24 June 2013

Thoughts on Canada's Open Data Commitment

Last week our Canadian government made several valuable steps toward increased commitment to open data in Canada. First, Canada has launched a new open data portal. I have had a quick look, downloaded some very intriguing datasets, and have subsequently registered on the site. The portal needs more data, and more high quality data, but as a place to find, download, rate and learn about open data I think the new Canadian site is excellent. It's state-of-the-art as far as open data portals go. The second major step was to present their new open data license called OGL Canada v2.0. This license is a huge improvement over its predecessor and although yet to be formally tested for conformance to the Open Definition, I think it will be found to conform. I can't overemphasize how important I think it is to data consumers to have a legal framework that makes it clear, explicit and easy to understand that the data being published is in fact "open". The third major thing that the Canadian government did for us last week, which I frankly was not expecting, was that they signed us on to a new agreement called the G8 Open Data Charter. This document is a declaration that lays out principles, rationales and commitments in some detail that show positive support for and recognition of the value of open data and the promise that it represents. As a long-time open data enthusiast, advocate and advisor this is the kind of support for open data that I have wanted to see but didn't think I would see this soon. So, what's the impact? Well, now that we have a world class data catalogue and publishing platform and a license that makes it clear the data is to be used, we can start to really think about the question I often pose in hackathons and workshops: "If you could create anything you wanted with open data, what would you create?" The number one deterrent I find that stops people from using data, investing capital, and creating economic value, businesses or jobs using open data is the legal framework. In other words, people are not truly convinced that they have the government’s blessing to exploit the data, or that the government isn’t going to change its mind. It has been a risky environment for investment. I think the actions taken by the Government of Canada last week are going to go a long way toward putting that notion to rest.

13 February 2013

BC Open Data Summit

photo credit idigit_teddy
A paradigm shift happens when your point of view or perspective in a given framework changes.  When the change happens, it happens in an instant, but for each of us it happens at different times.  As a result, it can take some time for the new point of view to become pervasive.  

The new way of thinking fundamentally transforms the basic assumptions about the status quo such that it no longer appears the same.  In the new paradigm, ways of creating value and solving problems that formerly seemed impossible emerge.

As a community we have spent the last three years figuring out what open data is and what Tim O'Reilly meant when he coined the term “government as platform”.   We have been involved in a lot of activities, hackathons, learning sessions and presentations.  We now have a host of examples to demonstrate what open data is and how it can be made more useful.

One point of view about open data is it’s just the right thing to do.  Public data belongs to the public that pays for it so they should be able to use it.  Another point of view is it’s just a natural extension of a well functioning democracy.  Another is it allows innovation and efficient industry.  Still another point of view is it’s a fantastic tool for engagement, collaboration, education and increasing data literacy, a skill that is becoming more and more important as we transition to the digital age.

Ultimately, however, open data is a means to an end.  And as great as we think the particular means is, it is the ends that are most important.  The promise of open data is that it creates value.  Moving forward, I think the challenge is to think outside the box and determine how we can define desired outcomes and find ways to measure the value being created by open data.  And to foster entirely new areas of innovation and to address some of our toughest challenges such as job creation, health care, the environment and education.

What causes a paradigm shift in the first place?  I think it happens when people take a stand for a future that is unpredictable if one merely looks at the past.  Somehow, they make a connection with what’s possible and make exploring, thinking about, and brainstorming about what’s possible worth more than settling for what is likely.

Next week on February 19, 2013 the Open Data Society of BC is hosting the BC Open Data Summit at the SFU Segal Graduate School of Business in Vancouver.  We will be discussing some of the challenges as well as exploring the possibilities for open data in creating value for all:  the public, innovators, businesses and folks that are interested in publishing open data.

You can register for the event here: http://opendatasummit.ca/

I hope you’ll join us.

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!