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July 26 2011

A refresh for open government in British Columbia

The citizens of British Columbia have much more to be proud of than extraordinary natural beauty and abundant resources. Last week, Canadian citizens in the province of British Columbia saw three new websites go online that focus on releasing open government data, making information related to accountability available, and providing easier access to services and officials. These websites include:

WIth the launch, the province has joined a growing community of states that have adopted open government principles for governance. As the Vancouver Sun reported, the open government initiative and open data portal fulfill campaign promises made by British Columbia premier Christy Clark during her campaign. Clark has committed to making information on surgical wait times, school test scores and public-sector salaries available to the public. Last week, the premier directed her ministers and ministries to make more data available and then report back to the B.C. cabinet every quarter. Clark recorded a video, embedded below, in which she talks about what open government means to her and the accompanying change in culture that she's asking of public servants.

This was the first time a premier's video message was embedded in British Columbia's internal intranet for public servants, said David Hume, executive director of citizen engagement, business and workforce transformation, in a phone interview. "We, like many other public services, try to maintain this difference between the political and the non-partisan," he said. "The reason that we did this was because the challenge that she gave to public servants is so significant. The culture shift isn't trivial."

In other words, the legal, cultural and technical aspects of open government have to be in sync, along with a strong rationale for people to become more civically engaged. "In order to have meaningful conversations with citizens, they need to have the same information government has in raw form to do their own work," said Kevin Jardine, assistant deputy minister, in a phone interview. "You have to see a cultural change that sees opening up data as the default condition, versus one having to have an excuse, legal or otherwise, for having it otherwise."

Risks and rewards for open government

The value proposition for the average citizen comes from when you bundle the whole of this open government initiative together, explained Stephanie Cadieaux, minister for citizen services and open government, in a phone interview. "The open data initiative, and what we're going to be doing with public engagement, that's when you get the real value," she said. "When the information is out there, the community has access. It enhances democracy and citizenship."

"I think it's natural for people to be apprehensive at first," said Cadieaux. "This is a really different way of doing government than in the past. We need to find the best ways to use all the technologies to enhance what we do for citizens. There's potential value in opening up the data. Quite frankly, we don't have all the answers. This opens up a whole new world of looking at the data from different perspective, some of which may be "validating ways of doing things that we've done in the past."

The outgoing chief information officer of the United States, Vivek Kundra, recently highlighted concerns about unanticipated sensitive information being revealed through the combination of multiple datasets. Critics of open data initiatives also have focused on the potential for open government data to be misrepresented in the public sphere.

Cadieaux acknowledged the need to protect privacy and security, along with the reality of democratized data. "Whenever data is released, in a report or otherwise, it will be misused," she said. "You can say the same about statistics. I think it's the responsibility of government, who have collected the data, to make sure it's correct."

Realistically, said Cadieaux, anything new comes with risk. "Government tends to be quite risk averse, and for good reasons. We must do the best job with dollars and for citizens." Simply having the information is valuable, emphasized Cadieaux. While the same opportunity exists for open data to be used negatively, "there's opportunities for incredible innovation," she said. "We have to be open to it."

Once government releases open data, it's up to the larger community of civic coders, media, government, citizens, activists and nonprofits to further vet its accuracy and representations based upon it. "I think there will be a lot of self-regulation," she said. "That's what we see on Twitter. You have to have faith in people."

While officials in some state or national governments may be interested in adding direct revenues through selling public data, Cadieaux doesn't support that direction. "It's data that was collected on the public dollar," she said. "To charge the public to use it doesn't seem like the best use. I think we're going to be received well. Releasing government data provides a great opportunity for governments around the world to speak differently and gain value," said Cadieaux. "I would hate to see it as a revenue stream when what I think it should do is engage in a meaningful way with our citizens."

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Separating good government from open innovation

One of the semantic challenges that has dogged open government advocates lies in the difference between good government, traditionally associated with transparency and accountability, and open innovation, where public servants collaborate with the public in co-creating services or policy. The B.C. government chose to separate these concerns into two components, calling each "open data" and "open information."

You have to make a distinction between the types of information early on, said Kevin Jardine, assistant deputy minister for business and workforce transformation. The most recent version of B.C.'s Freedom Of Information & Privacy Act (FOIPA) has been on the books since early 1990s, he explained, and it provides a pathway for citizens to request information from government.

"The bulk of those requests are for person information, like for adoption, for example," he said. "Some are for other information, like meeting notes, calendars or expenses from government officials. We've made distinction that open information is information about government, versus open data, which is data that government uses that is about the business of government."

