Open menu

Consultation on Open Covid-19 Data

2020-06-17-open-covid-data-event

What is the role of data in the response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? What datasets, data use cases, and data sharing practices should be promoted in the areas of disease spread, government actions, and community impact to scale our collective action?

In collaboration with the Standards Council of Canada, we invite practitioners, researchers, activists, and experts, all who are interested in health and open data, to join this important conversation with:

  • Mr. Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

  • Ms. Bonnie Healy, Health Director at Blackfoot Confederacy

  • Mr. Éric Martel, Head of the Performance, Analysis, and Evaluation Branch at the Integrated University Center for Health and Social Services (CIUSSS), Montreal

  • Dr. Erin Strumpf, McGill University Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in health economics, studying healthcare service delivery and inequalities in health outcomes.

  • Mr. Mark Leggott, Executive Director, Research Data Canada

Registration Closed

After a discussion by our panel of speakers, participants will be invited into breakout groups to crowdsource their knowledge and experience using a methodology designed by the International Open Data Charter (ODC). We will facilitate discussions around questions such as the following:

  • Pandemic response: What data about the outbreak do governments need to make more informed decisions? What do citizens, businesses, and communities need to know? For example, whether to start or continue a lockdown?

  • Government actions: Where is aid coming from and whom is it being paid to? What are the attributes needed for this data to be useful and trustworthy? How can people use this data once published? What data is needed to support the decisions that impact on people’s lives?

  • Community Impact: What data is needed to predict or measure the economic impacts to support economic policy decisions? What sectors of the economy are being most affected? What sectors are being supported? Who is recovering well? Is anyone being overlooked? Are there segments of the population, and/or communities under more stress than others?

The outputs of this discussion will be synthesized into a report by Open North and the report will be shared with Canadian stakeholders and policy-makers, informing key policy such as Canada’s next National Action plan on Open Government. The findings will also be communicated to our international partners, the International Open Data Charter and the Digital Government and Data Unit at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who are leading similar conversations around the world in order to draft international best practices for data availability and sharing during health crises such as COVID-19. These reports will make the case and support action for increased health data availability and standardization leading to better preparedness in the future.

About the Standards Council of Canada: The Standards Council of Canada (SCC) is a Crown corporation established by an Act of Parliament in 1970 to foster and promote voluntary standardization in Canada. It is independent of government in its policies and operations, although it is financed partially by Parliamentary appropriation.

Transparency and transportation

Striving for open government through performance measure dashboards

2020-05-21-digital-marketing

As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to getting our information in real-time. The CBC displays real-time vote counts as they are released for elections, transit operators share their bus locations via General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) to navigation apps, and recently, maps displaying the spread of the virus and case counts are dominating news headlines.

This real-time data mentality is also spreading to governments, who are increasingly seeing value in adopting real-time data practices to allow them to both display data to the public and to make data-driven decisions. They’re using web maps and other tools to produce interactive dashboards and visuals, which communicate their program and performance data to the public. This is often with the intent to improve government accountability and transparency.

However, government accountability and transparency isn’t achieved by simply sharing and visualizing data, but also by effectively communicating what the data means and how a person can take action as a result of the data. With this in mind, it becomes clear that effectively communicating government performance is a challenging task.

In a recent project to measure the performance of a large-scale transportation funding program in Broward County, Florida, we reviewed over 30 examples of such real-time performance dashboards. Finding the raw data that is feeding the charts proved difficult and we realized that dashboards were often implemented independently from government strategic planning and program management. Without knowing who is in charge of improving the performance in a certain area or what they are doing to improve it, it is hard to hold the government to account on their performance measures.

Below we review dimensions of government performance measure dashboards that have an impact on government transparency and accountability toward the broader public and key stakeholders. We identified three critical hindrances, namely, the lack of access to raw data, outdated performance measures, and data interpretation problems caused by inadequate aggregation units.

1) Accessibility to raw data

Performance dashboards visualize data for easy interpretation but don’t always provide the raw data files for the public and stakeholders’ own exploration and use. From the perspective of open data and open government practitioners, access to the data behind dashboards can facilitate public trust, public participation, and understanding of government performance.

A common feature of transparent and accountable government, alongside performance dashboards, is having open data portals. These can complement the dashboards by providing the machine-readable data used to create performance measures. The data are easily accessible, allowing people to look at the numbers related to government programs and services and use the data for their own purposes (Tauberer, 2014).

For example, London’s Datastore integrates its open data portal and performance dashboard to provide the data, performance measures, and a description of the figures for website visitors.

2020-05-21-Broward-Blog-LondonDatastore

London’s Datastore was the only example we found in our review that hosted the open data in the same place as the performance measure visualizations (note: we focused on select transportation performance dashboards for an environmental scan). Open data portals were often not linked to the performance measure dashboards, separated without any clear direction on where to find the machine-readable data files.

In the case of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), ARC DASH provides many opportunities for website visitors to manipulate the data into various figures and maps (see image below). Their dashboard also does a good job of presenting all data associated with transportation infrastructure projects in their short- and long-term transportation plans.

However, as we found with many other dashboards, it was difficult to get access to the raw, machine-readable files. On the Congestion Management page, the visitor had to go through a third-party platform to access the data, requiring them to switch websites and create log-in credentials.

2020-05-21-Broward-Blog-ArcDASH

For ARC DASH, this may be easy to remedy as much of the data are available on their open data hub. For example, ARC provides the data for the map that appears on their dashboard (see Figure 2). Linking the performance measures and the raw data clearly would facilitate access to the machine-readable data and limit confusion when the public and stakeholders are trying to assess projects and performance.

2) Relevance: timeliness of data

Performance data is only useful if it is released in a timely manner. If roads are in poor repair or program dollars are being misspent, the public and key stakeholders will want to know as soon as possible so they can ask for change.

From our review, we found several transportation dashboards with outdated data and performance measures, with very few using data updated in real-time. In one university-based dashboard from University College London, real-time updates are collected from eight cities across the UK. People can use the dashboard to see the availability of London Cycle Hire bikes or to visually evaluate traffic safety and congestion via traffic camera (see Figure 3).

2020-05-21-Broward-Blog-CityDashboard

Other dashboards did not have real-time data. In the case of MinnesotaGo, we found that while this dashboard excels at aligning its performance measure data with its overall department of transportation and its goals as well as providing excellent access to measurement and machine-readable data, unfortunately much of the data are out of date.

Outdated performance measures, commonplace among transportation dashboards, don’t give people the opportunity to evaluate current performance by the state, thereby depriving them of the opportunity to use data to ask for concrete changes in their communities.

3) Interpretation of data: spatial units and the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem

While a great communication tool, data visualization can nonetheless be subject to interpretation and be understood differently from one person to the next. Data visualizations on performance dashboards should strive to convey a clear meaning, trend or message. This can become complicated when using maps to display performance data, for slight variations in spatial aggregation methods can seriously impact the interpretation of the data.

Analysts typically anonymize location data on maps by spatially aggregating so that individual data and location cannot be identified. This presents data over an area as an average or aggregate statistic as opposed to individual data points.

There are many options when aggregating data: using census tracts, counties, cities, states, or other community-based units. In the image below, DistrictMobility, DC’s transportation dashboard, uses wards.

2020-05-21-Broward-Blog-DistrictMobility

Choosing the spatially aggregated unit, however, can change the interpretation of the data points. This issue is called the modifiable areal unit problem (or, MAUP).

MAUP occurs when patterns and findings can change depending on how the boundaries of the spatial units are defined (McGrew, Lembo, & Monroe, 2014). For example, the number of houses in each sub-area of the three green boxes below change based on how the boundary of the areas are defined (counts listed). As you can see in Figure 5, if you live in the top right house, the number of neighbours in your community changes according to the neighbourhood boundary.

2020-05-21-Broward-Blog-MAUP

Extrapolating to transportation and urban planning, such issues could also result in a lack of attention paid to residents in areas that need sidewalk improvements, traffic lights or other infrastructure and amenities to improve safety, leading to different government resource allocation and policy outcomes. The sidewalk issues that caused the injury in the top left house may extend to all of the homes. These would all only be addressed in situation C, where all houses are in the same neighbourhood.

MAUP is a difficult issue to remedy. Analysts should try to use the smallest units possible when creating maps to best display the underlying data. If there are a few polygon options to choose between, it is best to consult experts in the field or people with knowledge of the topic area, as there are often data unit standards that make data comparable across governments and research domains.

There continues to be room to improve transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness in government through data and performance on government dashboards. Connections between the open data and open government community, and producers of spatial data to ensure that data remains coordinated. In this post we highlight three examples where governments can provide more information to the public through machine-readable data, timely release of data, and the best use of geographic units for proper interpretation of data.

In our data-driven world, there is still room for improvement to ensure the best decisions are made for the public. We look forward to continuing this work with future partners!


This blog post is inspired by our recent work with Broward County, FL. Broward County is currently in the second year of its Mobility Advancement Program, an initiative to enhance connectivity and alleviate congestion throughout the country through projects funded by surtax revenues. Open North completed research on performance measurement and online dashboards to support the development of this program.

Sources

Matheus, R., Janssen, M., & Maheshwari, D. (2018). Data science empowering the public: Data-driven dashboards for transparent and accountable decision-making in smart cities. Government Information Quarterly, 101284.

McGrew Jr, J. C., Lembo Jr, A. J., & Monroe, C. B. (2014). An introduction to statistical problem solving in geography. Waveland Press. Third Edition.

Tauberer, J. (2014). Open government data: The book. Joshua Tauberer. https://opengovdata.io/

COVID-19

The challenges and opportunities for Canadian interoperability, open government, and privacy

As we watch Canadian governments and their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, certain issues are coming to light that have repercussions on Canadian open government practices, namely: coordination and standardisation, communication of data, and privacy and openness principles. This is also Canada’s opportunity to assert leadership globally and to demonstrate the application of open government in support of its crisis response.

Coordination and standardisation

Coordination and standardisation of data has long been a challenge in Canada, particularly with its federated form of government and its multiple levels of jurisdiction. These issues are well known to the Canadian government - the Privy Council Office addressed them recently through its Data Strategy Roadmap for the Federal Public Service, which sets out recommendations on coordination and collaboration between federal agencies and other Canadian governments, as well as non-government sectors. One of the issues outlined is the intragovernmental sharing of data.

The open government community in Canada has been spurred to revisit key issues such as data availability. A brief look at health surveillance forms reveals different formatting across provinces (for example, see forms from BC Centre for Disease ControlManitoba Public HealthHSS Northwest Territories, and the federal government). They appear to be designed for completion in analogue form, with similar questions framed with different field types.

Variations in requirements to report information (such as the person’s origin) or even formatting of fields (such as dates), bring into question certain data practices: What standards are being used and complied with at the provincial level to support data sharing? How accurate do records remain when they may need to be updated and corrected over time?

Other elements of the pandemic response, such as government inventories of medical stockpiles and how they are distributed, are also key data issues that require standards and documentation to improve data sharing (and thus coordination on resource allocation). A central online repository that presents a single interface to data could help improve data accessibility. The Government of Canada provides a centralised public health website. However, the resources contained within can be difficult to navigate or search through, with the main page’s structure differing from subpages, and resources confined to static lists of links.

Standardising access (with regular updates) to disparate data sources, websites, and software, could significantly improve coordination of efforts and increase transparency on the availability of data and information resources. This can help governments with their decision making and coordination, especially when they know what their neighbours have implemented. The EU Digital Response to COVID-19, hosted on the EU’s joinup platform is a key example of this type of initiative. However, their implementation requires significant manual effort in integrating and sorting information provided by the public.

Further integration of Canadian national and provincial reporting practices: standardised COVID-19 reporting forms that utilise the same field definitions and are accompanied by document tracking will go a long way to helping governments combine data for analysis.

A review and improvement of reporting mechanisms could benefit government coordination efforts. Standardised mechanisms for reporting COVID-19 that are enforced nationwide would support government coordination, while standardised forms for organisations in the public/social and private sector to report on their inventories and capacity (e.g. production capacity, mask stockpiles, availability of shelter) would help provide a better picture of where resources are and where they are needed. Some of these mechanisms may exist already, such as Canadian government surveys of private sector firms.

Communicating the data

Making data open and accessible is but one part of the job. Explaining the data is another.

The Federal Government is providing some basic analysis of the pandemic in Canada, but gives little room to draw deeper insights. While it does provide analysis related to certain demographics, the federal government website does not break it down by province. This is perhaps a consequence of the differentiations in reporting mechanisms of each province. At the moment, a researcher would have to download and join up data from each province one-by-one, or go directly to individual health centres themselves, in order to develop a more detailed picture of what is happening across the country.

Sharing insights on data, collections methods, and revisions While this federal government epidemiological summary webpage is being updated daily, it is primarily the figures that are updated, not the analysis. A series of written analyses, rather than a single webpage or dashboard with charts, can help communicate the data more clearly to viewers. Dashboards with daily statistics are important, but can be difficult to keep track of when the situation is changing rapidly. Because of this, documentation on how the data or analysis has changed may also be useful.

Finally, understanding exactly how a statistic, map, or chart, came into being can set public expectations of the data and what we may conclude from them. While revealing data collection and processing methods can be a scary prospect (a side effect may be exposure of weaknesses in government data), it is really about building trust through transparency.

Upholding privacy and openness principles

Automated contact tracing via digital tools, such as mobile phones, is the new focal point of global discussions. While manual forms of contact tracing (i.e. surveys) have been practiced before for disease outbreaks such as the Ebola virus, a number of mobile-based solutions are now being developed and proposed for governments to adopt.

The effectiveness and viability of such solutions remains in question and integration into healthcare systems would present yet more coordination and interoperability issues. The Government of Singapore has already rolled out its national app and initiative, called TraceTogether (which incidentally is also being made open source). While the initiative is still in its early stage, such apps present privacy and security concerns that we have yet to fully comprehend. In Canada, a number of new contact tracing projects have started to emerge, while companies such as Google and Apple are developing their own contact tracing protocol for others to use. With such a rapid move towards smartphone-based contact tracing, we would do well to apply caution and consider legal and ethical concerns, while still pursuing greater coordination and interoperability around data. On the government side, a joint statement has been released by federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners with a reminder of key principles to consider. Outside government, OpenMedia, in collaboration with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, released a set of seven principles they urge governments to follow.

Appropriate technical requirements, proper data governance, and a recognition of privacy and open government needs, will be important as we navigate the changing data landscape resulting from the pandemic. As the debate in society around privacy evolves, we are confronted with new, or shifted, values that need to be accounted for in government use of surveillance technologies. Privacy, particularly when focused on hardware and software, is not always an accessible topic for the public - explanation of the context, the technologies, and processes, are needed to ensure that informed discussion can occur.

As civil servants adjust to working from home, some real questions also need to be asked about government data. We have already seen changes to some government data collection practices in the US, where the US Census Bureau has made changes to its data collection methods for the US 2020 Census. A functioning and reliable data infrastructure generating key data (e.g. demographic data, health sector reporting, spatial data) is essential to creating an accurate picture into the status of the pandemic and how the situation is progressing over time. Open data remains important in enabling the work of those both inside and outside government, from regional planners and city officials, to academic researchers and civil society.

COVID-19 is a collective problem; it requires cooperation between government and its stakeholders. The open government community around the world may see parallels to their own work in improving collaboration between civil society and government. Open government is most effective when based on good problem definition and the current pandemic requires a systematic open government approach to yield better outcomes in government coordination, collaboration, and communication. As has always been intended, the purpose of open government is to lay the ground for collaborative responses to challenges we face in the future.

An Open Response to COVID-19

Lessons from the Open Cities Network

2020-04-24-public-health-cdc

The Open Cities Network brings together open data practitioners from around the world who are working to support local governments and cities on open approaches to the use of data and technology. This post provides updates from Open & Agile Smart Cities, Open Contracting Partnership, Sunlight Foundation, Open Data Charter, and Reboot.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March and the initiation of a global lockdown, public attention has been increasingly focused on data related to the outbreak. “Humanity’s first data-driven pandemic” has witnessed the mushrooming of numerous trackers and dashboards that are collecting and sharing statistics on new cases, deaths, and recoveries, along with emerging debates on issues such as privacy and demographic data collection.

Key issues of data collection and sharing are even more visible as the relative data and coordination capacities of different jurisdictions come to the surface during this pandemic. As the COVID-19 outbreak has unfolded, members of the Open Cities Network have engaged in various ways, producing resources and sharing insights with different stakeholders. We have collated some highlights here for you to identify useful tools and lessons that you may consider using in your local response.

Open & Agile Smart Cities

Lea Hemetsberger, Brussels

The novel coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that data governance and data interoperability with trust and enabled by open standards are crucial to respond quickly and proactively: In times when data-based and proactive policy-making is most needed, the inability to share, integrate and analyse data sources across cities, regions and nation-states is measured in the loss of human lives.

Because cities and local governments are key in solving short as well as long-term challenges caused by COVID-19, Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC) is now collecting operational solutions based on the minimal interoperability approach that can scale easily and quickly to other cities and regions in the world.

The solutions will be showcased in the brand-new OASC Catalogue where cities & communities can discover and reuse them. Submit a solution now: https://forms.gle/McYhGfdDMDW8k7f79

Among the solutions already submitted is a real-time data-driven decision support system used by 10,000 doctors and the regional task forces of Veneto and Lombardia: The DE4Bios platform applies open standards and APIs to connect to any legacy systems, integrate and analyse data to support evidence-based decision making. It can easily link to any legacy platform and ongoing local, national and international initiatives. Another solution is the volunteer management platform ImpactDays. ImpactDays is already used in Brussels and close to 300 other cities, mostly in Belgium, where OASC has its headquarters.

Open Contracting Partnership

Kaye Sklar, Washington, D.C.

Rapid and efficient procurement of life-saving goods and services is essential in the fight against the Coronavirus. Governments will likely need to resort to emergency procedures and negotiated arrangements. How they manage that emergency procurement will play a major role in how they contain COVID-19 and how many lives can be saved. Moving forward, procurement will also play an essential role in the recovery phase to revive the hard-hit small and medium enterprises sector and ensure that major procurement projects deliver the greatest value possible to communities.

It is public procurement’s moment in the spotlight. It needs to be fast, smart and open if it’s going to shine. We have recommendations to help you make this happen.

Already, we at Open Contracting Partnership have begun supporting our partners around the world:

  • In Moldova, we are supporting the collaboration between the medical procurement authority and civil society to improve coordination in planning the COVID-19 response procurement and monitoring its implementation.

  • In Colombia, we supported the national public procurement agency to populate their item catalogs for COVID-19 response framework agreements by inviting suppliers to a pre-market engagement process.

  • In Paraguay, we worked with the national public procurement agency to publish a searchable dataset of their COVID-19 response procurement.

Check out our full list of resources and get in touch with us today.

Sunlight Foundation

Becca Warner, Washington, D.C.

As cities adapt to the necessity of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, community engagement practices must be maintained to ensure open, democratic governance. Sunlight’s work aims to configure an inclusive, and participatory infrastructure of openness in partnership with everyone who has a stake in cities: residents, community organizations, businesses, and government alike. In response to COVID-19, we’re developing a suite of resources intended to guide local government officials in efficient & impactful virtual community engagement.

Accompanying the development of these new resources, Sunlight will publish a series of blog posts offering insight and strategies to cities operating in a time of social distance and remote governance. We hope to surface new ideas and collaborative approaches with partners as cities adapt to a changing, digital world.

Open Data Charter

Natalia Carfi, Buenos Aires

There is an urgent need for data about COVID-19 – whether it’s to track the spread of the disease, identify the availability of supplies, or monitor fast-tracked emergency procurement. Yet governments are struggling to share consistent, up-to-date information during a time of crisis. What are essential types of data that governments can open up to help inform actions and improve collaboration across the readiness, response, and recovery stages of a pandemic?

Starting with a draft taxonomy that builds on the data that is currently being shared and used to tackle COVID-19, the Open Data Charter, OECD, Open North, and other partners are exploring what critical data should be made publicly available in reliable and safe ways. For example, Open North’s Applied Research Lab investigators Megan Wylie and Steve Coutts have collected information and completed real-life examples (primarily from Canada). A shared draft document is open for contributions here. If you want to help shape this collective resource please reach out to us at info@opendatacharter.org.

Reboot

Panthea Lee, New York City & Adam Talsma, Abuja

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the deep injustices and failures of our dominant ideologies, systems, and institutions. Many of us are asking ourselves: What is our role now in immediate response? Looking ahead, how do we build a more just and resilient future?

To support the work of radical transformation, we’ve been working at the intersection of diverse actors. We’re working with governments and international agencies to strengthen social safety nets in collaboration with grassroots responders (including an upcoming summit in Asia); with civil society groups and independent media to ensure institutional responses center equity and justice (including with our 70+ network in Nigeria); and with tech platforms to build out new tools to support mutual aid efforts, with a focus on vulnerable states.

Some resources and reflections:

We’re also exploring the possibility of creating a new space for incubating the radical cross-sectoral collaborations that this moment demands of us. We’re hungry for input and open to partnership, so please get in touch.

Open North

Jean-Noe Landry & Nabeel Ahmed, Montreal

At Open North, we have been exploring multiple avenues to support government and non-government actors in data capacity and collaboration. One of the key areas we’ve focused on is data information and visualization, which have been critical to managing and containing the COVID-19 outbreak.

Appropriate presentation of data and statistics are not merely public relations exercises; they require an appreciation of data collection, processing, and analysis methods. Issues of scale, aggregation, time, and appropriate units of analysis are still an issue when representing infections in maps, while the communication of modelled outputs is an ongoing challenge in science communication (Bucchi & Trench, 2008).

Open North is providing input to the Canadian government as part of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Open Government, including reinforcing the importance of core privacy principles as the government implements surveillance methods for contact tracing. At the Community Solutions Network (for which Open North is the technical lead), local examples of resilience are being documented. Our discussions at the Canadian Data Governance Standardization Collaborative (part of the Standards Council of Canada) co-chaired by Statistics Canada and Element AI are now including health data use cases for data governance. We are also looking at approaches to supporting data collection and structuring efforts from key organisations, such as the Canadian Urban Institute’s monitoring of Canadian municipal-level crisis responses, through collaboration between governments, non-profits, and technology firms.

As this is a global effort, Open North is engaging the global Open Cities Network to share crisis responses of different entities and cities around the world (summarised above). We are also contributing to a blog post with the International Open Data Charter to help identify key datasets that can be opened to assist national policymakers and inform coordinated responses globally. Data sharing and interoperability are crucial to fighting this pandemic and it is now that the global community of data advocates, researchers, and implementers are ever more important.


If your organization is working on open cities initiatives, please contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

*Sources: Bucchi, M., & Trench, B. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of public communication of science and technology. Routledge.

Open North welcomes 3 new board members

Open North is pleased to announce the addition of three new board members: Léa Berlinguet, Vanessa Henri, as well as Chad Lubelsky who will be holding the title of President of the Board of Directors. Their combined expertise in data privacy, AI, ethics, leadership, and non-profits make them invaluable assets in our work. We look forward to joining forces with them to promote our new vision: For data and technology that empower transparent, accountable and inclusive communities.

Léa Berlinguet has devoted her entire professional life to non-profit organizations. A graduate of HEC Montréal, she joined the Conseil des relations internationales de Montréal for four years. She has now joined the Montréal International team, where she works for the city’s economic development. Prior to Open North, she sat on the board of directors of the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard, a charitable organization working to promote access to palliative home care, from its creation 12 years ago to its recent merger with a sister organization. She is also a member of external committees, including the AI committee of our city’s life sciences cluster, Montréal Invivo.

At Montréal International, Léa has been responsible for attracting foreign investment to the Life Sciences and Health Technologies sector for the past five years. In this fast-growing sector, including the exciting crossroads between health and artificial intelligence, she contributes to Montréal’s avant-garde positioning by representing the city on prospecting trips and at specialized conferences. By accompanying a growing number of projects in the sector, she develops her interest in the concepts of ethics, data access and cutting-edge research in this dynamic field.

Vanessa Henri specializes in data protection and information security law. She advises organizations on the operationalization of related concepts such as privacy and security by design.

She is a Certified Data Protection Officer (CDPO) with proven experience in assisting organizations with data protection legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation, and other standards affecting entities operating in a data-driven market. Vanessa helps organizations, in particular in the sector of emerging technologies, to manage legal risks relating to data in a preventive manner, allowing organizations to build trust with their customers and acquire a competitive edge.

Vanessa has aided organizations negotiating commercial agreements involving security and privacy requirements in the technology sector. She also advises boards of directors on risk management relating to data protection and information security, ensuring that both they and their organizations are compliant and avoid liability.

Vanessa holds a Master of Law (LLM) from McGill University on the topic of cyberespionage and teaches Corporate Cybersecurity Practices at St. Thomas University (Florida, USA), where she is also a member of the Board of Advisors for the LLM program in Cybersecurity and Privacy. Her studies on the Dark Net were funded by the Quebec Bar Association and published in the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology.

Chad Lubelsky is a Program Director with the McConnell Foundation where he is the lead on strategy and program development for public interest journalism and post-secondary education.

Prior to joining the Foundation, Chad was the Executive Director of Santropol Roulant - a Montreal-based award-winning community centre, developed leadership and community engagement programs for the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, worked as an Assignment Editor for NBC news in San Francisco; managed global Internet Rights advocacy for the South African based Association for Progressive Communications, and was a Founding Trustee of the Montreal Awesome Foundation. Chad has served on numerous boards and is an active volunteer. He holds a BA in Communications and Master’s Degrees in Communications and Leadership.

We would like to express our deepest gratitude to the outgoing members of the Board for their dedication and wisdom: Prof. Tracey Lauriault, Henri-Francois Gautrin, and former President of the Board Jonathan Brun, who has been with us since the foundation of Open North.

A Data Maturity Model for the Arts and Culture Sector

A look at our work with Synapse C

2020-01-22-audience

Organizations across different sectors are increasingly looking towards data to gain insight into their clients’ experiences, and adapt their offerings or products to better respond to their interests. In the arts and culture sector, organizations like Synapse C in Montreal, and the Audience Agency in the UK, are exploring opportunities to share data between organizations in order to generate insights into audience preferences for the benefit of creative organizations.

The practice of discovering trends on audience habits through data sharing is relatively new for this sector and is coming at a pivotal time, as creative organizations are looking to adapt to an era of digital transformation. However the opportunity to discover insights on audience behaviours through data raises a number of challenges and considerations. For instance, how can data coming from different ticketing and vendor platforms be standardized so that datasets can be combined and compared? How should this data be used, and by whom? Moreover, what skills, resources and competencies do organizations need to take part in data-sharing initiatives as part of their digital transformation ?

OpenNorth had such considerations in mind as it embarked upon a project with Synapse C, a non-profit organization recently created out of the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership. Synapse C’s mission is to empower arts and culture organizations to extract maximum value from their data in Québec and in Canada. From May to October 2019, OpenNorth’s Applied Research Lab worked closely with Synapse C to develop a self-administered survey and data maturity model for the arts and culture sector.

The survey tool is intended to enable creative organizations to reflect on and evaluate their capacity to collect, use and manage their data, which comes from a wide variety of sources. For instance, data derived from social media, ticketing systems, and mailing lists can all become valuable sources of business intelligence for creative organizations. To enable this opportunity, however, organizations may need new or additional skills in data analysis and management.

Once launched, the self-administered survey will allow arts and culture organizations to take stock of their data assets and competencies, and carve out their individual capacity-building pathway. Indeed, Synapse C sees this work as an important step towards fulfilling the organization’s socially-driven mission.

These tools will improve Synapse C’s ability to understand the needs of organizations operating in the arts and culture sector, and convene and facilitate actors, with the goal of providing relevant insights back to organizations in Quebec, and eventually throughout Canada.

– Viêt Cao, Manager and senior analyst, Synapse C

OpenNorth would like to thank Synapse C for its collaboration on this project, which provided us with a unique opportunity to build our knowledge on data in the arts and culture sector. Finally, OpenNorth’s Applied Research Lab will look to build upon this work, as it continues to embark upon new research projects which explore data governance across a wide range of public and private organizations.

OpenNorth welcomes Ana Brandusescu as a fellow focused on AI in the city

Ana Brandusescu will be collaborating with McGill University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal (CRIEM) as the resident Professor of Practice for 2019-2020, and will be an OpenNorth Fellow. As a Professor of Practice and OpenNorth Fellow, she will design and implement a research agenda on artificial intelligence (AI), its transformative effects on institutions, and the engagement potentialities afforded, and not afforded, by its implementation. Taking a critical theory approach to technology and its implementation, Ana will examine shifting power dynamics vis-à-vis technology, to ask how people can better participate in digitally-informed decisions that are driven by opaque and potentially unaccountable technologies. Her research will build relationships across sectors amongst implementers of AI and researchers examining its socio-technical implications.

“The dichotomy of open and closed in technology and how it works (or doesn’t) for people remains a key issue,” says Ana Brandusescu. “Open and closed usually refers to proprietary data and software but it also can refer to digital divides in terms of access and education. How can people engage in with emerging technologies that may be opaque to them?”

“We have seen the need to much stronger support and mediation between governments, technology vendors, non-profits, and the general public, through projects and collaborations grounded in practitioner communities and a strong research foundation,” says Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of Open North. “We are keen and excited to work with Ana on such important issues of participation and collaboration that we face today,” he said.

Ana’s expertise lies in participation via civic tech, open government data, and digital rights. As an independent researcher, advisor and facilitator, she has worked on open contracting reform, open access for UN agencies, closing the gender gap, and developing courses on AI for OpenNorth’s One-to-One Advisory Service. During her time at the World Wide Web Foundation she led research on the Open Data Barometer, co-chaired the Measurement and Accountability Group of the Open Data Charter, and led gender equality research advocacy with Women’s Rights Online. She is on the advisory board of Learning from Small Cities, and is a member of @OpenHeroines.

Updates on Ana’s research with OpenNorth are forthcoming. In the meantime, please follow Ana on Twitter @anabmapLinkedIn, and her personal website. Find out more about OpenNorth’s applied research here.

Global-to-Local

On public consultation, elections, and cross-cultural knowledge exchange in Ukraine

2019-08-12-ukraine-flag

One of OpenNorth’s organizational pillars is in its global-to-local approach - working outside Canada with other organizations and governments, using our experience and expertise to apply elsewhere and bringing knowledge back to our home context. OpenNorth’s work with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Ukraine exemplifies this pillar of work. The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports and strengthens democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. NDI is headquartered in the US, with field offices in over 50 countries worldwide.

With the support of UK Aid’s Good Governance Fund, OpenNorth and NDI are working together to improve public consultation in Ukraine. The goal of the program is to develop and apply a replicable and sustainable model of public consultation; one that improves government decision making by incorporating citizens in the decision-making process. Within the program, OpenNorth works on increasing participation rates in consultation, establishing clear guidelines and consensus on the importance of public consultation for officials, working with civil society and interest groups on public consultation, and increasing accessibility and standardization of public consultation data.

Despite vast differences in bureaucratic structures, attitudes towards data-driven policy making, and the role of citizen participation in shaping policy, we find some of the same challenges in Ukraine as in Canada and other parts of the world. As we have discussed before, public consultation is not just an act of engagement - it is also a data collection exercise. Citizen responses are gathered through different media and channels (digital and analogue). These responses need to be processed, analyzed, and integrated into government decision-making.

Civil society and government partners in Ukraine and Canada communicate similar issues when treating public consultation responses as data. For example, most public consultation data is qualitative, in the form of text or audio - this makes interpretation tricky. Furthermore, data cleaning and processing can become extremely time and labour intensive, while the process of consultation can be prone to sampling biases such as self-selection. Addressing some of the challenges in public consultation data also requires a level of data literacy that is not always present within government. Our work in Ukraine is a way to adapt and scale our experiences from the Canadian context.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s unique and challenging political environment is something we can learn from. In particular, recent legislative and presidential elections in Ukraine will raise questions for operationalizing solutions to the public consultation data challenges in government:

-How can we work with and adapt to the new government’s vision to build-up data literacy and public consultation capacity?

-When is it an opportune time to promote public consultation and “data-driven” policy making with the new government?

-How will we integrate work and discussion with the previous government to assist the new government?

The newly elected government of Volodymyr Zelesky and his party’s recent sweep of the Verkhovna Rada - Ukraine’s unicameral parliament - is expected to bring a period of change. The way OpenNorth and its partners navigate this government turnover will certainly inform the way we operate in Canada and elsewhere. With federal elections looming in Canada, we are excited to learn from experiences in Ukraine and help operationalize public consultation capacity building under a new government. Our global to local approach is all about partnerships with international organizations to make our local experience and expertise relevant to others and bring back knowledge to our community. In so doing, we actively seek to contribute to international peer-to-peer knowledge networks.

We have already begun promoting this mutual learning in our work in Ukraine, with our participation in the National Forum on Establishing Effective Dialogue and Cooperation between Government, Civil Society and Citizens in Lviv in late May. Two OpenNorth staff (Suthee Sangiambut and Hannah Ker) had the opportunity to present and lead a brief workshop on qualitative data analysis in this NDI-hosted event, to much acclaim by participants. In order to further promote international and mutual learning, OpenNorth also brought Anik Pouliot - Director of Communications for the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) - to share about 10 years of knowledge and experience on public consultation in a municipal setting. Anik discussed the OCMP’s role within the city of Montreal policy making process, its independent and transparent approach - such as the use of commissioners to guide and moderate consultations and it’s efforts to remove obstacles to citizen participation - for example, by providing access to child-care facilities during face-to-face consultation events.

By the end of the National Forum, Anik Pouliot from Montreal, in the words of several Ukrainian attendees, had obtained “rockstar” status.

This blog post and the described program are made possible by the generous support of the British people through the United Kingdom’s Good Governance Fund. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies or views.

ARL Open Data Analyst pursuing graduate studies at University College London

2019-08-01-ukraine-national-forum

Hannah Ker, the Applied Research Lab’s Open Data Analyst, is saying goodbye to OpenNorth as she leaves to pursue a Master’s degree in Spatial Data Science at the University College London (UCL) this fall.

Over her year at OpenNorth, Hannah has worked on a number of projects and contributed to the development of the Applied Research Lab. Hannah’s work at OpenNorth has addressed themes of data literacy, public consultation, data management, and homelessness.

“The learning opportunities at OpenNorth have been incredible. I have learned so much about the everyday challenges that government and organizations face when trying to collect, manage, and analyze various forms of data,” said Hannah.

Hannah’s time at OpenNorth began with work on the structuring and analysis of public consultation data with the Privy Council Office. Hannah’s efforts with the Privy Council Office have continued this winter, when she helped develop an online learning tool to promote data literacy in public servants conducting public consultations.

Hannah has also closely contributed to our ongoing project with the National Democratic Institute on developing a national model for public consultation in Ukraine. As part of this project, Hannah participated in multiple study visits to Ukraine where she shared her expertise on public consultation data management.

Additionally, Hannah has contributed to our projects with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) on improving data management in the homelessness sector. Read more about one of these projects here.

As she moves on to UCL, Hannah is looking forward to learning more about analyzing and visualizing geospatial data in cities (with London as a great case study). She will continue to work to promote the equitable use of data in urban environments.

We greatly appreciate Hannah’s work over the past year and wish her the best in her future studies at UCL! Thank you, and all the best in London.

Summer Newsletter

2019-07-11-front-obama-foundation-meeting-small

OpenNorth’s Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry met with The Obama Foundation and former United States President Barack Obama at the Open Government Partnership’s Global Summit in Ottawa this past May.

Welcome from the Executive Director

Hello and welcome. Big news everyone!

With longer term funding for multi-year programs in Canada and around the world, OpenNorth is embarking on a new stage in its journey. While staying connected in the civic tech sector, and the global open government community, our work now evolves three main areas of programming.

Growing from 3 staff in 2016 to 17 full time employees and many collaborating partners, our staff are committed to advancing core values of openness, accountability, collaboration, inclusion and human dignity.

In March we formalized our organizational research capacity in the form of the Applied Research Lab, with initial funding received from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund.

In June, we launched OpenNorth’s new One-to-One Advisory Service that will provide guides and assessments to help communities understand where they are in the process of becoming open and smart.

Both events mark a new era for OpenNorth. It will be one focused on providing new opportunities for communities around the world and in Canada to improve the ways in which they communicate with and serve their citizens.

On behalf of the whole OpenNorth team, I’m looking forward to the future work we will do over the course of this year.

Jean-Noé Landry Executive Director, OpenNorth 10 July, 2019

Organizational News

As the organization embarks on its future work, we have adopted three pillars to guide us:

Pillar 1: Community Support for Open Smart City Implementation OpenNorth is the lead technical partner of the Community Solutions Network and is responsible for the One-to-One Advisory Service. Available at no-cost to communities of all sizes across Canada, the Advisory Service operationalizes the Open Smart Cities definition developed by OpenNorth in 2018 and offers online basic and advanced courses, implementation guidelines, templates, as well as personalized guidance from leading advisors on open smart cities domains of data, governance, people and engagement and hardware and software.

Pillar 2: Applied Research to Solve Complex Problems We bridge geographic and cultural divides by mobilizing and synthesizing knowledge to create practical outcomes for problems institutions and communities face in facilitating data collection, bridging organisational silos, structuring multi-stakeholder data collaboration, and building internal capacity to manage data - we call this applied research. We implement this approach via the Applied Research Lab, which uses quantitative and qualitative methods to further data strategy, governance, interoperability and data-based engagement. We draw upon our extensive research partnerships on issues including AI ethics and digital transformation.

Pillar 3: Local-to-Global Scaling Up of Solutions We partner with international organizations to make our local experience and expertise relevant to others and bring back knowledge to communities in Canada. Our scaling up of local work is achieved through support from the Applied Research Lab in tailoring capacity building programs for local and national stakeholders undergoing organizational change. In so doing, we actively contribute to international peer-to-peer knowledge networks.

Project Updates

  1. The launch of OpenNorth’s One-to-One Advisory Service marks a new era. In it, OpenNorth is partnering with Evergreen to work directly to support communities of all sizes across the country in assessing their progress on becoming open and smart. We help them determine the road forward to overcome data governancepeople & engagement, and hardware and software challenges they face. Thanks to funding from Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Community Support Program, we hired a new team and recruited leading advisors to fulfill OpenNorth’s part of this programme. Read more here.

  2. Ethelo and OpenNorth are excited to announce the acquisition by Ethelo of “Citizen Budget,” Canada’s leading municipal budget consultation tool. Launched in 2011 by OpenNorth, Citizen Budget has been used by over 100 Canadian municipalities for their public budget engagement. Find the full story here. Long life to Citizen Budget!

  3. Our Executive Director’s meeting with former United States President Barack Obama this past May on the sidelines of the Open Government Partnership’s Global Summit in Ottawa. During the meeting with President Obama and a small group of other international young leaders to discuss the challenges that face efforts to make government more open, transparent and accountable, Jean-Noé spoke about the challenges facing citizen agency in smart cities and the need to define new terms of democratic engagement that account for inequalities in technological systems. Find out more about this exciting meeting.

  4. At the Open Government Partnership Summit 2019 in Ottawa we heard from speakers throughout the week who ranged from ministers to city officials and activists. Notable was the increased emphasis on algorithms, AI, and disinformation, in relation to democratic participation and engagement - the Applied Research Lab present their observations from the Summit here and here. For this Summit, OpenNorth was also responsible for planning and facilitating the OGP Loca Side Event, a one-day meeting of open government stakeholders, particularly those in local government. This was attended by local government representatives from the Global North and South, as well as civil society counterparts, where discussion focused on approaches and tools for collaboration between civil society and local government.

  5. A recent project with the Privy Council Office (which supports the Prime Minister and Cabinet) gave OpenNorth the opportunity to build a prototype online learning tool on data literacy for public consultation that was designed for public officials in the Canadian Federal Government. This project also allowed us to reimplement our local to global approach in partnership with the National Democratic Institute in Ukraine. Before anyone can make decisions based on data (ie. the “data-driven decision making” paradigm that we hear so much about), they first need to be able to open, read, process, analyze and summarize that data. Find the full story here.

  6. On May 14, 2019, the Government of Canada announced that the City of Montreal was one of four winners of the country’s first-ever Smart Cities Challenge with the largest funding ($50 million). OpenNorth will be contributing to Montreal’s project in the realm of data governance. To support the development of the city’s winning proposal, OpenNorth teamed-up with a Dark Matter Labs, MIT’s designx initiative, la Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS), Percolab, the Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine (LIUM) de Montréal, and others, on the Smart Commons project (funded by The McConnell Foundation’s Cities for People program) to document enabling conditions for regulatory experimentation. Find the full story here and read the first issue of Legitimacities with a case study on Montreal.

  7. OpenNorth’s Applied Research Lab worked with LIUM to draft the City of Montreal’s first Open Data Action Plan. The plan addresses the need to build a data culture in which openness, accessibility and usability are emphasized so that work with data can be adopted by larger, more diverse audiences. The plan also aims to reflect the realities and needs of city employees, their teams and their departments as they work as data publishers and key users of open data. Find the full story here.

  8. In March 2019, OpenNorth Applied Research Lab Urban Research Analyst, Miranda Sculthorp, attended the Rencontres nationales de la participation in Grenoble, France to exchange and debate participatory tools and methods with decision-makers, experts, activists, practitioners and citizens. Find the full story here. Miranda also attended RightsCon in Tunis, Tunisia in June 2019, where she observed and discussed smart cities, privacy, and surveillance in the Global North and South. Read the full story here.

  9. Funded by the Open Data for Development Network (OD4D), OpenNorth published a report on Open Data for Smart City and Urban Development in the Global South. In these contexts, open data is found to enable governments, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local public and private leaders to innovate and create. Derived from case studies informed by interviews, our report explores some of the linkages between open data and urban development across a number of global south cities. Read the report here.

Reporting on Smart City Discourse from RightsCon 2019

2019-07-02-tunis-rightscon

My week at RightsCon 2019

RightsCon is an annual meeting of human rights activists, civil society representatives, government officials, researchers, academics and individuals from the tech and private sector. This year RightsCon was held in Tunis, Tunisia, both a timely and appropriate setting, given that the civil society uprising which took its roots in Tunis in 2011 has paved the way for the country’s democratization, while also inspiring other countries in the region to initiate their own revolutions. These protests and uprisings, collectively referred to as the Arab Spring, were marked by the significant use of social media to mobilise citizen demonstrations.

Spending time in this historic city, while also learning from the efforts of activists around the world in their pursuit of human and digital rights (such as freedom of speech and the right to privacy and security in the digital age), gave me a strong appreciation for many of the rights that I tend to take for granted, as a resident of Canada, a wealthy and democratic country.

This week also served as a reminder of how powerful actors can frame, influence, or manipulate concepts and ideas, in order to advance their own agendas. This theme came up throughout many of the conference talks, from discussions on the proliferation of online violent extremism content in the recent Indian elections to sessions on abuses of government power which are made possible by the control of civic spaces online.

During my time at RightsCon, I was particularly interested in understanding the use of the term ‘smart city’. OpenNorth has studied this concept carefully in the Canadian context, through it’s collaborative research project which resulted in the creation of the Open Smart Cities Guide. OpenNorth is also connected to local work as a partner organization of the International Observatory on the Societal Impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Technologies (supported by the Government of Quebec), as part of our work to move forward critical thinking on the use of technology in cities.

With this in mind, I want to explore how the term ‘smart city’ has spread and how it’s being used in settings outside of Canada. It was clear that attendees had varying interpretations of ‘what is a smart city’, as their respective understandings often related to their own experiences of the introduction of digital and networked technologies in their communities. Many of these experiences likened the term ‘smart city’ to the introduction of digital technologies (namely cameras, sensors, facial recognition technology) to public spaces, which may create the conditions for digital, real-time and all-encompassing state surveillance with commensurate government control.

‘Smart’ technology experiences from cities in the Global South

During the session “Smart” Cities in the Global South: Should “smart” people trust them? (facilitated by Juliana Novaes Head of Projects, Youth Observatory) participants heard from a number of experts’ experiences with ‘smart’ technology in their cities. Some of these stories I share below, beginning with the city of São Paulo, Brazil.

