Transparency, Accountability, and Open Data

March 25, 2010

This is part three of my series on the open data scene.

I think it’s fairly non-controversial to say that ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ have become the watchwords of contemporary democracy. More than ever, it seems, citizens want to see what their governments are doing and understand how they make their decisions. It also seems that there is an increasing sense of direct ownership of government. Citizens are no longer content to delegate the business of governance and politics to elected representatives every few years in a general election – they want their elected representatives to act as the interface between two living, organic forces: decision makers on the one hand, and citizens on the other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the language of transparency and accountability has made its way into the open government scene. Governments generate and use an immense quantity of information to make decisions that profoundly affect our daily lives. The fundamental principles of a just, democratic society suggest that we should at least get to peek at it. This take on open data forms a very distinct thread of conversation inside the open data movement. Basically, this interpretation is a modern reinterpretation of the age-old axiom “Knowledge is power.” I call it ‘available data’.

There is an interesting accusatory tone that pervades the available data discussion in Alberta. All too often, I hear the scenesters cast government as a secretive entity that jealously hoards information behind tall firewalls. Tales are told where government is imputed with shady motives and ascribed with the intent to subvert the desires of its citizens by withholding the very information that gives them their power.

Having worked most of my admittedly-short professional career as some kind of researcher, I find this accusatory tone and unflattering depiction of government troubling. It highlights the powerful feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization in civil society, but it also underscores the complete ignorance of the tremendous (and tragically underutilized) information resources that governments have been placing at the disposal of citizens for decades. I have worked as an archival, historical, political, and policy researcher for the Legislative Assembly Office, political authors, and non-profit organizations. This work has acquainted me with the vast, impressive network of government libraries and archives across the province. These institutions are mandated to act as the custodians of government information, and their services are available to any citizen in the province. They are the repositories and guardians of every scrap of paper, every table of data, and every government report, and they work for the public.

That being said, the management of public information is a constantly evolving process, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Chris Moore, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Edmonton, pointed out to me that the culture of information sharing and preservation that exists for physical has not yet been fully embraced for digital media. For instance, a government employee will consciously preserve and share their paper documents, but they might not think to do the same for the files on their computer. Nonetheless, these kinds evolutions do not really require big-idea conferences like ChangeCamp or the Open City Workshop. These evolutions must be led in-house by progressive CIO’s like Chris Moore, although it certainly helps him accomplish these tasks when he can point to a large gathering of open data scenesters supporting his initiatives.

There’s one last aspect of the available data conversation that I would like to address. I’m sure the scenesters reading this post have been jumping up and down and shouting that at best, I’m describing translucent government. They would probably argue that a truly transparent government should not require its citizens to dig through dusty archives and vast libraries to find the information that will allow them to hold decision makers accountable.

I take their point well, but I largely feel that their frustration is misdirected. It’s hard to blame the real world for being so darn complex, so the caricature of secretive government takes form. The truth of the matter is governments have tremendously complex operations and they must make exceedingly complicated decisions. It is inevitable, then, that the information they generate and use will mirror these overwhelming complexities. As a professional researcher, I have already vouched for the general openness of the system. Now, I will vouch for the incredible amounts of legwork that finding information can sometimes require. I will also vouch for the even-greater amount of time that must be expended making sense of the data. These are tough challenges for the common citizen and the hobbyist policy wonk to be sure, but these are the natural challenges of vast and complex data and not the inventions of nefarious governments.

At the same time, like I said above, there is progress to be made, and another genre within the open data scene is hard at work on these challenges. They are busy innovating new ways to make this information easier to find and easier to apply so that real people can use it to do new and exciting things. These open data scenesters will be the focus of my next post.

Until then!


Hypergovernment – humane governement services for the digital age

March 19, 2010

This is part two of my series on the open data scene.

Customer. Service.

The mere mention of these two words has been to known to send the most serene and pacific individuals into nervous fits of panic, anxiety, and rage. No one likes standing in the waiting queue. No one likes spending hours on the phone listening to bad hold music. No one enjoys working their way through volumes of obscure paperwork. There is something exasperatingly Kafkaesque about it all that makes us question our own humanity at the most fundamentally desperate levels. And nowhere is this horror more pervasive than in government departments and agencies that serve citizens.

