11 December 2012

My Submission: Open Government License - Canada

Here is what I submitted to the comments form for the new Open Government License - Canada.
Thank you for your work on this.  I think you have done a great job on this license.  I would like to make one important suggestion and I thank you for the opportunity to do so.
I would very much like to see Canada's new license be conformant to the Open Definition published and maintained by the Open Knowledge Foundation here : http://www.opendefinition.org/okd/ 
The open definition is an important tool in the open data space.  It assures users of open data that the license associated with the open data they are considering using has undergone some scrutiny by a community of people who know about open data, and it's been deemed open and thus interoperable with other forms of open data released in other jurisdictions.  This interoperability is an important factor in enabling people in various jurisdictions and disciplines to work with data from various sources.  The definition is one to that helps people assure themselves that they have the legal right to do so without having to be legal experts in every jurisdiction whose data they want to use. 
Ultimately, we do open data in the hopes that someone will use our data.  Data is becoming increasingly important in our modern world.  Data literacy is still an evolving skill and part of this effort is also to encourage people to become more data literate and thus expand the pool of people who can work with data.  In a sense, Canada is competing with other jurisdictions for the attention of folks who can work with this data today.  The better job we can do at making it clear and simple that we want people to use our data the more likely they will do so.
My suggestion then is that the clause:
"ensure that you do not use the Information in a way that suggests any official status or that the Information Provider endorses you or your use of the Information;" 
would be better placed in the exemptions section. 
So, as part of the exemptions section it could read:
This Licence does not grant you any right to use the Information in a way that suggests any official status or that the Information Provider endorses you or your use of the Information." 
This would change the clause from a (redundant) restriction on the data being released into a reaffirmation of permissions the license is NOT granting, much like the other exemptions listed. 
I think that the effect would be that the license would be considered conformant to the open definition. 

04 October 2012

Open Data Learning Summit

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at two different conferences in Vancouver held in celebration of Right to Know Week.  I previously shared some of my thoughts about the first conference and these are my thoughts about the second one which was the Open Data Information Summit held by the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner for BC, the BC Libraries Cooperative and the BC Ministry of Education.

The day started with an engaging and inspiring talk by David Eaves (@daeaves).  David covers a lot of interesting topics in his talks but the one that stood out for me the most was his discussion about the political nature of data.  As more public data is made available to the public, decisions have to be made about what to release and what data to hold back.  Currently, those decisions are typically made one by one for each individual dataset, and there is a risk that those decisions might be made according to the interests of status or authority within an organization rather than on matters of principle.  What David pointed out though is that this political nature is not unique to open data.  It’s a property of data itself, whether or not it’s open, and it’s a challenge worth thinking about.

As I prepared my talk for this conference, I knew many of the participants would be professional librarians and archivists.  It occurred to me how important libraries and archives are to our societies, and how the challenges we face in the open data movement are the very same challenges that the proponents of the original library idea must have faced.  

I imagined the response that the first poor soul who came up with the idea must have faced.  “You know all these books we have?  I have this great idea.  Let’s build a great big building and take all of these books and make them available to the public, for free!”  

It’s easy to see why at the time this may have seemed like a crazy idea:

  • Most citizens can’t even read.
  • The vast majority of people don’t even care about books.
  • Who is going to pay for this?
  • Who is going to read these books?
  • They will interpret the books incorrectly.
  • If everyone learns how to read there will be chaos!
  • What if someone uses a book to do something evil?
  • How will authors make a living?
  • How will publishers make a living?
  • Who is going to pay for a book if we make them available for free?

Or, even after the library was formed:
  • We published those books a year ago... and still only a few people are reading!

As it turns out, we now recognize and value libraries and literacy and it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always like this.

The challenge of data literacy is one that came up again and again during the conference,  and is a challenge I think we would do well to more rigorously address as an important skill for the future, particularly for our kids.  

It's here that open data presents another valuable opportunity.  I have had the privilege of leading many open data hackathons attended by young people and I have seen how much fun they can have working with data when given the opportunity.  I think would be great to see courses offered in schools that address data literacy topics.  It also be great to see kids empowered to do school projects using open data about their own community or municipality or province.

I was reminded of the talk that Danny Hillis presented at OSCON 2012 in which he describes the contribution his school librarian made to his life when he was a 4th grader.   Librarians in general, but school librarians in particular, are perfectly poised to introduce kids to a wide variety of fields of learning that they may find interesting and useful but that perhaps aren’t yet offered by the school system generally.