São Paulo has recently integrated facial recognition technology and interactive platforms into one of its metro lines. According to an article by CityLab, these platforms can recognize the expressions of users’ faces as they view advertisements, and then categorizes them into four moods: happy, unsatisfied, surprised, or neutral. Moreover, legal expert Caio César de Oliveira (Lawyer, Pinheiro Neto Advogados), who spoke during the session, explained that the facial recognition system is also being used to detect if passengers are using the metro card that was assigned to them. By identifying those who are using metro cards with cheaper fare, the system can deny entry to passengers on the spot. At the outset, this can seem like a good idea, as an efficient way for the transit providers to protect their revenue source. However, on top of concerns relating to the accuracy of artificial recognition technology, this system could also potentially lead to the criminalization of certain citizens, by making it easy for police to identify and charge fare evaders for a fairly harmless wrongdoing.

Next, Sigi Waigumo Mwanzia (Digital Policy Fellow, Article 19 Eastern Africa) spoke about the Kenyan context. Mwanzia expressed her concerns relating to the country’s digital identification system, as the government intends to collect biometric information and store it in a master database containing personal information on all citizens. She said the proposed system is being rolled out very quickly, which gives the courts little time to ask questions regarding the protection of citizen’s data. Kenya’s major cities are also using surveillance technology : both Nairobi and Mombasa now use a surveillance system consisting of CCTV cameras which connect directly to local police stations. Overall, Mwanzia’s comments reminded me, that the rate at which our governments can procure and adopt technology is not necessarily the same rate at which we (citizens) can inspect, deliberate, question, test, research, and provide feedback to government.

Finally, the session You’re not Just a Pretty Face: Biometric surveillance has moved beyond facial recognition - how do we stop it? (facilitated by Jennifer Lynch, Surveillance Litigation Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation) invited contributions from participants, one of whom spoke of the situation of surveillance in some Chinese cities in the region of Xinjiang. The use of multi-source data collection (biometric identification, IP addresses, facial recognition) enables a state of surveillance, and gives the government the ability to track citizen activities across systems. According to an article published by the New York Times, the government is using these algorithmic technology systems for racial profiling, to identify and track the muslim minority population.

For these governments (and their tech suppliers) it’s a matter of convenience and efficiency

The above examples, coming from cities in the Global South, not only raise a wealth of concerns relating to the right to privacy, data protection, and fair treatment in the name of the law, but they also provide insight into how governments are justifying the use of surveillance technology in cities. Public authorities claim that these technologies will improve the safety of citizens by allowing police forces to identify and mitigate security threats. They may also justify the purchase and use of these systems as a matter of convenience: to make the lives of both security forces and citizens easier, and more efficient. In these experiences of ‘smart cities’ citizens are obliged to effectively trade their right to privacy, for the promise of better safety and security.

And what about ‘smart cities’ in the Global North?

Cities of the Global North are not immune to these concerns or problems relating to citizen privacy and a surveillance state (one only needs to look to Sidewalk Labs proposal for the Quayside development in Toronto and the surrounding controversy), but the topic of smart cities has been so far approached and examined with skepticism, from a considerable body of academic, policy and civil society circles. This collective response, which is supported by existing legal and regulatory frameworks and democractic processes, has enabled and pushed forward critical thinking on ‘smart cities’ for a wide realm of stakeholders, including government. The result is that the discourse around ‘smart cities’ in this context has landed in the realm of very cautious optimism.

In Canada, OpenNorth lead a collaborative research project in 2018, the first of its kind to investigate smart cities practices in Canadian cities and internationally. In our Open Smart Cities Guide, we suggest that cities may explore the possibility of mobilizing data and technologies “when warranted in an ethical, accountable and transparent way to govern the city as a fair, viable and liveable commons”.

In the European context, smart cities initiatives are accompanied by the strengthening of legal frameworks, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) a regulation that came into effect in 2018, intended to protect the data and the privacy of all individual citizens of the EU. At the same time, a number of European cities, such as Barcelona and Amsterdam, are approaching the issue of data collection in cities through a human rights-based lens, through initiatives such as Cities for Digital Rights which claims “ […] we are committed to eliminating impediments to harnessing technological opportunities that improve the lives of our constituents.”

In the US, the city of San Francisco is the first in the country which has banned the use of facial recognition technology. Still, according to an article by the New York Times, some critics are arguing that “rather than focusing on bans, the city should find ways to craft regulations that acknowledge the usefulness of face recognition”.

It these cases, it seems that while there are serious concerns related to the use of networked technology in cities, there continues to be some remaining belief, or hope that technology can be used for good. That it’s potential public value for city dwellers should be denied completely. However, the preconditions to truly realize this public value of technology in cities are many, beginning with laws to protect citizen data, then building and implementing appropriate ethics and accountability frameworks, all of which should be guided by meaningful participation from citizens and a range of stakeholders. In any context – whether it be in cities located in the Global North or the Global South – this is no small feat.

Conclusions

At RightsCon 2019, discussions on ‘smart cities’ showed how this concept can be used as an excuse for potentially all-encompassing state surveillance in cities, to move forward an agenda of government control. These cases need to be studied in depth in order to continue to bring attention to the abuse of power that are occurring under the name of ‘smart cities’. This can begin by inquiring into the technology itself, and then delving into its potential risks, harms and implications at an individual and societal level.

Luckily, I got to meet an incredible body of researchers and activists at RightsCon who are doing this work, tirelessly questioning and exposing the intentions behind surveillance technology procurement in corrupt and authoritarian governments, raising awareness on issues surrounding consent and data privacy, as sensors and cameras increasingly find their way into the built environment, all while fostering data literacy and grass-roots movements in their respective communities. They continue to prove that while concepts and discourse is important to understand, in the end it’s the action that actually matters.

As a final note, I’d like to extend my gratitude to LOJIQ, for supporting my participation in RightsCon 2019. I’d also like to welcome fellow RightsCon participants and readers to check out the work of OpenNorth’s Applied Research Lab team, as we look forward to continuing these discussions at the intersection of data, government, cities and society.

Looking back at our discussions on smart cities with French municipal leaders

2019-08-19-civiteo-french-delegation

A week of discussion on smart cities

OpenNorth and our partner CIVITEO, a firm which provides consulting services to support the ethical and efficient management of public data in Nantes, France, organized a learning exchange for a delegation of French ‘smart city’ leaders. For a week at the end of april 2019, the group of participants, which included elected officials, activists, law experts, and journalists, exchanged practices around the public management and use of data and technology in three Canadian cities: Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

During this weeklong exchange, OpenNorth organized meetings on the topic of smart cities and related domains, including open data, data privacy, citizen rights, regulation, ethics, citizen engagement, and artificial intelligence, among other topics. Through these discussions, we got to observe the ways in which norms and practices differ between France and Canada, which in turn encouraged us to think critically about our own practices. Therefore, during this week we effectively learned as much about ourselves, as we did about our French colleagues.

How does the smart cities landscape in Canada and France differ?

Before the delegation of participants arrived in Montreal, we reflected upon how the landscape of smart cities in Canada and France differ. While both settings are marked by rapid transformations in public and digital spheres, we can have different approaches to innovation and regulation.

In Canada, a number of municipalities are in the midst of developing smart cities projects, made possible in part by the Smart Cities Challenge launched by Infrastructure Canada. Over the course of the last year, Canadian cities have been developing and proposing strategic plans relating to open data, digital platforms and technology for the benefit of city residents. Let’s not forget small, rural and indigenous communities, who are also leading initiatives that aim to improve citizens’ lives by making use of technology and data. While these projects are often inscribed in co-creation and public consultation processes, many issues continue to be raised concerning the management of data and its responsible and ethical use.

In Canada, we tend to be open to experimentation and the involvement of private actors in our public spaces, and then afterwards look to develop appropriate regulation. In France, however, this process happens in reverse. For example, in May 2018, the European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law which establishes base rules concerning the collection and use of personal data. France has also recently adopted the Law for a Digital Republic, which requires municipalities of over 3500 inhabitants to open their data ‘by default’. While many municipalities are making progress in their open data programs, there is still much work left to do: in October 2018 the OpenData Territorial Observatory (France) found that out of 4510 municipalities which are concerned by the application of the law, there are only 343 municipalities that have open data programs.

With these contexts in mind, below we summarize key discussions that took place during our week with French colleagues, while drawing key questions and takeaways from these conversations.

Montreal

During our time in Montreal, French delegates had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the local data and innovation ecosystem, beginning with the arts and culture sector. We facilitated a meeting with Synapse C, a non-profit organization that was recently founded out of the Quartier des Spectacles partnership. Synapse C aims to decipher and build on arts and culture data in Quebec and Canada, while fostering a culture of collaboration amongst organizations in the sector. During our discussions, we learned about the potential for data sharing platforms to bring benefits to arts organizations and their audiences, and considered obstacles and risks relating to the sharing of personal data.

In our next meeting with Nabeel Ahmed, Programme Officer at OpenNorth’s One-to-One Advisory Service, and Tracey Lauriault, Assistant Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, we moved onto questions relating to public trust and the application of laws in Canadian jurisdictions. Through these exchanges, we observed that there is a clear interest on behalf of Canadian cities and municipalities to get involved in smart city projects. However, the Canadian smart cities landscape can be fragmented, because the application of laws related to the collection and use of data depends on government jurisdiction, whether that be municipal, provincial or federal levels of government.

In the pursuit of continued reflections on the topic of the norms, regulations and judicial frameworks, we organized a discussion with Christope Abrassart, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Urban Planning of the University of Montreal and researcher at the Observatoire international sur les impacts sociétaux de l’IA. Professor Abrassart led us through the creation of the Montreal Declaration for responsible AI, an ethical framework for artificial intelligence, which was developed through a deliberate process engaging citizens, experts, and other stakeholders in Montreal.

During our last meeting in Montreal, we met with the Laboratoire de l’innovation urbaine de Montréal. Here, delegates brought together their newly-gained knowledge on Montreal’s innovation trajectory, and discovered the principles and experimentation methodologies that have enabled the City to pursue and implement cultural and digital transitions.

Ottawa

While in Ottawa, the delegation was invited to the Embassy of France to meet with Kareen Rispal, Ambassador of France in Canada, where we discussed how to concretize the sharing of knowledge and practices between France and Canada. Certain members of the delegation presented experiences from their respective regions, sharing insight on how public administrations can respond to challenges prompted by the introduction of technologies in public and private life.

Next, in our meeting with Mélanie Robert, Executive Director of Open Government and Services at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, participants learned about the federal government’s open government program. This program is closely linked to the international open government movement – a movement which aims to make government and its activities more accountable and transparent through implementing principles such as open ‘by default’. These discussions highlighted a number of challenges for government, notably the challenge for local governments to publish high quality open data with limited resources. We also discussed artificial intelligence, and raised a number of key questions for public authorities, such as : How do we measure the impact of algorithm use in society?

Our last meeting in Ottawa was with Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy and Full Professor at the University of Ottawa, and David Fewer, Director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. Here, we examined the concept of a data trust: a data governance tool wherein a third party manages consent on behalf of users, so that they have better control over their personal data. By working through different examples, we examined how these governance models are distinct from the traditional regulatory approach, which raised a number of questions, such as: What are the obligations of third parties relating to the data owners? And, who has the rights to re-use personal data?

With these questions in mind, we continued our week with a stop in Toronto, where we had more opportunities to consider different data governance models with a concrete application: examining the case of the Quayside urban development proposal put forward by Sidewalks Labs in downtown Toronto.

Toronto

Toronto was a stop not to be missed during the study trip, not only because it’s Canada’s largest city, but also because the City of Toronto is well-recognized for its leadership in publishing open data.

Upon arriving in Toronto, we were welcomed by the Ontario Digital Service team, who shared their Digital First Plan as well as the related citizen engagement process. The Ontario Digital Service team designed and implemented an engagement strategy which had multiple ways in which citizens could participate and provide their feedback. Together, we discussed challenges in eliciting feedback from those who are traditionally less represented in deliberative processes of public consultation, especially considering the digital divide and differences in broadband connectivity across urban and rural territories.

Next, we met with Code for Canada, a non-profit organization which aims to help governments and communities in Canada harness the power of digital technology for the common good. Code for Canada spoke about their Fellowship program which integrates professionals coming from the private and non for profit sectors into government departments to work on specific technology projects. Our French colleagues were impressed with the breadth and depth of the projects completed through the work exchanges, which have been successful at many levels of the Canadian government.

The last and most highly-anticipated visit of the trip was our meeting organized with Sidewalk Labs. Here, we got to learn first-hand about the proposed urban development plan for the Quayside site, specifically the mobility, housing, job creation, and public spaces plans. We also broached the topic of the collection and use of data coming from urban sensors, and the members of the delegation raised a number of questions concerning the ownership of data, consent, and the ethical uses of sensor-derived data.

Following our visit to Sidewalk Labs, we debriefed with two Toronto-based activists, Bianca Wylie, Co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and Nasma Ahmed, Director of the Digital Justice Lab. We discussed how the project risks imposing a new order of governance in public spaces, as data collection and surveillance technologies are increasingly introduced to the public realm. We also thought about how this project could potentially reframe the democratic processes which are constituted in cities, and the potential consequences not only for Toronto, but also for other cities within and outside of Canada.

Conclusion

This week of learning and exchange nourished fruitful discussions on the governance of our cities in an era of digital transformation. Through our meetings and workshops, we discovered how Canadian and French municipal contexts differ in terms of institutional settings, political processes, judicial frameworks and cultural practices. Overall, we appreciated how French delegates were open to debate and exchange and we were equally inspired by their commitment to explore alternative models of governance. On the other hand, our French colleagues were most impressed with our capacity to engage a wide range of actors on complex governance issues, while remaining open to experimentation and innovation.

Moving forward, and in this spirit of exchange and collaboration, we encourage readers to continue to explore these topics, first by reading this blog post by CIVITEO, and then, by following the development of smart city projects, which continue to pose tensions and challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two stories of open government from São Paulo and Santiago what we learned about local inclusion

2019-06-07-OGP-summit-local-side-event

This is the first in a series of “What We Heard” posts from the Applied Research Lab with reflections from the Open Government Partnership Summit 2019.

Giving meaning to inclusion

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit 2019 provided a platform for participants to share their locally-initiated open government projects. Throughout the week we heard from speakers ranging from city officials to activists, and even a family that carried out a project to visualize their country’s budget spending. Clearly, open government can be the business of everyone. And in fact, this was an recurrent theme (and question) that permeated the conference.

As discussions highlighted throughout the week, the OGP community has come a long way in becoming more ‘inclusive’. According to the OGP, as of the end of 2018, only 54 OGP commitments include women or gender, which represents less than 2% of the 3,000 commitments made by national and local governments. However, inclusion in practice means much more than setting broad, national and international targets to include more women and girls in a democratic process.

In this post we present two local OGP experiences coming from the South American context, to highlight local practices which embody different dimensions of inclusion, while outlining areas of work that could benefit from further research in order to improve the impact of OGP on a subnational level. Through these stories, we highlight how inclusion can entail engaging citizens across diverse jurisdictions, connecting with citizens in their familiar settings, and ensuring that marginalized and vulnerable groups have voices in open local government activities.

Open Government Agents Program - São Paulo, Brazil

During the Local Side Event of the OGP Summit week, we heard from Gustavo Ungaro, Comptroller General of São Paulo City Hall and Julia Fernandes de Carvalho, Representative of the Open Government Agents Program (Brazil), who shared their experiences working on open government initiatives in São Paulo, an OGP subnational member. They highlighted the city’s Open Government Agents Program, a program initiated in 2015 to create a network of civil servants working on open government, in order to foster peer-to-peer learning at the neighbourhood level. The city launched a public call for agents, inviting any resident with the desire and skills to teach a particular subject to apply to the call. These agents designed their own courses related to open government, and provided them free of cost to their communities.

The São Paulo experience was inclusive in terms of its reach and setting: the program effectively engaged all of City’s the 32 Municipal Subprefectures (city districts). In a city with over 12 million people, and with significant income inequalities across neighbourhoods, the structure of the program effectively diffused the workshops to every part of the São Paulo. Moreover, the agents made use of community spaces to hold the workshops. By leveraging existing community networks, physical infrastructure, and knowledge, the program invited citizens to learn and engage with open government in their own backyard. In this type of environment, non-experts, coming from every walk of life can feel welcomed to learn.

This program represents a significant departure from the typical hackathon, learning lab or co-creation activity that has been perceived as the gold standard for citizen participation in open government. While these types of activities can be valuable, they may also incentivise self-selection from a subset of well-educated citizens or those with prior-knowledge and expertise in digital government.

Overall, São Paulo’s peer-learning approach had a demonstrable impact. According to a report by the OECD, from November 2015 through to the end of 2016, over 15 000 people attended the workshops. Moreover, over 90% of participants rated their experience as good or great with regard to information availability, quality of the agent’s knowledge and teaching skills, and applicability of the subject (OECD, 2017).

Moving forward, there remain opportunities to investigate the replicability of this type of peer-to-peer learning program, while continuing to research and find ways to monitor and evaluate the impact of the program over time. For instance, did the workshop learnings translate into more active engagement for citizens that took part? Do the government employees that participated actually apply the skills they learned? Working towards answering these questions can get us closer to measuring the long term impact of local, and inclusive open government initiatives.

Chile’s first Communal Open Local Action Plan - Renca, Chile

The municipality of Renca (part of the Santiago Metropolitan Region), has been working with the Tribu foundation, along with other local actors, to develop the city’s first Communal Open Local Action Plan; the first of its kind in Chile. The process involved inviting neighbours to gather, to learn about open government, and to work on defining their local ambitions for more transparent, participatory municipal government (El Mostrador, 2019).

During a session on inclusion at the OGP Summit Local Side Event, Tribu foundation director Tomás González Olavarría highlighted that the development of local plans and working at a community level are themselves an important measure of inclusion, especially in countries that face high levels of inequality and segregation. Therefore, their approach was not only mindful to the socio-economic factors that serve as barriers to public participation, but also they also took special care to include citizens of different identities, abilities, and experiences. For instance, while the project leaders initially wanted to make use of online platforms, they quickly recognized that not everyone in the community was digitally connected. The focus accordingly shifted from online engagement to holding in-person workshops. These workshops prioritized the inclusion of women, youth, immigrants, indigenous people, people with disabilities, among other groups, by directly reaching out to these communities and inviting them to join the sessions.

As Renca continues its work to translate the plan into action, their participatory process highlights some key questions for further consideration. Namely, how do self-selection biases in these types of open government events affect not only who shows up, but also what takes place during the activities, and the eventual outcomes? For instance, throughout the OGP summit week, a number of civil society representatives expressed that in their localities, while women are often the driving force behind organizing and community work in their neighbourhoods, they may still be hesitant to speak up, and to assert their positions and needs in these settings.

Getting citizens to actually show up, is only the beginning of the work: it is equally important to monitor who is actually steering the conversations, while recognizing that it requires a certain set of abilities for an individual to voice their opinions in front of a room full of people – where cultural differences, education, power, privilege, timing and trust can all come into play. A greater depth of understanding into these dimensions, and in particular, how they introduce bias (or not) into outputs and actions would help OGP local initiatives foster more meaningful inclusion throughout the entirety of the participation process, particularly for in-person activities.

Final thoughts for moving forward the local OGP program

Throughout the OGP Summit week, we learned of many different avenues for local open government action, where practically speaking, inclusion can mean reaching citizens across vast and diverse territories, meeting citizens in their own setting, and involving residents which have been traditionally under-represented in these discussions. To further the impact of OGP on a local level, we need to continue to not only invite our communities to the deliberation table, but also improve our understanding of how local learning and co-creation activities translates into action and long-term impact for citizens and government, while taking into account and adjusting for the factors that shape who has a voice (literally speaking) in local democracy.

Sources

Open Government Partnership. n.d. Actions for a More Inclusive Open Government Partnership. Available at: https://www.opengovpartnership.org/actions-for-a-more-inclusive-open-government-partnership/

OECD. February, 2017. Embracing Innovation in Government Global Trends. pp. 51-53. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/gov/innovative-government/embracing-innovation-in-government.pdf

El Mostrador. March 8, 2019. Renca tendrá el primer plan de acción comunal de Gobierno Abierto realizado en Chile. Available at: https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2019/03/08/renca-tendra-el-primer-plan-de-accion-comunal-de-gobierno-abierto-realizado-en-chile/

Reflections on the Open Government Partnership Summit Let’s talk about literacy

2019-06-07-ogp-view

This is the first in a series of “What We Heard” posts from the Applied Research Lab with reflections from the Open Government Partnership Summit 2019.

What were people talking about at the OGP Summit?

In its variety of forms, technology was at the center of many discussions at the recent global Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit 2019 in Ottawa. We heard, for example, from the NGO, Crude Accountability, about processes of translating “kitchen table knowledge into data” to support community activism. We heard about the Government of Canada’s Algorithmic Impact Assessment tool to help assess the risks associated with automated decision making. We heard a panel address the question, “How Ready is Government for Artificial Intelligence?”.

If conversations at the OGP Summit are any indication, digital infrastructures and technology such as those identified above are having an impact on the future priorities and direction of open government.

Issues of literacy appeared consistently throughout many of these conversations. The focus of the day-long “Making Data Work for Open Government” unconference was on building data literacy in various contexts and making data more accessible to those without relevant formal education. We learned about efforts from the Caribbean Open Institute on digital capacity building for young women in Haiti trying to enter the job market. During a session on “Fostering a Democratic Digital Space”, the issue of media literacy was a center point of discussions around misinformation in online spaces, such as social media.

As government adopts more technological solutions, efforts to promote media, digital, and data literacy will be an important part of open government.

What kinds of literacy should we care about?

Before addressing notable findings and outcomes from these conversations, I’d like to first unpack some different types of literacy and what they mean. Traditionally, literacy is about comprehension and critical thinking. Beyond just learning to read, literacy also encompasses the ability to understand, ask questions, and present arguments based on written material (Combes, 2010). Throughout the OGP Summit, we heard about the following types of literacy:

  • Media literacy: Media literacy is more than just the ability to interact with different types of media. According to MediaSmarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, media literacy includes skills relating to access, analysis, evaluation, and production of media (MediaSmarts, 2017). Media literacy also includes a fundamental acknowledgement that media convey social and political messages that can be interpreted differently by different audiences (ibid.).

  • Digital literacy

    : Digital literacy builds off of media literacy. As defined by MediaSmarts, digital literacy includes competencies across three domains (MediaSmarts, 2019):

    • Use: addresses the technical capabilities required to interact with computers and the internet,

    • Understand: includes skills required to think critically about digital media, leading to more informed decisions about life online, and

    • Create: addresses the ability to generate content and communications using digital tools.

  • Data literacy

    : Finally, data literacy refers to the ability to read, work with, analyze, and argue with data (Bhargava and D’Ignazio, 2015). Data literacy has been described as an essential skill in our current knowledge economy, as data-driven processes are applied across many sectors and disciplines (Risdale et al., 2015).

Why does this matter for open government?

These various forms of literacy will be an important part of ensuring that government is open and accountable to its citizens. To be open, government needs to be able to communicate clearly with the public about its decision making processes and outcomes. The public, in turn, needs to be able to critically interrogate this decision making and hold government to account for the impacts. If we assume that our governments will increasingly turn towards digitalized, data-driven solutions (we’ll need another blog post, or maybe a book, to unpack the pros and cons of this approach), then these responsibilities of the government and of the public may become more challenging. Open government depends on both the politicians’ and public officials’ ability to communicate clearly about how the technology that they use works, and citizens’ ability to engage with these technologies and critically interrogate their impacts. To accomplish these tasks, government and civil society need to be equipped with skills in media, digital, and data literacy.

Issues surrounding literacy are connected to one of the key themes of this OGP Summit: inclusion. Without increased efforts to promote media, digital, and data literacy across a citizenry, a government’s use of technology may only be applicable and comprehensible to the well-educated who are in positions of privilege. All citizens should be able to understand what their government is doing, not just the “digital natives” or those with a degree in Computer Science.

Let’s consider, for example, the scary world of predictive policing. Imagine that a local government is implementing a predictive policing algorithm that intakes a variety of data sources and outputs the probabilities of future crime across neighbourhoods. To evaluate and correct for potential bias in this system, public officials need to be able to understand how different data inputs are combined and weighted to generate these probabilities. What information does a dataset on past crime contain and how might it disproportionately impact future policing of certain demographic groups? The algorithm behind predictive policing in LA, for example, has been criticised for exacerbating racially-biased policing due the underlying dataset that shows how people of colour are more often arrested for the same crimes as those committed by white people. Those being policed should be able to understand the basis on which policing decisions are made, and how to appeal to decisions that may be incorrect.

The following questions illustrate additional cases where media, digital, and data literacy are important to open government:

  • How can citizens meaningfully engage with each other through online discussion platforms to provide feedback to government on policy questions?

  • How can politicians and public officials clearly communicate with citizens about the use of data in government decision-making?

  • How can citizens identify misinformation online while attempting to educate themselves on key political issues?

  • How can public officials engage with private sector vendors to purchase artificial intelligence solutions that are appropriate and unbiased for the use-case at hand?

In addition, the concept of data literacy often comes up conversations on open data. For example, students from Chile and Mexico sharing their lessons learned from participating in the Open Data International Rally highlighted the need to “make data friendly” for it to be used by non-data specialists. As a key pillar of many open government initiatives, open data should be complemented with data literacy for citizens, to enable meaningful engagement with and via data.

Looking ahead

We need to build literacy in its many forms in both government and the public. We can benefit from the valuable work of educators by tailoring existing pedagogical approaches to contexts such as government institutions or civil society organizations. We can benefit from the experience of those in the media and technology sectors by drawing on their knowledge and making it accessible to more general audiences. Moving forwards, we need to think about the core competencies that different stakeholders will require to be considered media, digitally, or data “literate”. Will a 5th grader need to learn about detecting bot-generated content online? Will government policy analysts need to learn how to programmatically analyze qualitative feedback from citizens?

At OpenNorth, our work on data literacy (see here for an example) has pointed us towards some great resources for further reading on this subject. The following list includes sources referenced in this article and additional sources that we believe to be valuable:

Sources:

Bhargava, R., & D’Ignazio, C. (2015). Designing tools and activities for data literacy learners. In Workshop on Data Literacy, Webscience. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1215/7fe54d862929e301f7fdb2c6233c1ae4502a.pdf

Combes, B. (2010). How much do traditional literacy skills count? Literacy in the 21st century & reading from the screen. http://www.slideshare.net/IASLonline/literacy-skills-challenged

MediaSmarts. (2017, January 19). Media Literacy Fundamentals. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/digital-media-literacy/general-information/digital-media-literacy-fundamentals/media-literacy-fundamentals

MediaSmarts. (2019, February 20).Digital Literacy Fundamentals. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/digital-media-literacy/general-information/digital-media-literacy-fundamentals/digital-literacy-fundamentals

Prado, J. C., & Marzal, M. Á. (2013). Incorporating data literacy into information literacy programs: Core competencies and contents. Libri, 63(2), 123-134. Retrieved from https://e-archivo.uc3m.es/bitstream/handle/10016/27173/incorporating_calzada_LIBRI_2013.pdf

Ridsdale et al. (2015). Strategies and best practices for data literacy education: Knowledge synthesis report. Retrieved from https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/64578/Strategies%20and%20Best%20Practices%20for%20Data%20Literacy%20Education.pdf?sequence=1

What we're up to Data literacy and public consultations

2019-06-03-data-computer

Data literacy is an increasingly important skill for individuals and organizations across many sectors. Before anyone can make decisions based on data (ie. the “data-driven decision making” paradigm that we hear so much about), they first need to be able to open, read, process, analyze, and summarize that data.

OpenNorth’s work in the domain of public consultation has highlighted a need for increased data literacy in public officials who are involved in consultation activities. We recently worked with the Privy Council Office in the Government of Canada to develop an online learning tool to address this need.

Data and public consultation? Data literacy and public consultation?

As discussed in a past blog post, public consultation can be conceptualized as a data collection activity where feedback and comments from citizens are the data of interest. Thus, tasks such as developing data entry protocols, data cleaning, and conducting reproducible analysis become an important part of public consultation activities.

There are a wealth of resources available online for those looking to build a foundation in data literacy. Less common, however, are resources tailored specifically to the context of public consultation. This context requires additional competencies, such as stakeholder engagement and policy development that interact with data literacy skills in unique ways. The interpersonal element of public consultation must not be lost in efforts to collect high quality data. Public consultation may also take place in complex bureaucratic environments to which data management activities must be adapted.

Building an online learning tool

A recent project with the Privy Council Office gave us the opportunity to build a prototype for an online learning tool on data literacy for public consultation. This learning tool was designed for public officials engaging in consultation activities in the Canadian Federal Government.

We created an outline for a series of five learning modules and implemented the first two modules on an online platform. These two modules focused on introducing the concept of public consultation results as data, and basic data preprocessing techniques and considerations.

Thanks to the flexibility of the web, we were able to experiment with different levels of user interactivity as we developed these learning modules. We wanted users to be engaged with the learning material by exploring example datasets and performing basic data exploration and cleaning tasks on their own. However, we also wanted to ensure that users followed a structured curriculum and clearly-defined learning path. We balanced these two objectives by creating a learning experience that was organized according to a clearly-defined path, but also offered many opportunities to branch off from this path an engage in applied, self-guided learning.

Example datasets from past Government of Canada public consultations (available as open data, for example) provided plenty of opportunities to demonstrate basic preprocessing needs such as restructuring, removing duplicate responses, and filtering data. We also implemented interactive multiple choice quizzes where users could test their knowledge of each learning module’s subject matter.

In addition to creating educational material for public officials, this project also required us to think about needs such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and how to structure the text content on the website such that it could be easily translated into French (we decided to use a JSON structure to populate all website text, including button and heading text, and extract this using JQuery). Throughout the process of designing our web interface it became apparent that trade-offs between interactivity and accessibility were necessary. In some cases, expectations for the interface were not compatible with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. Therefore, a collaborative and iterative design process was important.

We also conducted basic user testing to ensure the website could be navigated intuitively by our intended audience. The feedback we received from our user testing revealed how design elements, such as button positioning, text layout, and colour palette, are an important part of the online learning experience - testers had their own preferences when it came to web design.

Final reflections

The overarching aim of this project was to highlight how technical competencies are an important part of open, transparent government. Data is increasingly becoming part of policy development and public engagement activities; a shift that demands new skills of today’s public officials. Technical competencies such as restructuring spreadsheets and computationally analyzing large datasets may no longer be just for computer scientists and IT specialists.

What are other sectors or use cases where data literacy is becoming increasingly important?

Press Release

Citizen Budget

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 15 MAY 2019

Ethelo and Open North are excited to announce the acquisition by Ethelo of “Citizen Budget”- Canada’s leading municipal budget consultation tool. Launched in 2011 by Open North, Citizen Budget simulator has been used by over 100 Canadian municipalities for their public budget engagement. The interactive online tool has enabled cities of all sizes, from all regions in Canada, to dramatically improve public engagement in one of their most important responsibilities; financial planning.

Through this acquisition, municipalities and other organizations can now benefit from the integration of Citizen Budget with Ethelo’s advanced algorithms and democratic decision-making tools. Ethelo is already used by governments in Canada and abroad for planning, policy development and budgeting. The combined offering will form the most comprehensive suite of online public engagement tools on the market, providing a ‘one-stop shop’ for local governments.

“Democracy is at a crossroads; voter confidence is at an all-time low and the challenges facing government are complex. Public servants working hard to create positive change need technologies that can create public trust and buy-in. The addition of Citizen Budget to Ethelo’s suite of participatory decision tools will bring citizen engagement in budgeting and public policy to a new level in Canada and abroad,” says John Richardson, CEO of Ethelo. Ethelo plans to expand the Citizen Budget platform to include social dialogue and tools for real-time results and collective budget analysis. The improved platform will better enable organizations to gather insightful public input on financial planning and budgeting. It will also empower residents and stakeholders, who are often unable to participate in important decision-making that affects them and their communities.

“At a time when cities are facing increased pressures to balance their budgets, we are excited to see Ethelo take on the next phase of Citizen Budget. With its advanced decision-making algorithm and array of powerful public engagement tools Ethelo is uniquely positioned to grow the reach and impact of Citizen Budget.” - Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of Open North

Open North and Ethelo have entered into a cooperation agreement to support this transition and offer complementary services to governments and organizations around the world.

About Ethelo

Ethelo helps their clients to offer more transparency and participation on the hottest public issues in a way that creates better outcomes and stronger buy-in. Its sophisticated participatory decision platform has been used by all levels of government as well as the private and non-profit sector ensure inclusive, fair and transparent decision-making processes and defuse opposition. Ethelo’s unique algorithms and ability to solve complex problems while building support has been described by the Canadian government as “an exceptional advance that is clearly ahead of competitors.”

About Open North

OpenNorth is Canada’s leading not-for-profit organization working to open up data, government, community engagement, and technologies. OpenNorth works with Canada’s most innovative and connected cities to create open smart cities. Through its interdisciplinary applied research, OpenNorth brings international practices to local communities while connecting local communities, governments, and partners to international networks and communities of practice.

Open Discussions on Open Data at the City of Montreal

2019-04-29-focus-groups

This Fall, OpenNorth’s Applied Research Lab worked with the Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine de Montréal (LIUM) to draft the City of Montreal’s first Open Data Action Plan. Foremost, the draft of the Plan addresses the need to make open data more accessible and re-usable for a wide audience. The Plan also aims to reflect the realities and needs of City employees, their teams, and departments, in their roles as data publishers and also as key users of open data. In order to understand the day-to-day experiences that employees face in using open data, as well as the processes relating to publishing data, OpenNorth and the LIUM organized and facilitated focus group discussions with city employees.

Focus group discussions are often associated with marketing companies, as a tactic they use understand the behaviours and values of their target clientèle. However, focus groups are a research method that can be used in number of settings, to capture views, perceptions and interactions amongst a group of individuals on a certain subject matter. In this blog post we discuss focus groups : what they are and in what cases are they useful as a research method. Then, based on our experience leading focus groups at the Ville de Montreal, we present some considerations for focus group design and analysis.

What are focus groups?

Focus groups are a qualitative research method that can provide valuable insight and perspectives to researchers, as they facilitate open group conversations around a certain subject matter. Typically, a focus group consists of a one-time meeting among a small group of individuals who share a common experience, to discuss an issue (Carey 2015). While the recommended number of participants vary, some researchers have suggested that the ideal number of participants is between six to ten (Rabiee 2004; Krueger & Casey 2009).

While focus groups can provide a unique depth of understanding around a research question, they should not be used as a substitute for statistical data collection. This is due to sampling issues that arise in focus group composition : the opinions of a small, hand-picked group of people should not be generalized to represent the beliefs of an entire population (Morgan 1998).

Therefore, focus groups are best used by researchers in cases where they wish to examine complex human behaviours and motivations in depth; not for gathering a statistically representative sample. To open the conversation, researchers can ask for participants to share their general thoughts on a topic, which will reveal an initial set of beliefs and values from each participant. Then, as the conversation unrolls within the group, participants may begin to reflect on how their own experiences relate to others, which can bring to the surface contrasts, curiosities, and feelings which perhaps participants were not previously aware of. Drawing information from this web of social interactions is one of the distinct features of focus group methodology, which provides the researchers a depth of understanding which could not have been captured using a survey or through a one-on-one interview (Morgan 1998; Rabiee 2004).

When considering using focus groups for research, it is also important to remember in which situations they are less useful. The goal of focus groups should be to generate free flowing conversation, where each individual who participates feels that their contributions are respected by the rest of the group (Rabiee 2004). Accordingly, focus groups should not be used when participants are unfamiliar, or uncomfortable with the topic at hand.

Next, we present some best practices for focus group design, to help researchers ensure the validity of the results at all stages of design, planning and analysis.

Focus group composition

Even before the focus group begins, the researchers need to decide on the membership of the group. To promote an environment where participants feel welcomed, it is often recommended to create focus groups that are homogenous. Seeking participants with the same socio-economic background, or participants with the same level of experience in the topic at hand, is one way of doing this (Hennick 2014). Another approach is to segment focus groups by gender and age (Rabiee 2004; Hennick 2014).

Whatever the chosen methodology, it is important to remember that the group selection will impact the content of the conversation, the group dynamics and ultimately the analysis. For instance, if the researcher chooses to group together participants that already know each other, this may make participants more comfortable sharing their feelings. It could also have the opposite effect: if participants already know each other, they may provide fewer details in their response (Hennick 2014).

We took these factors into consideration when segmenting the focus groups for the Ville de Montréal discussions; for instance for each group we tried to ensure that the participants came from different teams and departments. This provided for interesting group dynamics, as most participants had different backgrounds, but many shared similar experiences in trying to publish or use open data.

Moderating techniques

To encourage participants to share their experiences and feelings, it is important to support an open environment, and to generate free-flowing discussion which contain valuable insight for the researcher. However at the same time, the conversation needs to stay on topic and on time. Achieving this balance, while ensuring equal participation among participants, requires a skillful moderator. Ideally, the moderator is also neutral, and actively ensures that each participant feels like their contribution is valued equally (Hennick 2014).

Whether or not you are a seasoned moderator, there are techniques that can be used to better structure and lead focus group discussions. First, presenting a set of guidelines to participants before starting the discussions can help to set the expectations and name the boundaries of the conversation. For example, before we began the focus group conversations for employees at the City, we asked participants to not speak over each other and to direct their response to the moderator. This helped to set a respectful tone for the conversation, and made it easier for the moderator to interject if someone is speaking out of turn. Another easy but effective practice, is to task an individual to keep track of the time for the moderator, so that the time-tracker can indicate to the moderator when he or she should move on to the next question. Lastly, to ensure we had a balance participation for each question, we assigned each participant a number (e.g. participant 1, participant 2) which made it easier for the moderator to ensure that each participant contributed, or had the chance to contribute to the given question.

Collecting and structuring the data

Recording the content of focus group conversations is critical, to enable the research to collect and fully analyze the information that comes from the discussion. This process of data collection should rely on rigorous, systematic methods in order to convert the speech recording into a full, annotated transcript which can then be coded for themes and analyzed. While speech to text technology is available for generating transcripts, it should be used cautiously. For instance, the ability of these softwares to pick up on colloquial language and nuances is not guaranteed.

This is why we chose to transcribe the recordings we collected manually – but even then, it can take considerable time to record all of what what said accurately, especially taking into account the considerable differences between spoken and written language. Among other things, we found it tricky to deal with spelling, fragmented sentence structures and in cases where two respondents were speaking over each other. While there may be different ways of dealing with these issues, it is important to apply the same principles across the transcript, and document the process. This way, any potential question that occurs in later stages can be traced back and properly acknowledged.

Contribute your thoughts to the Open Data Action Plan

OpenNorth had the opportunity to lead open discussions and gather thoughts that directly contributed to the City of Montréal’s Open Data Action Plan. This gave us important insight into applying focus group methodology to capture individual and group reactions to complex topics, such as open data publication, a topic which requires action from individual city employees and from across government departments. We’re very grateful for this opportunity to work closely with the Laboratoire d’innovation urbain de Montréal.

In the foregoing, we emphasized that focus groups need to be planned and designed with care, to generate open discussions, and gather a variety of viewpoints. Considerable attention must be put into segmenting the groups, moderating the conversation, and transcribing the recordings with systematic methodology in order to generate reliable and valid results.

Lastly, the City is still looking for input on the Open Data Action Plan. The draft of the Open Data Action Plan is available for the public to view and comment, until May 15th 2019. We highly encourage you to provide your contribution! Provide your comments here: http://bit.ly/MTL_DO_plan

Note: OpenNorth recently received a grant from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Social Innovation Fund to develop its Applied Research Lab. Part of this work includes knowledge mobilization and reflection on methodological issues that may be faced by other organisations in the non-profit sector. This post represents some of our ongoing thoughts towards that objective.

Works Cited

Carey (2015). Focus Groups. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2nd edition, 9, 274-279. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.10543-4

Rabiee, F. (2004). Focus-group interview and data analysis. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 63(4), 655-60.

Hennink, M. (2014). Focus group discussions (Understanding qualitative research). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (2014).

Krueger, R., & Casey, M. (2009). Focus groups : A practical guide for applied research (4th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Morgan, D. (1997). The focus group guidebook (Focus group kit). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

What we’re up to Debates and Exchanges on Public Participation in France

2019-04-08-grenoble-france-rencontres

In March 2019, OpenNorth attended the Rencontres nationales de la participation in Grenoble, France. For three days, decision-makers, experts, activists, practitioners and citizens gathered to exchange and debate participatory tools and methods that make for better democracies at many territorial scales : municipal, metropolitan, european and regional.

Discussions on data for public participation: datascience and opendata for good

OpenNorth was invited to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Discussions on data for public participation: datascience and opendata for good”. The debate invited speakers to share their experiences with different forms of production, analysis and visualization of data for the purpose of engaging citizens. Overall, the talk revealed ways in which data can be channeled to sustain active and engaged public participation.

To open the debate, OpenNorth drew upon examples from the City of Montreal’s open data program, to demonstrate the ways in which open data can be a part of city citizen involvement strategies, by encouraging citizens to leverage open data for initiatives and projects in the public interest. First, open data which is made accessible and understandable to a wide audience, allows for citizens to be better informed on municipal decision-making. From this opening of data, cities can work in partnership with local actors to create digital tools that respond to the needs expressed by the local population. Secondly, by gathering actors to share data across different sectors, data can feed into collaborative problem solving strategies, as an approach to solving local and urban issues.

At the end of the talks, the audience enriched the debate by sharing some concerns, including the difficulty of accessing open data for non-experts. In many cases, open data access is restricted to those with advanced technical skills. In this respect, OpenNorth’s approach is centered on data literacy, as we work to equip public authorities to build a culture of data use which makes open data accessible to non-specialists.

The audience also made observations at the intersection of smart cities and sustainable development. One audience member asked: as we observe the increase of sensors and technologies in our urban environments (which implies considerable energy consumption) is the idea of a smart city in contradiction with that of the ecological transition ? These questions invited us to reflect on the ways in which cities and their stakeholders can take into account the costs of the complete life cycle of information technologies in city building projects. It is also important to recognize that data and technology are not always the appropriate solution to multiple, urban, systemic problems – cities and communities should use data and technologies that are fit for purpose and tailored to their needs (for more details on this topic, see OpenNorth’s Open Smart Cities Guide v1.0 starting on p.17).

Learning from French communities: inspiring practices and projects

On the whole, the conference invited participants to discover initiatives led by French municipalities, which have seen real success in involving their citizens in the development of their territories and environments. Based on a strong tradition of citizen involvement, many communities across the country are experimenting with citizenship, looking to renew the role of citizens as co-producers and co-managers of their communities.

For instance during field visits to La Péniche, a cooperative organization based in Grenoble, OpenNorth learned from a group citizens who created a digital tool to make French territorial statistics easier to digest and understand. This online tool was built using open data. Equally inspiring was the participatory budget of the City of Grenoble, an initiative of the City which invites residents, collectives and associations to propose projects that contribute to the the transformation of the city.

In the spirit of these meetings, OpenNorth intends to support continued exchanges with our partners in France and Canada, with the goal of improving the state of citizen participation and local democracy. By sharing our experiences and expertise locally and internationally, we aim to support a knowledge-sharing ecosystem, to advance participatory and open governance practices for citizens in Canada and around the world.

Lastly, we would like to thank the Offices jeunesse internationaux du Québec (LOGIQ) for supporting OpenNorth’s participation in this event, as well as Décider ensemble which organized these inspiring and enriching exchanges.

What happened to my feedback?

2019-03-22-microphone

The case for structured data collection and management for more transparent public consultation

Whether it be for development of policy, approving a new capital investment, or debate of a civic issue, governments at all levels take actions to ensure that citizen’s voices and opinions are represented through processes generally referred to as public consultation.