This lamentable state of affairs is not necessary, insists a group within the open data scene. According to them, new media and cutting-edge information technologies could positively reinvent the way governments deliver services and take feedback from their citizens. No longer would we have to rely on the postal service, telephone, or carrier pigeon for reporting broken street signs and potholes. No longer would we have to set aside a whole afternoon at the Bureau of Bureaucracy on the other side of town for a simple permit or application. No longer would we have to run through the gauntlet of secretaries and receptionists to get a simple question answered. According to the scenesters, new media and information technologies could rid us of these headaches and usher in an era of convenient and humane government service.

I call this genre of open data ‘hypergovernment’. It’s government service for the digital age, where fiber optics cables are the new telephone lines and waiting queues. It’s government service at light speed – literally. An example I’ve heard thrown around a few times at open data events is Fix My Street. Fix My Street is an internet service that lets citizens report potholes, grafitti, excessive garbage, and burnt-out street lights – the quintessential citizen complaints – to their municipalities from the comfort of their own internet browser.

Hypergovernment scenesters are already hard at work dreaming up the next incarnations of services like Fix My Street. One interesting notion along the same lines is a service where citizens submit geo-tagged pictures of problems in their neighbourhoods. Currently, municipal workers have difficulty knowing whether multiple pothole reports at one street address indicate many potholes, or the same pothole reported many times. This might mean the difference between one work crew and ten workcrews. Photographic reports tagged with precise GPS coordinates could clear up this confusion and help municipal workers dispatch an appropriate level of response to fix the problem.

Overall, I think these kinds of initiatives would be fantastic. Government operations would become more efficient and citizen satisfaction would surely improve. Furthermore, easier opportunities for citizen feedback might encourage more citizens to engage and interact with government. Sure, these service aspects of government aren’t the sexiest, but they are also the most common form on interaction with citizens. If they become more painless, it’s probable that less citizens will be deterred from participating in civic life. Who knows… reporting potholes might give someone a taste for a more active engagement in their community. But even without the potential of increased civic participation, hypergovernment initiatives promise the possibility of humane, painless, and convenient government services in the digital age.

School of Open Data

March 15, 2010

Talking about open data is a lot like talking about rock music.

No, really, I’m serious. ‘Rock’ has become one of music’s most nebulous categories. It is hardly a genre of its own anymore – it has mushroomed into an enormous heading with diverse styles and divergent movements. There’s alt rock, prog rock, punk rock, rap rock, hard rock, and the list goes on… The music of Oasis is nothing like the music of The Offspring, and the fans of Sam Roberts rarely have much in common with the fans of Slayer.

How is this anything like open data? Well, round up five people interested in open data, ask them what it’s all about, and you’ll likely end up with five different answers. Maybe more. There are conflicting interpretations of what exactly ‘open data’ entails. There are inconsistent views on how it should be used by governments and communities. There are divergent opinions on why it is important in the first place.

Two weekends ago, the City of Edmonton held an Open City Workshop. It was a billed as a chance for citizens and governments to come together, discuss open data, and build a plan for the way forward. The conversations I participated in were very stimulating, but they fell short of these goals. The way forward was not built. Instead, participants spent these discussion sessions realizing that they were approaching open data from radically different perspectives. Over all, to get back to the metaphor, it felt a lot like having a ‘rock music’ workshop. The event brought the different scenesters together and gave them the chance to learn more about each other’s style, but that was about it.

So, keeping with the metaphor, I’ve decided to help the open data movements in my small way and provide a scenester’s handbook to the open data scene. Over the next few days I’m going to sketch out the five open data genres that I’ve identified. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect:

  1. Hypergovernment – This open data genre wants to integrate new technologies into government service delivery and citizen feedback so that government operates at light speed, literally.
  2. Available data – This genre is focused on dousing the firewall around government data so that government becomes more transparent and accountable to citizens.
  3. Functional data – This genre wants government data presented in formats that facilitate innovative uses of this information by outside application developers.
  4. Collaborative data – This genre is interested in providing citizens with the tools and capacity to input their data directly into the dataset used by governments.
  5. Community data – This genre is curious about the potential of open data outside of government and for use within the community.