And, while I am optimistic about the classroom and think teachers will increasingly find opportunities to weave data literacy into their work, much as happens with reading today, I think that librarians are well positioned today to kick start the process and to help our kids discover the fun and usefulness of data.  

By the end of the day the summit was buzzing with inspiration and excitement.  It was clear to me that the attendees saw the opportunities for learning and sharing that open data offers.  I look forward to working with librarians and educators and to seeing where they take it from here.

27 September 2012

BC Information Summit Thoughts

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at two different conferences in Vancouver held in celebration of Right to Know Week.  I want to share some of my thoughts about the first one here.  I will post another article to cover my thoughts about the second conference.

The first event I spoke at was the BC Information Summit held by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA).  FIPA is a non-partisan, non-profit society founded in 1991 to promote and defend freedom of information and privacy rights in Canada.  The event focused on open data and Government 2.0 as well as current privacy issues arising out of current provincial IT efforts.  I believe some of the conference was captured on video.  If I find out where it's posted I will let folks know here.

Many interesting topics were discussed but the two that resonated most with me with respect to open data were, 1) that open data stands on the shoulders of many people who have worked hard for us to have the right to access government records; and 2) open data is no substitute for FOI.  In other words, while open data represents a significant opportunity and can and will save money by governments being proactive in making public data available readily available, the right to access records held by our governments is a fundamental right and we should promote and exercise that right.  

It's with some embarrassment that I admit I have never filed an Freedom of Information (FOI) request to access public information.  This is a fundamental thing to be able to do in a free and democratic society and I live in a free society and I haven't used that right, not because I haven't wanted to, but partly because of what I perceive as the work involved and partly because I have somehow thought that it's wasteful for me to do.  Like my questions are not important enough or generally applicable enough to exercise this right.  That's just not true.

With respect to the BC provincial government we have the option to ask for data to be released as open data via the Data BC site, but additionally, if we just want access to some data we have the right to make an FOI request for datasets.  Of course data obtained this way will not fall under the BC Open Government License, but for some public data that may be sufficient for now.  The folks releasing data have limited resources and are prioritizing releases of data the best they can with the resources available.  FOI is one more way we can help figure out what's important.

I see the Freedom of Information community and the Open Data community as having little overlap so far in terms of people and membership, yet much in common in terms of interest and opportunities.  I will be looking for ways for the two communities to complement each other and help our public servants with their open data efforts.

I will also be filing an FOI request sometime in the near future to learn more about how it works.

12 September 2012

Why Supporting the CIRA Election Matters

Canada is a world leader in internet technologies.  We have some of the brightest and most innovative people and companies in the world inventing new technologies that are shaping the future and giving us a competitive edge.

We typically think about the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) in terms of the .CA Internet Domain.   CIRA is the organization given authority by the Government of Canada to act as the registry for the .CA Internet Domain and to provide professional registry services.  However, CIRA also has the responsibility to develop, carry out and support other Internet-related activities in Canada and to do things to attain all of these objectives.  Thus, it’s a wider scope than name registration.  While name registration is important, other factors also are becoming increasingly important for the Canadian Internet.  

The internet is becoming integral to how businesses and governments operate as well as how citizens of Canada interact with each other and with organizations.  In addition, a highly effective, functioning and open internet is critical to supporting the flow of open data and information needed to solve many of the challenges facing governments and citizens.  

As a platform for innovation and job creation in Canada, the stability, sovereignty and integrity of our Canadian Internet is critical for Canadian businesses to be able rely on it for their business needs and continue to invest in research and technology development that will keep us at the forefront of the internet frontier.

The internet is vastly different than it was when CIRA was created in 1998.  Back then, .ca name registration was the primary objective and other internet related issues were secondary.  Today it is imperative that the Canadian Internet be recognized as key infrastructure and as something that Canadians rely upon and are key stakeholders in.  To date, Canada has taken a largely “go with the flow” approach to how we operate our part of the Internet.  We’ve had a lot of success, but increasingly we are seeing challenges that we need to address to ensure continuing success.  Challenges include technical challenges such the deployment and adoption of of IPv6 and DNSSEC, integrity challenges such as corporate influence, and political challenges such as interference by foreign governments.  Meeting these challenges requires concerted effort by Canadians who are dedicated and passionate and also up to technical demands of the problems.  