Public consultation is in essence, a data collection exercise. Citizen and stakeholder input is channeled through a number of media, for instance by filling out surveys (online or in-person), attending town-hall meetings, or commenting on public documents online. These responses consist of information that must be managed, analyzed, and integrated into government decision-making. Observing public consultation through this lens highlights challenges for both citizens and governments to realize transparent yet meaningful public engagement.

Considerable attention to the front-end activities of the consultation (i.e. organizing meetings, creating surveys, inviting the public to participate) may be given by government. However, the treatment and documentation of feedback may leave some wondering: What happened to the information I volunteered?

Finding out how, or if, a citizen’s or stakeholder’s input was recorded and integrated into the decision-making process is not always clear. Clear and consistent data management practices are needed to ensure we always know the answer to this question.

What happens after a public consultation?

To illustrate, suppose you attend a public meeting where you have been asked by your provincial government to provide verbal comments on their proposed climate change strategy. You may ask yourself, what happens to transcripts from these meetings? How do they become tangible pieces of information which are then used to make policy decisions?

The Federal context

One of the ways one can find out what happened in a consultation is through official public consultation reports (sometimes called ‘What We Heard’ reports). These reports are created by governments departments to report back to the public on the outcome of a public consultation. These reports can come in the form of interactive websitesstatic websites with visual content, or static PDF documents. Some may even include analysis outsourced to a third-party. These reports face a challenge of balancing between simplicity and precision of a message; providing enough detail to encourage trust in the consultation process itself whilst fulfilling communications and public relations agendas.

In the Canadian context, a quick scan of some of these reports reveals an apparent focus on providing narrative summaries of conversations and the consultation process (which could be viewed as the data collection stage), at the neglect of any description of data collection, facilitation, and analytical methods. Examples can be found from the federal level down to cities and smaller municipalities. The reporting of ‘what we heard’ necessarily (or hopefully) involves analysis to identify major themes of conversation, with some choices on the most important themes to be represented in a final report. Because this process involves interpretation of data, clarity on the exact means of analysis is an important step to building trust in the consultation process itself.

Trust in the consultation process also requires an understanding of the follow-up; how government proceeds to make decisions based on consultation data. Documents containing decisions relating to a consultation can be scattered, which makes it difficult to figure out which recommendations from a consultation event were actually adopted. This issue has been raised at many levels of Canadian government. A recent report of the Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal which presents learnings from the organization’s 15 years of experience in public consultation, highlights the need for the municipal administration to improve their follow-up processes, given that there are no formal obligations for the city to follow-up with citizens post-consultation.

Challenges in collecting and managing with public consultation data

The foregoing underlines the need for government to better document and make known the analysis, methodology and decision-making that is used to transform public consultation data into actionable items. But even before this can happen, governments must collect and process data generated from public consultation. Diving deeper into some of these steps, reveals challenges that call for more consistent and replicable data management practices in government, while also improving data literacy for civil servants.

Sampling and data collection

Ideally, a public consultation is designed to solicit feedback from a wide range of citizens, representing the backgrounds and needs of the population as a whole. In practice, this is difficult because of sampling bias (see Rowe & Frewer, 2005). One reason for sampling bias is that citizens generally participate in public consultations on a voluntary basis. This makes it likely that those already with a vested interest in the consultation topic will be the most present and vocal, while others may simply opt out or be excluded. Indeed any democratic participation requires a certain level of effort - a common statistic to reference is voter turnout. Sometimes it is simply not worth the effort for a citizen to participate in a public consultation, resulting in people opting out of public debate. These factors may skew the representativeness of a public consultation (and thus its outcome).

The data collected during public consultation is an attempt to capture the needs and opinions of citizens and other stakeholders. Collecting, managing and analyzing this data can be difficult because oftentimes it is in the form of qualitative data such as text or audio. While this data is valuable to understanding people’s preferences, thoughts, or values, it is tricky to interpret. Dealing with qualitative data can become even more complex for in-person consultation events, where many participants may be talking at one time. Recording and structuring this data requires considerable time and expertise.

Processing and data analysis

Now, after the data is captured and recorded, analysts need to clean up the “raw” dataset in order to remove errors, unnecessary information, or incomplete entries. To make things concrete, look at the datasets published for the Government of Canada Consultation on National Security Submissions. Exploring these datasets, one can find a number of repeated records. The data also contains responses to many questions, not all of which are relevant to the questions posed during the consultation.

Sometimes public consultation data can be difficult to interpret

2019-03-22-consultation-data-screenshot

Title of dataset: National Security Consultation: Responses Received via Email with links to attachments (05/11/2016 - 15/12/2016) Source: Government of Canada Consultation on National Security Submissions

Here, the analyst has some options in order to proceed. For instance, how will the analyst choose to identify the duplicate entries? How will he or she deal with the entries that do not contain answers to the relevant consultation question? Will those also be removed? Do they need to be weighted?

Even at the initial stages of analysis, the approaches to treating this data can vary, thus impacting how what was actually stated, spoken, or contributed to a public consultation is actually represented. Additionally, without proper documentation of the steps taken in analysis, the analyst risks reducing transparency around the decision-making process for both internal and public audiences. This risk applies to any treatment of consultation data, whether it be at a small municipality, a province, or Federal institution.

The need for consistent and replicable data management practices

Managing public consultation data throughout all the stages of consultation is complex. It can require collecting large volumes of messy or unstructured information, from a variety of channels, while processing qualitative data and at the same time, identifying and treating sampling issues. Governments do all of this on top of the presumed responsibility of serving and engaging the public, managing competing interests and political agendas, and upholding a level of fairness and transparency in their decision-making processes.

These challenges raise the need for government to work on developing and implementing clear, consistent and replicable data collection and management methods for public consultation. It also requires that civil servants are equipped with the skills, capacity and knowledge to manage not only the initial activities of the consultation, but also effectively manage the data generated, throughout the lifecycle of the consultation.

OpenNorth’s recent experiences

OpenNorth’s experience in public consultation comes through a number of projects in Canada and internationally, to support governments in operationalizing transparency and accountability through consultation processes. At the Applied Research Lab, we have worked with the Privy Council Office (PCO) of the Government of Canada to develop a workflow for processing and analysing qualitative consultation data (text). This involved the use of free, open source libraries to perform content analysis and the processing of tabular data. These activities brought up new issues, namely the need for standardisation of data in qualitative consultation data, where we addressed these issues through a proposed data model. Building on this success, OpenNorth is working with the PCO to create digital learning tools to help civil servants improve their data literacy skills, specifically for public consultation data.

We are also working to support the development of public consultation capacity in Ukraine with the National Democratic Institute, by providing assistance on planning, facilitation, data, and analysis of consultations. OpenNorth is working to build capacity by providing tools and frameworks for implementing public consultation pilot programs. Through these projects, and building on our past work in participatory budgeting, we hope to continue supporting governments in ensuring their public engagement activities are transparent and result in a meaningful use of the data collected.

Work cited:

Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. J. (2005). A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 30(2), 251-290

What We’re Up To

Workshop with the Boroughs of Montréal on a Mapping Tool

2019-02-04-application-business-collaboration

OpenNorth recently planned and facilitated a workshop for representatives of Montréal’s 19 boroughs to discuss data needs for spatial analysis and functionality requirements for a potential online GIS platform. The event, hosted by the Ville de Montréal Service de la diversité et de l’inclusion sociale, created an opportunity to discuss and share ideas on using spatial analysis to identify the needs of a given neighbourhood, and tailor the City’s offer of social and sports services according to these needs.

Data is at the heart of urban service provision, from choosing the location of a new sporting facilities, to conceiving new activities and events which are appropriate to the cultural practices of residents. Therefore, cities are developing and acquiring digital tools that allow for city staff to understand neighbourhood-level data patterns and trends, and to make decisions based on these observations. In this case, the workshop allowed borough representatives to address topics such as poverty and homelessness, crime and public safety, and food security – and to work towards building an interactive map that could help city officials better understand these issues on a neighbourhood scale.

Throughout the workshop, participants discussed topics related to administrative boundaries, such as the City’s borough boundaries, or census geography defined by Statistics Canada. While participants are familiar with the sociodemographic information that can be retrieved based on these official delineations, oftentimes these geographic units do not represent the communities that city departments are looking to serve. For instance, a neighbourhood boundary could be conceptualized based upon a resident’s feeling of belonging to a specific place, and this boundary will not necessarily align itself with official city boundaries. Participants had the chance to learn from a borough which, faced with the difficulty of matching on-the-ground information with official statistics, underwent a consultation process to re-envision its neighbourhood boundaries to better reflect the realities of its community members.

These discussions gave participants a renewed appreciation for the importance of choosing and using geographic boundaries in a given analysis, as the way a territory is divided on a map can influence an entire chain of decision-making, ultimately impacting the distribution of services, programs or funding. How the potential GIS platform will deal with these complex questions surrounding geographic boundaries will be an ongoing discussion with representatives of Montréal’s boroughs, and can also involve other parties, such as representatives from Montreal’s community-based organizations.

Overall, this workshop gave OpenNorth a unique opportunity to work directly with local city officials on the creation of a digital tool, which will serve to inform the City of Montreal’s decision-making on urban service provision in years to come. OpenNorth is looking forward to seeing the next phases of this project unfold, and appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with the Service de la diversité et de l’inclusion sociale.

What We’ve Achieved Together in 2018

2019-04-07-2018-calendar

As December comes to a close after an exciting year, I would like to thank everyone at OpenNorth and all of our partners, board members, and collaborators. This year, our work together has achieved several milestones including:

  • August brought to a close the publication of the Open Smart Cities Guide (Version 1.0). This guide provides a first ever definition for the open smart city and serves as a starter kit for municipal stakeholders and decision makers.

  • February saw the culmination of OpenNorth’s consulting activities over multiple years in the initiation of the OpenNorth Applied Research Lab; currently staffed by Miranda Sculthorp [Urban Research Analyst] and Hannah Ker [Open Data Analyst]. The Lab is the result of an organisational shift beyond tool-building, towards research and fact-based consulting.

  • As part of the International Open Data Conference (IODC) funded by the International Development Research Center’s (IDRC) Open Data for Development (OD4D) program, OpenNorth co-organised with other leading open government organisations the second global Open Cities Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in September. Participants considered what “open” means for a city today when asked to go beyond open data and smart initiatives to emphasize public access, expression, assembly, participation, and, ultimately, power and agency. The State of Open Data publication, also a project of IDRC and OD4D administered by OpenNorth, bolstered the progress made at international open data conferences around the world. With over 30 chapters authored by leading open data experts around the world, it takes stock of the last ten years of the open data movement.

  • In Ukraine, we completed an open data benchmarking project with the Eurasia Foundation to aid the Government of Ukraine in assessing and developing open data production. The output of this project was implemented as part of the Government of Ukraine’s open data policy. Further training of Ukraine government representatives on open data and civic engagement was conducted subsequent to the Global Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in Georgia, July 2018, where OpenNorth participated in multiple sessions on public administration transparency and reform.

  • Funded by a National Democratic Institute subgrant, OpenNorth’s international work in Ukraine continued throughout the fall, marking the launch of a second key organisational pillar. Pillar three commits the organisation to building its body of work to include global contexts. This subgrant is a prime example of OpenNorth’s local-to-global approach as it directly builds upon a summer project with the Privy Council Office PCO (Government of Canada) to develop a workflow for processing and analysis of qualitative consultation data. The outputs of project available on GitHub are directly informing our work in Ukraine. In addition, this work allows us to create connections between civil servants in Canada and abroad to promote peer learning.

  • OpenNorth was part of a consortium, led by Evergreen’s Future Cities Canada Program, to create the winning proposal to Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Community Support Program. OpenNorth is the lead technical partner in this partnership with Evergreen. This program will go live in 2019 and bring a whole new level to the organisation’s work on open smart cities. This program represents our first key organisational pillar.

  • As part of this work, OpenNorth’s new One-to-One (1:1) Advisory Service will officially launch and utilise applied research to provide standardised metrics and assessments to help communities assess where they are in the process of becoming open and smart. Once completed, the organisation can offer tailored guidance for improvement on a community-by-community basis focused on capacity building domains that cover hardware, software, governance, and more, which will allow the program to assess impact of guidance activities.

  • The Potential for Philanthropic Intervention in Integrated Service Delivery - in a project funded by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, OpenNorth documented data management practices in the Province of Saskatchewan’s hub model, an integrated service delivery model and investigated the potential for philanthropic intervention into such an ecosystem.

  • In a pilot project for the Municipal Information Systems Association (Ontario), OpenNorth investigated a number of top ten open datasets and their level of standardisation. The report identified barriers to standardisation based on a survey of MISA members and discussed some of the complications of standardising vocabularies for a given dataset as they may implicate internal administrative operations.

  • In Montréal, OpenNorth continues its work with the Place des Arts Quartier des spectacles and the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles SODEC (Government of Québec) on multi-stakeholder data governance. In addition, OpenNorth planned and facilitated a one-day workshop for representatives of each of Montréal’s boroughs to discuss data needs for spatial analysis and functionality requirements for a proposed online GIS platform. This event was hosted by the Ville de Montréal Service de la diversité sociale et des sports. OpenNorth also initiated its work with the Laboratoire d’innovation urbain de Montréal LIUM (City of Montréal) to refresh the city’s open data action plan. This work entails extensive internal stakeholder consultation and will help inform an approach to organisational culture around open data at the Ville de Montréal.

  • OpenNorth remains engaged and committed to Canada’s open data, open government, and civic tech communities. This includes participation in events such as Go Open DataRightsCon, the Canadian Open Data Summit, and the Future Cities Summit. We continue to engage with the Government of Canada through our membership of the Canadian Multistakeholder Forum on Open Government.

  • OpenNorth continues to expand its field of interests beyond the open data community to create linkages across urban development domains. Our participation in Canadian events, projects and committees including the CIO Strategy CouncilL’Observatoire international sur les impacts sociétaux de l’intelligence artificielle et du numérique, facilitating a regional workshop in Atlantic Canada for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) on data management practices for homelessness service providers, and the recent Food Convergence Innovation Workshop, demonstrates our determination to connect domains collecting similar related data and improve the use and application of data standards. OpenNorth continues to make connections beyond open data to issues such as food systems and homelessness.

The new year marks an inflection point for OpenNorth. With a bevy of new programs ready to go and nine new staff members being hired, the organisation will one day look back on 2018 as a time to remember. OpenNorth is now solidifying around three core pillars:

  1. Capacity building support to communities and governments on open smart cities

  2. Applied research to synthesise and mobilise knowledge

  3. International programmes to engage in local-to-global knowledge sharing

I believe it marks OpenNorth’s change from a Canadian-based nonprofit firmly embedded in the civic technology movement to one fulfilling a crucial role internationally in building governmental capacity to create the cities of the future.

If you’re interested in joining our global network in 2019, check out our website in the new year and our “Work With Us” page. Do stay in touch.

On behalf of the whole OpenNorth team, I'm looking forward to the opportunities and challenges that the new year will bring.

Jean-Noé Landry Executive Director, OpenNorth December 28, 2018

What we’re up to

Workshop on data management for a homelessness information system

1

OpenNorth recently had the privilege of delivering a day-long workshop in Halifax on effective data management practices to an engaged group of individuals who work in the field of homelessness service provision (such as homeless shelters and outreach centres). OpenNorth’s workshop was a part of a greater two-day long workshop organized by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to guide homelessness service providers in implementing the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) version 4 in the Atlantic Region. Developed by ESDC, HIFIS 4 is used by homelessness service providers across Canada to perform case management, track activities within their organisations, and collect information on homelessness in their communities.

OpenNorth’s role as an intermediary, expertise in data sharing, as well as data standards development and maintenance, guided its approach to delivering this workshop. Participants learned about the potential benefits of sharing information within their communities, such as detection of community-wide trends and improved service coordination. Due to the sensitivity of personal information on homeless individuals, relevant risks and drawbacks to data sharing were also discussed. In addition, participants learned about approaches to data standardization. OpenNorth highlighted the importance of adopting standards for data documentation and data entry when attempting to share data between organizations.

The field of homeless service provision exists in a complicated ecosystem driven by a diverse range of stakeholders. From front-of-the-line workers who book clients in and out of shelters to government analysts who track trends in socioeconomic issues across the country, data is a key component of many activities within this field. Effective data management practices are critical in ensuring that data can meet its purpose and be used to its full potential. We look forward to building on this work and appreciate the opportunity to work with the Government of Canada and its partners.

Civic-Technology

Open Data and Inclusive Government Budgeting

1

In this ongoing series of posts, I discuss questions and observations that have risen after going down the “Open Data rabbit hole”. In a previous blog-post, I discussed some of the challenges that I perceive the open data field is facing. However, after a year of chasing this metaphorical white rabbit — lo and behold — I find myself deeper into Open Data Wonderland, facing new and interesting characters.

I have found that the work we do in open data is intrinsically tied to other trends in open, transparent government. As such, open data expertise needs to be put at the service of other complementary initiatives. Fiscal transparency and open contracting, for example, entail making relevant anti-corruption datasets open and discoverable to the public. Interoperability, discoverability and data poverty are open data issues that apply to these new data sets.

Particularly in Latin America (where I’m originally from), scandalized citizens are trying to find ways to keep their governments more accountable, responsive, and transparent after revelations by Marcelo Oberdrech exposed alarming levels of state corruption and graft. Heir to the largest Latin American construction company, the former CEO of Oberdrech Construction provided prosecutors with evidence of state bribery reaching the highest echelons of power. To date, Oberdrech’s revelations have claimed the political lives of two presidents, one vice-president, several ministers, and other political heavyweights across the region. Regional leaders at the Summit of the Americas, held in Lima in April, made a point on the importance of Open Government and Open Data as a way of fighting corruption. In the aptly named “Lima Commitment on Democratic Governance Against Corruption”, section 14, for example, outlines high level commitments on implementation of national policies and plans, in the areas of open government, digital government, open data, fiscal transparency, open budgeting, digital procurement systems, public contracting and a public registry of state suppliers. Another interesting commitment out of the Lima Summit is on promoting the establishment of an Inter-American Open Data Program within the OAS.

The upward momentum on fighting corruption in the region cannot be understated. The Lima Summit was held under the shadow of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s resignation after Oberdrech pointed the finger at the embattled peruvian leader.

Beyond Latin America, two of the main themes of the Open Government Partnership agenda for their next summit in Tiblisi, Georgia, will largely focus on anti-corruption and inclusive government. In Canada, specific initiatives on fiscal transparency and open contracting could be added to the OGP Action Plan for the next 2 years.

Inclusive Government Budgeting and Transparency

Although the idea of “Participatory Budgeting”, which first emerged as a grassroots movement that engaged citizens in local policy decision making in Brazil, has been around since the late 80s, the open data and civic-technology movements have stayed largely clear of budgetary policy-making.

This is a mistake we should remedy. Online, inclusive budgetary decision making lies at the crux of fiscal transparency and open Government. As momentum builds in the public sphere for the scrutiny of government finances, local and national governments need to consider ways to include and educate citizens on budgetary decision making processes. A more educated public on government processes should be able to better track government finances and budgets, and contribute constructively to budgetary decision making.

At OpenNorth, we have been working with over 100 municipalities in Canada, the US, France and others, to implement our online budgetary tool, CitizenBudget. Recently, and after 5 years of implementation, we undertook research to see the effect of Inclusive budgeting in the local polity. Our research potentially shows how online and inclusive budgeting advances shared goals in open government and fiscal transparency. As such, we need more connections between those engaging on inclusionary government budgeting and those advocating for more transparent open government.

A first step forward is inviting and reaching out to those engaging in budgetary engagement to community of practice spaces in Civic-tech and Open Government. I recently presented ongoing research on the impact of inclusive online budgeting at MySociety’s TICTec in Lisbon, the largest civic-technology conference in the world, for example. Our Executive Director, Jean-Noé Landry, recently pitched our CitizenBudget tool at the Vivatechnology festival in France where he found that there was much interest for gov tech solutions to enable municipal governments to engage citizens and promote open data literacy. By accessing these spaces, we are furthering our understanding of the linkages between open data, inclusive budgeting and fiscal transparency for fighting corruption and making government more transparent.

We cannot, and should not, compartmentalize open government, open data, civic technology, inclusive budget policy-making and fiscal transparency into separate boxes. In spite of what sometimes feels like a crazed (Mad) Hatter tea-party, all these interrelated areas of work have their proper and rightful place at the table.

As always, keep your eyes peeled for future installments of Christian’s Adventures in Open Data Wonderland.

Views presented here are reflective of the author’s own experiences and ideas and are not necessarily reflective of OpenNorth’s official organizational stances.

About the author: Christian is a researcher and practitioner in the Open Data and Open Government fields at OpenNorth. He finds great potential and is passionate about the opportunities this brings to improving the quality of democratic institutions in Canada and abroad. His academic background is in conflict, post-conflict reconstruction and international development. Canadian via Colombia, Christian hopes to bring a Global South and minority perspective to the Civic-Technology space.

Open Smart Cities in Canada

Reviewing and Reflecting on the Past Year

2019-04-07-camera-lens

A little over a year ago, a team of experts and researchers set out to demystify what shapes smart cities in Canada and what defines an Open Smart City. Since then, the Open Smart Cities in Canada project has reviewed smart city definitions, visions, governance structures, strategies, reports, components, standards, relevant legislation and regulations, and practices across Canada and abroad. In Canada, we interviewed representatives from four cities (Edmonton, Guelph, Montreal, and Ottawa) and the Government of Ontario (Ministries of: Economic Development and Growth; Research, Innovation and Science; Energy; Natural Resources and Forestry; Transportation; Municipal Affairs; and the Treasury Board Secretariat) and consulted with representatives from the Government of British Columbia. The results were published in our Assessment Report’s case studies in four Canadian cities and one interjurisdictional case study in Ontario about its Smart Grid and smart meter data. In addition, we conducted an environmental scan (E-Scan) of smart city definitions and international shapers, as well as their promoted components, which were presented in our first public webinar. We also collaborated with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) on the Open Smart Cities Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to answer common legal and regulatory questions about smart cities.

This research enabled us to assert a difference between a smart city and a city that is guided by principles aligned with various fields including: open government, open data, open source, open standards, open science, geospatial data infrastructures and open platforms, and public rights and ethics. We observed applications of these principles in four smart cities contexts (Chicago, Dublin, Helsinki, and New York) and presented findings in our second public webinar.

Informed by this research, we endeavoured to define an Open Smart City. This process was challenging and iterative. It involved consulting with the project’s core team members as well as a diverse set of stakeholders and experts to refine the definition. From this process we confirmed and shared a definition for an Open Smart City version 1.0. Based on this definition, we created the Open Smart Cities Guide V1.0 to help city leaders and decision makers co-create Open Smart Cities with their residents. The Guide details our process; provides definitions for the city, smart city, and Open Smart City; and exemplifies applications of this latter definition and its characteristics in real terms. We publicly promoted a high level overview of the Guide and encouraged feedback in our third webinar on April 17th.

The Guide suggests that, while Open Smart Cities are not the norm, there are numerous promising examples that reinforce an Open Smart City approach. The results of the smart city E-Scan indicates that smart city shapers, largely represented by the private sector and driven by market trends, are adept at publishing content in the form of smart city guides, playbooks, standards, indicators sets, and more. This content is efficiently and broadly disseminated internationally through alliances and networks and influences how city decision makers in Canada frame issues, priorities, and visions of progress. Thus, we hope that this project has offered much needed and timely critical debate about smart cities and their proposed value. In addition to advocating an alternative way of thinking about smart cities, we hope that this Guide will provide a useful resource for advocates that are practically intervening in favor of more effective and values-based smart cities. Our intent is that this Guide will grow and be useful for strategically aligning shapers of Open Smart Cities. We are also hopeful that Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge will go on to support initiatives in Canada that are indicative of an Open Smart Cities approach.

Looking forward, OpenNorth will continue to discuss and promote Open Smart Cities at the following upcoming events:

Open Smart Cities in Canada is a collaborative project. We would like to thank smart city representatives from the cities of Edmonton, Guelph, Montréal, and Ottawa and officials from the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario for sharing their time, expertise, and experiences with us. Furthermore, this project benefits from contributions made by the project’s core team of experts and researchers. We are grateful to Professor Tracey P. Lauriault (Carleton University), David Fewer, LL.M., (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)), and Professor Mark Fox (University of Toronto) for providing their expert advice on research design and outputs. Finally, we thank graduate students Stephen Letts and Carly Livingstone (Carleton University) for research assistance and editing over the course of the project.

Data Poverty can be Harmful for Citizens

2018-04-10-data-poverty

Have you ever been out on the town, when an overcoming feeling of hunger takes over and all there is to eat is a greasy, soggy slice of “pepperoni” pizza? You might be in a food desert, an area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.

In the world of open data, one comes across similar instances - a data desert. Researchers, practitioners and a civil society organisations often can not find specific datasets or information needed to fulfil their needs. Granted, there are several “fast-food” data options (such as incomplete government data sets, or indexes gathered by private sector interests with unclear methodologies), and clever researchers can find ways around lack of access and information. However, these options are not ideal in quality for policy and/or are time and resource consuming.

Furthermore, and much like chowing down unhealthy fast food, blind spots, lack of representation, and inclusivity in data affects the wellbeing of individuals. In New York, for example, researchers at the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics found diverging patterns in the characteristics of open data usage by New Yorkers. This led them to conclude that certain cross-sections of society were not using or benefiting from open datasets and, in turn, failing to benefit from the government’s Open Data efforts.

The New York Open Data portal holds over 1,500 datasets collected by the city on nearly all dimensions of urban life, everything from 8TH Grade New York State math test results to the geographical locations of public payphones. In spite of this commendable effort by the city to open up and share their data, researchers found data deserts that had very tangible impacts on New Yorkers.

In the borough of Brooklyn, for example, despite overall datasets on housing codes (ie: Housing Maintenance Code Violations, Rodent Inspection, and Housing Maintenance Code Complaints), there was substantially less use of datasets related to this subject in the neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Melrose. Even compared to areas with similar demographic and socio-economic composition, the discrepancy in usage for these three neighbourhoods was substantial. Upon deeper inspection, it turns out Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Melrose had a higher concentration of public housing. While datasets on New York City housing were open, specific data points on public housing were never published or shared.

This oversight places those accessing public housing at a disadvantage compared to their peers. For example, those accessing public housing did not have the possibility of checking if a prospective residence had been infested with rodents or if a particular address was guilty of multiple housing code violations. This phenomenon is known as data poverty (defined by Yanurzha et al.)1: “The situation in which one is deprived of the benefits of data driven solutions by the lack of access, use, and representation within data”.

Furthermore, lack of representation of public housing in these datasets further entrenched existing power structures that further marginalize already marginalized groups. In New York, for example, those citizens requiring access to public housing come from Latino and African-American backgrounds, they tend to be single-parent households, the elderly, and those at risk of falling into homelessness.

In the Canadian context, one can ask similar questions for important pieces of policy both inside and outside government. Take, for example, the case of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s flagship National Housing Strategy. Could data used to plan, inform and/or articulate this policy be subject to issues of data poverty? Are we missing important or relevant information?

A solution to this problematic is encouraging and promoting discussions on the ethics of data. From collection, to use and distribution, policy makers make decisions on inclusion and representation in the datasets that inform policy. A great first step is to open datasets connected to relevant and important pieces of policy in real time. Stakeholder engagement with data experts in academia, civic-technology and civil society during planning of policies would also help identify instances of data poverty, and which datasets should be prioritized for sharing with the wider community. Such fist steps would take the onus of identifying data poverty away from a few government experts and help identify demand for data that would benefit, inform and create truly inclusive policy making.

As academics and business-leaders call for a Canadian National Data Strategy, conversations and safeguards on data poverty, inclusion and representation need to be addressed. Both for practical and ethical reasons, we need to consider the blind spots in the data we collect for policy making.


1 Yanurzha, et al. (2016), “Reducing Data Poverty in NYC: Achieving Open Data for All” NYC Office of Data Analytics. Available at: www1.nyc.gov/assets/analytics/downloads/pdf/cusp_open_data_poverty_capstone.pdf

OpenNorth is growing and we’d like you to meet our new colleagues

2019-04-07-team-hands

Join us in welcoming:

RobinApplied Research Analyst, Urban Development

As a researcher in urban development, Robin Basalaev-Binder’s professional interests center on understanding and addressing socio-economic inequalities and injustice in the North American context, and globally. In addition to being a core researcher at OpenNorth, Robin is also a Research Associate at the McGill School of Urban Planning, exploring questions of urban governance in sustainability and resilience planning in Montreal, New York, and other North American cities. Robin has a forthcoming publication, co-authored with her colleagues from McGill, titled The High Cost of Short-Term Rentals in New York City. Robin’s personal interests align closely with those of her research, tying urban planning and development into art, community, music, food, history, and their ultimate coming together in human interactions. Read more about Robin’s work on her personal website. JackieOffice Manager Self-described taskmaster specialist, Jackie’s professional interests lie in streamlining project tools and communications to ensure smooth operations of events and projects, and ensuring that her team is in tune and on time. Previously, Jackie designed and implemented a workshop series tailored to the fiscal and operational needs of newly established organizations. With 10+ years of experience in fundraising, Jackie has worked with a variety of community groups including hospitals, schools, and festivals designing and implementing successful fundraising strategies across Canada and the United States. Over and above these accomplishments, Jackie is a trained classical pianist, and performs regularly in Montreal and surrounding areas. She has been voted in the top ten performer category in 2015, 2016, 2017 by Cult Montreal. Don’t miss the chance to see her in concert.

Welcome Robin and Jackie!

Visit our newly refreshed website to learn more about OpenNorth’s values-driven mission and our expanding work on open smart cities in Canada and around the world.

Globally and Locally

Open Data Matters for Democracy

2019-04-07-ottawa-parliament

Following this Open Data Day 2018, and in the midst of hackathons, webinars, shared docs, #hashtags, Reddit threads, Medium conversations and tweets that keep us open data nerds up at night, we would like to take a step back and reflect on the role open data plays in democracy. Transparency, freedom from disruption and participation in policy making are guaranteed principles in Canada and abroad that ensure our well-being as citizens. Open data has, and will continue to contribute in advancing these guiding principles of our society.

From helping build better budgetary public consultations with OpenNorth’s Citizen Budget tool to the failed peace referendum in Colombia’s post-conflict efforts, I have been involved on issues related to transparency, trust in institutions, and democratic participation for a short while now. More recently, I have taken an interest on the open data movement, as it is exciting to see the possibilities it brings to improve the quality of our democracy, both in Canada and abroad. My evolving role at OpenNorth has presented me with the opportunity to explore these issues further and systematically. The deeper I find myself down the open data rabbit hole, more questions and challenges arise about the work my colleagues and I do here at OpenNorth.

After more than a decade of open data, we are faced with new and emerging challenges in our field: data poverty and inclusivity, beneficial ownership, citizen privacy, data use and reuse, data literacy and algorithmic governance are issues faced by those advocating for better informed, more open societies.

Globally, politics is eating away at long standing transparency and open access initiatives. The governing Law and Justice Party in Poland is in direct collision course with the EU due to its restrictions on access to government information. Seeking to prop-up their regimes by limiting access to verifiable information, leaders such as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and USA’s Donald Trump have buried, altered or curved efforts related to open databases and vital public information. South of the border, for example, the White House has proposed eliminating funding for both the EPA and NASA climate data collection programs. Venezuela has not published official statistics on everything from malnourishment to murder rates since Maduro consolidated power. Data journalists have reported that the Venezuelan government is bent on destroying statistics and data apparatus within government. Now more than ever, Open data initiatives play a vital role in the fight against authoritarian policies. For example, Vendata, a civil society initiative out of Caracas, publishes open data that the Maduro regime is refusing to.

As technology and policy continue to evolve, so too does our understanding of open data and its challenges. Efforts to standardize open dataguide municipalities in releasing open data, connecting governments to citizens on budgetary policy decision-making, and connecting civic-tech and open data movements, are some of the initiatives we are working on here at OpenNorth. There is a myriad of actors in the public sector, NGO sector, and academia, implementing great work for open data, globally and locally.

Internationally, Colombia and Sierra Leone remind us of the promise of open, democratic societies with their hopeful commitments on transparency and open government, seeking to emerge from conflict and mass atrocity. Global initiatives on open contracting and fiscal transparency open new fronts on the fight for better democracies. In an effort to curb graft and corruption, Mexico has signed up to open core datasets that will lead to better government accountability.

Granted, open data is not and should not be viewed as a panacea that will solve all the challenges our polity is facing. Nonetheless, a hallmark of modern liberal democracy is providing stability and freedom of disruption in the lives of citizens. Open data helps provide some of that stability in the face of an ever-challenging and changing interconnected world.

In the next couple of months, I will be presenting on some of these policy issues in Ottawa, Canada at Policy Ignite! and in Lisbon, Portugal at the 2018 TicTec conference. I invite you to keep your eyes peeled for posts on that and to follow me even deeper down the open data rabbit hole.

On that note, I wish you a happy Open Data Day.

Webinar Roundup

2019-04-07-coffee

Experiencias Canadienses en Apropiación de Datos (Canadian Experiences in Data Appropriation)

As part of #OpenDataDay we participated in an online discussion on open data appropriation in Colombia with Somos MasLatin American Open Data Initiative and the Ministerio de Tecnologias de la Informacion y las Comunicaciones. The discussion centered on the following 5 core questions:

  1. What leads to the adoption of data standards?

  2. How can we collaborate in a sustainable way with stakeholders and data users?

  3. Can data principles be implemented?

  4. What are the ethical considerations of opening data?

  5. How can multiple stakeholders effectively share data?

Download the slides to our presentation (English, or Spanish), or watch the presentations and tune into the discussion here.

Community Impact with Open Data

We partnered with our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation and discussed how to effect community impact with open data, sharing best practices and lessons learned from our experiences working with cities. Through our development of the DIY Open Data Toolkit and our cluster model approach, which posits problem framing as the key to effective engagement around data, change in cities is a community effort. However daunting, city staff need to incorporate resident feedback in their data-driven work and support residents in their own use of open data. We discussed how city staff can recognize fears around data and its use by the public, understand the powerful potential of public participation in data-driven problems solving, and nurture that potential to create a robust, enduring open data program.

Download the slides to our presentation here, or tune into the discussion here.

Making Cities Open by Default

The Open Government Office of Ontario invited us to share findings from its latest report on Making Cities Open by Default: Lessons from open data pioneers and discuss with Denis Carr how City of Toronto worked with OpenNorth in using the Open Data Charter to frame the development of recently launched Toronto’s Open Data Master Plan.

The report identified a series of key themes:

  1. There are strong incentives for cities to open up their data, and the Charter can help them to do this

  2. If “open by default” is applied to a city’s broader data management systems it can allow better internal data sharing, as well as improving access to information for citizens

  3. Opening data does not automatically create a data literate public

  4. Open data impact requires interjurisdictional cooperation

  5. Policy and standard development is not keeping up with the pace of change

  6. Jurisdictions cannot be ‘open by default’ without open procurement

This webinar was a pre-event for the Open Government Day event on March 26th organized by the Open Government Office of Ontario. Check out the agenda, and join in-person or via the live stream.

Download the slides to our presentation here.

AI in government: for whom, by whom?

2019-04-07-graphic-city-night

While AI may make cities’ planning and governance more efficient, it needs to be regulated to ensure it complies with legal rights and protections.

Algorithms, machine learning and, more broadly, artificial intelligence (AI) promise to introduce astounding levels of efficiencies to cities’ monitoring of citizens and infrastructure, their planning and governance, and their service response and decision-making. While we have yet to automate all of our planning and resource allocation decisions, advances in machine learning and neural networks, as well as our ability to collect data through even more network sensors, are bringing automation at least to certain parts of our civic problem-solving processes. One well known and somewhat contentious example is the use of predictive crime analytics to dispatch police units proactively, in anticipation of crime incidents. These tools may be branded, and even sold, under that catch-all name of artificial intelligence and packaged in smart city solutions such as the NVIDIA Metropolis platform.

However optimistic we are about the potential for AI and algorithms to “do good,” their positive social impact remains far from guaranteed without adequate regulation to ensure social accountability, reduction of harm, and compliance with legal rights and protections.

The use of technologies, particularly those that automate decision-making, is a problem not just for government but for civil society, communities and the citizens affected by such technologies. It is also of great import to civil society organizations that work on behalf of citizens to create better living environments. Arguably, without access to data, knowledge of algorithms and sound regulatory expertise, civil society (and even governments) will struggle to engage with and influence future cities run by algorithms. But bringing in computer scientists, legal experts, mathematicians and software engineers just to help civil society understand a piece of software is simply not feasible. However, organizations that do not expand their expertise beyond traditional realms of knowledge to include open data will see their power to negotiate the next regulatory paradigm eroded.

Others have already critiqued the concept of the smart city by raising issues such as data ownership (when smart city solutions are owned by the private sector) and legal liability (when automated decisions result in harm).

The City of New York recently has made a positive step in this area, with a Bill mandating the creation of a task force to make “recommendations on how information on agency automated decision systems may be shared with the public and how agencies may address instances where people are harmed by agency automated decision systems.” This task force (notably composed of experts from a variety of sectors including government, academia, the private sector and civil society) is to investigate potential bias resulting from algorithms used in city departments. Transparency in code and auditing of algorithmic outputs will not guarantee success. It can be very resource intensive to test systems that utilize massive datasets, it and would require robust data sampling to test whether they are working as intended.

Bias in data that cities collect as inputs into software platforms and decision support systems can lead to bias in the resource allocation decisions that come out of these systems. For instance, data can be spatially biased: neighbourhoods with less Internet access or lower income and education levels may file fewer requests through a 311 customer service centre and may therefore receive less attentive infrastructure maintenance. If ethnic and income groups are clustered in such neighbourhoods, and if the city’s processes rely on citizen reporting, entire minority groups can be underserved. Accountability in algorithms therefore involves regulation of their data inputs, to ensure that algorithms make decisions that are representative of the entire city.

Algorithms used in government affect everybody and are a concern for politicians, business, civil society and citizens. “We,” whoever we may be, may likely feel comfortable with software automation only if we are brought to the table to help define the rules. These rules are already being addressed by government. Algorithms have been on the radar for Canadian governments for a number of years, with consent identified by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as one key regulatory mechanism.

One step we can take is to create clear regulatory structures and legal frameworks over the data we knowingly use and share. Control over data (and their use) will also help determine outcomes. Recently, OpenNorth has worked with the Partenariat du Quartier des Spectacles, a not-for-profit organization that brings together some 60 organizations who are active in the entertainment district of Montreal. The goal of the project was to promote data sharing among the various enterprises and nonprofit organizations, including businesses and cultural venues. The partners we worked with were initially wary of the whole idea, and with good cause. What are the legal ramifications of sharing data? What if sharing data proves detrimental to competition? With enough facilitation, a common agreement was reached on data governance, which resulted in increased understanding and confidence in the mutual benefits of responsible sharing of data, and in its stronger potential when implemented collectively. We believe the same approach is applicable to the regulation of algorithms used by government.

Regulations are important tools to enable and limit activity. To give ourselves the space to examine the potential opportunities and failures of a given regulatory system or technologies, it may be useful to take an experimental approach to developing them. It could start through regulatory “sandboxes” that provide a safe and controlled environment within which to test new algorithms, with government and citizen oversight. For example, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has established a controlled environment for financial technology, which is not surprising given the widespread use and impact of trading algorithms in financial markets.

The debate over the use of AI and algorithms goes beyond just the questions of control and accountability. We face a struggle over who gets to influence and shape our urban environments of the future. Arguably, without an understanding of the processes and algorithms we use in current and future forms of city governance, we (citizens, civil society and government) will remain simple, disempowered end-users of software. The important question is not whether algorithms will do good, but rather who they will serve and who will get to take part in shaping them.

Originally posted on Policy Options

CodeAcross

Fostering Collaboration Between the Open Data and Civic Tech Movements in Canada

2019-04-07-graphic-background

Canadian cities are becoming more open, whether through the growing volume of publicly available datasets, more interactive and data-driven forms of civic engagement, or principles like ‘open by default’ that set new standards for openness. Historically, these governance reforms have been propelled by the open data movement. However, we are increasingly seeing interventions coming from the civic tech scene, a rapidly professionalizing movement that uses technology, design and data to address civic problems. While the open data movement has tended to operate in the realm of policy and principle, civic tech has focused on building practical solutions. We believe these two parallel movements have a lot to offer one another. Cities and their residents benefit when open data and civic tech work together, and therefore we should seek out opportunities for further collaboration between them.

The upcoming CodeAcross hackathons in Toronto and Calgary are a perfect opportunity to activate and foster this collaboration. CodeAcross events are civic hackathons, and bring together the open data community, civic tech practitioners and government innovators. They serve as an impetus for government to open up new datasets, and for participants to operationalize that data in service of the public! CodeAcross is one of the few events in Canada that convenes the civic tech and open data communities, and with that in mind, we want to highlight some of the ways these two groups can work more closely together — both during CodeAcross, and beyond.

Mediators of Open Data

Traditionally a volunteer movement focused on discrete projects, civic tech in Canada is beginning to grow and scale. This is exemplified by official collaborations with local governments, including Edmonton’s You Can Benefit tool, entrepreneurial ventures like iamsick.ca, or Code for Canada’s Community Network, which serves as a platform for collaboration and learning between various civic tech groups.

As Canada’s civic tech movement grows, it can act as a lever to stimulate government open data publication. Civic tech practitioners often use open data sets to understand, communicate or address local challenges; in open data terms they act as “infomediaries,” transforming data between the source and end user. Projects like Civic Tech Toronto’s Budgetpedia take municipal open data and transform it so it can be useful and relevant for residents, often as a result of a perceived public need. In this way, civic tech projects act as analogues for open data demand.

Similarly, successful civic tech projects demonstrate what’s possible when open data is operationalized in service of the public. By utilizing open data to create tangible benefits — even small ones — for residents, civic tech projects bolster arguments for policies that further openness.

Common Needs

The relationship between open data and civic tech goes beyond supply and demand, and extends into the way data is collected, published and used. The open data community has long considered data interoperability a key priority. The Open Data Charter, a set of six principles that guides the global open data movement, has been adopted by 52 governments around the world, including the City of Edmonton and Province of Ontario (and soon the City of Toronto), and includes interoperability as a priority.

Interoperability is often implemented through data standards, which the United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines as “the rules by which data are described and recorded”, such as data vocabularies and schema. OpenNorth recently documented three data standards for the Open Data Institute (UK). These data standards are relevant to developers and others working in civic tech, especially those seeking to scale projects or collaborate across jurisdictions. For example, Popolo, developed by the civic tech community, is a legislative data standard aimed at connecting civic tech developers and increasing interoperability between them. Without agreed upon data standards, civic tech activities, such as parliamentary monitoring, would find it much more difficult to compare results or share code. Civic tech’s infomediary role is key to realizing open data’s potential and we see a symbiotic relationship emerging between open data and civic tech communities. By becoming advocates for open standards, civic tech groups can increase their — and others’ — ability to unlock the value of data, and collaborate amongst one another. By pushing for more standardized data, civic tech practitioners can also potentially increase the impact of their interventions by making them easier to replicate in other cities or jurisdictions.

How Can You Help?

Cities and their residents benefit when open data and civic tech work in parallel. There is real potential for collaboration and civic innovation, but we need you to make it happen!

With CodeAcross taking place soon, there are specific steps that the civic tech community could take to increase access to and usability of public data, including ...

For public servants and open data managers:

  1. Reach out to your local civic tech community! Cities that have committed to open data need to demonstrate the demand for more open data. Some of this demand comes from the civic tech sector. Successful civic tech projects are part of the impact of a city’s open data initiative, and can demonstrate municipal commitments to transparency, accountability, and civic engagement.

  2. Put forward challenges for civic tech and hackathons like CodeAcross in order to stimulate civic problem solving.

  3. Use these opportunities as ways to open up more data — and let the civic tech community know about it!

For civic tech and hackathon participants:

  1. Use existing, publicly available, data sources from city open data portals. Find out if your city has an open data portal on the Government of Canada’s open government page.