Jardine said the B.C. government will be posting expense information for ministers and deputy ministers, along with proactively publishing information that people request and often pay for to the public broadly. "We anticipate — and this is part of the premier's thinking — that there will be more of this," he said. "As we look at what we think open government is — transparency, engagement, participation, citizen-centered design — we've tried to reflect that in the sites we've developed. Doing government differently is about engaging the public directly, becoming greater partners in governance, solving problems we collectively face."

This compartmentalization may help to focus on separating the specific requirements of good government advocates from the innovation community in B.C.. "We can never be transparent enough," said Jardine. "It's a game you can never win. We might hope that it reduces FOIA requests, but we anticipate that it may increase them."

Standing up the open information site was — and is — complicated by back-end systems, said Jardine. "The corporate system or travel system were never designed for this kind of transparency," he explained. "We've had to hack and splice to make even this small innovation work. We have to really work and try to standardize processes." Building openness into a system from the beginning, in other words, has considerable merits in open government as well as open source software.

Opening the data

At the time of launch, there were on the order of 2,400 data sets online, said Jardine. "Almost all of the data was previously available somewhere within the 400,000-page website that makes up B.C. government's web, presence but it was extremely difficult to find, with no standards or consistent licensing."

The first step, said Jardine, was to consolidate access to all of that data through a single place: data.bc. "This is a consistent catalog, with a license that makes it possible to use the data, with one exception — where prohibited by law. We've made an effort to convert many of those datasets to machine-readable format." While there are no APIs at the moment, Jardine says that the B.C. government is collecting suggestions, "since they are definitely on the agenda."

For the moment, Jardine said that the provincial government needs to understand more about what data people want. "One of the discussion groups is where the interests may lie," he said, pointing to the online open data communities that already exist in the province.

"What levels of effort are necessary here? What we've done with our holdings to date is gather what's out there into static datasets for download. As we progress, the APIs are definitely going to be on the table." Inside of government, said Jardine, they expect to see many more datasets available over the coming year. "Outside, we hope to see many more people aware of it and using it. You will see links to iTunes and other apps stores."

While there's no automated, technical means to request data at the moment, Jardine noted that interested parties can fill out an online contact form or contact the B.C. government open data team via social media channels. "We've already gotten a couple questions from our Twitter channel," he said. "The challenge is to match requests about what our holdings are. As for high value, what people are requesting, demanding it will be important, in terms of data tied to time series or geography."

In that respect, the question is whether the data released is valuable for understanding or improving the business of government, or to the private sector. Hume, who is the lead on the open data site, said in an interview that more performance data, like surgery wait times for specific physicians, is necessary. "We're working on getting that surgery data on the site," said "You can get social services data now, including key performance indicators for things like child protection."

The right open data license matters

Jardine also highlighted the importance of thinking through how the data is released. "You have to do more than just make the data available. You also have to get the license right," he said. In that respect, open government advocate David Eaves wrote that the license that the B.C. open government data catalog is released under is the "single biggest good news story for Canadians interested in the opportunities around open data." While Eaves is less positive about open data licenses in Canadian government at the federal level, he's optimistic about the prospects for cities and towns. "The fact that most new open data portals at the municipal level have adopted the PDDL suggests that many in these governments 'get it'," he writes. "I also think the launch of will spur other provinces to be intelligent about their license choice."

The British Columbia license, which was adapted from the United Kingdom's license, might also serve as a model for an open government data license for the world, writes Glynn Moody. " If most governments adopted the same open data licence, their projects would be compatible and therefore able to be combined easily," he said. "That would mean open government data could scale in a useful way."

Why does this license matter? "BC's open data license allows entrepreneurial use," tweeted Bowen Moran (@bxmx) in response to a question about the open government initiative. Bowen works on the B.C. public engagement team. "Part of the story there is how it's different from the UK license," Moran continued in a series of tweets. "BC's privacy protections are more robust than the UK's, so the links to the Act are more clearly defined ... the direct emphasis on combining it with other information or by including it in your own product or application is an explicit (and thus very open) invitation to entrepreneurs to build on what we have here. Open government is more than just data being available — it's about an entirely open approach to working with citizens. That's the license's spirit."

Building upon government as a platform

The architects of British Columbia's open government initiative specifically couched their efforts in terms of Tim O'Reilly's Gov 2.0 paradigm. Jardine said the B.C. government wants to see future iterations of the open data site driven by users, "because we really do view this as a citizen platform, as government as a platform."