Each post will go into what these genres mean by ‘open’ data, how they want to use it, and why they think it is important. I will also offer some of my own thoughts on the merits and drawbacks of each genre as well.

Stay tuned!

Schools for rent?

March 13, 2010

There has been a lot of noise lately about the closure of schools in inner-city Edmonton. Despite the fact that school closures are decided by school boards, MLAs Brian Mason and Hugh MacDonald have taken it upon themselves to shout loudly about the issue in the Legislature. Unsurprisingly, they have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the provincial government, even though education funding is probably the least important factor driving these closures. There are a multitude of infinitely more-important societal issues driving these school closures, specifically the continuing demographic shift towards surburbia. Daveberta has written an excellent post that explores these issues in more depth, so I won’t harp on them here.

Edmonton Public Schools, whose trustees are ultimately responsible for deciding the fate of these schools, have also been busy on the school closures front. They have been holding a series community meetings to discuss the challenges these inner-city schools present to the school board and gather feedback from the affected communities. Trustee Sue Huff has done an excellent job chronicling the closures issue on her blog, and I urge everyone invested in the closures to read her posts, contact their school board trustee, and attend one of the community meetings.

I strongly anticipate that Edmonton Public Schools will have to close some of its schools. Even in a good fiscal year, it doesn’t make sense to fund a school with full administrative and academic staff for only a handful of students. This is not an effective use of our tax money. So, if these schools will be closed, we should start asking ourselves what we should do with them. For whatever reason, a lot of people seem to worry that these schools will be torn down and forever lost to their communities. In fact, most school closures result in the building sitting empty for a few years until its reopened.

At this point, I want to offer a simple idea for consideration: rent office space in any school that is closed and would otherwise sit vacant, and whenever possible, rent this office space to non-profits serving the community in which the school is based. The schools up for closure are predominantly in low-income neighbourhoods or neighbourhoods with increasingly senior populations. These are areas of the city with the greatest need for non-profit community services, and the organizations that provide these services often have trouble finding cheap rental space for setting up shop. This scheme would have the added benefit of retaining – if not strengthening – the school’s traditional role of community focal point.

It’s a win-win setup. The future doesn’t have to be so bleak for these inner-city neighbourhoods and their schools.

Let’s Hang Bill 44 from the Rafters

March 4, 2010

I have a novel idea: our legislature should retire bill numbers like the NHL retires jersey numbers.

For hockey fans, there’s a special significance to the number 99, for instance. It is hung in tribute from the rafters of the arena. It evokes wistful smiles of legendary exploits in bygone decades. It has become almost sacred – the hockey community could never tolerate this number on the back of another player. It is no longer a mere placeholder on the team roster. It is a symbol of epic proportion.

Something struck me this past weekend at the Reboot Alberta conference: Bill 44 has made a similar impact on an entire generation of Albertans. Of course, Bill 44’s imprint on our collective political psyche owes itself to an entirely different kind of fame – Bill 44 is more notorious than celebrated. It evokes stinging memories of frustration with impervious governments and regressive moralities. It has become almost mythical – the citizens of Alberta have only to mutter “Bill 44” and immediately a sympathetic and knowing nod is elicited from their audience. It is no longer a mere placeholder on the legislature’s order paper. Like jersey number 99, it too has become a symbol of epic proportion.

A conspicuous sense of disaffection permeated discussion at Reboot Alberta. I know, no surprises there given the crowd. But what was very curious was the way in which participants sometimes struggled to articulate their exasperation with the Progressive Conservative dynasty. Many spoke passionately, losing themselves in their words, slipping deeper into disjointed ramble, sacrificing coherence for catharsis. And just as their audience was on the verge of abandoning them, they would utter the famous phrase: “you know, Bill 44,” and immediately everyone would be back with them in the same place. And this phenomenon is not limited to the Reboot Alberta crowd. Even those among my friends that have what could be generously characterized as a passing interest in politics will express the whole gamut of their political disaffection with the words “Bill 44”.