  2. Reach out to your city’s open data team! Learn about the context of data sources, share your experience of the civic issues underpinning civic tech projects, and lend them a hand by demonstrating the demand and need for open data.

  3. Learn about data and how to work with it! There are lots of great training resources available, such as Codecademy’s data analysis course.

We welcome your thoughts on the above steps. If you are in civic tech and are collaborating with a government, let us know your story on Twitter @opennorth and @code4ca.

OpenNorth 2017 Year in Review!

2019-04-07-plants-growing

Since 2011, OpenNorth’s mission has been to create open and accountable government. Over the last year, we have shifted our base of impact from the civic tech industry (where we built websites and tools), to operate as an open data social enterprise at different scales, connecting the global open data movement with national and local situations, with a primary focus on cities and applied research.

Our core products, CitizenBudget and Represent API, remained important and thriving tools to creating better engaged and educated citizens, influencing policy debates and decisions, and incentivizing cities to standardize and make open fiscal data, but now they fit in as pieces of a much larger puzzle. CitizenBudget has now been deployed by more than 90 cities across North America. Read our CitizenBudget Year End Review.

Learn more about our work in France, and our partners CIVITEO and La Fing.

Building strong and fruitful partnerships and collaborating with governments at all levels, research, civic and advocacy networks has always been at the core of our activities and approach. More than ever, we have had the opportunity to work closely with some of Canada’s top innovative cities to engage, connect, and scale the open data community. We’re especially proud of the impact that we’ve had in:

  • Documenting open data standards best practices

  • Leading the development of city open data strategic plans and operational roadmaps

  • Prototyping civic problem framing engagement approaches

  • Establishing consultation mechanisms with government stakeholders

  • Coordinating a global review of the state of open data

  • Facilitating multi-stakeholder data governance models

  • Applying our research on open smart cities to shape policy and programing

And with that, we’re presenting our 2017 year in review.

Open Smart Cities is a timely project funded by the Government of Canada, enabling OpenNorth and its team of researchers to document and critically assess how cities in Canada and around the world envision, define and implement a “Smart City” in accordance with openness principles. Want to know more?

  • Webinar 1 (video) assesses smart city practices in the Canadian cities of Edmonton, Ottawa, Guelph, and Montreal. Download the slides here

  • Webinar 2 (video) situates the term “Open Smart City” among closely related concepts and digital practices and provides reflections on guiding principles for open smart cities informed by the international case studies of New York, Chicago, Dublin, and Helsinki. Download the slides here

Read our article The Challenges to Inclusive, Open, and Smart Cities: Speed, Opacity, and Outsourcing written in the context of Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge and engagement and transparency challenges related to public-private city building situations like SideWalkLabs in Toronto.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Open Data Toolkit. In collaboration with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and 13 of Canada’s top open data cities (small, mid, and large), we developed a comprehensive DIY open data toolkit for municipalities initiating an open data program and engaging local stakeholders. Explore the Municipal Open Data Toolkit, hosted by the Government of Canada.

Canada and the Open Government Partnership. In Policy Options, we posited if Open Government Was Canada’s New Soft Power?. We outlined recommendations in Canada in the World: Towards Canadian Led Open Government, a report based on interviews with Canadian open gov experts working internationally about how Canada could lead by example as co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership 2018-2019. Read the full report. With consultation on Canada’s 4th plan on open government underway we’re excited to have been selected as civil society members of the Canadian Multi-Stakeholder Forum.

From Standards to Adoption: Lessons from Three Open Standards. As part of Open Data Institute (UK)’s program on standards for open data, we documented the experience of OpenNorth-initiated standards (Popolo, Represent, and Open511) and presented a feedback loop of standards adoption. Read more about the project here(Report upcoming)

Open Data Charter Research. In collaboration with Geothink, we published a report on Aligning Canadian Open Data Programs with International Best Practices based on interviews with 10 cities and 4 provinces. This research was followed-up with a report to be released Winter 2018 for the Open Data Charter on support for cities and the ODC network. Read more about this new research with the ODC here.

State of Open Data. 2018 will mark 10 years of active and growing open data initiatives. Funded by the International Development Research Center and the Open Data 4 Development network, the State of Open Data will engage leading thinkers from a diversity of regions and thematic expertise to take stock of the open data community. Read an introduction to the project here.

City of Toronto’s Open Data Master Plan and Roadmap. We worked with Canada’s largest city by designing an internal and external stakeholders consultation process and leading the development of the City’s bold Open Data Master Plan and Roadmap. We look forward to the launch!

Multistakeholder Shared Data Governance. With the City of Montreal, research institutes, and cultural industry members of the Quartier des Spectacles Partnership, we co-facilitated the development of a data governance model based on shared benefits, documented prototypes, and a data sharing policy and protocol. We are now collaborating with the Province of Québec’s Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) to scale this experience.

You may have seen us at:

  • Open Government Partnership regional summit in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Towards more ambitious and inclusive Action Plans, the experiences of Argentina, Canada, and Colombia.

  • Le Salon Data, held in Nantes (France) a one-day event featuring exhibitors and conferences algorithmic governance, data literacy, data food, IoT, personal data sovereignty, open smart city, and much more. See our France-Atlantique Roundtable video.

  • Data Literacy Conference. This yearly event hosted by our new partner la Fing – a network of 300 members – bringing together open data experts who cultivate the ability to understand, and use and produce data. We discussed how civic tech increases data literacy and fiscal data transparency.

  • SPARK: A Canadian Social Innovation Exchange, a three-day event held in Toronto, centered on dialogue and exchange, we prototyped our cluster model for civic problem engagement developed for the City of Toronto’s open data planning consultations

  • Building on our continued interest in the relationship between open data and indigenous data sovereignty, we were invited at the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission’s Pre Annual General Assembly to discuss the possibilities and limitations of open data for the social sector in Quebec.

  • The 2nd Data4Impact Workshop held in at CODS17 in Edmonton was a great opportunity to convene 150 social sector participants to discuss the value of data sharing within the sector, provide frameworks and techniques to facilitate the use of data, and share use cases of community data collaboratives. Read what we heard at Data4Impact.

  • Open Government Starts With You, hosted at the Canada School of Public Service Armchair Discussion (Watch the video), was attended by public servants throughout the Federal Government, where Jean-Noé discussed with Alex Benay (CIO, Government of Canada), Beth Simone Noveck (GovLab), and David Hume (Civic Engagement, Province of BC) how to make open government a key paradigm across Canada’s government.

We couldn’t be more thankful for the productive and engaging relationships and partnerships that we have created and deepened in Canada and around the world. Thank you to our wide network of collaborators, and friends.

We look forward to working together in 2018!

Leading the Way in Budget Engagement in 2017

2019-04-07-hands-together

We’ve wrapped up another successful year, with over 100 cities from 1,000 to 1 million in size, having used our innovative "Citizen Budget" online platform to boost and broaden their budget engagement.

2017 saw a number of innovations. With the aim of maintaining dialogue during its 4 year budget cycle, this year, Grande Prairie utilized a "rank your top 3 and bottom 3 priorities" format, while Chilliwack pioneered a "Dollar Allocation" module, that asks residents to apportion a predetermined amount among a variety of city programs and services. Yellowknife added our new embedded dashboard feature to its budget consultations, with a view to boost transparency by making its Citizen Budget results available to all, on its budget page. Our "Participatory Budgeting" module will be used for the 3rd consecutive year, with the city of St. Basile.

The City of Ottawa continued its use of Citizen Budget this year, after a successful 2016 run, where residents reported that they "are happy with the Citizen Budget tool, citing that it provided them with an opportunity to learn more about the City budget and budget process". The City’s analysis noted that "Results show that the tools was successful in increasing understanding of the City’s budget and engaging residents who may have not otherwise participated in the budget discussion. The majority of respondents indicated that the tool provided them with an opportunity to learn more about the City’s budget and City services overall. Nearly half of respondents have had limited experience with City budgets and most have never or seldom provided feedback to Council in the past."

This year, we also presented at GFOA-BC Conference’s ‘Innovation Corner’ alongside the City of Victoria and exhibited at the UBCM Conference Tradeshow - both of which resulted in new connections and clients throughout BC. A tip of the hat to Moose Jaw, Grande Prairie and Township of Langley on their 5th Citizen Budget consultation - demonstrating a real, long-term commitment to effective budget engagement!. We were also very pleased to welcome Oshawa, West Vancouver, Red Deer and Thousand Oaks as new clients, among many others. We’re thrilled to work with so many innovative cities and we’re looking forward to continuing our efforts to promote effective engagement in the budget process - arguably one of the most important processes in city life.

For more information: t: 1-888-750-4980 x702 e: joel@opennorth.ca www.citizenbudget.com

Open Data Standards Will Improve Public Information

2019-04-07-brain

As private and public bodies become digitally connected, we need data standards to allow technologies to be shared across systems and jurisdictions.

Canadians who rely on public transit know how uncomfortable it is to wait outside for a bus on the coldest day of winter. Some Canadians are turning to transit apps that display information about bus locations in real time on their phones to avoid the cold.

What people who use those apps might not know is that an array of legal, institutional and technical obstacles had to be overcome before that information ended up on their phones. It journeyed from the public transit agency that collected it to the app developer that repurposed it so it could be displayed on a mobile interface. This seamless way of providing data, in a medium that is automatic and easy to read, has made such apps extremely successful.

How do the data make that journey? Could the technology be replicated to improve access to all kinds of city data? And could the technology be put to use not just for innovative services but also to support more transparent and interactive governance?

Data standards can provide public data in a manner that allows them to be shared automatically across disparate systems and to be open and relatively easy to repurpose. When it comes to public transit information, the most commonly applied standard is the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). The standard was collaboratively developed by the City of Portland’s Transit Agency, TriMet, which provided the data, and Google, the developer of the script that exported the data into the open format to be repurposed. The initiative arose partly from a perceived need by a civil servant to make transit directions as easily accessible as driving directions. Thanks to the relative simplicity of the format, hundreds of jurisdictions worldwide have adopted the standard and now provide raw data about transit schedules openly online.

Data standards can provide public data in a manner that allows them to be shared automatically across disparate systems and to be open and relatively easy to repurpose.

Since the launch of GTFS in 2005, other data specifications intended for adoption by multiple jurisdictions as a standard have emerged for different types of data that deliver government-derived information (such as service requests, budgets and traffic incidents). When multiple municipalities adopt the same sets of standards for their data, suddenly such data are comparable and discoverable. Tools that have been useful in one jurisdiction can then be scaled up for multiple jurisdictions. For instance, Yelp displays food inspection data in multiple cities with the help of LIVES, an open data standard for restaurant inspection data.

To help more cities standardize their open data, Geothink, a Canadian geospatial and open data research partnership, and the Center for Government Excellence, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, have collaborated to release the first-ever Open Data Standards Directory. The online site intends to help cities publish open data online by providing a systematic approach to assessing standards based on a set of metrics. The directory communicates a wide array of information about each standard, including its background characteristics (name, publisher, publisher reputation, etc.), its ability to make certain types of data interoperable, the degree to which it’s open to use and transparent to others, its maintenance and development over time and how it specifies the standard’s and the data set’s terms of use. This set of metrics will inform judgments that assist providers of open data in their decisions to reject or adopt standards.

Governments at the international, national, regional and civic levels are increasingly opening their high-value data via online catalogues that publish data sets under open licences and machine-readable formats. In Canada, Ontario and the City of Edmonton have adopted the International Open Data Charter. The charter provides an aspirational set of principles for releasing open data, including the idea that they be comparable and interoperable. This goal aids not only the publication of open data but also the coordination necessary to provide the data in ways that are useful. Yet making data truly open is no easy task. There are different approaches to tackling interoperability. Furthermore, an array of complex coordination and technical challenges come with standardizing data to ensure that data will be interoperable.

News about Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Lab in Toronto has brought to the forefront a debate over what role the private sector should play as local governments promote embedding technologies (such as sensors and cameras) that collect and act on data into public spaces. While proponents of the project are voicing their excitement about the urban project and its technological solutions, some are more critical of it and are drafting a list of crucial questions for project administrators and the city related to project governance, data access and data governance, public engagement, inclusivity, privacy law and the technology’s hard infrastructure. As both private and public organizations work to become more digitally connected and more data driven, it is critical to pause and reflect on who develops and maintains these technologies and to consider their purpose and proposed value.

Technologies that act on and automate public data provided by the government and used to govern should be developed in consultation with many types of stakeholders. The release of the Open Data Standards Directory (which I helped to create) makes this approach a reality. The aim is to educate people more broadly about what data standards are and how they can help data remain accessible to cities and their citizens. Otherwise, you may find yourself left out and waiting for your bus in the cold.

Originally posted on Policy Options

The Challenges to Inclusive, Open, and Smart Cities

Speed, Opacity, and Outsourcing

2019-04-07-street-movement-lights

With over 50% of the human population now living in urban areas, it is no wonder that we are constantly re-moulding and re-imagining our cities. No longer is it enough to be a big metropolis. Cities must be connected, self-aware, intelligent entities; they must be smart.

Over recent years, the term ‘smart’ has come to imply a certain idealised view of the city, where everything and anything can be monitored through sensors (the Internet of Things) and the city itself is governed by software that automate much of decision making and everyday service provision. These are being manifested in a variety of solutions from the private sector, often branded as smart city solutions. A 2012 McKinsey article claims they will result in “50 percent reduction over a decade in energy consumption, a 20 percent decrease in traffic, an 80 percent improvement in water usage, a 20 percent reduction in crime rates”. Such development, however beneficial, is not without its own risks. We argue that untempered enthusiasm for smartness can negatively impact our efforts to create transparent and accountable cities through open data and open government.

Canada has its own brand new case study of smart optimism in the case of Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company that will implement, in collaboration with Waterfront Toronto, a massive urban regeneration and smart city project for Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. This has already raised concerns among local commentators, who this as an exercise in technological solutionism, and others who note this approach disregards urban planning knowledge and even politics in favour of algorithmic governance informed by market demand. Concerns have been raised over issues of equityprivacy, and government capacity, and a call has been raised for more debate on these topics.

Certainly, a collective pause with more time to debate may be a step in the right direction. However, with a topic as elusive as smart cities, what are the core issues we are talking about here? Any technology or solution can exacerbate problems of social inequity or data privacy. The difference is that smart cities, however they are defined, will drastically increase the speed and opacity of government decision making, while control over the tools and processes to make such decisions will remain outside of government. We see these as three problematic factors: speed, opacity, outsourcing. These characteristics of smart cities problematize the relationship between citizen and government, particularly our desires for government to be efficient or effective in delivering public services on the one hand and on the other to have government be more transparent, accountable, and engaging of the public.

Speed

Speed, or velocity, corresponds to the rate of data collection, processing, and flows through smart city solutions including sentiment analysis through social media data, Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data, crowdsourced citizen contributions (such as 311 reports). It also corresponds to the rate at which decisions are made. Smart cities that automate traffic regulation or the dispatching of police through predictive crime analytics, dramatically compress the time required to move from data collection to analysis to decision making, with little time for human intervention.

This also poses problems of citizen engagement in the city. The open data and open government movements, which governments around the world are committing to, require the provision of open data. Ideals such as open by default come into question. Open by default, a principle of the Open Data Charter whereby data and processes within government are made transparent to the public, will be difficult to achieve in a system that draws upon multiple, potentially real-time, sources of data to make decisions. The idea of open by default is seeing increasing adoption through the Open Data Charter, and it is framed within the context of government transparency and accountability. Politically, the idea that governments should be open by default is a good one — it improves citizen trust and engagement with government, and reduces the potential for corruption. However, open by default remains a product of the paradigmatic perception that government is ‘slow’. Smart cities are all about speed and this may result in tradeoffs with transparency and citizen engagement. Should we really be expected to monitor government transparency in real-time? What political recourse do we have to prevent undesirable decisions being made?

Opacity

Intelligent systems, decision support, predictive analytics — these systems rely on models (run by algorithms) to process data and supply the user (such as a city official) with analysis outputs or a set of recommended actions. Opacity in the internal workings of software solutions hides the true source of power behind decision making to citizens and government officials alike. Without a dedicated team of computer scientists, geographers, software engineers, mathematicians, and more, on staff (a far-fetched expectation of any government), a city cannot hope to truly understand its own decision making and resource allocation when done through black boxed solutions.

As with the issue of speed, there are additional effects that opacity has on citizen engagement. Open governments ideally collaborate, with civil society and citizens, with the help of open data. We know that publishing open data presents additional challenges of data literacy and the digital divide. To engage with government via open data, citizens need to be able to understand and analyse data for themselves. This problem of literacy is exacerbated by the smart city — AI and algorithms cannot be interrogated or challenged by anyone (even government) if they are made legally and technically opaque.

Take IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center, a smart city solution that integrates multiple data sources (including government data, social media, and citizen reporting) into a single interface. When much of the data processing and analysis are done by the software, where is the point of entry for citizens to provide feedback to a city official? What social network analysis (SNA) methods were used to analyse social media data? Neither citizen nor city official will have a common understanding of how the decision was made, yet we place our trust in such solutions due to their provenance. This issue is complicated with the introduction of non-linear systems, such as neural networks, which can create unanticipated results from input data. While IT solutions may decrease the workload required to process data, public servants still need to be aware of issues, ranging from data processing to data privacy, in order to monitor system output. Spatial aggregation techniques have been demonstrated to be fallible in terms of privacy protection, with researchers having shown that medical patients can be identified from aggregate data. There are also tradeoffs, between aggregation to protect privacy and the need to preserve spatial distributions for data analysis. It is a city official’s duty to understand, communicate to citizens, and be accountable for their own decision making, and the excuse that technology may be too complicated (but results should still be trusted) will not be accepted in an era of open government.

Outsourcing

Smart cities are complicated by the fact that most of these solutions, and technological development in general, are situated in the private sector. While programmers are plentiful in the labour market, information systems are becoming increasingly complex and out of reach for governments to build or maintain. This brings the threat that government will become hostage to its own outsourced IT systems, with an even greater dependency than the monopoly concerns raised in the 1998 United States vs Microsoft Corporation antitrust case.

Data collection and data management by government certainly is not perfect. In a world of data-driven decision making, it becomes ever more important for citizens to be represented by their data. Those not represented in data (such as a census or survey) will become invisible to the state and thus be disadvantaged by resource allocation decisions made by city officials. This inequity in data representation has been observed in the City of New York, and has been termed ‘data poverty’.

While smart systems, such as sensor networks, can potentially close these gaps, when such systems are opaque and outside government control it will become increasingly difficult to detect such areas experiencing data poverty. Government capacity (to control, monitor, and re-shape), the tools at its disposal is therefore incredibly important to maintain.

Originally posted on Medium

Introducing The State of Open Data

Read the full article on Medium

2018 will mark 10 years of active and growing open data initiatives. From a political perspective, 10 years might be considered a moment in time, but from a technological point of a view, a decade may represent multiple generations of innovation. In the open data context, where tech and politics meet, we hope that a decade means that open data is no longer a buzzword, but rather a powerful tool to create positive social change all over the world.

Le ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie du Québec (MRI), avec le ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères de la France, a subventionné Nord Ouvert dans le cadre du Fonds franco-québécois pour la coopération décentralisée (FFQCD) pour faciliter le développement de partenariats et d’échanges.

Nous avons eu la chance de travailler avec notre partenaire CIVITEO et, l’automne dernier, le directeur général de Nord Ouvert a effectué une première visite en France du 17 au 24 septembre 2017.

La visite a été organisée conjointement avec la Fondation Internet Nouvelle Génération (FING) et CIVITEO, le partenaire commercial de Nord Ouvert en France pour la mise en marché de Budget Citoyen.

CIVITEO, Conseil et Stratégie est une société de conseil indépendante, créée à Nantes en 2016, dont l’objectif est de répondre aux enjeux des entreprises et des acteurs publics face à l’explosion du volume de données concernant leurs activités et leurs territoires. CIVITEO est membre de la FING.

La FING a été créée en 2000 par une équipe d’entrepreneurs et d’experts. Elle est avant tout un groupe de réflexion de référence sur les transformations numériques. La FING compte aujourd’hui plus de 300 membres : des grandes entreprises, des entreprises en démarrage (start-up), des laboratoires de recherche, des universités, des collectivités territoriales, des administrations, des associations et des personnes physiques.

L’objectif premier de la visite du directeur général de Nord Ouvert était la participation à deux événements majeurs de la communauté en technologie civique française:

- Un événement d’une journée mettant en vedette des stands exposants et des conférences sur la gouvernance, l’ouverture et la visualisation des données, l’Internet des objets, les villes intelligentes et beaucoup plus. - Visionner la table ronde: Opendata des deux côtés de l’Atlantique

- Une conférence réunissant des experts en données ouvertes qui cultivent la capacité de comprendre, d’utiliser et de produire les données. Lorsque ces dernières sont mal comprises, une inégalité considérable se développe entre les individus et les organisations, et dans la société en général. Nord Ouvert a été invité à présenter puisque son projet, Budget Citoyen, est un outil qui permet aux citoyens d’apprendre à utiliser des données. Ultimement, ces derniers peuvent donc mieux comprendre le fonctionnement de leur budget municipal et la façon dont les fonds sont alloués aux services municipaux. - Visionner la présentation des avantages démocratiques de l’outil Budget Citoyen qui s’est tenue lors de la Data Literacy Week à Aix-en-Provence Durant la visite, Presse Océan a publié un article sur l’importance des données ouvertes (voir le lien ci-dessous), qui présente un exercice de comparaison très enrichissant. L’article explore ainsi les possibilités de partage des connaissances et d’outils, tel que Budget Citoyen. Au-delà des données ouvertes, il y a bien sûr le leadership mondial de Montréal en intelligence artificielle que l’on remarque et qui fascine de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique. Bonne lecture!

2017-12-19-budget-citoyen-en-france-2

Open Data: l’affaire de tous, Presse Océan, mercredi 20 septembre 2017

Do-It-Yourself Open Data Toolkit

Reposted from open.canada.ca

Many cities want to open up their data but are not too sure where to start. To support these efforts, Open North and the Government of Canada have piloted the development of a do-it-yourself (DIY) open data toolkit for municipalities.

Who should use this kit?

The toolkit is aimed at municipalities that have not yet begun an open data project but need some guidance on how to implement one. It can also be a useful reference to other organizations and jurisdictions considering initiating an open data project.

What is open data anyway?

The Handbook for Open Definition defines open data as “data that can be freely used, modified and shared by anyone for any purpose.” This essentially means providing data online at no cost with a standard end user license to allow re-use and redistribution.

How does the toolkit work?

The toolkit takes you through a process that:

  • provides open data orientation;

  • provides planning considerations for open data;

  • details how to execute an open data pilot project with community engagement; and

  • provides a roadmap for moving your open data initiative from pilot project to operational program.

The toolkit provides options for a phased approach to open data, such as;

  • publishing some sample data sets,

  • adopting an open data policy,

  • undertaking a pilot project, and

  • developing a full scale open data program.

Before embarking on a full-blown open data program, a good first step is to start with a pilot project.

Using best practices to plan for Open Data

Planning is essential to a successful open data pilot project and program. The toolkit proposes a series of best practices to be considered prior to developing a project plan.

These best practices highlight the value of;

  • getting a corporate sponsor,

  • self-assessment with an internal working group;

  • keeping senior management and council informed,

  • engaging the community.

Steps for success – how to craft a good plan

Successful implementers have found some common elements to their plans. There are four distinct tasks that should be part of any good Open Data plan;

  • defining the expected outcomes of the open data project,

  • developing the task list, and breaking the project into achievable segments and elements,

  • breaking down the resourcing requirements to estimate project timelines,

  • getting the necessary approvals and start moving towards their goals.

The road to implementation

The toolkit describes key requirements for implementing an open data project plan. These include;

  • formalizing of governance,

  • building the underlying policy,

  • prioritizing, vetting, standardizing and publishing datasets, and

  • community engagement together with a communications plan.

Having a communication plan is particularly important to leverage the open data website, keep the community engaged and foster ongoing conversation. Once the open data website is launched, the toolkit recommends that key post-launch activities should include ongoing stakeholder engagement, communications, website maintenance, updating of datasets, documenting metrics and reporting.

And then what?

The toolkit also provides some guidance on how to evolve an open data pilot project to a program and then nurture the open data program. Some key considerations include

General timelines:Transition may differ from city to city and depend on factors such as set goals and available resources.Maturing the open data program:Robust governance, technology, open data operations, training as well as community engagement and partnerships are particularly crucial to mature a city's open data program. While the toolkit prescribes a post-launch roadmap for an open data initiative, it also acknowledges that the internal or external environment may change, in which case the roadmap shodld be updated.Alignment with priorities:Municipalities are advised to ensure that their open data program aligns with corporate priorities and meets the evolving needs of their end users.

The development of the DIY toolkit benefited from a cross-Canada municipal advisory committee and the use of two municipalities (without open data) as prototype testers.

A detailed version of this DIY municipal open data toolkit is available on open.canada.ca.

For more information, contact Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of OpenNorth, or the Open Government team.

Toronto's Open Data Master Plan and Data4Impact Report

Drawing on our strategic planning, maturity modelling, and stakeholder engagement expertise, OpenNorth is supporting the City of Toronto in developing its Open Data Master Plan, and we’re going about this in a very engaging and collaborative way.

Through an iterative series of in-person and online consultations, we will be soliciting feedback from a broad range of internal and external stakeholders—including the public—to ensure our Open Data Master Plan and Roadmap is in support of the City’s commitment to Open Government and guided by our four principles:

  1. Co-developed with the public;

  2. Focus on releasing data sets that help solve civic issues and provide highest public benefit;

  3. Explore opportunities to improve City efficiency; and

  4. Embrace inclusivity to remove barriers to open data and strengthen resilience.

To review all Council decisions and progress made leading up to the development of the Open Data Master Plan, click here. Have your say and help shape the Open Data Master Plan and Roadmap by completing this online feedback form.

Data 4 Impact Workshop 2ed at CODS17

The 2nd edition of the Data 4 Impact Workshop held in Edmonton at the Canadian Open Data Summit this summer was designed to raise awareness of the value of data sharing within the non-profit sector and to provide frameworks that would be helpful to organizations in the development of plans to enable the effective use of data. The objective of the workshop was also to increase sector capacity by providing techniques and tools for participants to understand, collect and use data in their organizations.

Read the report here

The presentation used in the workshop available here and the results of the post-workshop survey are available here. The workshop was a joint collaboration between OpenNorth, Powered by Data, and Data4Good.

Open Smart Cities in Canada

Situating Canadian Cities within an International Smart City Ecosystem

Smart cities, intelligent cities, sustainable cities, sentient cities, cities as platform, the next city, innovative cities, programmable cities, connected cities, and hackable cities are among the list of labels observed by the Open Smart Cities in Canada project’s Environmental-Scan (E-Scan) and Gap Analysis to describe data-driven and networked urbanism. These labels are created and used by a variety of actors, such as smart city vendors, consulting firms, think tanks, scholars, alliances, consortia and business associations, technology actors, civil society actors, standards development organizations (SDOs), and national/local/and regional governments. These actors that interact with the international smart city space also contribute guidelines, policies, best practices, standards, frameworks, business models, and technological solutions. Examples of these kinds of documents include the Smart Cities Council’s Smart Cities Readiness Guide or the Alberta Smart City Alliance’s smart city best practices research.

Our research on international smart city actors and their instrumentalities contextualizes the current state of smart policies and practices being applied by Cities in Canada. The Project’s E-Scans of smart city digital media and interviews with representatives at the Cities of Edmonton, Guelph, Montreal, and Ottawa provide insight into how some local governments envision, define, govern, and deploy their smart city initiative. The Project’s Cities Assessment Report will focus specifically on City applications of open and geospatial data, standards, smart city goals and principles, standards and indicators, procurement practices, and civic engagement practices at these four Cities.

Some initial findings of our assessment are:

  1. Collaborating Cities are at different stages in developing their smart city initiatives, yet all of them utilize smart projects or components

  2. Each City is unique in how they govern and operationalize their smart city initiatives

  3. Cities consider open and geospatial data as a key part to becoming a smart city. The Project’s collaborating Cities implement location-based services, geo-visualizations in maps, and GPS technologies; geocode their data; and consider standards to make geospatial data more interoperable and accessible within and outside government.

  4. There appears to exist a gap between existing SDO smart city standards and their adoption by Cities

Observed policies and practices presented in the Cities Assessment Report will be related to international smart city best practices at the cities of Chicago, Dublin, New York City, and Helsinki. These cities were chosen because they are widely recognized for their innovative geospatial and open data policies and practices.

The Project’s team is excited to share more about the Project’s preliminary findings at the Project’s first webinar, entitled Open Smart Cities in Canada Webinar 1: Situating Canadian Cities in the Smart City International Ecosystem, on August 30 at 12:30 pm (EST). You can register for the webinar at https://gts-ee.webex.com/gts-ee/onstage/g.php?MTID=e76870a5e64a823f489a298eb66a71d5f.

The Open Smart Cities in Canada project is conducted by a core team of researchers and experts from OpenNorth, Prof. Tracey Lauriault (Carleton University)Prof. Mark S. Fox (University of Toronto), and M. David Fewer (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)

For more information about OpenNorth’s Open Smart Cities in Canada project funded by NRCan’s GeoConnections program, please check out the Project’s first blog post at http://www.opennorth.ca/2017/04/01/open-smart-cities-in-canada.html or contact Rachel Bloom at rachel@opennorth.ca.

Newsletter

Summer 2017

News and Project Updates

Do-It-Yourself Open Data Toolkit Prototype for Municipal Governments.

More cities, large and small, are intrigued by open data and want to use it to better serve their residents. To help cities accelerate this process, the Government of Canada (GoC) contracted OpenNorth to develop of a do-it-yourself (DIY) open data toolkit for municipalities. The DIY toolkit, which will be available on the open.canada.ca portal after the Canadian Open Data Summit in Edmonton, provides comprehensive guidelines and a step-by-step process to enable municipalities to initiate an open data program. We are now exploring the expansion of the original advisory group of 15 leading open data cities in Canada which supported the development of the DIY. Read the project announcement in this article.

Read the Executive Summary here: Coming soon: Do-It-Yourself Open Data Toolkit!

Contact us if you would like to discuss how your city can kick start it’s open data program.

Critically Examining Smart Cities.

With the Canadian Government announcing a $300 million Smart Cities Challenge in the 2017 Budget, our federally funded Open Smart Cities in Canada project couldn’t be more timely. Our project analyzes how smart cities jive or conflict with open principles, standards, and approaches. Through an environmental scans of policies and strategies, interviews with smart city managers, international case studies, and provincial use cases designed to assess interjurisdictional interoperability issues, we’re collaborating with the cities of Edmonton, Ottawa, Guelph, and Montreal to tackle these tough questions:

  1. Who defines a smart city and what requirements do they employ?

  2. How do cities in Canada define a smart city?

  3. How do cities procure new technologies that work towards smart city ideals?

  4. What role will open source platforms and open data play in cities’ smart city policies and practices?

  5. How can principles of transparency and equal access translate to municipal smart city policies and practices?

Read Rachel Bloom’s breakdown of the study here. Project content updates will be strategically rolled-out over the course of the year to inform Canada’s national conversation on smart cities.

Indigenous Data Sovereignty.

Working in collaboration with the British Columbia First Nations’ Data Governance Initiative (BCFNDGI) and regional First Nations leaders, OpenNorth has been researching the relationship between open data and indigenous data sovereignty. The result of these conversations, Decolonizing Data: Indigenous Data Sovereignty Primer, will be released over coming months. We’re also looking forward to participating in the Annual Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission, which will be a great opportunity to learn about local and regional data issues in the context of nation-to-nation relationships.

In the news:

  • Expectations for the Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS17). This year’s Canadian Open Data Summit marks the 5th edition of Canada’s annual gathering for the open data community. Issues of data ethics, data poverty, and data sovereignty are gaining more attention. So what should we expect at CODS17? What are we looking for at this important event? Read our blog to get our take.

  • OpenCorporates take-down. The Quebec government issued a notice to the largest open database of companies and company data in the world, demanding them to remove content about Quebec companies. OpenCorporates asked the Quebec court to provide clarity on the rules around using Quebec data. The primary goal of the database is to “make information on companies more usable and more widely available for the public benefit, particularly to tackle the use of companies for criminal or anti-social purposes, for example corruption, money laundering and organised crime.” Read more about the issue in LaPresse, or listen to Jean-Noé Landry as the Quebec spokesperson for OpenCorporates, explain why the organization wants the court to clarify its legal grounds for accessing open data from Quebec.

Upcoming Projects

International Open Data Charter.

Are you familiar with the International Open Data Charter? You probably should be if you’re reading this newsletter. Building on our baseline study of the potential that the Charter has to help 10 Canadian cities and 4 provinces, we will collect more data to gain broader insights into how governments use the Charter principles. We will scope the potential for a longer term, and more international, learning report focused on sub-national governments, including a number of international comparisons.

City of Toronto Open Data Strategy.

From June to October, OpenNorth will be leading a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop the open data strategy, and roadmap, of Canada’s largest city. A multi-disciplinary community advisory group will be convened to inform this work. Stay tuned for more information about consultation activities. We see this as a great opportunity to create an engaging, inclusive, and well-documented process for the benefit of other cities. See our Project Coordinator job posting [posting now closed] .

Represent API: New Coordination Approach.

With the help of our newly hired Represent Coordinator, Iris Rosenbaum, and volunteer tech capacity, we are curating the community of dozens of Represent API users and documenting use cases. These use cases will tell the story of how Canadians have been able to better connect with their candidates and elected officials. Look out for these use cases over the summer months!

Open Data Assessments.

Analyzing global trends, assessing and ranking data from countries according to readiness, implementation and impact, the 4th edition of the Open Data Barometer report shows that while some governments are advancing towards these aims, open data remains the exception, not the rule. Join Ana Branducescu, Web Foundation’s Barometer Researcher, for a webinar discussion on June 22 about why Canada came in second place and other critical findings from this global study.

Staffing up.

We’re excited to announce the addition of three new staff members to the OpenNorth team:

  • Michelle Nguyen will be joining our applied research team

  • Jim Morris will be our in-house developer, assisting with Citizen Budget

  • Christian Medina will be our Fulfillment coordinator for Citizen Budget

Go team, go!

Citizen Budget

Saskatoon, Red Deer, Thousand Oaks and Hinton are some of the most recent cities to use Citizen Budget to broaden their budget engagement beyond town halls, and improve their insight into residents’ spending priorities. For its 3rd Citizen Budget consultation, the City of Yellowknife took its commitment to transparency to new levels by publicizing the live results on its website, thereby allowing their residents to track Citizen Budget results in the same way that city administrators do.

Spotlight on Thousand Oaks, California

As part of its larger engagement effort to to educate and engage residents about the city budget, and gaining insight into their spending priorities, the City of Thousand Oaks, California, recently wrapped up a highly successful launch of its online Citizen Budget engagement tool.

Part of its success can be attributed to the City’s robust budget promotion campaign. This campaign involved budget pop-up booths at farmer’s markets, Earth Day events and shopping malls, in addition to press releases and print ads, newsletters, a social media campaign, postering and utility bills inserts. Their Citizen Budget exercise attracted over 1200 visitors over a four week period, gaining valuable quantitative and qualitative insights into residents’ priorities on essential city services and programs. For an overview of the city’s budget engagement efforts, see: http://www.toaks.org/home/showdocument?id=9297.

Open smart cities in Canada: ideals versus reality

A 2014 report by Frost & Sullivan, an international consulting firm of over 1800 analysts in 45 global offices, predicted that the Smart City global market will be valued at USD 1.565 trillion by 2020. The burgeoning Smart City market employs and reproduces a whirl of media about the technologies and goals that underpin the term Smart City. Multiplicitous and contradicting definitions of a Smart City emerge from within this jumble of speculation and hype.

An environmental-scan (e-scan) and gap analysis of Smart City practices and strategies at the Cities of Montreal, Ottawa, Guelph, and Edmonton disentangles the web of digital media to elucidate how these cities imagine and deploy their vision of a Smart City. In addition, the two methods identify key stakeholders and consulting organizations that influence and regulate requirements of a Smart City. Both the e-scan and gap analysis are parts of a larger Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) GeoConnections funded project entitled Open Smart Cities in Canada.

The project is conducted by a core team of researchers and experts from OpenNorth, Prof. Tracey Lauriault (Carleton University)Prof. Mark S. Fox (University of Toronto), and M. David Fewer (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)

Project findings so far, based on Smart City event programs, blogs, government reports, news articles, and academic conferences, paints an urban landscape full of technologies to realize goals such as improved urban mobility, participatory governance, ubiquitous computing, and energy efficiency. Cities included within our report engage these ideas through the implementation of technological-based solutions. Examples of deployed technologies include test-beds for automated electric vehicles, open data programs, public services dashboards and digital applications, and systems that convert heat from waste into renewable energy. However, while cities in Canada have deployed some Smart City technologies and projects, we still await the reality of the Smart City vision. The gap that exists between now and then provides an opportunity to reflect on the values and benefits we would like to see Smart City technologies reinforce. In addition, there remain questions about the likelihood that currently proposed technological-based solutions can achieve their promised goals.

In sum, an array of questions motivate the e-scan and gap analysis for the Open Smart Cities Project:

  1. Who defines a Smart City and what requirements do they employ?

  2. How do Cities in Canada define a Smart City?

  3. How do Cities procure new technologies that work towards Smart City ideals?

  4. What role will open source platforms and open data play in Cities’ Smart City policies and practices?

  5. How can principles of transparency and equal access translate to municipal Smart City policies and practices?

By answering some of these questions, the project’s deliverables elucidates definitions of a Smart City by Cities and the tools they utilize to realize their definition. Information about geospatial tools, standards, intellectual property licenses, open data, and procurement procedures are crucial components for answering these questions. In addition to the e-scan and gap analysis, the Open Smart Cities in Canada project will include directly asking government representatives about their definitions of a Smart City. Our approach is inter-jurisdictional and includes outreach to representatives from the provincial governments as well as civic governments. We at OpenNorth are excited to share more about preliminary findings and expectations for the project at the 2017 GO Open Data Summit in London, Ontario next month.

For more information about Open North’s Open Smart Cities in Canada project funded by NRCAN’s GeoConnections program, please contact Rachel Bloom at rachel@opennorth.ca

Where you can find us in coming months

Open North is an active leader in helping the advancement of the open data community across Canada. Here’s where you can find us over the next few months!

Subscribe to our mailing list to stay in touch, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook to get the latest!

March 2: OuiShareQC, Montreal, QC

As part of a monthly discussion series organized by OuiShare, this month’s discussion covered online democracy, participatory budgets and civic tech at large. The event featured François Croteau, the mayor Arrondissement de Rosemont - La Petite-Patrie, city councillor Guillaume Lavoie, and Open North’s Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry.

March 9: University of the Streets, Montreal, QC

University of the Streets Café hosts public, bilingual conversations with community professionals. This session leads with the question: “Do citizens hold the necessary competencies, tools and knowledge to take part in the democratic process and lead our communities?” The event has invited our Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry, to discuss this question alongside Frédéric Lapointe, the president of Ligue d’action civique. The session will be moderated by Noémie Brière-Marquez, the coordinator of the Forum jeunesse de l’île de Montréal.

March 10-12: HackQC, Sherbrooke, QC

HackQC will be an exciting sprint of 48 hours of programming where teams develop an application from open data that is useful for citizens. This year’s theme is “alternative transport.” Open North will be in attendance as a member of the jury.

March 14: Cities in Tech, Montreal, QC

Do you want to harness the power of technology to change the way cities are used and developed and to make them more sustainable and people-friendly? That’s the question for the inaugural event of this new Cities in Tech meetup series. We’ll be sharing our experience alongside Beatrice Couture from InnoCité MTL and Jack Sion, COO at Transit.

March 21-23: Transparency in the 21st Century, Ottawa, ON

This conference on transparency is organized by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada with the Treasury Board Secretariat, Department of Justice and Library and Archives Canada. Open North’s Executive Director will be speaking on a panel entitled: Transparency: Open Government and the Next Generation, alongside Canada2020’s Dan Lenihan, Laura Tribe from Open Media and Mélanie Robert, Executive Director of Information Management and Open Government at the Treasury Board Secretariat.

March 28-29: Policy Community Conference, Ottawa, ON

We were pleased to accept Natural Resources Canada’s invitation to participate in a workshop on open policy making, as part of the Policy Community Conference. The workshop will focus on how to decide what stage(s) of the policy development process should be open. It will also identify principles for effective open policy making and ways to evaluate the effectiveness, as well as best practices for leveraging digital platforms for open policy making.

March 27-29: What Works Cities Summit 2017 (WCC), New York, USA

Rachel Bloom, Open North’s new Open Smart Cities in Canada project lead, will be presenting on open data standards at this year’s Bloomberg Philanthropies’ WWC Summit 2017. The WWC gathers nearly 300 dedicated city practitioners, experts, and thought leaders from cities across the USA to share experiences, engage in professional development, and celebrate local achievements and the individuals driving change.

March 30-31: Schulich Executive Education Centre Executive Education Centre, Toronto, ON

Open North Expert Associates, Bianca Wylie and Jury Konga, will be teaching a two-course “Achieving Open Government Through Accountability, Transparency, and Open Data” at Schulich Executive Education Centre at York University.

April 12: Armchair discussion on open government, Ottawa ON

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) is organizing and delivering this event in partnership with the Canada School of Public Service in an effort to increase awareness of opportunities to mainstream open government across Canada. The Armchair Discussion will be webcast nationally in real time to internal Government of Canada participants and the public at large. Stay tuned for details!

May 3: Annual URISA Ontario Be Spatial Conference, Markham Ontario

The Be Spatial Conference is is an annual industry training, program and expo showcase that attracts over 250 Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Information Technology (IT) managers, analysts, technicians, professors and students from throughout Ontario. Jury Konga, Open Smart Cities Associate will be presenting on Smart Cities and Digital Government.

May 5-6: Annual Go-OpenData Conference, London, ON

GO Open Data is an annual community-driven conference, which brings together civil society, IT professionals, bloggers, community and economic developers, city planners, civil servants and more. Jury Konga, Open North Associate, is the Senior Advisor to the conference and this year’s program coordinator. The 5th annual Go Open Data conference welcomes our Executive Director as the keynote speaker for this important regional event!

May 30-31: Big Data and Analytics for the Public Sector Conference, Toronto, ON

This conference focuses on unlocking the value in your data and enhancing data-driven decision making. Open North Associates, Jury Konga and Bianca Wylie will be participating in the Future of Open Data and Digital Government panel.

June 12: Data 4 Impact Workshop, Edmonton, AB

This pre-event of the Canadian Open Data Summit, marks the second edition of this workshop. Co-organized by OpenNorth, Powered by Data, Data4Good, and Nick Scott from the Government of New Brunswick, Data4Impact will focus on the non-profit’s relationship with data, focusing on issues of capacity, mindset, infrastructure, and collaboration.

June 13: Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS17), Edmonton, AB.

CODS is an annual event where the most pressing challenges facing the open data and open government communities are addressed on a national scale. Our Executive Director will be in attendance, presenting challenges and opportunities in expanding and deepening collaborative partnerships with government across Canada. The conference will be two days full of workshops and seminars with industry leaders, making it an event not to be missed!

June 14-16: GFOABC Annual Conference, Victoria, BC

The GFOABC Annual Conference has been the premier training opportunity for finance officers for over 20 years. 2017 will be no exception with a great program that will fulfill your professional development needs and provide valuable networking opportunities. Open North’s Business Development Manager will be presenting our online CitizenBudget simulator to this great audience of government finance officers.

June 17-20: Building Resilience 2017 Conference, Calgary, AB

The 2017 Canadian Institute of Planners and the Alberta Professional Planners Institute’s Annual Conference aims to support those engaged with building resiliency through an engaging, collaborative, and thought provoking forum to explore this critical aspect of our shared futures. Keira Webster, Open North’s City Resilience Research Intern, will be presenting our recently published discussion paper on city resilience and open data.

Newsletter

Winter 2017

Check out what we’ve been up to and what’s to come to kick-off this year.