For these reasons and others, I am a member of CIRA (any Canadian who owns a .CA domain name can apply for a CIRA membership).  Being a member enables me to have a say in how the Canadian Internet is run, as well as vote for the candidates that I believe are best able to meet our upcoming challenges in the Board of Directors elections.  

I will be voting for Kevin McArthur in the upcoming election.  Kevin has many skills and talents.  In this context, the ones that I see as critically important are that he understands the Internet, the technologies and what is at stake for us as Canadians; he is a successful business person, entrepreneur and innovator; he is a supportive and outspoken community leader; and he is passionate about what’s best for Canadians.  You can find out more about him here.

If you take a moment and think about how the internet has affected your life and your work, and how much you rely on it I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth your time to take part in this election.  I invite you to register with CIRA, become a member and cast your vote.

28 July 2012

OSCON 2012

Last week I attended OSCON in Portland Oregon, to sip from the open source software firehose, as I have for the past 5 years.  If you are not familiar with OSCON, it stands for "Open Source CONference" and it is the premier open source software conference attended by about 3000 people each year.  It's hosted by O'Reilly.  You can find out more about it here.

The Clothesline Paradox
Tim O'Reilly, the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, talked about what he called the "clothesline paradox".  The clothesline paradox points at the fact that if you dry your clothes in an electric dryer, the energy used is measured and accounted for, but if you hang them on the clothesline to be dried by the sun, the energy saved disappears from our accounting!  

He related this to open source software and crowd sourced content.  The enormous amounts of value created by open source software developers and people using that software to contribute interesting content on sites like Wikipedia, Blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ goes completely unaccounted for.  We have done a great job of creating value, but we haven't yet told the story.  When we do think about how open source software is doing economically, we think of the few companies that have monetized open source directly, like Red Hat, MySQL or WordPress as the size of the open source economy.  What most don't realize is that it basically powers everything on the internet and many of the devices used to access it.

Talking about the value of open source in terms of licenses sold is like talking about the value of solar energy in terms of sales of solar panels without taking into account that it actually grows our food, provides warmth, is the source of many other energy sources used on the planet including oil and generally just supports all life on the planet.

DevOps on the Fly
Mark Shuttleworth, the CEO of Canonical (the company that produces Ubuntu) delivered a keynote address where he demonstrated their new juju DevOps suite.  Juju is designed to deploy and maintain cloud systems.  It dynamically creates VMs, installs and configures software on those VMs, and even sets up the relationships between the VMs so they automatically start talking to each other.  It's magical.  While some have a hard enough time showing off pre-installed operating systems without unexpected "blues", Mark on the other hand created, configured and deployed a private cloud on his laptop in front of 3000+ attendees.  That takes something.   Five percent of all new computers that ship next year will ship with Ubuntu.

Simple Inventions that Change the World
I also attended a talk by Ward Cunningham the inventor of the Wiki.  Ward invented the Wiki in 1994 and made it freely available to the world shortly thereafter.  By 2001 Wikipedia was created based on the Ward's Wiki concept and it now contains 22 million articles.   Ward also is one of the founders of agile software development and co-author of the agile manifesto.  One of my favourite quotes by Ward is "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work".  It's hard to exaggerate the influence Ward has had on technology.

Ward demonstrated one of his current projects, a collaborative writing tool called the smallest federated wiki.  Although it's very much a work-in-progress it was simply amazing in many ways, so much so that it's hard for me to describe in a few words other than to say it's sort of like a mashup between wikis, GitHub and Diaspora.  I don't know of a working demo of the software at this point but will keep my eyes open for it and in the meantime I will be checking out the source to see if I can put up an instance.

OSCON is my favourite conference of the year.  Not only is it highly professional, inspiring and visionary, it's only a few hours away from us here in BC.  I highly recommend to developers and anyone else interested in where IT is going to attend this conference next year.  If you would like to learn more about OSCON or open source software and how it can be used in your organization, please feel free to get in touch.  I hope to see you there next year!

10 April 2012


Last week I attended the launch of a new initiative for British Columbia by the BC Ministry of Health, called ThinkHealthBC.   As part of the initiative the BC Ministry of Health has launched site  (http://www.thinkhealthbc.ca/) with a forum where citizens can discuss health care issues, including care and policy issues and participate in the process of health care delivery in BC.  I see this as part of the provincial government's continuing effort to engage citizens in discussions about their province and the decisions affecting them.