I strongly suspect that the mythical significance of Bill 44 will be recorded by historians when they write the Downfall of the Dynasty. Furthermore, I strongly suspect – at least for the next several years – that the 44th bill of every legislature will recall those tense and torrid weeks in the summer of 2009 when Albertans took notice and stood up. Heck, even the world peered briefly into our small corner of the globe when #bill44 became a trending topic worldwide on Twitter. So, in a purely psychological way, Bill 44 is already hanging from the rafters of the legislature. Wouldn’t it be grand it we could actually put something up there?

Guinea’s Crumbling Junta: A spark in a powder keg

December 13, 2009

Something is rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and before long, the world might catch a whiff of the stench.

The small west African nation (not to be confused with its neighbour, Guinea-Bissau) has been having a rough go at it over the past year. Last December, Guinea’s long-time president and big man Lansana Conté was declared dead. A mere six hours later, televisions and radios across the country announced that a military junta calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development had dissolved the constitution and taken control of the state. The junta presented themselves as a cleansing presence, one that would wash a quarter-century of corruption under the Conté regime out of the country’s institutions so that Guinea could successfully transition to democracy. The junta pledged to shepherd the country through this transition, organize democratic elections within a year, then return to their barracks. They also promised that no member of the junta would stand for election or interfere with the results.

At first, the junta was able to galvanize popular support for their regime within the country. This popularity was due, in no small measure, to Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, their brazen, flashy, and outlandish frontman. After drawing lots with a rival officer, Captain Camara was installed as President of the Republic, and immediately, he set to work publicizing the new regime on national television. Crackdowns on corrupt officials and the country’s powerful narco-barons became the subject of carefully orchestrated nightly media spectacles. A typical show would involve Captain Camara, surrounded by armed soldiers, lambasting those arrested in front of a live studio audience of visibly anxious foreign dignitaries. These nightly appearances of the “Dadis Show” became all the rage in Guinea and were devoured by the national television audience. “It’s as if you’re at the theatre. It’s astonishing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” commented one veteran European diplomat. (Click here to watch an example. It’s in heavily accented French, but Captain Camara’s angry exclamations transcend the language barrier. Skip to 0:58 to watch him really fly off the handle.)

Now, the junta’s future is uncertain. The “Dadis Show” is off the air, there are worries that the junta may decompose into violent factions, and serious discontent towards the regime is brewing. Popular support for the junta crumbled in August when Captain Camara dropped hints that elections would be delayed, and that he would likely present himself as a candidate for president in them. This prompted a large protest that filled the capital city’s 35,000 seat soccer stadium on September 28th. In response, the junta ordered its security forces to brutally disperse the demonstration, resulting in over 150 deaths, 1,200 injuries, and reports of gang raping by the soldiers. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the incident and sanctions have been imposed on the junta.

Fast forward to two Thursdays ago, when Captain Camara was rushed to a Moroccan hospital with multiple gunshot wounds to the head. It seems his Aide-de-Camp Lieutenant Toumba Diakité, had a change of heart and a change of loyalty. General Sekouba Konaté, the officer that lost the presidency to Captain Camara in a draw, is currently in charge of junta and a ferocious manhunt in on for Diakité. Several soldiers have been arrested, and there have been eyewitness accounts of civilians shot while fleeing military patrols. It is unclear at this point whether Captain Camara will return to Guinea.

What is clear, is that the assassination attempt has infused the junta with a deep sense of suspicion. Regardless of whether Captain Camara returns, and regardless of who remains president, it is likely that paranoia will lead to purges and infighting. The junta could break apart into feuding posses loyal to a dozen or so rival strongmen. This raises the spectre of civil war, especially along ethnic lines, a chilling possibility highlighted by revelations that Captain Camara recently hired mercenaries to train a militia for his own Kpelle ethnic group. Observers have speculated on several scenarios, and all of them involving some degree of further destabilization in Guinea. This is a troubling outlook for a region that has seen more than its share of violence.