"This open government initiative is about releasing information proactively, publishing data online or culture change. It's about business people using data and about informed decision makers making better public policy," said Hume. "It's tapping the ingenuity and excellence of British Columbians to use the data as a platform, to solve their own problems, and to self organize to get things done."

What's especially interesting here is that they've clearly internalized some of the lessons other countries have learned in their open government efforts. "The experience has been to build it and they won't come," said Jardine. "You will get a blip from developers, from those that are proficient, and then it tails off. By adding components that enable people to use the data, to embrace this government as a platform idea, to create community, we hope this leads to greater success." Jardine said that provincial government is working on a citizen engagement site that he expects to see linked to the open data website.

"The real success is about building community, certainly as a data publisher," emphasized Hume. "The higher-value function is being able to connect people to one another." (Historically, as Clay Shirky has observed, connecting citizens to one another has been undervalued, in the context of the Internet acting as a platform for collective action.) There are a number of places online for citizens, civic coders, government officials, journalists, nonprofits, user experience designers, librarians and other interested parties to connect, explained Hume. "One is the open data blog, where we'll be able to talk, at general level, and also at technical level. We'll also connect existing people working to government. We're lucky to have Open Data BC and will be working closely with them. We have integrated their Google Group into the site already. We're going to where people already are and connecting users where people who are already experienced."

The B.C. open government initiative isn't about data, culture, accountability or efficiency, though they all matter. "It's not really about the data — it's about building a community to work together to solve problems," tweeted Moran. "I love the idea that now I don't just serve the people of BC. With open info and open data, I serve with them."

(Note: Bowen Moran's quoted tweets were edited for clarity.)

May 31 2011

Why the eG8 mattered to the future of the Internet and society

eG8 logoThe Internet has become more than a platform for collective response. This past week, the official communiqué released by the summit of the Gang of Eight industrial nations, or G8, hailed the importance of the Internet to the world's citizens in the 21st century ahead:

The Internet has become the public arena for our time, a lever of economic development and an instrument for political liberty and emancipation. Freedom of opinion, expression, information, assembly and association must be safeguarded on the Internet as elsewhere. Arbitrary or indiscriminate censorship or restrictions on access to the Internet are inconsistent with States' international obligations and are clearly unacceptable. Furthermore, they impede economic and social growth.

The communiqué also recognized the role of the inaugural eG8 Forum held in Paris, prior to the summit, in exploring these issues. The eG8 showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. Coming on a week when Iran vowed to unplug the Internet,, thereby disconnecting Iranian citizens from this platform, the G8 leaders holding up those principles was both timely and notable.

As Syria cracks down on social media, whether we can hear the global voices of one another is a serious question, as is whether people living under autocratic governments can access the Internet safely or at all.

The global network, as many of the world's citizens know it today, however, was never a sure outcome, nor a permanent one. Some two decades ago, people were logging onto services like Prodigy or Compuserve, not the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee enabled from his computer in Switzerland.

The communiqué identified the principles that have led to the continued growth of the Internet as we know it:

The openness, transparency and freedom of the Internet have been key to its development and success. These principles, together with those of non-discrimination and fair competition, must continue to be an essential force behind its development.

Author Don Tapscott, who has written and spoken extensively about the Internet's impact on business and society, had this to say about the G8 and the Internet: "Don't mess with a good thing."

The appropriate debate is not between [Nicolas] Sarkozy's oppressive approach as opposed to no regulation whatsoever. Obviously the rule of rule should prevail in cyberspace just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world.

But the Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a change in relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don't know the old rules that governed atoms of how to behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and requiring a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And for the first time in history children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.

Predictably, old style political leaders comfortable with the industrial age are dazed and confused, and many feel threatened. A new communications medium is causing disruption, dislocation and uncertainty. And leaders of old paradigms with vested interests fear what they do not understand, and react with coolness or even hostility. Rather than innovating and opening up they often hunker down, trying to strengthen old outdated rules and approaches.

Along similar lines, following are four video interviews that go deeper into what's at stake and why the eG8 mattered.

Zimmerman on French Internet freedom

Defending innovation and net neutrality at the eG8 meant speaking openly about the risks to the Internet as we know them. When it comes to the Internet, France has followed its own path in making policies, particularly with respect to intellectual property.

As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the eG8, civil society groups restaked their claim to the Net. Looking for more answers, I spoke with Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson for citizen advocacy group LaQuadrature du Net. For many Internet users, this interview should be by turns illuminating and provocative. "Everywhere you look, you see governments attacking the Internet," said Zimmerman.