Community

Feature update: First Nations and Indigenous Data Sovereignty. We are very excited to announce a new collaboration with regional First Nations champions and leaders to define indigenous interests in open data and open government in Canada. This process will culminate in an interest paper authored by Open North that will set out a vision and principles related to indigenous open data and open government, framing indigenous interests in intellectual property law, in consideration of the limitations of OCAP® in protection of cultural properties and indigenous identity. Stay tuned for more details!

Represent API. Our API continues to be used by advocacy campaigns across Canada, demonstrating the value of maintaining this up-to-date and accurate database of elected officials at different levels of jurisdiction to enable citizen to engage directly with elected MPs. We’ve been further automating some processes to make it faster and easier to maintain and deploy.

Civic Tech Toronto. Check out Open North’s Executive Director’s presentation at Civic Tech Toronto updating the packed audience what’s coming up at Open North in 2017 and global open data trends to keep in mind when mobilizing locally. Watch the video here.

What’s coming up:

Are you organizing an event for International Open Data Day on March 4th? If you are, make sure to register your event here. You may also be eligible for an Open Knowledge International mini-grant to organize your local event. Details here!

Publish What You Pay - Canada (PWYP). We’re putting the final touches on an interactive dashboard that highlights payments from extractive companies to government organizations, Indigenous peoples, and projects within Canada. We’re excited to empower citizens and communities in the governance and management of natural resources.

Community Hubs in Ontario. Open North is working with the Province of Ontario on its ongoing Community Hubs initiative. Lead by our partner Ecoethonomics, the project aims to make better use of public properties, remove barriers and enable community hub development to build local capacity to strengthen local planning. Read the latest report about the Community Hubs here.

Transform the Sector. A gathering of data experts, policy innovators and social sector leaders, this event is not to be missed! Join Open North’s Executive Director at this one-day conference where he will be speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and questioning what makes for a robust indicator system. The event will set the stage nicely for a 2nd edition of Data4Impact to be held on the margin of this year’s Canadian Open Data Summit in Edmonton on June 12.

We’ll also be participating in a panel at Transparency: The Next Generation. This conference on transparency is organized by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada with the Treasury Board Secretariat, Department of Justice and Library and Archives Canada.

Go Open Data 2017. The 5th annual Go Open Data conference welcomes our Executive Director as the keynote speaker for the conference hosted in London, May 5-6, 2017. The conference is the result of a collaborative effort between civil society, IT professionals, bloggers, community and economic developers, city planners, civil servants and more.

Parliament

Feature update: Global Open Data Index. GODI is a crowdsourced measurement of open government data publication orchestrated by Open Knowledge International, with data submitters from all around the world. Open North is proud to be a lead reviewer for this year’s Global Open Data Index review, charged with reviewing all National Laws and Draft Legislation data submissions. We’ve recruited a team of enthusiastic volunteers with the help of Samara and the review is well underway.

The Legislative Openness Data Explorer has been completed! The Data Explorer contains information on 39 chambers of parliament, and provides global, comparative information on parliamentary openness. All data on the site was crowdsourced from parliaments or parliamentary monitoring organizations. Join the mailing list here.

What’s coming up:

ParlAmericas. We are developing an online learning platform with Caravan forParlAmericas which will serve as a resource space to support the creation and review of gender-sensitive budgets and legislation in Caribbean parliaments. Built for parliamentarians conducting their legislative work, and instructors conducting training sessions with parliamentarians.

Watch out for the two new exciting ReadyReckoner online fiscal simulator modules that we developed for the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer that will allow Canadians to simulate economic scenarios and their impact on federal revenues and expenses, as well as infrastructure spending and full-time job creation. Launch expected this quarter!

Government

Feature update: New Publications. Launched in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership global conference in December, our report on aligning sub-national open data programs with international best practices supports cities and provinces that want to explore the feasibility of adopting the International Open Data Charter. Fall 2016 also saw the release of another major publication on How Can we Improve Urban Resilience with Open Data? Co-authored with GeoThink.ca, we discuss the fruitful intersections between open data and urban resilience and posit next steps for these communities to tackle together.

Open Data 150 - Canada. Supported by Open North, this project is the first comprehensive, internationally comparable mapping of Canadian companies that use open data to launch new products and services, create commercial and nonprofit ventures, optimize their business processes, do research, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems. Explore Canadian companies here!

Statistics Canada crowdsourcing pilot project. In collaboration with OpenStreetMap, we’re supporting Statistics Canada to work with local mapping activists to map buildings across Canada, starting with Ottawa or Gatineau. Learn more about this project and start mapping today.

As part of their ongoing dialogue series, the Institute on Governance brings together innovators, trailblazers, public policy creators, implementers and key influencers to look at the impact of digital culture and technologies on public institutions. We had the pleasure to participate in the January edition of Democracy, Accountability and Citizenship in the Digital Age.

What’s coming up:

Open North is excited to continue its work with Citizenship and Immigration Canada this quarter. We’re currently engaging with newcomer settlement organizations across Canada to better understand their digital capacity. This builds on our 2016 report on the data needs of the sector. See the first report here. Stay tuned!

Understanding the universe of data users (e.g. academia, advocacy groups, think tanks, media, private sector) is key for data publishers. Working with the National Energy Board’s Integrated Information and Analysis (IEIA), we are building a more complex understanding of data producer-user relationship.

Stay tuned for more news in coming weeks and months about our work with cities across Canada and globally with leading international organizations. Visit our Open Cities Strategies’ page to connect. We’ll also be following-up on the Government of Canada’s Open Government Partnership national action plan commitments.

Citizen Budget

2016 was another exciting year for Citizen Budget - now used coast-to-coast by over 75 cities to significantly boost their budget consultations and educate their residents on budget costs and trade-offs. We’re very pleased to announce that Citizen Budget is now accessible to the vision-impaired, having attained AODA Level AA interactivity.

We officially introduced our Participatory Budgeting - our 4th version of Citizen Budget - following two successful experiences with a municipality’s remote online voting exercise. To read about the first year’s experience, please see our blog on the topic. We’ve had a great deal of interest in this module and look forward to being a valued partner in the burgeoning participatory budgeting field. For the second year running, the Participatory Budgeting Project successfully used Citizen Budget for its own internal budget consultations.

We’re proud to announce our newest feature - a permanent “Tax Property Calculator” to keep your budget page dynamic year-round, as per this London, Ontario example. The Calculator allows your residents to enter their property value assessments and instantaneously see how their tax dollars are allocated for the coming budget cycle.

Watch Open North’s Executive Director present the benefits and impact of our online Citizen Budget simulator for the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency.

Final Report

Aligning Canadian Open Data Programs with International Best Practices

Across Canada, the release of open data by municipal and provincial governments is rapidly growing. Given this momentum, there is a need to assess the policies that guide open data provision and ensure their framework supports open and innovative data initiatives. An emerging set of principles, the International Open Data Charter (ODC), have been adopted by forty-one governments around the globe to guide the development and release of government open data. In December of 2016, the Federal Government of Canada committed to adopting the International Open Data Charter. However, with the exception of the Province of Ontario, which committed to adopting the ODC as a part of their Open Government Partnership commitments in December 2016, there has been very limited conversation on adopting the ODC by subnational governments.

In our role as Open Data Charter Stewards and in collaboration with the SSHRC-funded research partnership, GeoThink.ca, OpenNorth researched the potential benefits and challenges to Canadian provinces and municipalities in adopting the ODC.

The complete report is now available: What Could Open Data Programs Gain from Aligning with International Best Practices? Mapping existing open data practices in Canadian sub-national governments to the International Open Data Charter

Based on interviews with 4 provinces and 10 cities, OpenNorth’s study revealed several key findings on the potential role of the Open Data Charter in Canadian provinces and municipalities.

  • There is an existing overall alignment between current open data policy tools in Canadian provinces and municipalities and the International Open Data Charter.

  • Adopting the Open Data Charter presents opportunities to magnify existing outcomes of open data in Canadian provinces and municipalities. For example, adopting the ODC can facilitate better coordination among existing inter-jurisdictional partnerships.

  • There is a need for support package for municipalities that includes guidelines and best practices on a range of issues, including open data policies, data inventory methodologies, use cases, evaluation matrixes.

  • Many of the common barriers identified that inhibit the release, access and innovative use of open data in Canadian provinces and municipalities could be minimized 20 through the adoption of the International Open Data Charter. For example, adopting the ODC can accelerate change management and reduce internal resistance to open data release.

  • Canadian provinces and municipalities are well-positioned to adopt the International Open Data Charter. The adoption of the ODC by subnational and federal governments enhances interoperability and can bring a range benefits for Canadians, including greater inclusion, data literacy, job creation

The report provides extensive analysis of the barriers and opportunities in adopting the Open Data Charter and presents a range of specific actionable recommendations for open data leaders in government.

The following provincial and municipal governments participated in this research project:

  • Provinces: Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario;

  • Cities: Edmonton (AB), Grande Prairie (AB), Greater Sudbury (ON), Guelph (ON), Kitchener (ON), Montreal (QC), Ottawa (ON), Regina (SA), Surrey (BC), Vancouver (BC).

OpenNorth looks forward to continuing this conversation with governments across Canada and supporting their open data programs and initiatives.

A big thank you to Erin Bryson and Prof. Peter Johnson from GeoThink.ca.

What Could Open Data Programs Gain from Aligning with International Best Practices?

Mapping open data practices in Canadian sub-national governments to the international Open Data Charter

Research Goals

Across Canada, the release of open data by municipal and provincial governments is rapidly growing. Given this momentum, there is a need to assess the policies that guide open data provision and ensure their framework supports open and innovative data initiatives. An emerging set of principles, the International Open Data Charter (ODC), have been adopted by forty-one governments around the globe to guide the development and release of government open data. With the exception of the Province of Ontario, which identified adoption of the ODC as a high priority idea generated through their public consultation as a part of their sub-national Open Government Partnership commitments, there has been very limited conversation on adopting the ODC.

Established in 2011, Open North is Canada’s leading open data non-profit organization, committed to promoting government transparency and accountability, and public participation in democracy. In our role as Open Data Charter Stewards, and in collaboration with the research partnership, GeoThink, we are researching the potential benefits and challenges to Canadian provinces and municipalities adopting the ODC.

Four high-level questions guide this research:

  • What practices support the delivery of open data at the subnational level in Canadian governments?

  • How do these existing practices align with the international Open Data Charter?

  • What benefits are there for data providers to adopt the international Open Data Charter?

  • What challenges are there for data providers to adopt the international Open Data Charter?

To answer these questions, we evaluated the current state of open data policy instruments in four provinces and ten municipalities, and conducted interviews with open data managers from those jurisdictions to better understand the background and content of their existing open data policy instruments, the intended and actual outcomes of their open data provision, and future directions of their open data initiatives. Through these interviews, three key insights stood out:

  • Existing open data policy instruments in Canadian provinces and municipalities currently align with, to varying degrees, the principles of the international Open Data Charter.

  • Multiple barriers that were identified by interviewees as inhibiting the release, access and innovative use of open data could be addressed through the adoption of the Open Data Charter.

  • Despite awareness of the Open Data Charter and its potential benefits, Canadian provinces and municipalities expressed concerns about their ability to adopt the ODC.

Consult the full report (PDF)

Research Process

Jurisdiction Selection: All selected jurisdictions have launched their own open data portal or catalogue, and have a form of policy instrument that guides their management of open data. Open North had pre-existing relationships with the majority of jurisdictions selected.

- Municipalities: While there are over ninety municipalities in Canada that release open data, a small number of them have both an independent portal or catalogue and an open data policy instrument. The municipalities included in this study were selected to represent a range of geographical locations, and a range of population sizes - three small municipalities (population < 200,000), three medium municipalities (pop. between 200,000 and 500,000), and four large municipalities (pop. > 500,000).

  • Small: Greater Sudbury, Ontario; Grande Prairie, Alberta; Guelph, Ontario

  • Medium: Kitchener, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan; Surrey, British Columbia

  • Large: Ottawa, Ontario; Edmonton, Alberta; Montréal, Québec; Vancouver, British Columbia

- Provinces: There are currently eight provinces in Canada that publish open data to their own portal or catalogue, and of these, six have an open data policy tool. Four provinces - Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Ontario - were included in our study.

Interviewee Selection: The target interviewees for this study were open data ‘leads’, or managers. For jurisdictions without a clearly designated open data manager, existing contacts were used to direct us to the appropriate individual.

Mapping Current Practices to the ODC

This research uncovered common trends in the release, access, and innovative use of open data, and their alignment with ODC principles.

To what extent do current practices in Canadian provinces and municipalities align with the international Open Data Charter?

Principle One - Open By Default: Of the jurisdictions included in this study, seventy-five percent of provinces and fifty percent of municipalities have the principle of Open by Default incorporated in their policy. Policy instruments act as important leveraging tools for the release of open data, and the inclusion of Open by Default in policies strengthens the ability of open data managers to efficiently make data open. Jurisdictions that include Open by Default in their policy instrument have been able to minimize the bureaucratic red tape that inhibits or slows down the release of open data.

Principle Two - Timely and Comprehensive: Less than half of the jurisdictions included in this study have formal mechanisms included in their open data policy instrument that address the timeliness of data release. However, there are common informal practices that address this, including multiple strategies for prioritizing high value datasets that have been identified through citizen requests, the experience of other governments and/or by internal processes. The quality of released datasets is also more commonly controlled by mechanisms not included in their policy instrument, such as internal monitoring and providing direct channels for data users to report any concerns over data quality directly to the data custodian.

Principle Three - Accessible and Usable: All jurisdictions in this study already release their data to a central portal. In addition to this, sixty-five percent of the jurisdictions included in this study have adopted the Canadian Open Government License, or retrofitted this license for their province or municipality. This not only ensures that data is available freely under an open, less restrictive license, but goes beyond Charter criteria to standardize terms of use and ensure data users can expect common liberties and restrictions when accessing open data.

Principle Four - Comparable and Interoperable: All jurisdictions interviewed noted that the formats they release their open data in are influenced by common practices for open data release. While there are still cases of jurisdictions releasing data in proprietary and non-interoperable formats, there is still a commitment to moving towards open, machine-readable formats that will increase usability. Jurisdictions in this study commonly drew from format standards set by the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, and the G8 Open Data Charter.

Principle Five - For Improved Governance and Citizen Engagement: The majority of jurisdictions included in our study noted an increase in interactions between data users and the government in response to the release of open data. There are numerous cross-jurisdictional, cross-sector working groups and partnerships that foster open data ecosystems. For example, the Ontario Public Sector Open Data group coordinates between the Federal Government, the Province of Ontario, and municipalities in the province to move to common metadata standards and centralized catalogue access. The province of Alberta is working towards collecting data from all private and public data owners in a geographical location in order to gain a better understanding of the collective impact of resource extraction and allow for better-informed land management.

Principle Six - For Inclusive Development and Innovation: At both provincial and municipal levels, there are numerous examples of Canadian governments fostering innovative approaches to open data use. Of the jurisdictions included in this study, six either run or support a form of civic accelerator designed to empower developers and special interest groups to create solutions to civic problems that are of concern to both government and citizens.

What are the common barriers that inhibit the release, access and innovative use of open data in Canadian provinces and municipalities, and what role could the International Open Data Charter play in minimizing them?

Internal Resistance to Opening Data: Regardless of depth of experience in publishing data, all provinces and municipalities included in our study encounter some degree of resistance to releasing open data. This hesitation can be a product of numerous factors - departments may have budget items dependant on the sale of data, be overly cautious of privacy concerns, or hesitant to invite scrutiny of their operations. Adopting the ODC has the potential to accelerate shift in mindset required to foster a culture of openness through the creation of a strong open data mandate, and increasing the ability for open data managers to use their policy tool to leverage for the release of open data.

Lack of Data Inventory: With all government processes being systematically captured in some way, both provincial and municipal governments have vast data holdings. Multiple respondents noted a lack of data holdings inventory as a barrier to identifying high priority datasets and approaching data owners for their release. This also inhibits data users from being able to request datasets. In the ODC, the principle of Timeliness and Comprehensiveness requires the creation, maintenance, and sharing of comprehensive lists of data holdings. This would not only help identify priority datasets internally, but allows for citizens to be more informed on what datasets their government has.

Usability by Widespread Population: The act of publishing data to a central portal or catalogue can allow data users to access data, but is a small component of what makes data usable. Fifty-percent of jurisdictions in this study noted that jargon-filled description or highly technical formats could be inhibiting non-developers from being able to use open data. Under the Charter, Canadian provinces and municipalities would be committing to furthering the capacity for effective open data use by promoting awareness and education around open data, as well as ensuring data is released with links to relevant documentation and visualizations to increase discoverability and usability

What is the current perception of the International Open Data Charter in Canadian provinces and municipalities?

While the International Open Data Charter is not currently adopted by any Canadian governments, the lack of visible traction does not mean there is a lack of awareness of the ODC amongst open data managers in the provinces and municipalities included in this study. Of the fourteen respondents interviewed, three stated there had been at least internal discussion around adopting the Charter, seven stated their government was fairly familiar with the ODC, and only four jurisdictions stated they were unaware of the Charter prior to our request to participate in this study. Amongst the respondents that considered themselves familiar with the Charter, there was widespread support of Charter principles and a recognition of the potential benefits to adopting the Charter.

However despite the existing awareness of the Open Data Charter, alignment with Charter principles and the potential for the ODC to reduce barriers that inhibit open data programs, the jurisdictions included in our study all expressed some degree of hesitation in adopting the ODC. The three most common concerns are:

  • Resources Required to Adopt:

    With no examples of domestic governments adopting the Charter to follow, the jurisdictions interviewed are unclear of what resources are required to adopt the ODC. Many of the jurisdictions interviewed stated they are not confident they would have the human and budgetary resources required to approach adopting the Charter.

  • Capacity for Long-Term Commitment:

    Jurisdictions with sufficient ability to adopt the ODC expressed concern over their ability to comply with commitments made as a part of the Charter over the long term. Governments do not want to commit to the ODC if they are not absolutely sure that they can uphold it.

  • Potential International Scrutiny:

    A common concern expressed by jurisdictions is a discomfort of the potential for their open data program to be opened to scrutiny at an international stage.

The concerns identified through this study do have the potential to be addressed. Working with the Open Data Charter and connecting with governments that have adopted the Charter can clarify the resources and commitments required to adopt the Charter, and generate strategies for the process.

Continuing the Conversation

The Open Data Charter continues to gain momentum around the world, and its stewards are committed to expanding the network of governments that have adopted the Charter, and increasing endorsements from civil society, business, and other non-state organizations. Governments that are interested in learning more about the ODC can visit their website, as well as access their online resource centre.

Open North will be publishing the full report detailing the findings of this study with our Winter Newsletter in early 2017. To continue the discussion around the potential role of the International Open Data Charter in Canada, Open North’s executive director, Jean-Noé Landry, will be bringing key findings of the study at the Open Government Summit in Paris, taking place December 6-9, 2016. Open North will also continue to promote the ODC in Canada as Charter stewards, and through our Open Cities Strategies. For more information on these, or other, Open North initiatives, please visit our website or contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

Open Data

Can it make Canadian cities more resilient?

This article was co-authored by Jean-Noé Landry and by Professor Pamela Robinson and was originally featured on Medium.

Worldwide, open data is helping to fight corruption, to increase government efficiency, and to grow sectors of the economy, and early research hints that it can also play an important role in making our cities more resilient.

The recent floods in Windsor, Ontario are a reminder that Canadian communities face a myriad challenges from climate change and environmental issues. From drought in the West to the wildfires in Fort McMurray, to Montreal diverting raw sewage into the St. Lawrence, the challenges are vast and varied, and it is clear our communities need new tools to help them respond. Cities have always faced acute shocks, like earthquakes and wildfires. But they also face chronic stresses, such as unemployment, homelessness, and the cumulative impacts of the underinvestment in public infrastructure. Communities across Canada have cracked water and sewer pipes, public transportation that cannot keep up with population growth, and public housing with repair backlogs that we have neither the time nor money to address quickly.

These challenges point to the real need for Canadian communities to become more resilient. How can we anticipate and mitigate the risks? How can our communities better cope in the aftermath of these events?

As you can imagine, addressing these issues is no easy feat. Two of the most challenging factors in managing them are the sheer number of variables that impact a city’s overall health, as well as the speed with which any number of those variables may change. Time, money, public awareness, and political will are often cited as the missing ingredients to building urban resiliency. However, recent research offers new insight into actions that might help. Worldwide, open data is helping to fight corruption, to increase government efficiency, and to grow sectors of the economy, and early research hints that it can also play an important role in making our cities more resilient.

Late this summer, Open North, Canada’s leading open data non-profit open data, and Geothink.ca — a university research consortium funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities research council — investigated the potential of open data to strengthen urban resilience efforts. We interviewed over 35 leading international experts on urban planning and open data. The goal of the study funded by the U.K. based Open Data Institute (ODI), which will be published later this Fall, was to explore just how useful open data can be when tackling issues that weaken our cities and to determine where opportunities exist for collaboration.

Cities from around the world are facing the same issues we are, and they have begun developing networks between themselves in order to find effective solutions and frameworks that can be used in various scenarios. However, in many cases, the first responders, urban planners or humanitarian organizations on the forefront battling these issues don’t always have the know-how nor the capacity to develop the solutions that they need implemented. On the flip side, we have members of the open data community, who don’t necessarily have access to decision-makers, but who are capable of developing multilayered maps, creating predictive analyses, or designing models that can inform policymaking and regulations.

Indeed, having access to timely, open, and accessible data and networks is paramount for developing any kind of system, but we also need to begin building bridges between those that know what needs to be done, and those that know how to do it.

While federal, provincial and many municipal governments have committed to implementing open data policies in the last few years, the truth is we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of our potential for using open data to help cities thrive in Canada.

It’s fantastic that we’re trying to make our cities “smarter” and more efficient, but we’re going to have to start working towards making them more resilient as well.

Cities and countries from around the world have been innovating in leaps and bounds. Take for example, Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, which is Africa’s fastest growing city. With 70 per cent of its population living in unplanned settlements, managing significant flood risks has been a tremendous challenge, but that hasn’t stopped the city from innovating. By partnering up with local universities and the national government, the city has been using drones in order to map out flood-prone areas and to develop risk models. All the data gathered through this initiative is also made public, and is being used to inform disaster relief efforts as well as the transport of medical supplies.

We can also learn a lesson from our North American cousins to the south. Mexico is ranked as one of the most seismically active countries in the world and around two-fifths of its territory, which includes over a quarter of its population, is exposed to storms, hurricanes, and floods. In an attempt to increase transparency, in 2014 the government began publishing data regarding the funds used in all stages in the management of an emergency. That means that citizens are able to assess where the funds are being used, and whether they are being used appropriately.

And what about Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere? In 2015, it was facing its greatest water crisis in almost a century. For a city located in what Brazilians have historically called the “Saudi Arabia of water,” this came as a huge shock to the millions of people forced to ration their water consumption. One of the reasons the drought hit the city so badly, however, was a lack of data. In fact, according to one city official we interviewed, there were parts of the civil service that had no idea how low the water level actually was. But that changed, thankfully, in part due the pressure put on the state government by the open data community. Sao Paulo isn’t out of the woods yet, but the situation has indeed improved.

This last example is probably the one that hits closest to home. We’ve known for years now that Canada is one of the largest consumers of water in the world, and yet, many of our cities, including Montreal, still do not meter residential water. Data is lacking and it shouldn’t be.

That’s why it’s important for our cities to begin participating in global networks. Remember, Canada isn’t alone. New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Paris, and Jakarta all face the same challenges that we urban Canadians face.

Events like the Open Cities Summit that Open North co-organized last week in Madrid with a range of global organizations, such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), are the perfect opportunity to do so. We need a sustained, systematic, and well-funded approach across the board that enables our cities to connect with one another and address issues on a global scale. Cities shouldn’t wait for a disaster to happen before taking steps to improve the lives of citizens. After all, would you wait for a life-threatening heart attack to begin a healthy diet and exercise? Early action is key. It’s time we coordinate the way we share and exchange data and solutions in order to tackle these issues head on.

The 21st century has so far shown itself to be quite unpredictable, but with unknown variables come endless possibilities for innovation. It’s now up to us to come together to make our cities stronger.

Jean-Noé Landry is the Executive Director for Open North and founder of Open Cities Strategies, which helps cities successfully plan and implement their open data programs. Professor Pamela Robinson teaches at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto and is a researcher at GeoThink.ca.

Newsletter

Fall 2016

It may have been the hottest summer recorded in years, but that didn’t stop the Open North team from participating in a number of innovative initiatives over the last few months. Check out what we’ve been up to and what’s to come:

Community

Feature update: Earlier this year, Open North co-founded the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network to rally like-minded individuals and organizations across Canada with the goal of implementing a permanent dialogue mechanism between civil society and the government. We were thrilled to see the government committing to such a measure in its latest Open Government Partnership (OGP) national open government action plan. Read our blog post.

As a member of the Canadian Open Data Summit advisory committee, we had the honour of announcing last June that the 2017 summit will be held in Edmonton, AB, a known innovator in the municipal open data community in Canada. The next Canadian Open Data Summit will be held on May 30-31, 2017.

In May of this year, Open North took part in the GO Open Data Conference 2016 in York Region, ON, where we spoke about data politics in Canada, on issues like the census and whistleblower protection, access to information reform, the influence of international norms and networks. We also spoke at the World Social Forum in Montreal, QC at the beginning of August on data driven collaboration for social change.

Open North also participated earlier this year in A Collection of Case Studies: Highlighting R&D and Innovation Habits in the Social Sector undertaken by SiG. It was a pleasure to be able to build upon our experience at Data 4 Impact and contribute to a very important discussion going on right now within the social sector on (open) data and innovation to build social R&D capacity in Canada.

What’s coming up:

Speaking of the social sector, Open North developed a new proposal Leveraging Data through Shifts in Mindsets, a new initiative with Powered by DataData 4 Good, and the New Brunswick Social Policy Research NetworkWe believe the social sector is ready to move from thinking about to working with data strategically. This pilot project proposal outlines how our network’s combination of extensive knowledge and on-the-ground support will facilitate an increase of data use in the sector, ultimately leading to social innovation. Contact us to find out more!

We’ve also got a couple of events lined up for this fall. Jean-Noé Landry, our Executive Director, will be a keynote speaker at the Alberta Open Data Summit being held in Edmonton on October 14-15. He will be discussing inter-jurisdictional collaboration and city resilience. Jean-Noé will also be taking part in the Banff Forum XV in Montebello, QC from October 27-29. We were also invited to participate in the Open Government Partnership’s Global Summit in Paris on December 7-8, to moderate a panel on civic-government engagement mechanisms with civic leaders from the UK, Australia, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

Parliament

Feature update: Last year, Open North collaborated with the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer to create Ready Reckoner, an online fiscal simulator for MPs and citizens alike. We’ve now developed two new exciting modules that will allow Canadians to simulate economic scenarios and their impact on federal revenues and expenses, as well as infrastructure spending and full-time job creation. This time around, we’re also launching a civic initiative to empower Canadians to use Ready Reckoner for enhanced fact checking and federal budget monitoring. For more information, read the profile article written about Ready Reckoner for the Global Legislative Openness Week 2016.

Open North also teamed up with Samara Institute this summer to collect data for the Legislative openness data explorer, a comparative data tool on parliamentary openness for over 30 countries. Canada’s results will soon be uploaded to the platform. We highly encourage you to explore the tool and discover how Canada stacks up to other countries.

What’s coming up:

Open North’s Executive Director, Jean-Noé Landry will be speaking on open data and parliaments at the International Open Data Conference being held in Madrid on October 6-7.

Later on that same month, October 26, Open North will be hosting an event at HubOttawa in conjunction with Open Data OttawaOttawa Civic TechParlAmericas on legislative data openness and opportunities for civic tech innovation. The Chief Information Officer and his team from the Canadian House of Commons will present datasets and work with teams on their project ideas. Register here.

Big things are happening in the Americas this fall! Earlier this year, Jean-Noé was invited by Parlamericas as part of a Canadian delegation to speak in Paraguay to help inform the development of an open parliament planning roadmap for legislatures in the hemisphere. The roadmap will be launched this fall. Open North is currently building a new online training and education platform for ParlAmericas and UN Women Caribbean.

Government

Feature update: The Open Data Institute (ODI) in the UK asked Open North to conduct a global study in collaboration with GeoThink on open data and city resilience. Informed by the interviews of 35 resilience and open data experts, the discussion paper addresses the question: How can open data help build knowledge, capacity, and outcomes that strengthen urban resiliency? Open North will present key findings at the International Open Data Conference and Open Cities Summit happening in Madrid during the week of October 3-7. Open North is part of the organizing committee of the Summit and will be facilitating the event.

We presented our online budget experience in building more open and engaging cities at the New Cities Summit organized by the New Cities Foundation in Montreal in June. We also facilitated our second workshop on open data for senior public servant executives for the Institute on Governance in Ottawa in July.

What’s coming up:

Visit Open Cities Strategies’ new website. Bringing together a team of Expert Associates, Open North’s new service offering for cities and governments is designed to meet the strategic planning and capacity building needs of cities implementing their open data initiatives and programs. We’re currently developing a similar service offer for Quebec municipalities with another partner.

As an advisory member of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), we’ll be heading out to Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 13-14, for meetings on structuring budget data and public participation mechanisms. We look forward to sharing lessons learned with Canada, which recently committed to increasing budget transparency in its national open government action plan.

On the research front, we’ll also be working on an exciting new project this fall with variety of organizations called Open Data for Open Government in Rural British Columbia. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the project explores over the course of three years what open data means for rural communities.

With the support of GeoThink, we’re also using the International Open Data Charter to assess the open data programs of 10 cities and 5 provinces and identifying social impact and economic development use cases of open data.

Citizen Budget: Our innovative online budget simulator has also been keeping us busy. We recently participated in our fourth Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference Trade show and in the Government Finance Officers (GFOA) conference expo. We’re also getting the word out about our new capital investment module, something that has been really resonating with cities across Canada. For more information on this new module, check out our article in Renew Canada Magazine. Over 70 cities, ranging in size from 1,650 to 1.2 million, are using Citizen Budget to significantly broaden their budget consultations.

Vous pouvez lire la version française de notre infolettre.

Taking ownership of the open government action plan

Canadians need to work together

As it does every two years, the Government of Canada released its open government action plan, the third of its kind so far. And yet, for many of the millions of engaged Canadians across the country, the existence of this plan remains unknown to them.

Indeed, the release of the plan garnered little to no media attention in the last few weeks, despite it being part of a larger global movement – the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – and despite it setting out significant commitments on a diverse set of issues that matter to many Canadians.

Commitments like enhancing fiscal transparency and accountability in the extractive sector at home and abroad, and creating a Chief Science Officer to ensure that not only government science is fully available to the public, but that federal scientists are able to speak freely about their work – a welcome change from previous years. Or their commitment to making all budget data available in near real time with the release of its budget starting next year, and providing one-stop access to consistent, searchable data on grants and contributions (G&Cs) programs.

These are welcome developments, but access to greater information doesn’t mean greater awareness, meaningful engagement, or collective impact if that data isn’t utilized effectively.

If you’ve been keeping up to date with Open North’s activities, you would know that earlier this spring we co-founded the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network, which seeks to establish a permanent dialogue mechanism between the federal government and civil society. It’s truly rewarding to see that the government has agreed to commit to our proposal and is consistently taking an open dialogue approach with Canadians in order to foster transparency and to partner with civil society.

But an “open dialogue about open government”? That sounds a little…open-ended. Indeed, Commitment 19 has been set out in fairly vague terms. It’s worth perhaps backtracking to get a better idea about the importance of this commitment.

As a member of the OGP, Canada must produce biennial action plans to help steer its open government initiatives. They’re a testament to a global political will to fight corruption and harness new technologies to improve governance and enhance transparency. Amongst its numerous efforts, Canada has undertaken gradual efforts to develop infrastructure for a shared, sustainable and harmonized open data program across all levels of government – even garnering itself star status among the 68 member countries.

As part of the OGP, Canada is required to undertake public consultations when preparing and implementing its plans. As there were issues with the scope and nature of the consultation process over the last two action plans, this time around, Open North and like-minded organizations decided to co-found a network in order to coordinate civil society input and make sure a diversity of voices were heard.

Our joint proposal set out three goals as part of its vision: first, to co-develop commitments for the action plan (mission accomplished!); secondly, to co-implement the commitments laid out by the government (we’ll soon have a first meeting with the government to develop the modalities of the engagement mechanisms); and thirdly, to co-assess their performance.

But what does it all mean in practical terms? How do we go about fostering dialogue on open governance issues between government and civil society members in a concrete and efficient way? If we look to other OGP members, it’s unsurprising that a multitude of different collaboration models and approaches have been adopted – yet they all face similar challenges.

From promoting open governance beyond a core group of activists to balancing the trade-off between public interests and government priorities, these mechanisms have a demanding road ahead. But one thing is clear: such an engagement mechanism is useful for both government and civil society.

The reality is that dialogue is sometimes messy and often relies on the tone set by the government of the day. Building and maintaining clear and trustworthy relationships between civil society members and government officials that lead to impactful partnerships is not easy. We’re looking forward to working with our government partners to co-design and co-implement this commitment. The experience of other open government partnerships like those in the United Kingdom, Mexico, and the Philippines, show that we have a lot of catching up to do. But it can be done and we must seize Minister Brison’s expressed willingness to engage.

Civil society has a responsibility to step up, organize itself, and to scale out the open government conversation beyond a core group of tech savvy organizations – Canadians need to take ownership of this plan and this opportunity. So far, we’ve fallen a little short of this task. While it was great seeing 70 proposals being submitted during the ideation phase of the action plan, we need to be broadening the community of stakeholders involved by connecting with communities of practice and issue-driven organizations across Canada for whom increased transparency, access to information, and accountability matter.

This isn’t just the federal government’s plan – this is Canada’s plan and your plan too.

It’s time to get involved. Stay informed and engaged on issues that matter to you by joining the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network if you haven’t already. Just send an email to join@opengovdialogue.ca and join the discussion about open governance in Canada.

Exploring the Social Sector’s Relationship with Data

Takeaways From Data 4 Impact

Community – it’s one of the foundational pillars of our vision for better and more open democracy at Open North. As a nonprofit ourselves, it’s important for us to work with a range of stakeholders to build sustainable, inclusive and innovative open communities, including within the social sector.

As part of the 2016 Canadian Open Data Summit events in Saint John, NB, Open North co-organized Data 4 Impact, a one-day workshop geared towards community organizations. Developed and facilitated in partnership with the New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network (NBSPRN) and Data for Good, we developed a multi-stage self-reflexive process designed to help participants define and improve their relationship with data.

With nearly 100 representatives from a range of community organizations taking part in the workshop, we produced an in-depth report complete with pre-event needs assessment survey results, the trainer’s agenda, workshop activity outcomes, and evaluation quotes. As allies with tech and data expertise, we hope that the report will act as a resource for the social and philanthropic sectors.

Here are some of our key takeaways:

-It was clear that community organizations tend to take a more organic and collaborative approach to data, unlike the private sector. It’s well-known that the social sector consumes and produces large amounts of data. Yet, even if it suffers from a significant lack of capacity, it is “very comfortable” sharing the data that it produces to maximize the impact of the sector as a whole. This mindset is especially promising for data-driven collaboration.

-There is a tendency to speak about data in binary terms, as either open or closed, but as our workshops showed, there is a much more nuanced and meaningful conversation to be had about shared data that falls within the two ends of the data spectrum. Our conversation about this gray zone helped identify and address perceived and real risks, as well as discuss privacy and access issues, like giving different access for different types of users.

-The workshop also validated once again that the binary supply and demand model doesn’t quite fit the mold for open data. A much more tailored and context-specific approach to understanding and enabling shared data, like mindset shift, organizational culture, social dynamics, infrastructure, capacity, etc. is necessary. It’s not as simple as pushing data to known data users.

It was a pleasure collaborating with NBSPRN and Data for Good for this workshop. Something tells me that we’ll have the opportunity to repeat this experience. If you’re a community organization looking for tools and resources to enhance your data capacities, I highly encourage you to read the full report here.

Applied research in action

Understanding the data needs of settlement organizations in Canada

When Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) approached Open North a few months ago to conduct an assessment of their open data strategy, we were thrilled to say the least. Indeed, the timing could not have been better for such a research project.

With the Trudeau government’s promise to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees in a few short months, the various stakeholders tasked with providing programs and services to these newcomers needed to be able to rely on real, up-to-date data. Once the mad rush began calming down, IRCC turned to Open North to get a better idea to pinpoint the successes and challenges of their open data strategy.

For this particular applied research project, we were tasked with conducting a small study to better understand the data needs of settlement stakeholders who work across the country supporting newcomers and refugees, and to inform ongoing efforts to unlock the potential applications of open data in this area. We took both a qualitative and quantitative approach.

We began by designing a 48-question data user questionnaire, which we sent out to a list (provided by the IRCC) of 15 different stakeholders that are involved in the settlement and socioeconomic integration of newcomers and refugees across Canada. The questionnaire covered a variety of topics, including the importance of data for these organizations, their familiarity with the government’s open data portal and open data principles in general, as well as data availability issues, among many others. Of the list of 15 stakeholders, 8 completed surveys were collected, including two submissions by different individuals from the same organization.

In order to delve deeper into the survey responses, we then followed up with one-hour discussion groups with the stakeholders. This allowed us to highlight the key recommendations for IRCC from the perspective of data users.

One thing that became very clear from the get-go is how important data is for the stakeholder community in order to carry out their mission and work. Datasets about permanent residents, citizenship applications, temporary foreign workers, unemployment rates by region, are all examples of data used to feed their work.

Every respondent surveyed, which included the likes of Tourism HR Canada, the non-profit MOSAIC, as well as the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, described how they have staff dedicated to collecting, assembling and analyzing data. As they explained, raw data is essentially the foundation of any research on immigration. It gives them an insight into what’s actually going on on the ground, and allows them to understand the trends and gaps in services available to refugees and newcomers. Data also directs strategic decision-making in the development of policies and programs.

However, sometimes gathering all the necessary information can be time-consuming and complex. It became evident early on in the study that stakeholders need to use a variety of data sources from different levels of government or even third parties in order to gain a clearer picture of what’s going on. For example, while the IRCC does indeed have a vast catalogue of useful data, stakeholders find it sometimes difficult to break down the data geographically, which inevitably leads them to search for provincial or municipal data sources.

Open data initiatives are a collaborative process that requires adopting an inclusive approach and fostering an open dialogue with stakeholders, as the IRCC has done in this case. It is therefore imperative that we don’t limit ourselves to a supply and demand model. Just because data is being supplied doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right data or the most relevant for stakeholders. Remember, context is everything. It’s essential to understand first and foremost not only which data is being used by stakeholders, why it’s being used, and how, but also to understand how data users are also data producers in this process.

And it’s also about viewing data as complementary. The goal is for the IRCC to share information not only with the organizations that it funds directly, but with other levels of governments and private data producers as well (think universities, think-tanks, and non-profits), in order to break down informational silos.

These are but some of the issues and recommendations covered in our report. I highly encourage you to go read the rest of our study here.

IRCC’s efforts obviously do not end with one report. After all, the data needs of IRCC stakeholders have a direct impact on the successful integration of newcomers and refugees into Canadian society. In fact, our colleagues over at Powered by Data also recently conducted a qualitative study with leaders from settlement service providers, which will be available soon. Interested readers should keep a look out for that too.

In this sense, Open North’s report is one part of a long journey in introducing stakeholders to the government’s data ecosystem. The Canadian government has come a long way in developing its open data portal and promoting open data directives throughout its various departments, like IRCC.

However, implementing open data initiatives is an incremental process that not only requires a major cultural shift internally, but constant meaningful engagement of the community stakeholders, who operate in the social sector, the business world, academia, etc., and who actually deliver services as well. With this comes a growing need to connect data users with data producers.

It’s in this role of intermediary and guide that Open North has developed a wealth of expertise over the years. With our extensive experience researching open data standards and best practices, we have developed standardized methodologies for assessing open data initiatives in various situations. Most recently, we launched Open Cities Strategies, which offers a vast list of services to help Canadian cities succeed in planning and implementing their open data programs (click here for more info).

If you wish to learn more about our IRCC report or discuss how Open North can help you get your open data initiative on track, don’t hesitate to send me an email at jeannoe@opennorth.ca or to give me a call at +1 438-398-9338.

Spreading the word about Citizen Budget, our innovative online budget simulator

As always, the Open North crew has been out and about in the world getting the word out about Citizen Budget, our powerful online budget simulator. For the fourth time now, we took part in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) Conference Trade Show, where Citizen Budget is always highly popular. For its inaugural presentation program, we spoke about the benefits and best practices of online engagement.

We also recently attended the Government Finance Officers (GFOA) conference expo again. This time it was held in Toronto, which meant more Canadian delegates than usual. In all cases, it’s always exhilarating to meet new people, as well as our existing clients at these events.

We can’t stress how important these types of events are for us. Every day, we get to work closely with dozens of amazing people from across North America, helping municipalities boost their consultations by connecting them more efficiently with their citizens. However, most of this work is done remotely. So it’s especially rewarding when we get the chance to meet many of our 60 clients face-to-face and to hear about their successes with Citizen Budget in person.

One subject that came up time and again at the FCM trade show was the focus on capital projects. With the federal government’s announcement of a $120-billion investment in infrastructure over the next ten years, municipalities everywhere have a list of capital projects coming up. But with big projects, comes big spending – and some tough decisions. Fortunately, we’ve developed a version of Citizen Budget designed just for capital project consultations that has been used very successfully to date in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario.

For many of the municipalities that have yet to use our highly-customizable Citizen Budget simulator, the challenges of traditional public consultations remain the same: they cost a lot of money, they stretch over a long period of time, and they have low participation rates (usually always the same people or interest groups ready to discuss issues that are only specific to them). Taking the consultation online changes all of this.

Some of our clients described how our cutting-edge budget simulator allowed them to get some much-needed buy-in on some of these difficult decisions – and all at an affordable price. For residents, seeing big dollar amounts in newspaper articles can be overwhelming. But seeing how these same numbers impact their actual property tax assessment really puts things into perspective: a project that costs millions can only actually represent a few dollars on a tax bill.

That’s why we were thrilled to see so many people stop by our tradeshow booths with excitement. As the desire to engage citizens grows every day, more and more municipalities are turning to Citizen Budget simulator to build better community relations and better budgets.

Open Cities Strategies

A New Initiative by Open North to Help Cities Succeed in Planning and Implementing Their Open Data Programs

Cities across Canada are committing more than ever to implementing open data infrastructure and policies – which now means a greater need for strategic planning and tactical support in order to take advantage of the full benefits of open data.

With its strong record of open data expertise, that’s where Open North comes in.

It’s important for us not only to act as a platform for attracting talent specialized in addressing the needs of municipalities, but for making their expertise easily accessible to those implementing open data initiatives. As a not-for-profit organization, our goal is to see all cities in Canada succeed in planning and implementing their open data programs.

Our new service offering is called Open Cities Strategies. Based on international best practices and the newest trends in open data assessment methodologies and maturity modelling, Open North will evaluate your needs and support your open data programs on a range of topics, including:

  • Community engagement (e.g. assessing the needs of data users)

  • Co-organizing local or regional open data events (e.g. challenges, collaborative process)

  • Online open data community engagement mechanisms

  • Internal buy-in from data custodians

  • Open data program administration

  • Forward planning and road-mapping

  • Data audit or open data catalogue

  • Open data publishing

  • Standards

  • Policies and internal guidelines

  • Training and education

  • Open data portal and infrastructure

  • Open data risk assessment

  • Planning and implementing a pilot open data initiative

We’re excited to partner with OpenGovGearAdvisory North, and the Public Sector Digest (PSD) as part of this initiative. We’ve also assembled a team of expert Open North associates, which includes two of Canada’s leading open data experts Jury Konga (Open Knowledge Canada Ambassador, “Access by Design” Ambassador and Chair of the 2014 GO Open Data conference) and Jean-Noé Landry (Executive Director of Open North, and co-founder of both Connexité MTL and the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network), as well as Mary Beth Baker (federal public servant and member of Open Data Ottawa) and senior IT business consultant Jonathan Mark, who spearheaded Vancouver’s IT department for almost three decades. International innovation strategist and former World Bank Institute evaluation advisor Jay Bhalla rounds off the team by offering over 15 years of experience in the ICT sector. (For more information about our team, check out their bios here).

