions (www.righttoknow.ca).

More on the panel:

This conference aims to engage Parliamentarians in a debate and reflection on the new paradigm that the digital world has introduced for the right to know. Greater transparency in the digital era requires more than sound information management and the use of state-of-the-art information technology. It calls for a fundamental change of attitudes from disclosing information on a need-to-know basis to managing information with the presumption of disclosure as the default mode. How can public institutions trigger and accelerate this change of attitudes for the benefit of Canadians?

For those who are interested you can see my slides (sans audio, I’m afraid) below.