Benkler on what's at stake

"The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy," said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Benkler was one of several prominent American academics who spoke up during the eG8 Summit and in an impromptu press conference held at the event. We spoke further in this interview:

Benkler noted during our discussion:

... people can actually, with the things they own, capture the world and do something that is at the very core of the most advanced economies. Preserving that framework, preserving a framework that is open, free-flowing, flexible, adaptive to change and inviting so that one person's sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid can then be translated throughout the Arab world into a moment of mobilization. That's new. That's what is critical."

What's at stake today has been what's at stake for more than 15 years, said Benkler: The possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down."There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net," he said.

Dyson on technology enabling transparency

"You don't need to be 'from the Internet' to believe in liberty or free speech," said Esther Dyson, speaking in an interview at the eG8. You also don't need to be a policy wonk or a geek to see how building tools that tap into the power of the Internet's distributed platform are integral to helping a global transparency movement.

"Even when you have a revolution, what makes the revolution work is what changes in people's minds, and that's what's going on here," said Dyson. "The world is changing. People in government are not special. They should be as transparent as everybody else. People deserve privacy. Officials, governments, institutions, they all should be transparent. That's new thinking, and it was being heard."

Startups and technology companies are "providing tools to make the data meaningful," said Dyson. "They're providing tools for people to share the information. They're providing the communication tools, again, that allow from everything from Wikileaks to people communicating with reporters. Tools like your phone, connected to the Internet, so that you can record interviews not just with me but with all of the other people you talk to, upload them, people can share them, people can comment on them. That's all technology."

Crawford speaks to an open Internet

"Access to the Internet is fundamental," said Susan Crawford, an American law professor and former White House official. "These are the most important policies that government should be embracing. We want to make sure that other voices are heard."

One existential challenge for the Internet of 2011 is that the technology platforms that helped to catalyze the Arab Spring are owned by private companies. As governments everywhere struggle to understand and respond to the rapidly emerging role of new media, the young leaders of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms will have their courage, convictions and ethics tested again and again to change the terms of service.

If an open Internet is the basis for democracy flourishing around the world, billions of people will be counting upon them to be up to the challenge.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from a column on the G8's Internet statement that ran at CBS News' "What's Trending?" earlier this week.


November 19 2010

Samantha Power on transparency, national security and open government

In November 2010, it's clear that legitimate concerns about national security must to be balanced with the spirit of open government expressed by the Obama administration. The issues created between Wikileaks and open government policies are substantial. Open data may be used for accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity. But as federal CIO Vivek Kundra expressed to Harvard Business School students studying, the transparency facet in the Obama administration's open government initiative has multiple layers of complexity.

"We release data on toxicity, but not on national security and privacy," said Kundra. "It would be a mistake, for instance, to release zip-code-level data about health care."

Peter Orzag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, was clear about these concerns in the Open Government Directive:

... nothing in this Directive shall be construed to suggest that the presumption of openness precludes the legitimate protection of information whose release would threaten national security, invade personal privacy, breach confidentiality, or damage other genuinely compelling interests.

Given the unrelenting media spotlight that the 21st century media ecosystem puts upon on the White House's every move, it's no surprise that controversy erupted when Vice President Biden's meeting on transparency with the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board was closed to the media, and by extension the public.

On Tuesday, the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) had its own brush with transparency and open government. The keynote talk and discussion with Samantha Power, special assistant to the President for multilateral affairs and human rights, and member of the National Security Council, was designated as off-the-record by conference organizers. No livestream, no tweets, no liveblogging. On the day that the news broke that no tweeting or Facebook updates would be allowed for President Clinton's keynote at a event, it might have been the latest episode of open government irony. (Clinton's media team has since changed its tune.)

"Making a public conversation at the International Open Government Data Conference off the record is antithetical to what the President's mandate is all about," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, whose panel on transparency followed Power's remarks.

The situation resulted, however, not from any policy decision but simply from the press office running behind during a long trip abroad, said White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen. "There was a simple procedural issue, not a policy issue. This stuff happens all the time." Jensen said the request for press clearance couldn't be processed in time for the conference.

Given that Power's talk wasn't reported or recorded, Power agreed to an on-the-record interview with me to discuss the relationship of open government, technology, human rights and transparency.