The Open Cities Strategies is already making itself known. Through our partnership with the Public Sector Digest, we recently completed our first open data webinar to present new technical and strategic support offerings tailored to municipalities’ needs, and to equip attendees with best practices and resources to launch and sustain open data initiatives.

Over the summer months, we will finalize our methodology and launch a new website to be easily reachable to cities. We invite any of the following to stay in touch with us by completing our needs and challenges CONTACT FORM:

  • City Managers/CAOs

  • City Councillors/Mayors

  • Provincial/Federal Open Data Offices

  • Chief Information Officers

  • IT Directors and Managers

  • Economic Development Officers

  • Open Data Third-Parties

  • Municipal Clerks

  • Corporate Services

Stay tuned for more details!

If you’d like to learn more about Open North’s Open Cities Strategies, contact us at: info@opennorth.ca

Launching and sustaining municipal open data initiatives

How Open North can help

Cities across Canada are committing more than ever to implementing open data infrastructure and policies, which in turn means they now have a greater need for strategic planning and tactical support in order to draw the full benefits of open data.

Following the launch of the Open Cities Index by Public Sector Digest (PSD), Open North decided to partner up with the PSD to launch our Open Data Strategies Partnership.

As a first step in this exciting partnership, we will be offering an open data webinar on May 17th from 1-2 p.m. ET, which will allow us to present new technical and strategic support offerings tailored to municipalities’ needs, and to equip attendees with best practices and resources to launch and sustain open data initiatives.

Led by open data experts Jury Konga (Open Knowledge Foundation) and Jean-Noé Landry (Open North), this webinar will present specific examples of strategic planning and evaluation frameworks for municipalities, as well as stakeholder engagement mechanisms best practices.

But this is only the first step. The webinar will also be an opportunity to present Open North’s newly assembled multi-disciplinary team of expert associates, which will be available for follow-up consultations and projects to support the development and achievement of successful municipal and provincial open data programs and initiatives.

Details of this new service offering will be presented during the webinar.

Meet Open North’s Expert Associates

Jury Konga

Combining experience in provincial and municipal government, private and non-profit sector, Jury provides strategic and operations planning with a pragmatic approach. He developed the Open Data Framework for Canada’s “G4” cities (Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa) and has assisted many municipalities in developing Open Data, Open Government, Innovation and Community Engagement strategies, implementation plans, training and event organization. Jury is an Open Knowledge Canada Ambassador and was appointed as “Access by Design” Ambassador by Ontario’s prior Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian. He was the inaugural Chair of the MISA (Municipal Information Systems Association) Gov 2.0 SIG in 2009, Chair of the 2014 GO Open Data conference and continues to be active in the open data open government community.

Mary Beth Baker

As a federal public servant, Mary Beth works on evidence-­based design for usable citizen experiences. She previously worked at the TBS Web Standards Office on the Standard on Web Usability, learning how to build capacity within a policy framework. As Government of Canada Codefest Co-­chair, she brought together 300+ private and public sector contributors (developers, designers, testers and communicators) to work on this open source project. Working both from within and outside of government as a member of Open Data Ottawa, she has a keen understanding of the level of outreach, engagement and collaboration that is needed between government and stakeholders in order to ensure the success and viability of open data initiatives.

Jonathan Mark

Currently a business consultant after 29+ years with the City of Vancouver’s IT Department, Jonathan was the Senior Manager of GIS and CADD Services. His team was responsible for the City’s enterprise GIS infrastructure (core software, hardware, and databases), as well as the award-winning web GIS application VanMap, Topobase, CADD, 3D implementations and other GIS applications. With strong business analysis and project evaluation and management skills, Jonathan was very involved in the City’s Open Data initiative having created the content and enhancements for the open data portal. Prior to joining the City in 1984, Jonathan taught in the Urban Land Economics Division of the Faculty of Commerce at UBC.

Jay Bhalla

An innovation strategist with over 15 years of experience in the ICT sector, Jay has advised the World Bank Institute on technology strategies for civic engagement and has worked to build successful grassroot community tools for monitoring government delivery and tracking state expenditures. He has also designed and led technical capacity building training tools for more effective citizen engagement, which have been adopted by countries around the world. As founder and Executive Director of the Open Institute, he has helped pioneer Kenya’s digital revolution and has played a leading role in the country’s Open Data Initiative, the only second of its kind on the African Continent.

About Open North

Jean-Noé Landry

As the Executive Director of Open North, Canada’s leading open data nonprofit and online budget simulator provider (Citizen Budget), Jean-Noé has led open data feasibility studies, roadmap design processes, training sessions for senior public servants (Institute of Governance) and external open data stakeholder assessments for cities and federal agencies, including most recently for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada. He also co-founded Connexité MTL, a data-driven social innovation incubator designed to address the shortcomings of the hackathon model.

Actively involved in the Open Government Partnership in the open data working group and applied research projects such as the OpenData500 index in Canada, Open North specializes in open data standards, policies, advocacy, and strategies. It also has a strong track record building website to make data more accessible, while increasing transparency and accountability. Open North recently helped established the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network, the permanent consultation mechanism on open government in Canada.

Open North Spring 2016 Newsletter

Open North’s Spring 2016 Newsletter

We’ve had a busy start to 2016! Here’s a quick update about some of the things that we’ve been working on and what’s coming up this spring:

Community

Feature update: Every two years, Canada – along with the 68 other member countries of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – drafts an Action Plan setting out commitments to improve access to information, civic participation and public accountability. Canada needs to prepare it’s third Action Plan this year. To ensure that Canadians are meaningfully engaged, we established the Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network. We’re in discussion with the Government to coordinate our efforts. To join the network, contact join@opengovdialogue.ca. Please spread the word!

In collaboration with MTL DataFACIL, and The City of Montreal’s Smart City Office we hosted a public event on March 4th, for International Open Data Day, to identify opportunities and mechanisms to grow and engage local open data communities.

In January, we had the pleasure to contribute the data lens to discussions at the System Change Community of Practice (CoP) gathering with Social Innovation Generation (SIG), The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), among other leaders in the social sector.

Our Executive Director spoke on February 5th at Make Web Not War’s online web conference on open data innovation about scaling local open data initiatives at the global level. Watch the 30 minute presentation and Q&A.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison kicked off the consultations on open government by hosting a Google Hangout with Open North and other leading experts and leaders on April 6. The Canadian Open Government Civil Society Network will have a key role in supporting the consultation. Stay informed, join the network today!

What’s Coming Up:

On April 27, Open North, Data 4 Good, and New Brunswick Social Policy Research Network are convening community organizations at Data 4 Impact to workshop opportunities and challenges facing the social sector in sharing data more effectively.

Our Executive Director, Jean-Noé Landry, will also be speaking at the Canadian Open Data Summit in Saint John, NB, on April 28th, and at the 4th edition of the Go Open Data conference in Markham, ON, on May 6th.

Parliament

Feature update: We’re excited to work again with the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada (PBO) to further develop Ready Reckoner, our online simulation platform for parliamentarians and the general public. Thanks to our new groundbreaking and interactive features, for the first-time ever, you can now tool with the overall effects of tax and spending changes on economic output and the labour market, as well as the impact of varying several key assumptions (ie. real GDP growth, GDP inflation and interest rates) on the PBO’s fiscal projection.

OPORA, our local civil society in Ukraine, launched the local version of Open Australia Foundation (OAF)’s vote tracking website They Vote For You. Open North supported OAF to complete this project with the generous support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

We were honored to be invited by the Canadian Embassy to Costa Rica to participate in the launch of the national legislative assembly’s open parliament action plan on March 10th. Thanks are due to local parliamentary monitoring organizations Accesa and Abriendo Datos for their warm hospitality. Read our blog post here (ENSP)

What’s Coming Up:

Open North was invited by ParlAmericas, the regional network that fosters parliamentary collaboration in the Americas and the Caribbean, to participate in the annual gathering of its Open Parliament Network (OPN) in Paraguay on May 26-27. Open North will be sharing its experience and expertise on open data to help inform the development of an open parliament roadmap for the hemisphere.

Based on international legislative openness standards, Open North will evaluate the access and useability of parliamentary information of the Parliament of Canada.

Government

Feature update: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) solicited the services of Open North to conduct a small study to better understand the data needs of stakeholders involved in newcomer settlement across the Canada. This timely project positioned Open North as an intermediary between government and data users to help advocate for increased data accessibility and effective responsiveness. Our combined quantitative and qualitative assessment methodology is entirely scalable to other stakeholder groups. Stay tuned for the public report later this Spring.

In case you missed it, Open North’s founder, James McKinney co-authored a timely article entitled What’s needed to deliver federal government’s open by default policy? in the April online edition of Policy Options.

As mentioned in the full update below, Citizen Budget has been taken in new directions! Our newest version — the Capital Project module — has proven very popular in municipalities across Canada. A special shout-out to civic engagement and technology leaders Edmonton, London and Guelph, among others, who have recently held a slew of very creative and groundbreaking online budget consultations. And lastly, congratulations to Newmarket and Langley Township, two engagement pioneers, who completed their fourth consecutive Citizen Budget consultation this year!

What’s Coming Up:

Open North and Public Sector Digest, which published the Open Cities Index in February 2016, signed a partnership agreement paving the way for Open North new product offerings for cities seeking strategic and technical advice on open data plans and initiatives.

We’re pleased to support Canada’s Open Data 150, a joint research project between the New York based Govlab and Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX), which seeks to understand how open data is used by businesses to create new lines of activities or jobs, and drive innovation.

Our Executive Director will deliver a workshop on open data and leadership in the public sector for the Institute on Governance (IOG)’s Executive Leadership Program. Jean-Noé will also speak on evidence-based decisionmaking at the IOG’s 2nd annual Digital Governance Forum on May 12-13.

Citizen Budget Update

Our busy fall/early winter period concluded successfully, with a slew of very creative and groundbreaking online budget consultations from recognized innovators Edmonton, London and Guelph, among others. These civic engagement and technology leaders have taken Citizen Budget in new directions: displaying live budget consultation analytics and results on their website budget page for all to see; embedding budget videos on the platform, integrating operating and capital budget consultations along with creative new applications of the slider widget.

Promoting your budget consultation effectively is critical to its success. Some cities are seeing great results by taking wifi-enabled tablets to community and government events and engaging residents one-on-one, or establishing temporary “kiosks” where the public can complete the online budget consultation. Of course, a diverse promotional strategy – combining traditional as well as online tactics– is the most effective in reaching a maximum number of residents.

Our newest version - the Capital Project module - is proving popular with cities and residents alike in Cambridge, Kelowna, Saint-Rémi, Moose Jaw, and Grande Prairie, with the latter seeing the most feedback of any engagement effort to date.

Congratulations to Newmarket, Ontario and Langley Township, British Columbia who completed their fourth consecutive Citizen Budget consultation this year! These two online budget engagement pioneers earned a free customization (value = $1,000) on their 4th consultation and our endless admiration for their dedicated, long-term community engagement.

L’Institut du Nouveau Monde and Open North partner up! Public participation, when properly planned and implemented, is an asset for policymakers, who can not only count on a population that is more aware and mobilized, but also better understand the community’s aspirations. Open North and l’Institut du Nouveau Monde are pooling together their expertise for the development of a fun, educational and in-depth service for municipalities in Quebec. Stay tuned for more details on this exciting pilot project this spring!

Open North is Growing

As the trend towards online budget engagement continues apace, we’ve added two new Budget Engagement Advisors to our team. We’re happy to have Nik Lopez and Jean-François Côté on board, assisting municipalities with their budget consultation needs. Nik is based in the greater Toronto area, while Jean-François will be our dedicated Quebec representative.

We’re also pleased to announce the arrival of Lisa Cerasuolo, our new Communications Coordinator, who will be handling our communication needs. To meet the growing demand for our services, Open North is recruiting open government experts in Canada. We’ll shortly be announcing new Associates of Open North.

Stay in touch!

  • Our website is getting a new look very soon!

  • Follow us on Facebook and Twitter 

  • Drop us a line: info@opennorth.ca

10 fundamentals to keep in mind when opening parliament

In the last year or so, we’ve witnessed an increased concerted effort among legislatures and parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) pushing together for more transparency and accountability from their own democratic institutions, and seeking ways to entrench these values in a concrete way beyond the endorsement and promotion of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.

The Open Government Partnership, which was initially founded to encourage the inclusive development and implementation of open government plans, is becoming an umbrella network for both governments and parliaments, offering up principles, mechanisms and guidelines for both institutions. In just five years, it has grown to over 60 national government members, and legislatures are joining the fold.

This is fantastic news, however, like with most large-scale changes, good intentions aren’t enough to make an open parliament plan truly successful and sustainable. The goal is to launch a project and have it become a meaningful go-to resource — not watch it flounder after a symbolic launched backed by politicians because it doesn’t really engage with the wide range of stakeholders committed to increasing legislative transparency to stimulate civic engagement and oversight.

That’s why adopting civic engagement best practices is crucial. Thanks to an invite by the Canadian Embassy and support from ParlAmericas, I most recently had the honour to take part in the launch of the Costa Rican National Assembly’s open parliament plan, where I spoke candidly about these issues. Because they’re by no means unique to one country, I decided to compile a list of ten fundamentals to keep in mind when opening up parliament.

1. Launching the plan is only the “end of the beginning”

So you’ve decided to launch, but what now? How do you build the engaged community required for making this project successful? We know that the “build it and they will come” model (creating an open data portal with some open data sets and expecting users to come) just doesn’t work. Open data can have many benefits – the operative word being can. For the project to truly work, engaging and empowering citizens and stakeholders is an absolute necessity.

2. Define, define, define

You need to address the terminology that frames the way the initiative is envisioned and rolled out, whether it’s via policy, guidelines or licences. This means focusing on definitions for such terms as “open data,” “new data,” (and yes, even more simply, “data”) and doing so before or while working on making data available. But bear in mind, this process shouldn’t be top-down. Because you’re trying to create an engaged data community, the terminology chosen must reflect the common vision that has been defined by all parties involved.

3. Let people lead

You need to apply the principle of “designing with and not for” users when creating civic tech tools and mechanisms for open parliament, like electronic petitions, searchable databases or online education tools. In order to really engage users, you need a critical understanding of user profiles and apply co-design processes. Remember, these engagement tools are meant to benefit citizens — they need to be created with their feedback.

4. You’re part of an international movement

You’ve now joined a growing list of legislatures, like the ones in Ukraine and Georgia, who are striving to increase transparency and accountability. There’s a cultural shift at play when moving forward with this initiative, and you need to account to and support individuals, including people that manage legislative data and legislatures themselves, who may have different perceptions regarding risks and fears. Get connected to regional and global communities, like those within the Open Government Partnership, for practices and support networks.

5. Get to know your data

Adopting a problem-solving approach to utilizing data helps focus collaboration on productive and impact-driven outcomes. You need to identify the demand for open data by connecting with communities of practices that see the added value in having legislative data available. This process will allow you to establish the available data that is actually being sought, the data that should be available but isn’t, or the non existent data that could be generated by legislative data producers and managers.

6. Set the groundwork for the future

Long-term structural changes should be factored in at the outset, like which legislative standards or APIs to adopt. If you’re already changing behaviour (like formatting transcripts or bills differently) then why not do it according to international best practices and connect with existing communities of practice maintaining these standards? (Click here to check out our list of legislative data standards!) Your open parliament initiative can become a platform for innovation across the region.

7. Learning the basics

The goal is to empower citizens, and super data users like investigative journalists, to manipulate the data, not just to consume it. Data literacy is therefore critical. Parliament and CSOs can collaborate to provide skills training, by organizing, for example, monthly open parliament meet-ups inside parliament (which is also simple way of sending a message of openness). The key to this step? Frequency and preparation. These activities should be held on a regular basis, so as to stretch out the collaborative process and facilitate peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

8. Break down barriers

Open communication is foundational to open data. That’s why its principles should be actively promoted among data managers and producers, which will encourage them to become accessible to data users. By giving users direct access to those responsible for producing and managing data – whether it be to ask questions, test project ideas, discuss the context of data sets – you’re maximizing the impact of your initiative.

9. Good things take time

Supporting a responsive culture vis-à-vis the data user community is imperative, and one of the best ways to do so is by openly acknowledging failures and successes. I know, taking a step back and honestly reflecting on a situation is difficult for individuals, let alone institutions. That’s why an incremental approach is essential. This is a long-term project. You shouldn’t bank on instant big successes. Remember, even if data made accessible today doesn’t generate innovation in the near term, it may certainly down the road. Providing good metadata is, therefore, essential.

10. Call to action

If your legislature is making this commitment, help CSOs and PMOs engage with it (they can only do so much on their own). They can advocate for citizens, but citizens need to ultimately put themselves forward, explore and ask questions via the new two-way communication tools built through your open parliament initiative in order to discuss the transparency and accountability issues that could potentially be resolved with legislative open data.

Bridging Differences in Open Data

Coming up with standards at Open North

Open North is a member of GeoThink and this post originally appeared on the GeoThink blog.

In case you missed either report, over the last year Open North has quietly put out an inventory of open data globally and, in a separate report, recommended baseline international standards for open data catalogs. The first report is entitled Gaps and opportunities for standardization in OGP members’ open data catalogs while the second is entitled Identifying recommended standards and best practicesfor open data.

Their work was completed as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Working Group, a group that aims to support governments seeking transparency through open data. Both reports aim to help the 69 countries in the partnership to improve their ability to share open data by standardizing how it’s made available.

The first report, which inventories open data in OGP’s member countries, notes that most members’ open data initiatives consist largely of open data catalogues. To assess each of these different catalogues, the authors wrote automated scripts to collect, normalize, and analyze them. This process allowed them to set a baseline across countries and identify gaps and opportuni­ties for standardization.

“The analysis simply states the choices that OGP members have made with respect each area for standardization; it makes no judgment as to whether these choices are best practices,” they write in laying out the objectives for the report.

In the second report, the authors address a specific research question: “What baseline standards and best practices for open data should OGP members adopt?” But first they diagnose the problem open data faces globally without any standards.

“The lack of standardization across jurisdictions is one major barrier; it makes discovering, accessing, using, and integrating data cumbersome and expensive, above the expected return,” they write. “A lack of knowledge about existing standards and a lack of guidance for their adoption and implementation contribute to this situation.”

The majority of the report then seeks to address these problems by outlining baseline standards and best practices for open data catalogs, while taking into account the differences between jurisdictions that make the global adoption and implementation of standards challenging. In particular, the report concludes with 33 recommendations that member countries should undertake including that governments should provide their agencies a list of acceptable data formats or that they should avoid file compression without good support for it.

To find more of our previous coverage about Open North’s work on open data, check out our previous Geothink.ca story here.

Open North's Winter Newsletter 2015

We’ve had a busy Fall! Here’s a quick update about some of the things that we’ve been working on and what’s coming up this winter:

What We’ve Been Working On

Federal Elections

  • Advocacy Campaign. The advocacy letter addressed to all federal party leaders that Open North helped coordinate with Open Data BC and the Open Data Institute (Toronto) was supported by more than 20 organisations and received some media coverage

  • Represent API. For the election, we collected all candidates’ contact information and made them available through our Represent API, with some help from volunteers to fill in the gaps and a much appreciated Google sponsorship. More than a dozen online get-out-the-vote and voter education initiatives, such as Vote Together and Vote Savvy, used it. Read our guest blog post How can code keep government accountable?

Engaging the New Government

  • New Leadership at Treasury Board. Like many Canadians and open government experts, we read the Prime Minister’s President of the Treasury Board of Canada Mandate Letter with great interest. We look forward to supporting the Honourable Scott Brison in his new role as President of the Treasury Board and his open government team, especially in developing Canada’s next OGP National Action Plan in 2016.

  • Data-Driven Policy Making. Open North participated in a panel organised by National Resources Canada’s (NRCAN) Innovation Hub on using data to power policy innovation. We’re excited about further contributing our expertise.

International Engagement

  • International Open Data Charter. Building on our involvement in the Open Government Partnership’s Open Data Working Group, we became Stewards of the International Open Data Charter and members of the implementation working group. The Charter’s principles are important for governments at all levels of jurisdiction.

  • Fiscal Transparency. As an acknowledgement of our contribution to development of fiscal standards, including Open Contracting, we’ve also been invited to become members of the advisory group for the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, along with the World Bank, the IMF and Open Knowledge Foundation.

  • Open Government Partnership Summit. Thanks to the support of the National Democratic Institute, we attended the Annual Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in Mexico and delivered a presentation on legislative monitoring best practices in Canada.

Citizen Budget

  • Business development. As the trend towards online budget consultations gains momentum Citizen Budget online simulator continues to go from strength to strength. This past month we hit a major milestone with over 50 North America cities’ budget consultations now benefitting from Citizen Budget! Used coast-to-coast and internationally, Citizen Budget provides nearly 6 million people with an innovative, easy and convenient way to be involved in their city’s budget process.

  • Free customizations. In celebration of this milestone, we are offering a free customization ($1,000 value) to our clients on their 4th Citizen Budget consultation. Langley, British Columbia, as one of our oldest clients, is the first city to take advantage as it launches its 4th consecutive consultation this year!

  • Research and Development. Open North is always looking to improve Citizen Budget to provide new and innovative ways of engaging residents. As part of the first phase of improvements we’re adding a few functionalities based on client feedback, including complete mobile adaptability and AODA compliance. In 2016 look for new features and exciting customizations to be introduced, design upgrades to the front and back-end and a brand new website!

What’s Coming Up

Parliamentary Budget Officer. We were once again selected by the Canadian federal budget watchdog to customize its online budget simulator to be used at the federal level. Judged a “smash hit” by MPs last year, ReadyReckoner is a first of its kind in Canada and estimates the potential revenue impacts to the federal treasury that would arise from adjusting various federal tax rates, credits, and brackets during the calendar year. The upcoming next phase will see further expansion of the tool’s capabilities to calculate expenditures impacts.

Ma mairie. Stay tuned for the launch of our website designed to support Montrealers explore their municipal institutions and discover the inspiring stories of civically engaged residents. Thank you FFunction for your top notch work!

Scaling our Activities in Ukraine. Following the successful online budget consultation pilot in Kiev, Open North will continue its’ collaboration with local partner Social Boost and NDI to scale its activities to foster greater transparency and civic engagement in budget decision making.

OPORA, our local election monitoring partner, will also be launching (and potentially scaling) a Ukrainian version of Open Australia Foundation’s vote tracking website They Vote For You, that OAF built with our support.

Connexité. In partnership with the Chantier de l’économie sociale, Open North and F&co’s data-driven incubator was deployed to support the development of innovative solutions to tackle challenges affecting Montreal’s food system. Consult the projects and our video from our pitch night at ConnexiDay. Teams will further develop their projects in coming months leading up to the final pitch night in February. We’re establishing partnerships for future Connexité cohorts in 2016.

Open North is Growing

New Board Members.

  • Henri-François Gautrin, a Quebec politician and scientist, was a prominent member of the Quebec political scene throughout his career. M. Gautrin served as Assistant House Leader and Online Government Minister.

  • Dr. Tracey P. Lauriault is an Assistant Professor of Critical Media and Big Data in the School of Journalism and Communication, Communication Studies, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Well known to the Canadian open data community, she will be a welcome addition to our team!

New Product Development Manager. Laurence Harvey Leclerc will be overseeing Citizen Budget’s projects and looking for new opportunities to customize our tool to strengthen civic engagement with Citizen Budget in Canada and internationally.

Interested in contributing to Open North’s mission? Building on our open data and civic tech track record, we’re in the process of setting up a range of new and exciting projects in 2016. If you have Ruby on Rails experience, get it touch with us to learn more about these opportunities.

Happy Holidays and Stay in Touch!

 

Open North's Citizen Budget Simulator Boosts Pioneering Citizen Engagement Project

The citizens of Saint-Basile-le-Grand are voting this week - not to elect representatives but to choose which of their 11 projects their council will build - a radical exercise in direct democracy. The town is one of the first in Quebec to allow its citizens to put forward project proposals and vote directly on which one of those will get funded. Last year it launched its Participatory Budgeting initiative by setting aside $200,000 which funded the people’s choices - a public square and a safer street crossing. This year, for the towns’ repeat experience of the Participatory Budget, the Citizen Budget software provided by Open North was tailored to make it possible for voters to choose the construction projects through an interactive online interface rather than on paper, which will make it easier to vote and to calculate the results.

Additionally, the municipality expanded the scope of direct citizen involvement using Citizen Budget. Not only has $200,000 been put aside once again to fund citizen-led construction initiatives, the town has also used Citizen Budget to consult residents on 17 key financial decisions the council has been considering.

By using Citizen Budget, members of the public could see instantly the difference it would make to their taxes if, for example, the budget for the arts festival or the number of hours the library would be open was raised or lowered. It also allowed them to indicate their preferences in detail (for example indicating by how much to drop or raise the budget of the town fair). This gave them a direct voice in decisions on the council’s whole $22m budget, and will be fed directly into the council’s budget deliberations.

Mr. Pelletier, 64, one of the citizens who used the budget simulator, and the proposer of the public square project that won last year’s competition, said he found it an “excellent educational tool”. He added that the fact it was done online was helpful because it isn’t always easy to fit participating in conventional public consultations into a busy schedule. He felt that previous online consultations had been too superficial but this one “was user-friendly, simple and well-illustrated” and he felt his voice had been heard.

Jean-Marie Beaupré, the town’s City Manager said, “Encouraged by the success of last year’s initiative, we wanted to give our voters more opportunity to understand and influence how their council’s money is earned and spent. Thanks to the Citizen Budget tool, they were able to put their choices in perspective by instantly seeing how their decisions affected our bottom line. The resulting feedback has been invaluable in helping us plan next year’s spending. We strongly believe in being responsive to the public’s views and these new tools have been a great way for us to stay connected.”

Beaupré was given a “City Challenge” excellence award in May by the Corporation of Chartered Municipal Officers of Québec to recognize the importance of this initiative.

Nearly 50 cities in Canada and elsewhere, including Seattle, Kiev, Edmonton, London, Saskatoon, Victoria, Regina, as well as the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer are using Citizen Budget to boost their budget consultations.

The concept of Participatory Budgeting, where part of a public budget is allocated to projects put forward by and voted on directly by citizens was pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since been used by more than 1,500 organizations around the world. [Participatory Budgeting] (http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/about-participatory-budgeting/where-has-it-worked/)

For more information or to find out how to implement a Citizen Budget online consultation in your own community, contact citizenbudget@opennorth.ca.

Members of the press can contact: info@opennorth.ca

Announcing a leadership transition at Open North

After transforming Open North from an idea to an organization over the last four years, I stepped down as executive director earlier this month.

The seed of this decision was likely sown a year and a half ago, when I started thinking about Open North’s path and mine. In the beginning, Open North’s reputation, direction, and interests were dominated by my own. When Stéphane Guidoin joined a year later, Open North operated more as a partnership than as a company, with each of us generating business and delivering projects more or less independently: Stéphane ran Open511JeVeuxSavoir, and CKAN consulting, and I ran Citizen BudgetRepresent API, and Popolo. As the organization grew and matured, it developed its own reputation and interests, grounded in Citizen Budget and open data (though I didn’t acknowledge this until later). With Stéphane’s departure to work at the Smart and Digital City Office of the City of Montreal in June, we took the opportunity to wind up some activities in his portfolio. This consolidation afforded the opportunity to rethink the direction of the organization as a whole.

Over the summer, I reflected on my own activities and interests at Open North, which led to my decision, for which, ultimately, one factor was sufficient. Inspired by projects like TheyWorkForYou, I had founded Open North to increase the transparency of and participation in Canadian legislatures; in those early days, Citizen Budget and open data were merely mechanisms for subsidizing and serving this activity. Given the dearth of domestic funding for legislative projects, and the growing demand for Citizen Budget, open data, and international projects, I had a choice: to allow the organization to settle down and focus on its successful activities, or to continue to explore the frontiers in search of a business model for domestic legislative technology projects. The former was the healthier choice for both the organization and me. Although those successful activities are important and valuable, they didn’t advance my priorities or satisfy my passions. I therefore stepped down to allow for new leadership.

As you’ll read in his upcoming post, my colleague Jean-Noé Landry has stepped up as executive director. I look forward to Jean-Noé taking Open North to new levels, building on his experience in international democratic development and his leadership in Canada’s open data community, including as co-founder of Montréal Ouvert and Québec Ouvert. He has demonstrated his ability to build partnerships to grow the open data community inclusively and collaboratively, most recently with this year’s Canadian Open Data Summit for which he was the driving force. I’m eager to see how Jean-Noé will spread our work and expertise internationally, as with our current projects in Ukraine, where Open North is working with local and international partners to set up a budget simulator with the City of Kiev, coordinate the development of a legislative monitoring website, and advise the national working group on e-democracy and open data.

Looking back

In addition to building an organization with its own identity, reputation, and goals, my most proud accomplishments are:

  • Proving it’s possible to fund a civic tech nonprofit in Canada

  • Creating the Represent API with Michael Mulley, a fundamental service to nonprofits, unions, companies and groups in Canada

  • Building consensus around Popolo, adopted by dozens of civic tech organizations to model and publish legislative data

As executive director, I believed that we shouldn’t do what others do better, that the people in open government will succeed or fail as a group, and that “a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it” 1. Together, these attitudes made it easier to focus on getting good work done, whether that meant referring deals to others, adding partners to projects, or contributing to others’ work. Personally, after over 300 pull requests to others’ projects and countless helpful messages on mailing lists 2 and in private conversations, the generosity afforded by these attitudes has generated tremendous goodwill for me in the open government community.

I’d like to thank my co-founder Jonathan Brun, for introducing me to Montreal’s open data community, and Michael Lenczner, for introducing me to my co-founder Bernard Rudny; without my two co-founders’ early coaching and advice, I doubt Open North would have achieved independence from me. I’d like to thank mySociety, the Sunlight FoundationOpen Knowledge, and Personal Democracy Media for bringing together the international civic tech community, an incredible source of inspiration, motivation, and friendship. And I’d especially like to thank the people who’ve benefited from our work – there would have been little point otherwise.

Looking forward

What next? While I won’t be directly involved in Open North, I will remain available to the new executive director as senior technology adviser. In the short term, I’ll be working on Popolo and Influence Mapping. Otherwise, I’ll be taking the time to think about what to do next. If you enjoyed working with me, I’d be happy to hear from you.


  1.  I admit I knew only the paraphrased Harry Truman version until now.

  2.  I highly recommend Civic Access in Canada, and PoplusPMO Network, and Influence Mapping internationally.

Je Veux Savoir, the end of a great journey

History

In 2013, we had the chance to get financial support from the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Citizen Participation, Bernard Drainville, to develop a portal for requests to access to documents, thereafter named Je Veux Savoir.

The platform was launched as a pilot for 6 months in the fall of 2013. During this period, the platform allowed to submit access to information requests from 5 departments involved in the process. The aim was twofold: to hone the platform used (Alaveteli) and work with the concerned departments to integrate this type of tool. The whole approach was based on What Do They Know, a very successful initiative led by mySociety in the United Kingdom.

Any request made through the Je Veux Savoir web interface resulted in a request made by email to the department. Both the initial request and the subsequent exchanges (including, possibly, the final answer) was publicly displayed on the platform.

2015-06-15-jeveuxsavoir

This was not without challenge for the concerned public agencies. While all have an email address and that, in theory, the law allows email inquiries, the departments did not really have processes to address these requests and often asked for personal information, such as a postal address (information that we did not want to be published and that were not required under the law). Moreover, some officials of access to documents of participating departments had a negative view of the fact that all exchanges were public.

Once these difficulties were solved, the portal allowed to forward 31 requests, including 15 that have enabled access to the requested documents, such as the assessment of information resources of departments and the use of discretionary budgets of departments. The number of demands was below expectations. The restriction to 5 departments (while nearly 2,000 organizations are subject to the Act respecting Access to documents) resulted in many potential applicants being unable to use the tool.

Development hoped… but not realized

After the pilot project, the Ministère du conseil exécutif (MCE) was supposed to conduct an evaluation of the tool and of the resulting request, and then suggest a path for the future. Unfortunately, from what we know, this evaluation never occurred. For several months, Open North played with the idea of importing in Je Veux Savoir the 2,000 organizations listed by the Commission d’accès à l’information, regardless of the outcome of the evaluation of the MCE. However, the human and financial resources required to maintain the platform came into competition with the other projects Open North realizes without income (Represent, the development of Popolo, and the participation to the Open Government Partnership’s Open Data Working Group).

Given the risk of stretching excessively our resources and the difficulty to obtain financing or operational support, we decided to put an end to Je Veux Savoir, effective June 30, 2015.

While it was not an easy decision to make (and one that was long postponed), it seemed best to simply put an end to the project rather than leaving it without any real support or supervision. We continue to believe that Je Veux Savoir is a powerful and necessary tool: despite repeated promises to review access to information, from an external point of view, things do not seem to have progressed in the last two years. Furthermore, Québec continues to fall behind on the subject while a significant number of citizens fail to know their rights in terms of access to information or let themselves be put off by a process that seems more complicated than it really is. In addition to making requests of access to information easier to implement and to follow, Je Veux Savoir allowed information to be opened and allowed the documentation of refusals from government agencies. Finally, Je Veux Savoir implicitly aimed to increase the use of digital technology in public services - since access to information lags behind on these aspects.

These difficulties also highlight the recurrent problem met by such ‘civic tech’ initiatives: who should pay? The initial approach, having obtained public funding and the collaboration of concerned public organizations, was exceptional compared to other similar initiatives. However, what ideal development should have taken up this type of initiative? Was the adoption of the tool by the government as an official service desirable? Or should this type of tool remain in the hands of civil society in the form of philanthropic support or subsidy? Nevertheless, we remain attentive to any idea of proposal to revive a similar service.

Looking Towards and Beyond the Summit

MaRS Discovery District

The Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS) is a collaborative effort organised with the help and support of open data leaders and organisations from across Canada. We’ve asked some of our partners to tell us why open data matters, what hopes they have for the Summit, and how they wish the community to grow after the event on May 25.

This week, we share the answers of Sameer Vasta from MaRS Discovery District.

Why does open data matter?

Beyond the oft-repeated reasons for the need for open data — transparency, openness, accountability, all of which are important — there is a crucial need for us to think of open data as a form of public works. Like bridges, roads, electrical systems, and water reservoirs, the release of high-value open data sets by the public and private sector creates a base infrastructure upon which we can build organizations, businesses, services, and communities. By looking at data as this public infrastructure, we see it as a necessary and basic investment that will show return through better lives lived by people across the country.

What are your hopes for the Summit?

The upcoming Canadian Open Data Summit will provide us an opportunity to address the conversation of data as a public work, as a piece of public infrastructure at a national level. While there is significant work being done around open data in communities across the country, any kind of movement towards a comprehensive strategy for Canada will require a coordinated effort by all of these communities, together. The Summit should look at challenges and opportunities around sustainability and scale of services and solutions built on open data; the issues of sustainability and scale are best addressed at a national level, and international, level.

How would you like to see the open data community grow?

The outcomes of the Canadian Open Data Summit should and will be driven by the priorities of the communities that will be participating; among those priorities is the reframing of open data as more than just a niche, technology-driven issue, but instead a national public good that needs input and involvement from both the public and private sector. Once we move the conversation beyond one of transparency or technology and into one of public service and private investment, the discussion and use of open data will become more mainstream, and thus will drive continued momentum and involvement after the event.

About the Canadian Open Data Summit 2015

We’ve announced a first series of international and Canadian speakers on the Canadian Open Data Summit website, where you can also consult the schedule and the list of speakers.

Don’t forget to register today!

We invite you to nominate an individual or organization to receive the Canadian Open Data Award at the Summit.

And find out more about our travel grants to attend the Canadian Open Data Summit and landmark international open data events happening the same week in Ottawa.

Please help us promote the Summit to your colleagues, friends, and local open data community, whether through a local tech or community mailing list, blog post, Twitter or Facebook.

Follow us at @opennorth on Twitter for regular updates!

Looking Towards and Beyond the Summit

Open Data Ottawa

The Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS) is a collaborative effort organised with the help and support of open data leaders and organisations from across Canada. We’ve asked some of our partners to tell us why open data matters, what hopes they have for the Summit, and how they wish the community to grow after the event on May 25.

This week, we share the answers of Denis Zgonjanin from Open Data Ottawa.

Why does open data matter?

Data itself is having a great impact in helping business discover insights, make decisions, and gain competitive advantages. Tech companies, being the early adopters of Data Science, have data teams as large as 15% of their developer workforce.

Government, being slower than industry in adoption of most new technology, will be stuck playing catch-up in the Data Science game. But it will eventually get there. The future is coming where government decisions and policy will be supported by wisdom gained from data.

In the case of cities, we already see Data Science playing a role with programs such as IBM Smart Cities - helping cities make optimal infrastructure and policy decisions based on data. With time, this data-driven approach will become ubiquitous across all levels of government. If we are lucky, a time may come where it will be unthinkable to make major policy decisions without those decisions being supported at least in-part by underlying data.

In this context, Open Data will play a very major role as one of foundations of future policy. If a democratic government is making policy and spending decisions based in-part on data, we as citizens must make sure that data stays open. This is important in terms of accountability - knowing that new policy is not merely a way to advance a particular partisan agenda, but that it is in fact based on empirical, observable fact. But it is also important in rebuilding trust of competency in government that so many citizens currently lack. Imagine a world where we can be confident that our governments are making smart policy decisions based in fact, and where the nation’s budget is allocated effectively and efficiently.

What are your hopes for the Summit?

Open Data is growing up. It is time to take account of what has worked so far, and what has not. As a community of activists, we have the challenge of making sure more and better data keeps flowing out of the data silos of government. From a public outreach point of view, we have so far done a great job in making the public aware of the idea and importance of Open Data. We need to evaluate whether the tools we have used to achieve this awareness - hackathons, apps contests and the like - are still useful or are we reaching points of diminishing returns with those methods, and need to evolve our strategies?

How would you like to see the open data community grow?

The best possible outcome we can hope for is a strengthened community moving together in a common general direction. Since the Open Data community is one that is full of positive and energetic people, I don’t doubt that we will be able to achieve this. Simply getting everyone physically to an event like this does much to ensure our community stays active and sustainable.

About the Canadian Open Data Summit 2015

We’ve announced a first series of international and Canadian speakers on the Canadian Open Data Summit website, where you can also consult the schedule and the list of speakers.

Don’t forget to register today!

We invite you to nominate an individual or organization to receive the Canadian Open Data Award at the Summit.

And find out more about our travel grants to attend the Canadian Open Data Summit and landmark international open data events happening the same week in Ottawa.

Please help us promote the Summit to your colleagues, friends, and local open data community, whether through a local tech or community mailing list, blog post, Twitter or Facebook.

Follow us at @opennorth on Twitter for regular updates!

Looking Towards and Beyond the Summit

OpenDataBC

The Canadian Open Data Summit (CODS) is a collaborative effort organised with the help and support of open data leaders and organisations from across Canada. We’ve asked some of our partners to tell us why open data matters, what hopes they have for the Summit, and how they wish the community to grow after the event on May 25.

This week, we share the answers of Herb Lainchbury, President of OpenDataBC, the organisation that originated the Canadian Open Data Summit in Vancouver in 2013.

Why does open data matter?

Open data matters because it is one of the best, most efficient ways to realize value from an organizations data assets. Data is increasingly being recognized as the new natural resource of the twenty first century. Organizations that successfully locate, extract and refine the resource will be able to create value. This value will come in many forms including reduced cost, increased market intelligence, increased ability to make robust decisions and new insights leading to increased capacity to leverage emerging technologies.

On the other hand, data is only as valuable as the results it helps to achieve. Said another way, it’s when data is used that the value gets created. And, like a natural resource, when that data is extracted and refined and its quality improved, it becomes more valuable for users. Data that is made open has a dramatically better chance of having that value realized.

What are your hopes for the Summit?

My hopes for CODS15 is that it brings the Canadian Open Data together and inspires us to reach further and create new goals for Canada’s open data community. I truly believe that Canada is ideally suited to become the Open Data leaders of the world. We have the technical know-how, a strong vibrant community and leaders with courage that are on board with realizing the value of Open Data. There no reason in my mind why we can’t be #1 in open government data, open corporate data and open community data.

How would you like to see the open data community grow?

My desired outcomes are that the community continues to engage and begins to focus on more specific efforts like the Canadian Open Data Summit and other events that bring people together. I would also like to see us use this chance to talk about artifacts that we could create, such as online community supported collaborative spaces, and community generated standards and best practices. We’re lucky in Canada to have so many people from across our country participating in the open data movement. I would like to see us find ways to support these communities in an ongoing way.

About the Canadian Open Data Summit 2015

We’ve announced a first series of international and Canadian speakers on the Canadian Open Data Summit website, where you can also consult the schedule.

Don’t forget to register today to get the early-bird price (until March 13)!

We invite you to nominate an individual or organization to receive the Canadian Open Data Award at the Summit.

Please help us promote the Summit to your colleagues, friends, and local open data community, whether through a local tech or community mailing list, blog post, Twitter or Facebook.

Follow us at @opennorth on Twitter for regular updates!

New National Program Funds Open North Project to Enhance Canada's Internet

Montreal, Quebec – Open North has received $25,000 from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) to maintain the largest database and API of Canadian electoral boundaries and elected officials at all levels of government, used by non-profits, businesses, journalists and individuals to connect citizens to representatives.

CIRA manages the .CA domain and also has a mandate to carry out other activities that support the Internet in Canada. Earlier this year, CIRA launched a Community Investment Program (CIP), to provide funding to community groups, not-for-profits and academic institutions for projects they could demonstrate would enhance the Internet for the benefit of all Canadians. Just over $1 million was earmarked for the first edition of the CIP.

Open North is one of only 28 organizations to receive funding in the first edition of the CIP, from among 149 applicants. These funds will be used to design an open data policy guide to increase the number of governments across Canada with open data policies.

To increase Represent’s impact and sustain its growth, Open North will conduct two activities – an open data policy guide and an elected officials data specification – which will reduce the cost of maintaining the data for each jurisdiction. The two activities will not only benefit Represent, but the broader Internet community by increasing the number of governments adopting open data and the standardization of open datasets for elected officials’ contact information. “We thank CIRA for recognizing how important our project is to governments and the broader communities of data users,” said Jean-Noé Landry, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Outreach. “We will certainly put these funds to good use and welcome the opportunity to work with CIRA again in the future on initiatives that allow Canadians to safely take advantage of all the Internet has to offer.”

“The enthusiastic response we saw from applicants across the country is evidence of CIRA’s long-standing conviction that the Internet has become a critical daily tool in the lives of all Canadians,” said Byron Holland, CEO of CIRA. “Our selection committee faced a difficult task to review and choose from among 149 applications, representing just under $8 million in requests. I want to personally congratulate Open North as one of our first funding recipients.”

The list of CIP recipients and summaries of their individual projects is available on CIRA’s website.

About Open North

Open North is a Canadian nonprofit based in Montreal that creates online tools to educate and empower citizens to participate actively in Canadian democracy. Open North develops tools for civil society and governments to reduce the barriers to effective participation.

To learn more about Open North or to arrange interviews, please contact:

Jean-Noé Landry Director, Strategic Initiatives and Outreach jeannoe@opennorth.ca 438-398-9338

About CIRA

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) manages the .CA top-level domain, Canada’s online identifier, on behalf of all Canadians. A Member-driven organization, CIRA also facilitates the development of a better Internet for all Canadians, and represents the .CA registry internationally.