The morning started with a discussion led by Minister Michael de Jong.  Though I had never met him in person, I was already a fan of Minister de Jong because of his early support and adoption of open data and his stand on being accountable to citizens.  He led an engaging discussion and impressed me as an effective leader, as well as pragmatic, sincere and generally very likeable.  I believe he is creating an environment that fosters discussion and innovation where the best ideas and solutions can emerge.

Here's what I got from the general discussion with Minister de Jong:

  • Healthcare costs are the number one issue facing [provincial] governments and may well be the issue of the decade;
  • Costs have doubled in the past ten years to the point where nearly ½ of every tax dollar is spent on healthcare;
  • 1% of the population consumes ⅓, and 5% consumes ⅔, of healthcare costs;
  • Individual costs are decreasing (e.g., pharmaceuticals cost less, surgeries cost less than ten years ago), but expectations are rising and costs of new treatments higher; and
  • Our generation may be the first generation in history that does not live as long as our parents.
My first reaction to the issue of escalating health care costs is resignation.  What can I do?  I am not a health care expert and I am not included in the discussion.  I just pay for it and it continues to consume more and more of my money.

This thinking clearly flies in the face of my role as an open government and open data enthusiast.  With governments making more and more of our data available to us, we are being presented with more of an opportunity to help out.  Further, with new inclusive initiatives like ThinkHealthBC, the "I'm not included in the discussion" argument holds less water.  I expect that this trend of governments making our data available and finding ways to engage with citizens will continue.  Our role as citizens is expanding from merely voting once every four or five years, to having the data and tools to analyze problems, propose solutions and participate in policy making.

Viewed simply, the health care cost issue occurs as a huge problem.  But, given that it consumes 42 percent of our provincial budget, an alternate point of view could be to see it as a huge opportunity.  Small positive changes here can have a huge impact on the cost and delivery of health care.   As a result of attending this discussion and my involvement in various projects,  including my role at MD DataBank and my open data projects and advisory roles, I will be thinking of ways that I personally can contribute to solving tough problems and making our country and provinces even better.

As I can often be heard saying, we can no longer expect governments to do all the thinking and all the doing.  Not only can we not afford it, but more and more there is recognition that good ideas can come from anywhere, including from you.  

Join me in visiting http://www.thinkhealthbc.ca to see how you can get involved.

19 January 2012

My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Some of the questions posed in the Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission required written responses.  Here are my responses:

question 1: "What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?"
To make data easy to find I would like to see all of the available data along with descriptive text, preferably one dataset per page, published on government web sites that can be indexed by Google.

To make the data easy to use, I would like to see the data published in open non-proprietary formats. The data should be addressable by URL, without any requirement to sign in or identify or be required to click on anything extra in order to download the data as these sorts of mechanisms are obstacles to performing repetitive automated tasks.

The data should be either released as public domain, or if that's not possible then it should be licensed under a legal framework that conforms with the open data definition posted on opendefinition.org. The Open Data Usability Index (ODUI) document at OpenDataBC also provides helpful information about how to make data more usable. http://www.opendatabc.ca/odui.html

question 3: "How would you use or manipulate this data?"
I would use the data to create analysis and visualizations that would help Canadians better understand their country. I would create value added applications that would help people to create businesses and jobs using open data. I would also try to help people use the data, by providing online tutorials and holding events that would encourage people to get involved. I would like to help create the incentives for citizens of Canada get more engaged and participate more with their governments (local, provincial, federal).

question 4: "What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?"
Government information should be made available to search engines like Google by providing topic specific pages, in text that search engines can understand so that people can use the tools they are used to to get information. There is no need to create an elaborate portal and specialized search engine for this sort of effort, at least in the foreseeable future.

Specifically about Open Information, again, it should all be either released to the public domain or if that's not possible licensed using a license that conforms to opendefinition.org. It should not be given a different license than open data if you want people to be able to use it.

question 7: "Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?"
I don't have a lot of ideas here other than make use of the available social media tools such as Twitter and Google+ to reach out to Canadians. I don't always agree with Tony Clement, but I do like the way he engages citizens. I would like to see more MPs do the same. Also, adopt social media guidelines like the Province of BC has, which fosters trust with its employees and allows them to engage directly with citizens.

question 8: "Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?"
As far as open data goes, the legal framework is a big deal and why I keep advising governments to work hard to get this part of open data right. Follow the example of the US or Australia or New Zealand or Surrey or Langley or Township of Langley or Winnipeg Transit.