Looking back, Power said that none of the comments she made to the open government data conference should be considered sensitive. Given that she talked primarily about the relationship of transparency to fighting fraud and corruption, and holding governments accountable, that's not surprising.

Power discussed her experience using, including finding a data set about child soldiers. She highlighted how technology has changed the ways that citizens around the world can share information about government performance, access economic information, or share key health indicators, including several of the initiatives that she saw when she traveled with President Obama to India. Power subsequently blogged at about the trip and a new US-India partnership on open government.

President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.
In this official White House photo by Pete Souza, President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.

What follows is our interview, edited for both clarity and length.

How do you balance national security concerns with open government?

Samantha Power: There are two factors that are always brought to bear in discussions in open government, as President Obama has made clear from the day he issued his memorandum.

One is privacy, one is security. There are also, of course, reasons to protect the deliberative process. He addressed some of this in his speech at the National Archives.There's an awful lot that one can do while still adhering to and advancing those core principles. In the first couple of years, we've seen how much room there is to move, with respect to publishing new data sets and finding new ways for them to be used, and with respect to transparency data on, in the policy process.

You talked about a "trust deficit" in government, both here and abroad, during your talk at the open government data conference. Can that be changed by open government initiatives?

SP: I think transparency can get at a number of different issues at once. What we've seen with the publishing of the names of people who come into and out of the White House -- given the people who know that that's in place -- we see a greater sense of who might be having their voices heard on policy. NGOs and journalists are using those records to assess how we're doing, with respect to who is visiting the most.

Data, transparency, and access to information are also being used in ways that enhance citizen welfare. If you put toy recall data up online, or look at OSHA data -- these are ways of providing to citizens information that government has long collected. Government is an incredible information collecting machine. It's going to take time to create routines, institutionalize these practices, and make the government conversation more collaborative.

I see a change happening in rules. The public comments on regulations are pored over by officials in the domestic space; as a result, rules are changed and much improved. While a great deal has been done, it's going to take time for the culture of transparency and dialog to move even further than it has up to this point. We're not going to change and make that conversation collaborative over night. Some of the trust deficit involves specific policies that people are determined to see delivered on.

As a human rights and democracy adviser in the foreign policy area, I can say that one of the reasons that this is so attractive in countries we're having discussions in is that the reasons for a lack of trust lie in a profound lack of transparency. To the degree that there are people of good will who are willing to sit down and have discussions about open government and transparency, those can have good effect. Consider the Indian examples from the expo. We think there's a lot of mileage for progress in the governance space and we're very excited to think about the specific commitments that all of us will make in presenting subsequent versions of open government.

Which tools are you excited about, specifically?

SP: Each government, and, hopefully, civil society, will come together. Brazil, I think, has been a real leader in participatory budget processes. Indonesia has done a lot to root out police corruption. Citizens can file -- and governments can respond -- to complaints lodged online. Indians have a strong right to information law. Nigeria apparently has a right to information law that's been sitting in parliament for more than a decade.

Part of what's exciting is that a lot of this innovation is occurring in developing countries, which can share their lessons with other countries that are not as far along on the development spectrum. In some cases, that may be more promising than us coming in and saying "look at" or "here's our data dashboards" and do this.

One thing I do want to stress: while President Obama has issued this appeal in his UN speech, taking the message forward in India, success will be when we're sitting down with a full complement of countries. In the G20, we've adopted an anti-corruption agenda. Now it's part of the G20, with no one country owning it. As we embark on a global open government initiative, we want to do so partnering with a very diverse group of countries by our side.

How can open government, transparency or technology address human rights issues?

SP: No one reifies technology for its own sake. What was really exciting in India was that the President got to touch and feel technology being used for to promote democratic progress and accountability. Technology was being used by citizens that had been disempowered, disenfranchised. Suddenly, with connection they could be be empowered, and their voices included in discussions. Technology is neither necessary for open government nor sufficient. And of course, on occasion, technology can also be harnessed in ways that can be antithetical to basic human rights.

In India, the second largest applause point line in President Obama’s speech before the Indian parliament was for the President's comments about e-panchayat, and the landmark "Right to Information" law. What's distinct and fresh and inspirational to other countries is very important. In Indonesia, we celebrated what Indonesian citizens are doing to hold government accountable and build democracy in the region.

The convening power of the President of the United States can be used to partner with others to create a process through which they can make commitments to harnessing technology, fighting corruption, and collaborating more with their citizens to improve service delivery and increase democratic accountability. I think that this open government initiative is the kind of thing that, as it gets more traction, will get more public support.


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