To learn more about the CIP and to arrange interviews with CIRA, please contact:

Tanya O’Callaghan Communications Manager, Canadian Internet Registration Authority (613) 237-5335 ext. 262 tanya.ocallaghan@cira.ca

JOB POSTING

Director, Strategic Initiatives and Outreach (Full-Time, Telecommute)

Application deadline: May 10, 2014

Are you passionate about increasing citizen participation in Canadian democracy through the use of technology? Open North is seeking a Director, Strategic Initiatives and Outreach, who will work with the organization’s leadership and staff to:

  • Raise funds from governments and private foundations

  • Create and provide training courses on open data

  • Increase awareness of and engagement with Open North and its projects

  • Strengthen strategic relationships with governments, businesses and civil society

  • Identify opportunities to increase Open North’s impact, reputation and influence

To apply: Read the full job description on CharityVillage, then send your resume and cover letter to info@opennorth.ca.

Represent

Making it easy to contact your representatives

This week, we relaunched Represent, our free web service that finds the elected officials and electoral boundaries for any Canadian address or postal code. Open North has been offering this free service for over two years. Many of Canada’s largest nonprofits and unions depend on Represent for their campaigns. Head over to represent.opennorth.ca to see it in action and to learn more about how it’s being used.

Reaching more citizens through nonprofits

Represent answers a simple question – ”Who represents me?” – which turns out to be a hard problem when you want to answer that question for every Canadian. To put it briefly, we must continously collect and validate information about tens of thousands of elected officials and electoral boundaries from hundreds of sources, which is not something most groups can do. By solving this hard problem for others, especially those groups that empower citizens by amplifying their voices or by offering them tools to exercise power over institutions, we are able to better achieve our mission. Our mission is general: to enable citizens to participate actively in our democracy. Advocacy groups across the country help citizens take part in specific issues through specific actions. Represent helps these groups to focus on those issues and actions, instead of on the technical challenges of operating a service like Represent.

Reaching more nonprofits through businesses

Since launching Represent, we have received many enquiries from nonprofits about integrating Represent into their websites. Working with Environmental Defence and Democracy Watch, we developed open-source plugins for the Drupal and WordPress content management systems, for others to reuse. However, while such contracts could provide an interesting revenue stream for Open North, we believe the nonprofit sector is already well-served by existing web consultancies. We have therefore initiated a referral program, whereby we can refer nonprofits to trusted consultants. In this way, we can support the businesses that chose to develop an expertise in the specific challenges facing nonprofits, while also ensuring that the nonprofits that want to benefit from Represent receive great service.

Scaling up Represent

Represent has been using the federal and provincial electoral districts to determine people’s MPs and MLAs since its launch in 2012, and we have been working to increase our coverage at the municipal level ever since. At the municipal level, a first challenge is determining which of Canada’s roughly 4,000 municipalities are divided into electoral wards. A second challenge is requesting the ward boundaries of the over 750 municipalities that are divided. Without getting into detail, we have been able to overcome these challenges for over 85% of the population, and we will continue to push towards collecting 100% of the electoral boundaries in Canada.

There are two things that will smooth the road to Represent collecting 100% of the electoral boundaries and elected officials in Canada: open data and data standards. Only 45 of Canada’s municipalities have an open data catalog in which they publish their ward boundaries, but many more are considering adopting open data. This year, we hope to better understand the specific barriers to adoption and to then design appropriate solutions to address them. While this work progresses, we hope to see more municipalities publish elected officials’ contact information in a standard spreadsheet format, like the cities of Ottawa and Vancouver have done, so that it is easier to retrieve and combine this information from each municipality.

It should be possible to quickly and easily answer the question, “Who represents me?”, for every person living in Canada. It’s a question that interests not only the individual citizen, but also the various groups that engage people in democracy, including advocacy groups, political parties, and labour unions among others. If you would like to contribute to Represent, please get in touch.

Citizen Budget

2013 Year in Review

Citizen Budget saw substantial growth in 2013. We launched a new website, participated in our first trade shows, and worked with over a dozen cities and towns across Canada. Citizen Budget is a flexible online budget simulator that municipalities use to gather resident preferences and feedback on the local budget in an easy, engaging and educational way.

New Features

We work closely with municipalities to tailor Citizen Budget to their unique needs. This year, several of the improvements that we initially offered to a single client have since been picked up by other municipalities and become core parts of the consultation tool.

2013-12-30-utility-fees

Although residential taxes are a municipality’s primary revenue source, there is often much more flexibility in the other sources of revenue, such as user fees. Several cities may also want to consult residents on capital expenditures in addition to operating expenses. After a pilot with the Montreal borough of Plateau Mont-Royal, we’ve since offered this feature to other cities, including Edmonton and Yellowknife.

2013-12-30-dynamic-charts

First used by Markham, Ontario, resident may now enter the value of their home and see how their own tax dollars are distributed among city services, before continuing on to the budget simulator. By translating the large numbers involved in a city budget to the level of a household budget, the budget becomes more relatable and understandable.

2013-12-30-consequence-indicator

Citizen Budget has always communicated the impact of any change to the budget on the city’s finances, but it is equally important to effectively communicate the impact on the city’s services. While in some cases, the impact is directly linked to the question – for example, a question on the number of snow clearings per year – in other cases, the impact of an increase or decrease is less clear – for example, a question about the budget for fire services. We believe it is best to provide clear, specific, and concise information to residents up-front, to boost their confidence in proposing changes to the budget; the challenge, of course, is to avoid overloading the resident with information. We are piloting a new color-coded table to make this information easy to reference and skim.

2013-12-30-summary-table

Especially useful in consultations with long questionnaires, residents may now quickly review the budgetary choices they have made - whether to increase, decrease or maintain tax contributions to different services.

Client Highlights

In 2013, we launched 12 consultations across Canada. Some highlights from recent consultations include:

  • bilingual consultations in Dieppe, New Brunswick and Cornwall, Ontario

  • 559 budget submissions to Edmonton’s consultation in only 17 days

  • consulting residents on the solid waste levy and adult user fees for recreational activities in addition to residential taxes in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

  • matching the design and branding of the city website to create a seamless experience for residents in Markham, Ontario

Where to Find Us in 2014

We travelled to Vancouver in May to participate in our first Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) Annual Conference and Trade Show and to Seattle in November for the National League of Cities Congress of Cities and Exposition. We look forward to attending the FCM event again this June in Niagara, in order to share our Citizen Budget service in pursuit of our mission to increase access to decision-making processes and make civic engagement simple, meaningful and fun. Contact us anytime at citizenbudget@opennorth.ca

This Week

Open Data Day 2014 and Open Government Partnership update

  • Open Data Day 2014 – “a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies” – takes place on February 22nd. To organize an event in your area, or view other plans in progress, visit the wiki page. For more details, check out David Eaves’ post about the coordination behind the entire day.

  • Access Info Europe published recommendations for government transparency around lobbying. The report calls for proactive disclosures including clear indications of what information is taken into consideration when making a decision. The announcement of the recommendations also notes the value of the Sunlight Foundation’s lobbying recommendations to be used globally.

  • The Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) Civil Society Hub issued their year-end newsletter this week. The newsletter details the results of the OGP’s recent survey about the organization’s effectiveness. Results include “overall, 63% thinks that OGP adds value to the goals of greater transparency, participation and accountability in their country; and 62% of the community is more positive about OGP’s potential to deliver change in their country than they were 12 months ago.”

  • The Guardian published a look back at the year’s open data and transparency developments. The article reviews transnational level transparency agreements, the top transparency publications, and key dates. Commenting on the popularity of transparency, the article argues that the greatest challenge in 2014 will be to use transparency effectively and adequately address the “underlying issues of power and politics.”

MyCityHall.ca

Progress Update

Our crowdfunding campaigns for MyCityHall.ca and MaMairie.ca ended May 1st, short of our goals of $10,000 each. As a result, we could not hire additional staff to help complete the project, but had to make time within our own schedules to do the work. As a small nonprofit with many active projects, this has been a challenge. However, we are getting closer to a beta release, and we want to let you know what to expect.

Scope: What’s In

As we did not hit our funding target, we had to rescope the project for it to be achievable. Of the original primary features, we retain:

  • Receive alerts and email updates when Council discusses issues that matter to them

  • Read explanations on how council works and get advice on how to lobby council

We want to offer a service that provides residents with relevant and timely information that enables them to influence local decisions. However, we recognize that not all residents, once armed with this information, will know how to use it effectively; after all, giving someone a hammer doesn’t make them a carpenter. So, we will also offer context to that information to make it more actionable.

Scope: What’s Out

  • Ask questions and get answers from councillors in public, creating a shared memory for voters so they can better hold politicians to their word

We were really looking forward to the public Q&A feature, but it is not something that is quick and easy to do well. We eagerly anticipate the launch of AskThem.io by the Participatory Politics Foundation, whose initial development we contributed to. We are also monitoring the work of Ciudadano Inteligente on WriteIt, an application for publicly delivering messages to authorities. We are keen to build on these projects in future releases of MyCityHall.ca and MaMairie.ca.

  • Monitor their councillor’s activity, including attendance and voting records

It is easy to build a dashboard of the number of meetings attended, votes cast, words spoken, etc. It is much harder to translate those indicators into an evaluation of a councillor’s performance, or to use those statistics to create the right incentives for better performance. Given our restrictions, we’ve decided to focus more on what’s happening in city hall and less on the people within it; elected officials will be featured on the website, but they will not be in the spotlight.

What’s Next

Our goal is to launch the beta versions of MaMairie.ca and MyCityHall.ca in the first quarter of 2014. We’ve put together what we consider to be an excellent primer to the City of Montreal’s government structure and, in particular, to the levers that residents can use to influence its decisions. We’ve selected which datasets to make more accessible, and we are partway through the work of collecting the data and making it intelligible. Finally, we’ve been contributing to the Sunlight Foundation’s Scout – a service that sends you alerts about issues you care about – to make it reusable outside the United States.

We would like to thank our individual donors, without whom this project would not be possible, and for their patience as we progress towards launch. We are eager to publish the first beta version to get people’s feedback, and to work together to make this a popular and effective tool for tracking city hall.

Best of the Open North Blog 2013

It’s been an exciting year for the civic technology sector. We’ve seen a lot of growth within Open North and in our peer organizations. Below are our favourite blog posts from the past year, representing Open North announcements, sector analysis, and other updates. If you think we missed a story, reach out to us at info@opennorth.ca.

Project announcements

Civic sector

Project updates

And a few noteworthy posts from our weekly roundup series, where we collect the best stories from the #opengov community:

This Week

Barrie launches Citizen Budget and Knight Foundation Report on Civic Tech

  • The Knight Foundation published an initial report on the emerging civic technology sector, mapping the field using semantic analysis by Quid and private and philanthropic investment data. Accompanying the report, the Knight Foundation released an interactive visualization of how organizations are related within the sector. Partial investment data about Open North, as part of the “public decision making” cluster of organizations, is included in the analysis. A data directory of organizations and investments used in the analysis is also available for download.

  • In keeping with its mission to surface all public information about corporations, OpenCorporates launched a sister website, OpenLEIs, to address the lack of permanent, IP-free, unique corporate identifiers in the financial markets. The announcement explains the problems that the LEI system addresses in detail; for example, using existing identifier systems, regulators regularly cannot be sure who they are dealing with. OpenLEIs is a browsable, searchable user-friendly interface for the LEI system that will allow users to start working with this data.

  • On November 29th, the United Nations anti-corruption summit closed in Panama City, Panama. A press release issued by the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) Coalition details a battle between governments during the summit to decide whether or not NGOs should be allowed at UN anti-corruption meetings. NGO participation in anti-corruption discussions is important given the expertise of these organizations, and only a small few countries remain steadfast in blocking their involvement. The press release also notes, despite intense debate, important progress such as the “strong language on transparency of beneficial ownership championed by the governments of the US and Argentina in draft resolution text.” You can learn more about the UNCAC Coalition on their website.

  • The City of Barrie, Ontario launched a Citizen Budget consultation last week. The consultation, available at www.barriebudget.com is the first online budget simulator offered to residents by the City and focuses on service levels. If you’re interested in learning more about Citizen Budget, contact us at citizenbudget@opennorth.ca.

This Week

The Township of Langley launches Citizen Budget

Replicating the Open Data Institute

At the ODI Annual Summit on October 29, the Open Data Institute announced the first 13 nodes in its global network. This open data network is an experiment that intends to meet the demand from people and organizations for ODI-like organizations in their home countries, regions and cities.

The aspiration is that some will become country-level nodes on par with the ODI itself. To better understand how this may come to pass, it’s instructive to look at the conditions for the ODI’s own success, from its origin to today.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Open Data Institute and ODI Nodes, CEO Gavin Starks provides an honest and insightful history and description of ODI Nodes. You might also check out its first annual report.

A very brief history of the ODI

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Nigel Shadbolt lobbied the United Kingdom’s Technology Strategy Board for four years to provide the funding for an Open Data Institute (£10M over five years). The University of Southampton, at which both Berners-Lee and Shadbolt are professors, underwrote the lease for the ODI’s space in London’s Tech City and otherwise provided significant startup resources. The ODI recruited local experts with international recognition like Jeni Tennison to join the executive team, selected rising open data startups like OpenCorporates for its business incubator, and established itself as an open data hub through initiatives like its Friday Lunchtime Lecture series. It did all this in a context of political attention on open data, evidenced by the G8 Open Data Charter this summer, and with the United Kingdom as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership.

Lessons for the new and upcoming ODI nodes

From this brief story, we can extract several conditions for its success thus far. It’s not clear which of these are necessary conditions, and the list is definitely not comprehensive, but the ODI UK is the only evidence we have of a country-level ODI node. In no particular order:

  • Funding vehicle: The ODI would not exist in its current form without its funding from the Technology Strategy Board. A top priority of any node will be to identify its most promising funding sources and financing vehicles.

  • Reputation: From its founders and executive team to its startups and members, the ODI is composed of some of the best recognized experts in open data and the web. These people gave the ODI a great reputation from day one.

  • Tech hub: The ODI secured space in a fast growing tech hub that is home to several hundred startups, many of which are eager to use open data, to work with the ODI, to use its outputs and resources, or to join as members.

  • Expert labor force: The ODI has a large pool of local experts to hire from, including the talent in London’s Tech City. It can also leverage its relationship with the University of Southampton to recruit trainers for its open data courses.

  • Capital city: The ODI is not far from government and public sector organizations, which it will variously advise, inform, persuade, train or consult with as it pursues its mission.

  • Founding partners: The University of Southampton was prepared to commit significant resources to set up the ODI. It will also award a Postgraduate Certificate in Open Data Technology to people who complete the ODI’s planned three-month course.

  • Political attention: The ODI was able to take advantage of the political attention on open data, both locally and internationally. What local opportunities can new ODI nodes leverage?

If you are setting up or considering an ODI node, which of these conditions does your city, region or country already fulfill? Which need more work? What steps can you take over the next months and years to prepare the ground for an eventual transition to a country-level node?

Of course, each node will have a different take on what an Open Data Institute does, taking into account its local context. The history and conditions described above hopefully add to the advice and direction that the ODI itself already offers.

The new ODI nodes may find the following documents particularly useful. Most went missing in theodi.org’s recent redesign, but I’ve made PDF versions from Google’s cache. In particular, its five-year business plan includes an excellent discussion of its target markets and activities.

This Week

Google's Civic Information API adds US representatives

  • It’s been a busy week for critiques of open data and open government. At The Programmable City, Professor Rob Kitchin presents four critiques of open data initiatives: from sustainability and empowering the empowered, to barriers to effective use and neoliberalisation of public services. David Eaves responds to the critiques on his blog, emphasizing some and refocusing others. Panthea Lee from Reboot, a social enterprise to improve governance and development, continues her six-week series on equitable and accountable governance for the Aspen Institute, with a fourth installment about how open government initiatives need to better understand citizens than they do currently. We encourage you to check out the firstsecond and third installments that discuss open government’s constraints and biases and how to evaluate its progress. Finally, Katherine Barnett and Richard Greene explain in Governing magazine’s December issue how much more work must be done to fulfill the promise of open government.

  • Google’s Civic Information API now includes information on US representatives, acquired from various sources. A key component to stiching that data together is the Open Civic Data Identifier scheme, whose development was led by the Sunlight Foundation, in collaboration with other organizations including Open North. The OCD identifiers are part of Sunlight’s larger Open Civic Data project, for which Sunlight received funding from Google.org earlier this year, and whose goal is to provide free and open formats and tools to make effective use of local government data. Read Sunlight’s coverage of Google’s API update for more information. If you’re looking for an API with Canadian representatives, check out our Represent service.

  • Gavin Starks, CEO of the Open Data Instituteoffers insight into how the year-old ODI operates and how it hopes to pursue its mission of catalyzing the evolution of open data culture through its new global network of ODI Nodes.

  • Also, don’t miss James McKinney’s post on different conceptions of the “civic power sector” and our announcement of JeVeuxSavoir.org, an access to information portal for Quebec.

Announcing JeVeuxSavoir.org and Infothon on Nov 30th

We are pleased to announce the launch of JeVeuxSavoir.org, an online access to information portal built by Open North in partnership with the Government of Quebec. JeVeuxSavoir.org is a website for citizens to formulate requests for information from public bodies. The results of their requests including all documents obtained under the Access to Information Act will be accessible to the general public at jeveuxsavoir.org. JeVeuxSavoir.org will operate as a pilot progam from October 2013 until March 2014 and apply to five government agencies.

JeVeuxSavoir.org was built using Alaveteli, free software for making freedom of information requests, which began as mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow.com project. Alaveteli has been translated into 16 languages and is currently live in a dozen jurisdictions.

JeVeuxSavoir.org was funded by the Quebec government’s Ministry for Democratic Institutions and Civic Participation. Development was led by Stephane Guidoin and Jody McIntyre for Open North. Bernard Drainville, the Minister of Democratic Institutions and Civic Participation, said of the project:

“By facilitating and enhancing access to information from public bodies, our government allows citizens to exercise their role more as a watchdog in the management of public money. They will be able to take a greater role in the fight against corruption and collusion.”

An Infothon is organized for November 30th, to raise interest in this project and the overall access to information process in Québec. During this event, participants will learn how to make an access to information request, what the current limitations of the ATI law in Québec are, and will have the opportunity to write ATI request with our support.

If you have any questions about the JeVeuxSavoir.org project or want to know how a similar website could be set up in your jurisdiction, please contact info@opennorth.ca

The “civic power” sector

In a recent blog post, Tom Steinberg of mySociety describes the “civic power” sector as the sector that serves “people’s need to obtain and deploy power.” He segments it into four parts:

  1. Decision influencing organizations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.

  2. Regime changing organizations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.

  3. Citizen empowering organizations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit.

  4. Digital government organizations try to improve the ways in which governments acquire and use computers and networks.

Steinberg offers a few example organizations to help clarify the segments:

2013-11-14-civic-power-original

What kind of power and over whom?

According to the brief definition of “serving people’s need to obtain and deploy power,” nearly every online retailer makes the cut. Amazon allows customers to rate and review products, giving them the power to influence the producers and to reduce the information asymmetry between consumers and producers. I don’t think it’s controversial to state that Amazon and WikiLeaks belong to different sectors.

The problem with the definition is that it makes no attempt to scope the term “power.” At the risk of making controversial statements, the sector is about:

  • upward power (citizens exerting power over governments) not downward power (governments exerting power over citizens)

  • exerting power over institutions (like a rights watchdog does), not over individuals (like an influential does)

Although these additional constraints clarify the definition of the sector, they still don’t exclude Amazon. For now, we can say that Amazon primarily serves people’s need to acquire things, and only secondary serves the need to exert power over producers. However, I am curious to see how else we can scope “civic power” to more precisely bound the sector.

Shortcomings in categorization

Classifying Anonymous under “decision influencing” seems very tongue-in-cheek to me, because its most visible activities – hacking or attacking the websites of the organizations it wants to change – is a much more extreme form of influence, closer to coercion.

Putting Avaaz and the Open Government Partnership in the same basket is another surprise. Avaaz mobilizes millions of people to sign petitions and donate funds to specific campaigns. The OGP, on the other hand, accomplishes its mission by facilitating its participating governments and civil society organizations. One approach is confrontational; the other is cooperative.

As noted in the original blog post, the “digital government” category may be a subcategory of “decision influencing,” which becomes very crowded and diverse in this framework.

Another way to split the civic power sector

I’d like to propose a different segmentation that brings out some important differences, while retaining some of the previous distinctions. As an individual, you can change the behavior of a decision-maker or an organization, like a legislature or government, in many ways, including:

  1. become a decision-maker (get elected, for example)

  2. cooperate with a decision-maker (educate, partner)

  3. confront a decision-maker (petition, whistleblow)

  4. coerce a decision-maker (attack, blackmail)

  5. withdraw from any relationship with the organization (boycott, exit)

The so-called “civic power” sector is concerned with helping others do the same. Under this new segmentation, the example organizations now break down as follows. All organizations within Steinberg’s ”citizen empowering” category are reassigned, which is not surprising, given that ”citizen empowering” was synonymous with the “civic power” sector as a whole.

2013-11-14-civic-power-become

It may come as a surprise to see Kiva alongside political parties and election campaigns, which are clearly about helping people become decision-makers. But Kiva does help people become decision-makers; anyone with $25 can become a lender on Kiva and decide who to loan money to – a role usually fulfilled by banks, governments and other large institutions.

2013-11-14-civic-power-cooperate

There are many forms of cooperation, including:

  • offering products and services to institutions (Delib)

  • collaborating with institutions to address problems (OpenPlans)

  • convening institutions (Open Government Partnership)

Code for America, for example, pursues multiple strategies to change government’s culture:

2013-11-14-civic-power-confront

In this new categorization, Change.org, an online petition platform, joins the other organizations that change institutions via confrontational means. In this framing, more kinds of organizations, like class action law firms, find a place within the civic power sector.

We can find additional examples for the last two categories: coercion and exit. For example, any organization that reduces a person’s dependency on, or interaction with, an institution fits the “exit” category; I slot Nextdoor here as it helps make neighbors less dependent on government and the private sector and more dependent on each other.

As with any categorization system, some organizations fit better than others. For example, the use of Ushahidi’s technology may support one kind of interaction or another: CrowdMap can be used to crowdsource violations committed by a ruling party during an election (confrontational) but also to report missing people in crisis response (cooperative).

An organization may also deliberately pursue multiple strategies. mySociety (UK Citizens Online Democracyhelps people demand better from institutions, while its subsidiary (mySociety Ltdhelps institutions better serve the public. Open North also bridges these two.

How would you segment the sector?

The categorization I propose focuses on the strategies for changing institutions, but that is not the only way to segment the sector. We might think about where an organization’s power comes from: for example, does the organization have worker power, like a labor union, or purchasing power, like a private foundation? Or we might take an activity-based approach, which may include tool buildingpolicy researchmarket developmentmobilization and reporting.

Thinking of new ways to segment the sector will offer a more complete picture of this diverse sector. Indeed, foundations are conspicuously absent from the discussion thus far – which includes blog posts by Global Integrity’s Nathaniel Heller and the World Bank’s Tiago Peixoto – despite foundations funding much of the sector’s work.

This Week

Cornwall launched Citizen Budget

  • We are pleased to announce the launch of our 9th Citizen Budget consultation this year in the City of Cornwall, Ontario. The budget simulator is available to Cornwall residents in English and French. With submission, participants are automatically entered to win a prize draw. Visit www.citizenbudget.com to learn more about our interactive budget simulator.

  • Do you know a community organizer in your community who deserves recognition? Samara Canada’s “Everyday Citizen Project” is looking to identify at least 308 citizens, one for each federal riding, to celebrate unsung political heroes such as campaigners, activists, community organizers, and members of local riding associations who work through the political system to improve their communities, and whose contributions often go unrecognized. Nominate an inspiring neighbour today or review recent nominees.

  • Our transportation director, Stéphane Guidoin, contributed to the City of Montreal’s Open Data Portal blog, with a post about the technological challenges faced when implementing CKAN. His post is available in French only.

  • This week, we will attend #GovMakerDay, the Open Government Conference & Workshop in Toronto. The event, organized and hosted by MaRS Discovery District, in partnership with the City of Toronto, the City of Guelph and the Government of Ontario, invites public servants and data stakeholders to discuss the value of open government. Registration is currently at capacity but we will provide a recap blog after the event for those interested.

This Week

New Resto-Net app and OpenGov Guide

  • Jean Bagdoo of Montreal released Restonet Montreal to the Android App Store this week. The app, inspired by our retired Resto-Net project, was given the Public Choice Award at Google Montreal’s DevFest 2013. Using open data from the City of Montreal, the tool visualizes the official inspection data of food establishments and allows users to view the latest offenses, the frequency and degree of fines, make searches by name to check if an establishment has been in violation, and show their position on Google Maps.

  • Code for America has opened up its Brigade program to international organizers and have launched with partners in IrelandJapan and Poland. If you’re interested in setting up a brigade in your own city, you can do so here.

  • Last week, Open North board member David Eaves published an opinion piece in the Toronto Star about “the promise and challenges of open government”. The piece focuses on Ontario’s recently announced open government initiative and the difficulties its newly formed task force, of which David is a part of, will face in the coming months.

  • The OGP recently launched their online OpenGovGuide which is a thorough resource for governments to advance transparency, accountability and participation. If you’re interested in other resources about government transparency and open data, visit our community page where we list other guides and contacts to relevant communities in Canada.

Event Review

Speed dating on open data

The past few weeks have been very active in the open data community. One event in particular stands out - the open data speed dating event which took place two weeks ago on the sidelines of GTEC.

The “speed dating” concept was first used last year during a Ottawa hackathon: city employees discussed open data for five minutes with hackers and developers in rotation. For the GTEC event, 19 tables were set up to receive as many enthusiasts and curators from across the country. Participants included members of the federal government (StatsCan, NRCan, Environment Canada, etc.), provinces (Ontario, Québec, BC), cities and regions (Toronto, Region of York, Montréal, Québec, etc.) It was an impressive line up!

In total there were two hours of intense, almost non-stop discussion about open data. As a result, at the end of the event, I felt as though my brain was about to melt! Nonetheless, there was a very positive vibe and a lot of energy. For anybody who wanted to dig deep into the open data world, it was a perfect setting. The event also demonstrated what I have repeatedly discovered over the last two years: governments have a lot of open-minded and very accessible people. Two weeks after the event, I am still following up with the new connections that I made. Overall, this event was much more rewarding than a regular conference, even when participating as a speaker.

We would like to thank the organizing team who was able to bring together a fantastic line up, including a Skype session with British Columbia and Vancouver. We have definitely moved on from the time where we had to work for months in advance to have someone in government hear about the open data movement in Canada.

This event also confirmed something I believe about the relationship of government to their data: they see themselves as mere providers. I started 80% of my five-minute discussions with something like “Why are you here? What do you expect from your data?” and the answer was invariably: “We do not expect anything. We are here to help people use our data.”

Having open data is already an immense step forward. Some of the curators at the event explained to me how, in their case, extracting the data from internal business software containing sensitive data was difficult and time consuming. I feel, however, that governments are losing out on an opportunity to increase the value of their datasets even for themselves.

Some will ask, “What kind of expectations can a data owner have?” Several things are possible: They could anticipate that some of their data could help solve some challenges and even though government employees cannot do the work, they could be willing to support anybody who wants to do it. They might predict that their data could be reused by other government agencies. They could look for researchers to work on it, together. These examples are just a few of many.

I am convinced that open data has an incredible potential to foster collaboration among governments, agencies, and with external players (academics, NGOs, companies) with positive outcomes from everybody. Once again, it is already incredible to have so many people from government accepting to discuss their open data. But I am also convinced that we can take this a step further.

How it works

Ensuring authentic results in Citizen Budget consultations

We are often asked how we ensure that residents submit a single response only, to avoid a scenario where individuals can bias the results of the consultation by submitting the same response multiple times.

We’ve discovered that the best approach is to accept all responses at first, and to later filter out duplicates, spam and other forms of abuse at the end of the consultation. The basic premise is that if you tell an uncooperative participant, for example, “We’ve already received a submission from this IP address” or “Your response has been flagged as a duplicate,” then you are giving that person more information about how your system works, which gives them a better idea of how to circumvent whatever protections you have in place. By accepting all responses, we divulge no information about how we detect duplicates and spam. We’ve witnessed that this approach leads to less sophisticated attacks, which are easier to defend against. On the other hand, an alternate system, in which the attacker is informed that a particular attempt to submit a duplicate response didn’t work, quickly leads to an arms race.

We use a variety of techniques on the backend to detect duplicates and spam. Finding duplicate IP addresses is just one technique. If used alone, it may incorrectly flag a response as a duplicate; for example, several members of the same household may submit entirely different responses from the same IP address, and we should not flag those as duplicates. After a first pass through the responses, in which our tools automatically remove any obvious duplicates, we do a second pass in which we manually review possible duplicates. We use a similar process for ensuring that respondents are in fact residents of a municipality.

We’re serious about providing secure, meaningful and painless budget consultations, and we take responsibility for providing validated results at the end of each consultation. We invite you to contact us to learn more about how we can together create a unique Citizen Budget that reflects the priorities of your municipality.

After online consultations

Create lasting customer service opportunities

Each time a resident interacts with your organization, you have an opportunity to build a stronger relationship - whether it’s visiting a service centre, attending a council meeting, calling 3-1-1, or finding a tax rate on your website. The people who participate in local government consultations are among your most engaged residents, but many of them may be participating for the first time. It’s important to take this opportunity to start a lasting relationship with the resident, to build trust and respect.

As a first step, with Citizen Budget, each time a resident submits a response to a consultation, an email is automatically sent to the resident in which city staff can describe upcoming meetings and events, invite participation in other consultations, or provide links to further educational tools.

However, you can do much more with the contact information and demographic data that Citizen Budget collects for each respondent (provided you also collect permission to contact participants after the consultation). Here are some suggestions from our clients for making the most of Citizen Budget once the consultation is over:

  • Send a follow-up email to participants to let them know when the budget is passed and how their input was taken into account

  • Create a new “engaged citizens” newsletter to regularly contact participants about new opportunities to participate and give feedback

  • Segment your list according to age, gender, income or location to send targeted messages that are relevant to that group: for example, sending information about affordable transportation options for older residents

  • Kickstart your Citizen Budget consultation by inviting last year’s participants

In this way, Citizen Budget is not only a consultation tool, but also a way to build relationships with residents, engage residents in continuous dialogue and feedback, and increase their satisfaction with, and commitment to, your municipality.

This Week

Open Ontario and the Aid Transparency Index

  • This week, the Government of Ontario officially launched their open government initiative. The strategy includes three pillars: open data, open information, and open dialogue. Of the plan, Premier Kathleen Wynne notes, “Part of this process will be the use of innovative models of public engagement, giving you a greater say on a range of items, including transit, regional economic development, and fiscal responsibility. We will also create a central space online where people can find information about government consultations, get engaged in that process, and express their ideas on government policy.” The province’s open data portal currently contains around 250 datasets, and a survey about attitudes towards open government is currently available. We hope to see more concrete initiatives, for example an access to information request portal, from the province soon.

  • Publish What You Fund, the global campaign for aid transparency, published the 2013 Aid Transparency Index (ATI) this week. The report is the industry standard for assessing foreign assistance transparency among the world’s major donors. It not only assesses what information is published, but also the usefulness of that information.

  • Next week, the Open Government Partnership will meet in London for their annual summit. A recent blog post from The Guardian serves as an excellent primer for the summit and reminds us why the OGP is vital to journalism and argues that bringing media into the open government movement is the next step towards true transparency.

This Week

GitHub’s government initiative and Code for America’s new transparency book

  • GitHub launched GitHub and Government, a new website dedicated “to showcasing the amazing efforts of public servants and civic hackers around the globe.” The new space for governments to connect and share best practices highlights the Treasury Board’s Canadian web experience toolkit among a few other examples of open government innovation. GitHub and Government also includes a few project ideas for governments aspiring to allow residents to do more with their data.

  • Code for America has published a new book on learnings and best practices from the open data movement at the municipal level entitled Beyond Transparency. Contributors to the book include Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, Brett Goldstein, former Chief Data Officer of Chicago, and Michael Flowers, Chief Analytics Officer of New York City. Interestingly, the full text is on GitHub, which means that anyone can submit a pull request with a suggested edit. Code for America asks, “help us improve this resource for the community and write the next edition of Beyond Transparency by submitting your pull requests.” Beyond Transparency is also available in its entirety as a PDF and on Amazon.

  • If you’re in the D.C. area, the Open Government Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism is hosting a brown-bag lunch on Wednesday, October 23rd at the OpenGov Hub. According the Eventbrite invitation, the session will address big questions like, “Are all those OGP commitments actually doing anything to advance Open Government Principles?”

This Week

Citizen Budget launches in Dieppe, NB

  • The first ever bilingual Citizen Budget consultation has launched in Dieppe, New Brunswick. Our team worked closely with Ville de Dieppe’s Corporate Affairs department to deliver a detailed consultation in both official languages. You can view the consultation at www.budgetdieppe.ca.

  • The importance of civic participation as an everyday activity, a value we promote through our mission, was discussed this week in an article by Laura Beeston in the Montreal Gazette. With respect to the upcoming mayoral election in Montreal, Beeston argues, “Even if the reputation and rebirth of our city is at stake and there are no shortage of civic subjects to complain about, the will to create change that characterized the provincial election campaign and student strikes last year has yet to be seen or felt with the same passion gearing up for the municipal decision on Nov. 3.” In the piece, Beeston interviews several community members about the importance of civic engagement and concludes that progress in Montreal’s city governance will come through continual participation and interest on behalf of citizens, not just one voting day.

  • The deadline is fast approaching for the Dazzling Notice Awards, a competition which recognizes substantial efforts by municipalities to inform the public about opportunities for citizen participation. Open North is participating in the awards this year as a jury member. We look forward to reviewing submissions and promoting effective municipal announcements.

  • BetterBudgetTO and the Wellesley Institute are hosting “Better Budget Day” on October 19th at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. The independent event “aims to bring together individuals and groups from a diverse set of backgrounds, skill sets, and communities to improve Toronto’s budget process.” With a focus on learning and creative problem solving, the event will build civic capacity around city budget issues and develop solutions that we hope will inform the 2014 Toronto election campaign.

This Week

Citizen Budget launches in Markham and Yellowknife

  • The City of Markham, Ontario launched their Citizen Budget consultation last week. Markham’s use of the budget simulator takes advantage of the many customizable features the platform offers. For example, the consultation’s design is matched to the City’s website for a streamlined presentation, and, for the first time, it includes custom pie charts which change for each user’s property assessment. Markham plans to run the consultation into the upcoming budget cycle as an ongoing educational tool for residents.

  • Additionally, Citizen Budget launched last week in the City of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. We are pleased to deliver Citizen Budget to smaller Canadian municipalities like Yellowknife as we believe residents should be informed and consulted about their municipality’s budget process regardless of its size. If you’re interested in bringing Citizen Budget to your community, contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

  • The Participatory Politics Foundation recently announced AskThem, a free and open-source website for questions-and-answers with public figures. AskThem will allow users to find and ask questions to over 100,000 elected officials in the United States, sign on to questions they care about, and review answers from public figures. Open North was involved in the early development of the tool, which uses the Popolo standard.

  • The Government of Canada recently launched a web-based information system to track Aboriginal and Treaty Rights (ATRIS). This open government project was a key commitment of the Government’s 2007 Action Plan on Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation. Although ATRIS’ data is not open, the tool is inline with the Government’s open government principles, as the information in the database was not previously readily available to citizens and will be helpful in determining when consultations with Aboriginal groups are necessary.

This Week

Democracy Week events and Sunlight’s Procurement Guidelines

  • Next week is Canada’s Democracy Week, which includes a series of nationwide discussions on topics ranging from civic engagement to international democratic aid. The events across the country are inspired by and coincide with the United Nation’s International Democracy Day on September 15th. Visit the Democracy Week events page for details to find out what events are happening near you.

  • In March, the Sunlight Foundation started a procurement initiative to research how governments obtain, track and manage their various contracts. As a result of this initiative, they have released the Procurement Open Data Guidelines which they hope will help shape how governments release data on their procurement process. The guidelines, which promote transparency, efficiency and accountability, include suggestions for participants in the process as well. They suggest that contractor performance and project status information should be released alongside financial data in an effort to reduce corruption.

  • The Government of Canada’s consultation on their open data initiative has been extended by one week, until September 16th. If you haven’t already, please take the time to comment on the open data action plan, its priorities, and any other suggestions you have. You can also view comments previously submitted and promote them within the consultation.

  • As a reminder, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario is hosting a panel next week, where our transportation director, Stéphane Guidoin, will join experts to discuss high-value government data and opportunities for innovation in the sector. Registration for the event is available through the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

This Week

New crowdsourcing framework and Canadian open data study

  • iHub, a Nairobi-based innovation hub, released the results of their research to develop a crowdsourcing framework for elections. This study, which includes analysis of which social media tools produce the best real-time picture of the “on-the-ground reality” in Kenyan politics, now available online, was retroactively applied to the recent elections in Kenya as a first test case.

  • The Sunlight Foundation started an experiment this week to crowdsource a list of reasons governments have given to not release data. They are inviting members of the open data and civic technology community to add reasons governments have given for not opening data to a public Google document. As we discussed in our blog post about open postal code data, another common reason is that crown corporations like Canada Post generate revenue from the sale of data.

  • recent masters thesis by Liam Currie from the Department of Geography at Queen’s University takes an in-depth look into the diverse open data initiatives in Canadian municipalities and concludes with seven important recommendations to municipalities who are considering starting their own open data program. It also cites Open North as an example of an organization whose work benefits from the availability of open data to build democratic engagement and information tools that do not rely on government buy-in.

This Week

VeloPlan San Francisco!

This Week

Action Plan on Open Government consultation

This Week

Québec Ouvert hackathon and extracting PDF data

  • Quebec Ouvert is hosting their first Quebec City Hackathon on August 29th and 30th. The hackathon will be an outdoor picnic under a tent at the Place de l’Université-du-Québec in the St-Roch district of the city. Quebec Ouvert encourages developers, designers and officials to participate to demonstrate to the government the power of the open government movement. Register for the event on Eventbrite.

  • The Sunlight Foundation announced an updated version of their Open Data Policy Guidelines. Originally authored last summer, these guidelines describe how open data policies can be most effective. Sunlight calls their guidelines a “living document” and are keen to have participation from the open government community.

  • When working to improve access to information, you quickly realize that a lot of data gets lost in PDFs, which can lead to setbacks for all levels of developers. Thankfully, the School of Data recently released a simple guide to extracting data from PDF tables using Tabula. Liberate your tables!

  • The week, Fast Company profiled Steve Vanroekel, the White House’s Chief Technology Officer to discuss the intersection of their open government initiative and the recent NSA leaks. The article provides insight into balance between protecting citizen privacy while remaining innovative in the open government sector.

This Week

New version of Popolo and DCCode.org

For our first post back from hiatus, we’ve collected four top stories from the past month. If you think there is an important story we’ve missed, or want to contribute, let us know at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week

News Challenge winners and Open511 update

  • The Knight Foundation announced the winners of its News Challenge on Open Government. Eight businesses and nonprofits will receive $3.2 million in funding from the Foundation to “provide new tools and approaches to improve the way people and governments interact.” The winners include Procure.io, which aims to simplify and open up the government procurement process, Outline.com, which models and visualizes the impact of existing or proposed policies, and Plan in a Box, which makes it easier to discover and provide input into local planning projects. Congratulations to all the winners!

  • Along with the release of version 0.9 of the specification, the team behind Open511 launched a development preview of the first implementation of the standard. If you would like to learn more about Open511 and follow its development, please join the mailing list.

  • In recognition of the 30th anniversary of the Access to Information Act on Canada Day, Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault published an opinion piece arguing that Parliament ought to be covered under the Act, among other proposed changes to modernize of the legislation. She explains, “The act has grown tired and out-of-date. Worst of all, over that period our access to information rights have been slowly eroded by a variety of constraints, practices and amendments to the act.”

Now that summer is here, this blog series is going on vacation! We’ll be back the first week of August to update you on news and events from the open government and civic technology sectors.

This Week

Major updates to Canada's open government initiatives

It was a very eventful week in open data in Canada with the release of several interesting open government policy updates. If you are interested in learning more about these policies and reading some expert analysis of recent advancements, we suggest joining the CivicAccess.ca and Open Data Society of BC mailing lists where members of our team often share their insights.

  • The federal government relaunched data.gc.ca with an updated license and portal based on CKAN. Of the many improvements to the site, two features stand out. It is now possible to search summaries of completed Access to Information requests; this information was previously spread across 170 government websites. You can also now publicly request vote up datasets, such as the important postal code database. These are welcomed advances to the government’s open data strategy, but as Tracey Lauriault points out, “really solid data sets related to government transparency, government accountability” are still missing.

  • Canada signed the G8 Open Data Charter during this week’s summit in Northern Ireland. The Open Knowledge Foundation explains that the charter “endorses the principle of ‘open by default’ and makes clear that open data must be open to all and usable by both machines and humans (as per the Open Definition.” Notably, section 6.2 of the charter (“Collective Actions”) lists postcodes as an example of high value datasets that should be released by all G8 members; it is no surprise it is the most voted dataset on the new data.gc.ca.

  • As described on the DataBC blog, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and the federal government have adopted a common license, named the Open Government License, for their open data portals, making it easier for people to use data from multiple governments without having to interpret each license and meet each license’s different terms and conditions.

  • The World Bank’s Open Finances group is soliciting feedback on how organizations use open data through a survey open until June 30th. The goal of this study is to understand the demand for open financial data and gaps in its supply and demand. The survey is open to all!

  • Alisha Green of the Sunlight Foundation recently started a blog series about municipal zoning data. In these posts, Alisha argues for the release of zoning data in open formats as it is a dataset that “literally shapes the environment in which people live, work, and play.” We suggest reading her other posts about the impact of open zoning data and recommendations for stronger data for further insight.

Using Represent

For the recent BC election, The Tyee, an online news magazine, used our Represent service in their BC Election 2013 Map & Guide to connect their readers to electoral candidates.

As regular readers already know, Represent is a database of elected officials and electoral boundaries, whose API allows other civic groups to easily lookup representatives for a given address or postal code.

To learn more about their election tool and how it benefits citizens, we interviewed project lead Phillip Smith and Tyee senior editor Robyn Smith about their experience.

2013-06-20-the-tyee-map

How did the project start? Phillip Smith: Conceptually, the project started almost a year ago. Initially, it was just discussions exploring what would be technically and editorially possible for the BC provincial election, and investigations into what data was available to weave into the mix (i.e. past census data, representative data, etc). From there, we moved into mockups. About six months out, the election was a more frequent discussion at regular team meetings; actual technical and editorial work on the project started in earnest in January.

When designing the tool, what features did you prioritize? PS: Nothing fancy, just the usual election map features like riding geometries, zooming to various regions, information presented on map hover, and the lookup feature described above.

How did you discover Represent? PS: I try to keep my ear to the ground in general for new Canadian open data initiatives. Also, when I e-mailed the Vote.ca project to ask about their riding lookup service and API limits, I was pointed to Represent’s API. I quickly re-wrote the tool to use Represent’s API.

What was the most challenging aspect of building the tool? PS: Two things really: first was the unreliability of the connection between the app and the Google Spreadsheet that provided the data for each riding, candidates, and so on. High traffic on the app would almost always inevitably result in errors from the Google Docs API. Initially, some very basic caching was added to reduce the number of requests being made when the app was serving higher volumes of traffic. Eventually, I removed all remote calls from the application entirely and had separate tasks that would write to a cache, while the app would exclusively read from that cache.

The addition of caching to speed up the app – most specifically the caching of static assets like images and JavaScript – meant that it was more challenging to make updates to the GeoJSON/JSON/JavaScript files that powered the map, because it would require pushing out new versions of those assets and forcing end-users to download new versions of what equated to a large amount of data. Given the focus on making the app available to mobile devices, keeping the size and amount of data downloaded to a minimum was a priority.

