20 July 2011

About the License

Yesterday while we were all celebrating the awesome work of the BC Provincial government, a very well respected Harvard researcher, software developer and open data advocate was arrested by the US Federal government on charges related to computer hacking, based on allegations that he downloaded too many scholarly journals that he was entitled to get for free.  He now faces a possible 30 years in jail.

I don't know Aaron, but I feel as though I do.  He writes brilliant software code and releases it to the world as completely free public domain software.  He advocates for open data and transparency and democracy in the US and he is a founder of demandprogress.org an organization dedicated to progressive policy changes for ordinary people.

Please consider visiting demandprogress.org and reading about what's happening to Aaron.

How does this relate to open data and the new DataBC portal?

It's about the license.

License : official or legal permission to do or own a specified thing.

It's strange that we need permission to use our own data and information.  It's strange that we sometimes have to pay to use data that we have already paid to have created.

Being an open data advocate and application developer comes with a certain level of risk and anxiety.  We are actively trying to do things that have not been done before.  And unlike other areas where innovation takes place, we are innovating in an area involving strange legalities, usually as individuals with no corporate backing or protection, and the consequences of making a mistake can be severe.  There is a lot of uncertainty.  Although many of us are open source developers and thus are pretty familiar with copyright law, licensing and the jargon that goes along with them, very few of us are lawyers.

This is why we want governments to use standard licenses.

By choosing to invent a new license rather than use an existing one the BC Government has added to the uncertainty.  Yes, they based it on the UK license, but it's clearly not the same as the UK license, otherwise they could have just used that.

Because they chose to invent a license I spent several hours last night pouring over the license and comparing it to both the PDDL and the UK license to see where those differences are and to see what additional risk I might have to take on as a result.  Every developer I know will have to do the same thing now before they start using the data.

Many won't bother.

And that's the lost opportunity. People who get turned off by the custom license won't use the data, or won't bother coming to the hackathons, or won't bother creating that new app. It's just too risky. Sadly, we all lose. because as I understand it, the BC Provincial government is in this for the right reasons.  It's clear to me that they absolutely get it.  Innovative new ideas and applications will be generated as a result of this.  This increased transparency and engagement and collaboration with the citizens will build trust and goodwill and is good for the government and good for the people of BC.

From what I can tell, not being a lawyer, as a standalone license, the BC Open Government License is actually mostly good (check out unrest.ca for some of the details on issues with the license).  And, there are a handful of us, that will push through this licensing thing, grumble a bit, say "it's pretty good" because it is, and weigh our risks and move forward with our apps and visualizations and innovations.

BC is seen as a leader in citizen engagement and open data by local governments, other provinces and internationally.  Looking at what's going on in the rest of the world, particularly in the US, we are really very fortunate to live where we do and to have the public service and leaders that we have.

I will encourage others to take the time to read the BC license rather than blowing it off because it's not standard.  And I will continue to urge local governments and other provinces to use a standard license rather than invent their own.

This is a first great first attempt, and as Christy Clark said in her excellent and encouraging video, this is very much a work in progress.  The license does have a version number, which to me implies that they are open to input, discussion and changing it if necessary, which is awesome.

19 July 2011

Remembering "Open"

Today the British Columbia Provincial Government launched a new Open Data Portal, making thousands of our publicly owned datasets available to us including everything from employee salaries to historical school locations to Local Government Incorporation Dates to the data catalogue itself. As a citizen and taxpayer in BC and an open data advocate I am very excited to see my own Provincial Government take these steps toward innovation and transparency. I congratulate those public servants within the BC Government that understood the opportunity, recognized value and championed the cause.

These days, governments all over the world are starting realize the value of "open" but it wasn't so long ago that we were at the opposite end of the spectrum. As a public servant in the 1980's, employed as a junior data analyst, I personally produced the monthly report for the minister and deputy minister showing the basic metrics of the ministry I was working for. As part of that job I was required to produce 5 copies of that report and place them in brown paper bags and tape them closed. I would then personally attempt delivery to the recipients office. If the recipient or their assistant weren't there to receive the report, I was required to take the report with me and try again later.

Those same metrics are still being used today and were released today as part of the Provincial Open Data portal. It's striking how far we have come in such a short amount of time.

Although we have gone through a very opaque phase with our governments, the idea of governments being open and transparent is not actually new. Our own BC Government has been publishing the public accounts and other financial information for decades. They also produce a monthly publication called the British Columbia Gazette and have done so since the 1920's that is teeming with useful information about our province, from disposition of Crown Lands, to election results, to tree farm licenses to road name changes.

Technology has evolved since these publications were originally developed. Where at one time publishing this type of data on paper was about as usable as one could have imagined, these days its available electronically, and hopefully soon it will be included as part of the open data portal.

So, although openness and transparency aren't new, they were definitely forgotten, and as I like to say, we are now remembering the value of "open".

Congratulations and a big "Thank you!" to our public service employees and political leaders who are helping to make this happen.

Now, I need to go to the portal and look for some data. :)