In Australia agencies are supposed to go through a process in order to keep data closed. (There is currently no binding law to enforce this but the intent is there). This would be relatively easy to put in place in many jurisdictions as data is already routinely assessed for privacy concerns and treated accordingly. Determining if it should be closed would be just another check box, and since the vast majority of public data should eventually be open data, it makes sense to identify and document the much smaller set of data destined to be closed.

I think there is an unintended side effect of the way open data is being rolled out in some jurisdictions. Public data that was once generally considered usable ( financials, stats, directories, registries, codes, inspection data, schedules ) are now considered not usable because they don't have explicit permissions associated with them. When they do get an official license applied to them, their new explicit "open" status can be significantly more restrictive than the implicit understanding prior to the movement.

Also, governments often set up a new agency that identifies data citizens can use and place it in a catalogue, and anything that's not in the catalogue then has a mysterious cloud over it by contrast, even if it was formerly considered public. Depending on how fast this new group can get through the relevant data to catalogue it, citizens could feel they have significantly less data than they had before the official process.

Everything already on the internet should just be open licensed.

question 9: "Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada's Open Government initiative?"
Thank you for taking the time and putting effort in to address this opportunity and to consult with citizens. I think we, as a country, have a lot to offer the world in terms of leadership in this space.

01 January 2012

2011 in Review

I find that the end of the year is a great time to reflect on the past 12 months and refresh the vision for the upcoming 12 months. It works well for me not only because of the changing year, but also because the holidays bring a brief window of downtime, which I like to use to, as Stephen Covey says, “sharpen the saw”.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a avid supporter of open government and open data. My personal belief is that open government is what’s next for modern democracies. Public servants and citizens are starting to see for themselves the strategic advantage that openness represents, something that the open source movement has known for decades. As more politicians and high level public servants start to realize the positive effects that openness can have on their work and their personal careers we will see more adoption. Soon we will look back to this period and it will seem archaic for governments to keep critical decision making information from the people they serve.

My personal vision for 2011 was that by the end of the year people in BC would be more aware of open data. When we started 2011 most people I talked to had no idea what open data or hackathons were. Now, 12 months later, we have had 11 hackathons in 5 cities in BC, 350 hackathon attendees, several news paper and other media stories, we have a ministry with Open Government in its name, a provincial government that publishes open data and we've had 5,000 unique visitors to my OpenDataBC.ca site viewing 35,000 pages of content.

One of my heros, Seth Godin, popularized the term shipping which describes the act of completing a project, getting something out the door or delivering something. It doesn’t matter if it was a hit or not, or whether it was perfect or not. All that matters is that it is done.

Here’s a partial list of things I shipped in 2011:
  • Designed a system to enable secure storage and sharing of health information
  • Continued to build the OpenDataBC google group which now has 116 members
  • Created the Open Data Usability Index with other open data experts
  • Held the 2nd annual Victoria International Open Data Hackathon
  • Facilitated 11 open data hackathons around the province of BC
  • Added 170 datasets to the OpenDataBC catalogue
  • Presented open data at several conferences
  • Advised several governments in Canada on open data strategy
  • Developed Municipedia, an app to improve Voter turnout in the 2011 Municipal elections
  • Contributed to several other open data projects
  • Proposed a change to the Open Definition
  • Launched an HTML5, Python based data visualization platform
  • Attended several conferences including Google I/O, EuroPython and OSCON
  • Developed a tiny open source split testing framework for Python
  • Purchased several Internet ready music albums
  • Gave $500 to causes I believe in (EFF, FSF, Demand Progress)
  • Moved 55 domains from GoDaddy to DreamHost
  • Wrote 30,000 lines of code
  • posted 1,900 tweets
  • Wrote 9 blog posts
I was very honoured to be able to work on these projects with so many great people in 2011.  I worked on many other projects as well, some of which are not complete so they’ll be my 2012 list. :)

Now, I will get to work on my vision for 2012.  I will post here in the near future.

Happy New Year!