Over the past two decades, coastal west Africa has seen four brutal and inter-connected civil wars. Between 1989 and 2007, two wars in Liberia, one in Sierra Leone, and another in Côte d’Ivoire produced a combined total of twenty-seven years of bloodshed and civil strife. To further complicate matters, each country had a hand in their neighbours’ conflicts. Liberian rebels were trained and supplied in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these rebels then crossed over into Sierra Leone to participate in the conflict there. Guinea, under the Lansana Conté regime, then backed their return into Liberia for that country’s second civil war. Once this conflict ended, they spilled over into Côte d’Ivoire where many of them were originally trained. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have held democratic elections since then. Rebels in Côte d’Ivoire are in the process of being disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, but the peace remains very fragile in all three countries.

Now, peace and order in Guinea have become precarious. Lieutenant Diakité, the would-be assassin of Captain Camara, remains at large in a region of fragile regimes that hosts an extensive migrant workforce of battle-hardened, unemployed ex-civil warriors with axes to grind across four countries. The cycle of violence is poised to recommence, spilling from country to country across the region once more. Guinea’s crumbling junta is a spark in a powder keg.

This is not simply a regional problem, either. It could easily become another immense humanitarian challenge. The region is small; it is roughly the same size as Alberta, which isn’t that large in the global scheme of things, but it has eleven and a half times the population. And, this region has been through four bloody and brutal civil wars in the past two decades. This is an astonishing concentration of misery and violence into one tiny corner of the world. This should not be tolerated by the human community.

If that’s not reason enough, the region is an important exporter of vital commodities. Guinea is the world’s leading exporter of bauxite, the mineral from which aluminum is refined. Liberia is an important producer of iron ore and rubber. Sierra Leone is a leading exporter of rutile, a titanium ore. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading exporter of cocao and an important coffee producer. These commodities will all be important to the global economy as it pulls itself out of recession.

There is certainly something rotten in the Republic of Guinea, and the world should take notice.

Full Speed Ahead for Global Shipping

October 18, 2009

Jeff Rubin is at it again. The unconventional former world-markets whiz from CIBC has made another one of his wild, out-on-a-limb forecasts. Rubin has made a name for himself making bold and often unsettling predictions that have a knack for proving themselves accurate – or at least as accurate as economic predictions can be. Over the years, he has anticipated fluctuations in the interest rate and Canadian dollar with surprising precision, projected the decline in the Ontario real-estate market, and predicted soaring energy prices in the 2000s. Now, in a new book entitled Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, Rubin has declared that peak oil will lead to the collapse of global shipping and global industry along with it.

The basic premise of Rubin’s argument is simple. The global supply of oil is tapering off while global demand for oil continues to rise. As a result, oil prices will continue to inch upwards with gathering momentum as oil becomes increasingly scarce. Skyrocketing (triple-digit) oil prices in the upcoming decades will inflate shipping costs to the point that it becomes no-longer viable to produce commodities on one side of the planet then ship them half-way around the globe to consumers. Rubin expects agriculture to be the hardest hit. The collapse of global agriculture has especially worrying concerns for Rubin, and he argues that peak oil presents a tremendous threat to food security for food importing countries. The United States, for example, imported $6 billion worth of food from China last year which, Rubin quips, “brings a whole new meaning to having Chinese food delivered.” Rubin’s inner-futurist leads him to the conclusion that new, decidedly anti-global forms of production will prevail when the scarcity of oil forces humanity to abandon shipping their meals across the globe.

Rubin is no doomsday prophet, however. In fact, he finds hope in the collapse of global shipping and global agriculture. According to Rubin, triple-digit oil prices will provide the disincentive necessary to force consumers to abandon their energy-intensive lifestyles that rely so heavily on the gas-guzzling transoceanic container ships that have become the backbone of the global economy. In his vision of a post-petroleum-dependent world, local food economies will thrive again. He explains that “Not only does replacing foreign food with local food save energy, but in the process it reduces carbon emissions – a double win in an economy that not only has to contend with triple-digit oil prices but that will soon put a price on burning oil as well.” Rubin likes to think he has found the silver lining to an otherwise disturbing global economic collapse.

Part One of my loosely joined series on global food has already detailed how new research continues to disprove Rubin’s assumption that replacing foreign food with local food will save energy and reduce carbon emissions. Rather than repeat all these facts, figures, and explanations, I will briefly summarize the key points. Global shipping is enormously more efficient at moving enormous quantities of food cargo than the small highway trucks and old farm pickups of the local food economy. Even though the distances involved are further, global shipping allows food production to occur in the world’s least energy-intensive locales, and considering production is where the bulk of the energy is expended, our food arrives in our supermarkets with smaller carbon emissions overall. Global agriculture owes its creation to a search for the most economically efficient way to feed humanity’s appetite. The same benefits of a global scale already apply to environmental efficiency as well.

Another important factor Rubin seems to ignore in his local food utopia is the question of how local food would be transported once peak oil has rendered gas prices prohibitively high. Does he expect the horse-and-buggy to make a comeback? Or, perhaps he expects wheelbarrows will conquer the abandoned highways? These antiquated modes of transportation could never provide the transport capacity humanity needs to feed itself. The reality of the situation is that local food economies are just as vulnerable to peak oil, if not more so than their leaner, more efficient global counterparts. There is no silver-lining here.

While Jeff Rubin’s argument that peak oil is desirable can be discounted by this new research, his argument that peak oil will have inevitable and profound impacts on global shipping still stands as a problem that deserves serious attention. Can global shipping continue to thrive in a world of triple-digit oil prices? I submit that it can for two reasons. First, the processes of economics dictate that global shipping is better positioned to absorb input-cost inflation. Second, the processes of innovation dictate, or at the very least suggest that fresh ideas and new technologies will help global shipping use their oil more efficiently and more environmentally.

Hopefully, readers will not be scared away by some economic terminology. Price elasticity of demand is the measurement of how demand for a commodity responds to changes in prices for that commodity. In other words, the likelihood that a shopper will leave the product on the shelf once they discover the price had increased. The peak oil premise is founded upon this economic concept, and the security of transporting food through networks that rely heavily upon oil, a commodity notorious for its price volatility, has increasingly been called into question, and not just by Rubin. The major short-coming with this food security narrative is that different price elasticities exist for different types of oil consumers. A weekend traveller or commuter-of-convenience, for instance, is more likely to drop out of a bidding war for oil than a large institutional transporter that requires oil to fuel an important and necessary economic activity. Sadly, little economic research has been conducted on this question, and it is hard to say how much sooner the weekend traveller or commuter-of-convenience would drop out of the bidding war. One hundred dollars sooner? Fifty dollars sooner? One dollar sooner? Nonetheless, the basic premise remains sound. The North-American car lifestyle will die out long before global shipping does. And once it does, remaining oil supplies can be concentrated on industries we rely upon to feed ourselves while innovation and technological advancement transforms humanity into smarter, less dependant oil users.

Global shipping is at the forefront of this innovation and technological advancement. Bold strides have been taken in this direction, and they have been well documented. A recent BBC article recounts some of these exciting new developments in the world of ship-building. For instance, the world’s largest container ship, the Estelle Maersk, makes use of several innovative design features that increase her efficiency and allow her to travel farther on each fill-up. Internal funnels on her engines capture waste heat to drive power-boosting turbines that reduce fuel consumption by 10%, kind of like the world’s largest supercharged street racer. Additionally, cutting-edge hull design, computerized systems control, and an extra-slippery coat of silicon paint make her one of the sleekest, most efficient ships ever built. All together, these technologies reduces her fuel consumption 25% when combined with new, smart sailing practices. Other innovations for global shipping are in the works, including kites to harness nautical winds, and as new discoveries are made, new technologies will continue keep global shipping on the cutting edge of efficiency.

Jeff Rubin’s book is engaging food for thought, and it raises important questions about the security of our food supply and the future of our global food economy. Sadly, his book fails to recognize the folly of local food economies as a solution to clear and present ecological concerns. Furthermore, it fails to recognize the innovations that have been made in global shipping and the promise they hold that efficient global economies might continue to benefit the residents of our small planet. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and the vast appetite of humanity has already required us to invent global agriculture. Now, the fragility of our world is requiring us to invent new ways to fuel our food. Hopefully, these inventions will prevail before our world and our food security comes crashing down around us.