Next time, I would probably separate the geographic data and the informational data for the map, so that they could be managed and cached independently.

If Represent’s API were not available, could you have found the data elsewhere? What would it have cost? PS: We used a few different endpoints of the Represent API, specifically the representative lookup by riding, the riding centroid and bounds for drawing individual ridings, and the full dataset of BC provincial riding boundaries and their simplified geometry (a time-consuming task, if not available), and the riding lookup by latitude and longitude.

Although it may have been possible to find and build out that data and services outlined above, it would have been significantly more time consuming. Although most of the data is available, the act of scraping, aggregating, and serving it would have incurred the cost of time that could have been invested elsewhere.

How has reporting on elections changed since the 2009 BC Election? What are the Tyee’s goals for engaging readers? PS: Users probably expected more – more information, more updates, and they expect that across more devices. This experiment of having an app that aggregated both public data and Tyee reporting tried to address those needs in a new and novel way.

Robyn Smith: I would say that overall our style of reporting probably hasn’t changed much. We strive to be thorough and fair, and to surprise our readers by taking different approaches or angles than other media. But I agree with Phillip in that our readers probably expected more this time around, because they’ve seen us grow as an organization over the past four years. The app is one way we decided to offer more. It’s simple and interactive, with easy-to-digest riding profiles that included bites of key census data, candidate information, past election results, and “at a glance” histories crafted by Tyee reporters. It also had a function that allowed us to classify our stories as relevant to specific ridings.

Our definition of engaging readers is including them, whenever possible, in what we do. They’re smart, sometimes brutally so. The app really gave them an opportunity to shine. For example, the day we launched it in late February, we received a flood of emails from readers, candidates, and politicians, all pointing out ways to improve it, offering new information, and chastising us over a few mistakes. This process continued for months, and we incorporated it into the profiles as it came in. By mid-April, each page looked much different – the whole project was fuller based on reader input. In that sense, I think it was successful.

How do you think the tool benefits voters? Did the Tyee see an increase in reader engagement from the tool? RS: A: Our aim for the app was to provide some helpful information, spark debate, and make it easier for voters to pester their candidates on issues that matter to them. I hope it benefited them in that way.

Did we experience an increase in engagement as a result of the app? If by engagement you mean traffic, then yes! It was also well-shared on social media, and represented another opportunity for our readers to chime in.

What data could the BC or Canadian governments (or civil society!) make available to strengthen this type of tool for the next election? PS: We worked closely with Elections BC to ensure that The Tyee would have access to Election BC’s feed of the vote results throughout the night. The sample data came very late in the game (a few days ahead of the election) and the actual election-night data file had a number of formatting and naming inconsistencies that we had to work out in the hours proceeding the election. That added unnecessary stress. I hope that going forward all provinces, not just BC, can work to be more proactive in releasing election-night data and will work to provide that data in a format more consistent with the efforts of Represent, and by that I mean via an API, not a CSV file that needs to be fetched, parsed, and corrected and that can only be queried every five minutes! At the end of the day, it worked, but it was not what I would call “elegant.”

The candidates endpoint that Represent added to their API was something that I’d like to see more often. Unfortunately, The Tyee had already started down this path before that endpoint was available and we didn’t end up using or contributing to that effort.

To learn more about how you can use Represent to connect citizens to decision-making processes, visit represent.opennorth.ca.

This Week

I Vote for Transparency and the Global Open Data Initiative

  • This week, Québec Ouvert launched a new campaign, “I Vote for Transparency” which will identify which municipal candidates support transparent government before the Quebec municipal elections in November. Quebéc Ouvert will survey every candidate to generate a transparency report card, which will then be made available to the public. Sign-up via email and mobile number to receive a report card of your municipal candidates’ stance on open and transparent government!

  • The Open Knowledge FoundationOpen InstituteFundarSunlight Foundation, and World Wide Web Foundation recently announced the establishment of the Global Open Data Initiative which aims to provide governments around the world with resources to understand and implement best practices of open government data. You can stay up-to-date on the groups work by joining the GODI mailing list.

  • The University of Chicago is currently hosting 36 up-and-coming data scientists to tackle quantifiable social good projects as part of the new “Data Science for Social Good” Summer Fellowship. One organizer explains it as “Code For America for data scientists but focused on non-profits and all levels of government, not just cities.” We look forward to following their work!

  • On June 19, Open North will give the keynote address to Community Data Canada’s 2013 Roundtable webinar. This full-day online event focuses on measuring financial vulnerability in Canada through community data, and our presentation hopes to inspire like-minded participant organizations to use this work to impact democracy and citizen engagement. Register now for a link to the conference!

  • Also, we’ve added a WordPress plugin so that users can more easily integrate our Represent API into their website. (As regular readers know, Represent is the largest database of elected officials in Canada, and offers the most comprehensive postal code lookup service for elected officials at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government.) Several websites already use our Drupal modules, and we are happy to now offer the same service to WordPress users!

Open North to expand its reach thanks to generous support from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation

We are pleased to announce that the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has awarded Open North financial support for its mission and its development as a social enterprise.

This support from the Foundation’s Social Innovation Fund will allow us to more proactively engage with governments and community organizations in identifying data needs that can be addressed through the effective use of technology; to share best practices with the open government and open data communities; and to continue our work of authoring and promoting open data specifications. The support will also allow us to strengthen our earned revenue streams to ensure that we conclude the two-year contract as a sustainable social enterprise.

The Social Innovation Fund was created by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation to support innovative groups that further the Foundation’s goal of “improving the lives of Canadians and contributing to a more resilient society.” We believe that when citizens participate actively in government decision-making processes, our leaders make better decisions – to make our communities safer, healthier, smarter and otherwise better. We are honored to receive the Foundation’s support for our projects that work toward this goal.

If you work in the government or nonprofit sectors and want to use and share data more effectively, we want to hear from you! Contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

How nonprofits can leverage online budget consultation

Much like municipal governments – school boards, labour unions and residents’ associations must ensure that their directions match the preferences and needs of their membership. While in-person consultations and annual meetings are important and effective tools for reaching consensus, there are many limiting factors such as time, travel and knowledge that can hinder participation in these events. With an online consultation, your organization can quickly and easily collect input from your members to help guide your budget decisions.

Not every organization uses the same budget process or planning strategy. Fortunately, Citizen Budget is extremely customizable. Whether your organization needs to consult members on your annual budget, the budget for a single project or campaign or even another government’s budget or policy decisions, Citizen Budget can help you display this information and offer budget choices through a user-friendly, interactive interface that effectively communicates the impacts of the respondent’s choices in real-time.

Some ideas for a Citizen Budget consultation include:

  • A student union asks undergraduate students to re-allocate a portion of their student fees to better support or create new programs and services

  • An environmental NGO challenges members of the public to balance the environmental and financial costs of proposed government policies

  • A local councillor solicits feedback on how to spend their discretionary spending budget in their municipal ward

  • A school board consults parents on what capital expenditures a grant should go towards

Since launching Citizen Budget in May 2011, our expertise and understanding of what makes a great online consultation has grown dramatically. Having successfully run eight municipal consultations, we are eager to identify ways in which Citizen Budget can help other kinds of organizations engage their membership and create easy, meaningful and fun consultations! If you would like to explore how Citizen Budget can help you achieve your engagement goals, please contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week

Alberta Open Data Portal launches

  • On May 28th, the Province of Alberta launched their open data portal at data.alberta.ca. The portal is their first major open government initiative. The portal launched with over 280 data sets and allows for residents to request additional data sets. Four of Canada’s ten provinces now have open data portals or official initiatives, with hopefully the rest to follow soon!

  • CanLII, a nonprofit that aims to make primary Canadian law freely accessible online, has issued an RFP for a community website. CanLII is an exciting project that is changing the flow of legal information. Open North’s Stephane Guidoin recently consulted on CanLII’s API and documention, which we encourage you to check out.

  • For the third year in a row, Open North has delivered our Citizen Budget platform to the Plateau-Mont Royal borough of Montreal. If you live in the Plateau, be sure to visit www.budgetplateau.com to have your say on the 2014 budget and share it with your friends. In just two days, over 120 residents have already submitted their priorities to the borough using this service!

New Citizen Budget pricing for small municipalities

Open and transparent budget governance is a value held by many governments regardless of their size. While it is often the federal and provincial legislatures or largest municipalities that draw attention in the press for releasing financial information to the public, it is important to recognize the efforts of small towns and cities across the country. Indeed, the average Canadian municipality has under 10,000 residents! That’s why we’ve recently changed our pricing structure for Citizen Budget, our customizable online budget simulator.

2013-05-27-cb-interface

Citizen Budget helps municipalities engage residents by encouraging them to indicate their budget preferences through an engaging, interactive interface. Residents can increase or decrease budgets for specific activities, vote on capital investments, suggest new revenues and more. The financial impact of their budget choices is communicated in real-time, giving residents a better understanding of the trade-offs public administrators must face to create a balanced budget. Citizen Budget has been used in Montreal, Toronto, and Langley, BC among others.

This consultation tool is now available starting at $1750 for municipalities with fewer than 25,000 residents. This entry-level pricing includes basic customization and feedback on questions to prepare any municipality for an engaging, effective and meaningful consultation.

If you have any questions about how to get started with Citizen Budget, do not hesitate to contact us at info@opennorth.ca. We also have some great resources on this blog about choosing good questions and performing effective outreach to residents. We look forward to meeting more municipal administrators and officials at the FCM Annual Conference Trade Show in Vancouver May 31st and June 1st, where we will answer any questions and demonstrate the tool.

This Week

Postal code accuracy analysis and the Personal Democracy Forum

  • Represent, our lookup service for electoral boundaries and elected officials, depends on accurate postal code data to determine who represents you, given your postal code. A major challenge for many organizations using postal codes is that the most accurate datasets costs tens of thousands of dollars. Courtney Claessens, one of our volunteers, recently published a first analysis comparing the accuracy of different free postal code datasets, including the recently released forward sortation area (FSA) boundaries from Statistics Canada.

  • The 2013 Personal Democracy Forum will take place June 6th and 7th in New York City. This annual event brings together top minds working on open government and civic engagement to discuss technology’s impact on politics and democracy. In honour of Aaron Swartz, this year’s conference theme is “Think Bigger.” Two of Open North’s Board Members, David Eaves and Jonathan Brun will be attending PDF, and we look forward to hearing about their experiences.

  • The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) and the Knight Foundation have partnered to present a new Civic Data Challenge for raw civic health data. The contest runs until July 28th and encourages submissions of applications and visualizations that have direct impact on public decision-making.

Lessons from Represent

Postcode data quality

Open North’s Represent web service allows Canadian citizens to enter a postal code to find their electoral districts and elected officials. This blog post will discuss some of the challenges in performing this (deceptively simple!) task.

As previously discussed, elections offices sometimes provide a file that assigns each postal code to one or more electoral districts. In those cases, it is straightforward to lookup a citizen’s postal code in the file and find the correct electoral districts. In most cases, however, such a file is not available, and we must rely on postal code geography data directly.

Anatomy of a postal code

The first three characters of a postal code – like “H3B” in H3B 3H5 – identify the forward sortation area (FSA), which is a large region associated with a postal facility in which mail is sorted for delivery. Canada Post defines roughly 1,600 FSAs. Within an FSA, the last three characters of a postal code identify the local delivery unit (LDU), which in a big city may be a single building or a range of addresses, often associated with a postal carrier’s route or a set of post office boxes. Canada Post defines roughly a million LDUs.

Finding electoral districts using FSAs

As of February, it is possible to produce a list of FSAs that are entirely within an electoral district using the free boundary files for federal electoral districts and forward sortation areas provided by Statistics Canada (StatCan). If an FSA (like H3B) is entirely within the boundary of an electoral district, then all its LDUs (like H3B 3H5) will be, too; we can therefore partially solve the challenge of determining electoral districts by postal code using only freely available data.

To improve the quality of our analysis, we compared StatCan’s FSA boundaries to those in DMTI Spatial’s commercial CanMap Postal Code Suite. Each data provider determines FSA boundaries differently: StatCan bases itself on postal codes reported by 2011 Census respondents for their place of residence; DMTI bases itself on postal codes tied to addresses in its CanMap Streetfiles data product. The different methodologies produce different FSA boundaries; the two differ especially in rural areas. As such, depending on which data provider you use, you get a different list of FSAs that are entirely within an electoral district.

DMTI’s FSA boundaries also extended beyond Canada’s major land mass and coastal islands into its coastal waters, whereas neither of StatCan’s boundary files did. Given that mail is not delivered to coastal waters, DMTI’s FSA boundaries were clipped to stay within StatCan’s federal electoral district boundaries; otherwise, FSA boundaries that bled into the water would not be counted as entirely within an electoral district. We also clip StatCan’s FSA boundaries to ensure consistency across all boundary files.

Sem

In other words, using only freely available data, and given a forward sortation area like H3B, you can accurately determine its federal electoral district 25% of the time. For the 75% of FSAs that overlap with two or more electoral districts (or cross provincial borders), it is necessary to use the more geographically precise (but not freely available) LDU to find the correct electoral district for a given postal code. These results highlight the need for open postal code data in Canada.

Download the list of FSAs entirely within an electoral district as CSV:

Finding electoral districts using FSA centroids

Instead of using full FSA boundaries, it’s possible to instead use FSA centroids; an FSA’s centroid is the latitude and longitude of its geometric center. However, it’s impossible to tell, using only its centroid, whether an FSA is entirely within a single district or overlaps with two or more districts. Also, some FSAs are made up of two or more unconnected regions, in which case the centroid may be outside any of its component regions and inside another FSA. Centroids are therefore less reliable than boundaries for finding electoral districts.

Nonetheless, it is helpful to know how many FSA centroids are within their FSA boundary. We can calculate FSA centroids using the StatCan and DMTI FSA boundaries we already have. In addition, GeoNames provides a ZIP file of 1,621 FSA centroids.

Sem

Unsurprisingly, StatCan and DMTI FSA centroids are, with 94% and 96% accuracy, within the FSA boundary from which they are derived; it isn’t 100% because, as described, an area’s centroid can fall outside of its boundary. On the other hand, when comparing StatCan centroids to DMTI boundaries, StatCan centroids perform roughly as well as GeoNames centroids. DMTI centroids have the best performance overall, with 90% falling within the correct StatCan boundary.

In an upcoming post, we will use DMTI’s LDU boundary file (quoted at $11,275) to evaluate the accuracy of both free and commercial datasets describing full postal code centroids, in order to recommend affordable datasets that strike a balance between accuracy and cost.

A big thank you to our volunteer Courtney Claessens for performing this analysis!

This Week

BC Election results and Rackbin

  • This week, Christy Clark’s Liberals stunned many pundits by returning to office with a majority government in British Columbia’s provincial election. As we mentioned in a previous post, The Tyee used our Represent API to build a BC Election Map for voters. Post-election, the map now serves as a great resource to review polls and understand how the Liberals pulled out a win!

  • The Apps4Ottawa contest, organized by the City of Ottawa’s Open Data team, has entered its second phase - voting! Vote now on your favourite open data local app submissions before the winners are announced in June. We particularly like the submission, Ottawa City Councillors, which uses the Represent API.

  • We’re also getting very excited for the FCM Annual Conference and Trade Show in Vancouver! The conference, which runs May 31st to June 2nd, is the largest annual gathering of Canadian municipal leaders with an expected 2,000+ representatives in attendance. If you’re headed to the conference, be sure to find us at trade show booth 625 where we will be demonstrating Citizen Budget alongside our friends from Recollect.

  • Calling all opengov developers: Have you ever needed a more flexible Requestb.in? We recently released Rackbin - a small, simple, easy to install and customize postbin built on Rack. Enjoy!

This Week

Obama's executive order and VeloPlan

  • This week President Obama issued an executive order mandating open and machine-readable formats for all new and modernized government information systems. As the White House blog explains, new data must be served in CSV, XML, JSON or other machine-readable formats and via APIs when appropriate. This order, which will affect procurement of new government systems, is similar to systems put in place by David Cameron in the United Kingdom. The Guardian has compared the two initiatives noting that, unlike the UK, Obama’s efforts mark substantial legislative change. For additional context, see the new White House Open Data Policy.

  • Our transportation director, Stéphane Guidoin, recently launched VeloPlan.net to help cyclists in Montreal get to their destination in the fastest, flatest or safest way possible. VeloPlan reuses Cibi.me by OpenPlans with route calculations provided by OpenTripPlanner. The open source code for VeloPlan is available on GitHub. VeloPlan works great on mobile browsers too for route calculations on the go!

  • Today, Open North participated in the last of five roundtable discussions about the Treasury Board’s Open Data Initiative. These discussions, moderated by Open North board member, David Eaves, aim to provide Minister Clement’s team with feedback to improve the federal government’s open data portal which is set to relaunch this spring. You can read more about our experience participating in the Toronto roundtable in our earlier post.

  • If you live in the Sud-Ouest borough of Montreal, there is one week left to add your input to next year’s budget through www.budgetsudouest.com. So far, over 200 residents of the borough have submitted their own balanced budgets to the borough using our Citizen Budget platform!

Thank you for supporting MyCityHall.ca and MaMairie.ca!

Wow! Thanks to your combined contributions and support, we raised over $4750 for free, open source, citizen engagement tools for Montreal and Toronto through Indiegogo. Although we did not reach our goal on Indiegogo, once we include the support from earlier contributions and our Google Montreal sponsorship, we have over $19,000 for the development of these reusable civic engagement tools. We have a busy summer ahead of us building MaMairie.ca and MyCityHall.ca, and we are excited to share our progress with you.

Through this campaign, we’ve gained the support of many influential political leaders and community groups. In addition to your contribution, we have the encouragement of the following leaders and groups:

Toronto: Councillor Shelley Carroll, Councillor Josh Colle, Councillor Mike Layton, Councillor Joe Mihevc, Councillor Adam Vaughan, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives CivicAction, MaRS Data Catalyst, Scarborough Action Network, Toronto Public Space Initiative

Montreal: Councillor Richard Bergeron, Councillor Laurent Blanchard, Councillor Benoît Dorais, Councillor Véronique Fournier, Councillor Marc-André Gadoury, Councillor Louise Harel, Councillor Elsie Lefebvre, Councillor Réal Ménard, Councillor Alex Norris, Councillor Marie Potvin, Councilor Monica Ricourt, Councillor Huguette Roy, Councillor Richard Ryan, L’Institut du Nouveau Monde

Encouragement from these groups will be extremely helpful to ensure that citizens like you will actually receive responses from elected officials when these tools launch.

As you know, the starting place for the MaMairie.ca/MyCityHall.ca project is our collaboration with Participatory Politics (PPF) on OpenGovernment.org. This summer, PPF will deploy the next version of OpenGovernment.org to the local level in three American cities. Through this experience, we will learn valuable lessons that will help ensure the success Open North’s own open government tools in Montreal and Toronto. We will then turn our attention to delivering MaMairie.ca before the Montreal municipal election in November, with MyCityHall.ca Toronto to follow.

We will continue to update you on our progress throughout the summer. Again, we want to thank you for your generous contributions to our work. With your help, we can open city hall’s processes, close the gap between representatives and citizens, and make democracy better!

This Week

GO Open Data Conference and revisiting the Geocoder case

  • David Eaves (an Open North board member) revisited the Canada Post/Geocoder.ca case, which recently escalated, on his blog. In this post, David explores the financial challenges Canada Post’s policies put on the nonprofit sector, referring to the costs Open North would incur (up to $50,000) if we elected to use their data products for our Represent service. David concludes by noting, again, that we may be the only country with this kind of closed postal service!

  • Open North is pleased to join the jury panel of the 2013 Dazzling Notice Awards. The awards, which were founded last year by Dave Meslin, recognize achievement in government outreach. Last year’s winner, the Village of Pemberton, B.C, redesigned their public notice template making it easier to read and more appealing to citizens.

  • Our executive director, James McKinney, is the featured speaker at next weekend’s GO Open Data Conference in Waterloo, Ontario. The one-day conference aims to help build the Ontario open data community by connecting citizens, municipal staff, and developers.

  • Also, we’re thrilled to be joined this summer by Alexi Garrow, an undergraduate computer science student at McGill University. Alexi will be helping us as a junior web developer on our MaMairie.ca and MyCityHall.ca projects. We look forward to working with him!

This Week

MaMairie fundraiser success

2013-04-26-mamairie-57

The Open North team, Louise Harel, Marc-André Gadoury and Alex Norris

  • We would like to extend a great big thank you to all of our friends and supporters who joined us on Wednesday night for our 5@7 in support of MaMairie.ca - we raised over $400 in one night! We were thrilled to be joined by Councillor Louise Harel, leader of Vision Montréal, Councillor Alex Norris, Councillor Marc-André Gadoury and Councillor Richard Ryan as well. We look forward to seeing everyone again when the platform launches later this year!

  • The Pew Research Centre’s Internet project released their report “Civic Engagement in the Digital Era” on Thursday. Stephen Clift, an Internet and democracy expert, calls the report a “must read” for the civic engagement sector and has already commented on figures from the report.

  • Eight additional countries announced their open government initiatives to the Open Government Partnership’s steering committee this week. Currently, 58 countries have joined the partnership, of which Open North is an official network supplier.

This Week

Transparency Camp and the Participatory Budgeting Conference

  • The Treasury Board of Canada announced a new pilot project to increase the ease of submitting and paying for Access to Information and Privacy requests online. So far, the new portal only allows requests to be sent to Citizenship and Immigration, the Treasury Board and Shared Services Canada. More government institutions are expected to join after the one-year pilot is complete. Modernizing this process is very important for the growth of open government in Canada.

  • As we start to work with city leaders and community members on MyCityHall.ca and MaMairie.ca, we’re hearing a lot about the value of sharing information on lobbyists. To help understand what municipal lobbyist information can provide, the Sunlight Foundation created the Municipal Lobbyist Data Handbook to outline best practices for sharing this type of information.

  • James McKinney, our executive director, will represent Open North at Transparency Camp on May 4th and 5th in Washington, D.C. Details for the Sunlight-hosted “unconference” can be found at transparencycamp.org.

  • Also during the weekend of May 2nd, Ellie Marshall, our communications manager, will be speaking at the Participatory Budgeting Conference in Chicago about tech tools for online budgeting consultations.

This Week

Halifax's open data portal

  • If you live in the Montreal area, join us on April 24th at Station-C for a 5@7 in support of our fundraising campaign for MaMairie.ca. Meet the Open North team and talk about strategies for encouraging open and transparent government in Montreal!

  • Halifax, Nova Scotia is the most recent large Canadian municipality to launch an open data portal; the City had announced its open data initiative in September. As a city spokesperson noted, access to this information could previously cost citizens between $500 and $2,000 plus $55 per hour for the municipality to prepare and distribute.

  • David Eaves, a member of our board, recently published an opinion piece in the Toronto Star that calls attention to the culture and leadership needed in Canada to foster open government. Eaves notes, “we could paradoxically find ourselves living in a world where technology makes it easier to share information … while our government’s culture makes it harder to talk to the people who can give that information meaning and context.”

  • On that note, whether online or offline, it is important to know how to reach your MP and create meaningful dialogue with them. Samara’s blog this week compiled a list of 10 tips for engaging with MPs based on information from staffers themselves. They remind us that it’s best to reach out to your own MP, who you can find using our Represent service.

This Week in Open Government

  • James McKinney, our executive director, will be speaking on the opening panel of Open Data Exchange 2013 at the Jeanne Sauvé House on April 6th. Throughout the day there will be panels in both French and English.

  • Joey Coleman, of Open Data Hamiltonpublished an overview of Hamilton’s open data policy process thus far. This interesting article is a great starting place for other Canadian cities who have yet to approach open data and want to understand the challenges of open government. Joey has also included some videos from his advocacy work, which illustrate how we as citizens can get involved with the open government movement!

  • The Knight Foundation announced the 40 semi-finalists of its Open Government News Challenge. Semifinalists now have a week to refine their proposals; winners will be announced in June.

  • There is only one week left to contribute to MyCityHall.ca in Toronto!. If you have not done so yet, please share the campaign with your networks using this link: http://igg.me/at/mycityhalltoronto/x/1859729.

This Week in Open Government | March 22, 2013

  • In only one week, we’ve raised over $1,400 for MaMairie.ca in Montreal. In Toronto we’ve raised over $1,200 with 15 days left to reach our goal. We would like to thank all of our supporters so far. You can continue to support our campaign and encourage those who haven’t contributed yet to do so now by sharing this link for Toronto: http://igg.me/at/mycityhalltoronto/x/1598726 or this link for Montreal: http://igg.me/at/mamairiemontreal/x/1598726. Need an idea for a tweet? How about: “I need easy access to City Hall’s policy makers because it’s MyCityHall!”

  • The Knight News Challenge for Open Government is currently in the feedback stage. Open North has submitted a proposal for Legislative Open Government Data Standards, an idea that encompasses the Popolo Project that we announced last month. Be sure to check out the submission and give your feedback on the idea which aims to improve the interoperability and reuse of government legislative data.

  • The Open Knowledge Foundation announced its 2013 Open Knowledge Conference, which will take place September 17th and 18th in Geneva, Switzerland. Tickets are already available for this world-leading conference on open data and open knowledge. Full details are at the 2013 conference website.

  • The Federal Court of Appeal has issued a decision noting that there is no copyright in data. This decision is important because, as Dr. Teresa Scalla explains, it supports the notion often brought up by copyright scholars that copyright in Canada does not apply to a set of facts. This decision, regarding nautical map data, is also important to the debate surrounding postal code data, which we have discussed previously. To restate Dr. Scalla’s sentiments, it is time for Canada’s other courts to recognize that facts cannot be protected by copyright and to not tolerate overreaching data licenses.

This Week in Open Government | March 15, 2013

Open Data Roundtable with Minister Clement

2013-03-14-roundtable

Photo: Pinpoint National

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion with Minister Tony Clement and a small group of open data experts, developers, librarians and government leaders. Our meeting, moderated by David Eaves, focused on the future of data.gc.ca. In his opening remarks, Mr. Clement suggested that data should be viewed as Canada’s 21st century resource and that we need to think about the next generation of data users.

As we discussed the current state of the federal government’s open data initiative, the conversation quickly turned to the need for data standards, a topic we have previously discussed. The United Kingdom’s Standards Hub initiative serves as an example of a potential method for gathering standards from civil society. Their model proposes challenges for standards proposals, a pipeline for reviewing the progress of standard adoption and a catalogue of adopted standards. Zeena Abdulla, Manager of Strategic New Media for the Government of Ontario, noted that historically, government-led data standards efforts have slowed the adoption process. Instead, civil society should be responsible for developing standards and then submitting them to a federal authority for approval and adoption.

There were many interesting takeaways from this meeting, such as:

  • Data.gc.ca needs to be more user friendly and accessible to non-coders or citizens just starting to understand data. Suggestions included creating a “open data 101” section to the website and improving the portals search function.

  • Key datasets, like the postal code database which Joe Greenwood argued can enrich many other datasets, must be made open and copyright free.

  • Organizing and archiving data are also important to increasing the use of information released by government. How we choose to preserve and compare datasets will affect their use and uptake much like open standards themselves. The involvement of librarians like Marcel Fortin in the conversation, alongside civil society developers, will continue to bring depth to open data in Canada.

  • David Eaves announced that the hashtag #datagc will be used by the Treasury Board to gather input on the future of the portal. We will continue to contribute to #datagc and look forward to engaging with Mr. Clement again soon.

This Week in Open Government | March 8, 2013

  • Open North participated in a Huffington Post Live segment about reinventing democracy in the age of digital technology. You can rewatch the segment to learn more about our approach to civic technology.

  • The City of Philadelphia released their Open Data Guidebook, which was developed by their Open Data Working group to help departments understand how and why to release data to the public. This guide is valuable for staff in any municipality interested in best practices for opening City Hall with open data.

  • We will be presenting MaMairie.ca at CrowdFund Night 2 on March 21st at Centre St. Pierre in Montreal. Join us to learn more about how we plan on bringing open source government monitoring tools to Montreal’s City Hall and to see other interested projects from the community!

Lessons from Represent

Open Postal Code Data

Represent is a web service run by Open North that allows Canadian citizens to find their elected officials by postal code for free. Canadian nonprofits use Represent to help their supporters send letters to their representatives about important issues.

In order to provide this service, we need access to accurate information about postal codes. Both the United States and the United Kingdom release their postal code databases into the public domain. In Canada, on the other hand, Canada Post claims copyright over postal codes and charges over $5,500 for its postal code data products.

Postal codes are not only useful to Represent. For example, your local Internet provider may determine whether they provide service to your area by asking you for your postal code. In general, postal codes are an easy way to identify where a person is, and are used by businesses, nonprofits, researchers, demographers, and governments among others. According to David Eaves, who sits on the federal government’s Advisory Panel on Open Government, postal code data is the dataset most requested by the public.

Low-cost access to postal code data would benefit a great number of organizations and people in Canada. This post explores the history and origins of postal codes and describes the progress we’ve made in making this data widely available.

What are postal codes and where do they come from?

The first three characters of a postal code indicate the forward sortation area (FSA), which represents either a part of a large city like Toronto, an entire municipality or a collection of municipalities. The last three indicate the local delivery unit (LDU), which often represents a single building or a range of addresses on one street. As a municipality grows, it creates new addresses and shares its address data with Canada Post for free. Canada Post then assigns postal codes to those addresses.

The authorship and ownership of postal codes is a matter of recent controversy. In early 2012, Canada Post took legal action against two postal code data providers, Geocoder.ca and PopularData.com, claiming copyright over any database of postal codes, regardless of how the database was put together. CIPPIC’s defense of Geocoder.ca argues that the Copyright Act does not apply to postal codes and that, even if so, Geocoder.ca did not infringe on Canada Post’s copyright. No decision on the case has been made yet.

Getting postal code data for Represent

Represent’s postal code data is obtained from official government sources and Geocoder.ca.

We previously explained the process of obtaining electoral boundary data from municipalities. We follow a similar, simple process to obtain postal code concordances from the provinces. (A concordance is a file that matches each postal code with one or more provincial ridings.) When a province denies access to its data, it’s important to understanding why. Does the province license the data from a third-party? Who can we contact from the data provider about obtaining access? Following further discussion, it is sometimes possible to negotiate access to the data through a license agreement. Here is a summary of our progress thus far:

  • We have successfully obtained and published concordances for QuebecNew Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador

  • In many cases, the provinces cannot share their postal code data, because their license agreements with Canada Post or DMTI Spatial prevent it. (DMTI Spatial gives access to LDU boundaries for a quoted $11,275.) Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia fall into this category.

  • Elections Ontario used to publish its concordances online. In May 2012, however, Elections Ontario removed this file from its website following a request from Canada Post.

  • Elections Quebec publishes its concordances on its website, which it creates using voter information and without relying on data from Canada Post.

  • Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island do not generate concordances, because voters in those provinces often receive mail a significant distance from where they live, such that a postal code is not a good predictor of which electoral district a voter lives in.

The road ahead

It is possible to think of postal codes as a public good, which should be released to the commons without copyright. In February 2013, Canada Post released FSA boundaries through Statistics Canada for free, but retained copyright and official mark over postal codes. It’s a step in the right direction, but the LDU boundaries are what Canadians are really after.

In the coming months, we will be comparing the postal code data from third-parties, like Geocoder.ca, to the data from DMTI Spatial and Canada Post, so that Canadians can make informed decisions as to which low-cost provider provides the best balance of price versus quality for their use case. We look forward to sharing the results!

This Week in Open Government | March 1, 2013

This Week in Open Government | February 22, 2013

  • Our crowdfunding initiative for the Toronto version of MyCityHall.ca is underway! This is your opportunity to support open and transparent local government in Toronto; even $1 of support (and especially sharing the project with your friends and network) gets us closer to launching MyCityHall.ca.

  • Tomorrow is International Open Data Day! We are co-hosting the Montreal event with Quebec Ouvert at the SAT and our communications manager, Ellie Marshall, will be at the Toronto event at the Centre for Social Innovation Annex.

  • SXSW is only two weeks away! If you’re lucky enough to attend this music, film and interactive festival be sure to find our executive director, James McKinney, and Participatory Politics’ David Moore for a preview of the next version of OpenGovernment.org from March 8th to March 12th.

  • OpenSpending has provided an update on financial transparency across the world on their blog. Check it out to learn more about OpenSpending’s work, upcoming events and resources for assessing budget transparency.

Introducing Popolo, an open government data specification

Last November, we wrote about our partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) to lead the development and expansion of their OpenGovernment.org project to three US cities.

As part of our work on OpenGovernment.org, we have researched, re-used and contributed to a number of open source, open government projects, including mySociety’s PopIt, a service for building a database of people, organizations and positions, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Billy, a framework for scraping, storing and sharing government data. A major barrier to increased re-use of these great open-source civic tools is the lack of agreement on how to name things. To give a very simple example: if one project calls a person’s name name and another calls it full_name, then if you want to write a project that builds on what mySociety and Sunlight have done, you need to write an adapter for each, which increases the overhead, complexity and maintenance costs of your project. Wouldn’t it be better if we all committed to a standard way of naming things, to maximize interoperability and make re-use that much easier?

To address this problem, we’ve published a working draft of Popolo, an open government data specification. In its first draft, Popolo is deliberately unambitious. It proposes a standard naming scheme for the basic pieces of any government monitoring website: people, organizations and the relationships between the two. The idea is that if the groups working on open source, open government tools can agree on a data specification for these basic pieces, then we can expand the project to cover things like bills, agendas and minutes, which have much less in common across jurisdictions and on which it is much harder to find agreement.

The ultimate goal of the project is to make it easier and quicker for civic developers to create government transparency and civic engagement websites, by offering them re-usable, well-documented open-source code. We want developers to be able to focus on what’s special about the governments they want to monitor, not on re-implementing features commonly found in open government websites. For example, we plan on reusing the Popolo specification ourselves to build MyCityHall.ca and MaMairie.ca sites in several Canadian cities.

This project is in line with (and inspired by) Tom Steinberg of mySociety’s proposals for a component strategy last July, in which he wrote, “The Components will talk to each other, and to the rest of the web using simple open schemas which will evolve as they are built. Where possible we’ll pick up popular data standards and re-use those, rather than building anything ourselves.” Indeed, Popolo re-uses at least nine existing standards.

We have begun reaching out to other groups to make Popolo a truly community-driven specification, and we hope to move out of draft into version 1.0 in time for Transparency Camp. We’ve already got early feedback on our News Challenge idea about better data specifications. Popolo’s documentation is licensed under Creative Commons and is managed on GitHub. For the Ruby on Rails enthusiasts out there, there is an implementation of the Popolo specification as a Ruby on Rails engine on GitHub as well, for you to re-use in your projects.

If you’re heading to SxSW, come find Open North’s James McKinney and PPF’s David Moore for an alpha preview of the next version of OpenGovernment.org at SxSW Interactive from March 8th-12th!

Check out PPF’s corresponding announcement on their blog.

Introducing MyCityHall.ca

2013-02-08-mycityhall-logos

UPDATE: We have launched the crowdfunding campaign for Toronto's MyCityHall.ca site. You can view the campaign on Indiegogo and mentions in the press.

At Open North, we’re passionate about giving citizens better access to the decision-making processes of government. With Represent, we’ve made figuring out who your elected officials are, at any level of government, simple and efficient. Our consultative budget simulator, Citizen Budget, provides municipalities with an opportunity to put citizens in the shoes of elected officials to re-balance the budget according to their priorities. With the recent release of the Open511 API for road events, we’re aiming to streamline road event reporting and sharing between governments and citizens. Our next major project, MyCityHall.ca (MaMairie in Quebec), will build on these initiatives by creating a free, online solution for civic engagement at the municipal level.

What is MyCityHall.ca?

Municipalities are responsible for most of the services citizens use everyday such as roads, schools, parks and waste management. However, citizens do not have the tools to provide direct input into the decision-making processes around these services. We believe that when citizens participate actively in decision-making at city hall, our leaders make better decisions – to make our cities safer, healthier, smarter, more fun and efficient. MyCityHall.ca will be a platform for citizens to track, learn about, and influence the decisions of their city council.

With MyCityHall.ca citizens will be able to:

  • set up alerts and subscribe to receive updates via email when council discusses issues they care about

  • ask questions in public to their councillors and get an answer in public, creating a shared memory for voters and helping them hold politicians to their word

  • track and share the current motions before council, and engage with their existing social networks when important issues arise

  • monitor their councillor’s activity, including attendance and voting records

  • read explainers on how council works and get advice on how to lobby council

Councillors can use MyCityHall.ca to engage constituents in new ways and to better understand which issues matter. Activists and nonprofits can use it to track issues and mobilize supporters. Teachers can use MyCityHall.ca in their lesson plans to help their students understand how their city and their democracy functions.

We will launch MyCityHall.ca in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa in 2013.

Who is on board?

Towards the end of 2012, we entered into a partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) to build a new set of tools as part of the expansion of their OpenGovernment.org project to the local level. PPF will launch these online tools in three initial US cities: San Jose, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. We plan to re-use this open-source civic engagement platform for MyCityHall.ca, with Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa as our launch cities.

We will work with city councillors and partner organizations such as the Institut du Nouveau Monde and Samara to ensure the website presents government information in a way that is easy for residents to understand and use. We will invite community leaders to workshops to receive their feedback, to ensure the platform meets citizens’ needs and empowers them to act.

What’s the next step?

To get this project off the ground we need to raise around $10,000 per city to cover the costs of development and data collection, web hosting, and community outreach. We have launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for Toronto, and campaigns for Montreal and Ottawa’s MyCityHall.ca sites will follow. After these campaigns, we hope to launch MyCityHall.ca by the end of summer.

We are also hoping to find a few interested volunteers to help us get the message out about MyCityHall.ca. If you would like to help test MyCityHall.ca, tell city leaders about it, raise awareness in civil society organizations, or develop workshops, please send us an email at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week in Open Government | February 15, 2013

  • This week marks the launch of the Township of Langley, British Columbia’s Citizen Budget consultation. Over the past few months we’ve worked closely with the Township to provide citizens with a comprehensive budget feedback experience using Citizen Budget, and we are excited to share this tool with its more than 100,000 residents!

  • If you’re interested in learning more about how to effectively promote an online budget consultation project, Delib has shared 15 ways to engage residents on their blog. We’ve previously shared some tips from our experience with Citizen Budget.

  • Sunlight Labs has re-launched Open States with information for all 50 American state legislatures as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. To learn more about this new version of Open States and the history of the project check out this video from James Turk of Sunlight Labs.

  • Peggy Curran of the Montreal Gazette has begun a new series investigating the “secrets to civic engagement” in wake of the Charbonneau commission. This week, Curran profiles Marjorie Northrup, President of Meals on Wheels Quebec and her experience working in the Montreal community.

  • Socrata launched their Open Data Field Guide this week as a resource for elected officials and bureaucrats to ensure their open data strategies are effective. The extremely thorough Field Guide includes input from a handful of North American cities, Code for America and The World Bank. Check it out!

This Week in Open Government | February 8, 2013

This Week in Open Government | February 1, 2013

  • In a state-of-the-city address on January 29th, Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina announced his support of open data in the city. Bratina noted that open data in Hamilton will only succeed if those in power are willing to share their information and trust the citizens who elected them.

  • The organizers of the international Open Data Day hackathon have created a wiki to help find your local event. Be sure to check out the wiki for Montreal’s Open Data Day which we are co-hosting with Montreal Ouvert and Quebec Ouvert.

  • This week the Sunlight Foundation announced Docket Wrench, a new online research tool to dig into regulatory comments and uncover patterns among millions of documents in the United States. While influence on government from lobbying and campaign contributions is well researched, Docket Wrench represents a new effort to understand organizations that influence the regulatory process, monitoring comments from 10,000 organizations across 300 federal agencies.

  • The Knight Foundation has announced that their next news challenge will be about open government! The challenge seeks projects that improve the ways citizens and government interact and will launch on February 12th and close March 18th.

Use Represent in your online campaigns with two new Drupal modules

As the Represent database of elected officials continues to grow, we want to help civil society organizations and nonprofits across the country benefit from this resource. With Represent, advocacy groups can access accurate information about Canadian representatives based on the postal code or address of their supporters. And unlike other postal code lookup services, Represent is completely free and open source.

Today, we are happy to announce the release of three Drupal modules to make it easy for nonprofits to integrate Represent into their Drupal-powered websites. With these modules, organizations can send a custom message on behalf of a supporter to that person’s representatives, export the representative’s name, district and email as Excel or CSV, and review and analyze the email campaign submissions online.

The Drupal Webform Module integrates the Represent API module with the Webform module, the most popular module for creating custom forms in Drupal. It allows civil society organizations to directly integrate our Represent service into their online forms and petitions. When a member joins an advocacy campaign, the module will automatically lookup the correct emails for their representatives according to their postal code. Lookups can be done for multiple levels of government, creating greater flexibility for targeted campaigns. This saves the organization time and money as they do not have to search for the supporter’s representatives individually and can be assured that the information is accurate.

Our friend Alan Dixon has written a similar Drupal module for organizations that use CiviCRM for their customer relations management. The CiviNorth module allows CiviCRM to lookup and store representative data for supporters, both as a realtime lookup and as a background task. We are interested in providing additional integration modules for organizations who do not use Drupal or CiviCRM, and who may use services like Salesforce or systems like WordPress. If you are interested in using Represent for your advocacy campaigns, please contact us at info@opennorth.ca. We are excited to help you connect with every elected official in Canada.

This Week in Open Government | January 25, 2013

  • Open North is co-organizing Open Data Day in Montreal on February 23rd with Montreal Ouvert and Quebec Ouvert. Join us at the Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT) for a hackathon and presentations from Environment Canada, the Minister of Democratic Institutions and Civic Participation for Quebec and the City of Montreal. You can register for the event on EventBrite.

  • The International Budget Partnership (IBP) released its Open Budget Survey noting “generally dismal” budget transparency across the globe. Only 6 of the 100 countries surveyed made significant attempts to open their budget information to the public. You can view the data collected from the survey in this data explorer.

  • The Oxford Internet Institute’s Amanda Clarke will be speaking at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance on February 4th on the state of digital engagement. Clarke’s work challenges governments to think beyond making digital versions of traditional, offline mechanisms for citizen participation, and to think imaginatively about how the internet can transform traditional and produce new ways to participate.

  • The City of Chicago launched Plow Tracker, an app tracking snow removal in real time – and simultaneously making developers in Canadian cities extremely jealous. The data released by the city was immediately reused by civic app developers Open City in their ClearStreets project which shows what streets have been plowed during each snow storm.

This Week in Open Government | January 18, 2013

  • OpenCorporates, the open database of the corporate world, reached a major milestone this week – the site now has information on over 50 million companies! Last month, OpenCorporates released an API to improve access to this data. Open North is proud to have contributed over 2 million company records to the database.

  • Yelp announced this week that they have partnered with local authorities in San Francisco and New York to add health code scores to their listings. Yelp developed a new open data standard, the “Local Inspector Value-entry Specification” (LIVES), under the guidance of the White House as part of this project. We hope to see Canadian municipalities adopting this standard in the coming years!

  • Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press reports significant delays with respect to Access to Information requests at the federal level. We have experienced our share of challenges with access to information at the municipal level, which you can read about in our “Lessons From Represent” blog series.

  • We are pleased to announce that Open North has become an official supporter of OpenParliament.ca. Our friend, Michael Mulley is an asset to our work, and we are happy to support him in his initiative to make it easy to track the activities of the House of Commons.

This Week in Open Government | January 11, 2013

  • Are you looking for your own way to make a difference in your community using open tools? TakePart, an American organization that encourages citizens to take action in their lives have developed a community action tool kit to help you get started. The tool kit features resources for learning about community building, stimulating engagement and sharing your success and links to great open data apps to help you.

  • Alan Dixon has created a Drupal CiviCRM integration module for Represent. If your nonprofit’s website uses CiviCRM this module will allow you to easily integrate our database of elected officials in Canada into your forms and petitions, creating easy and efficient communications between your members and their representatives. Thanks Alan!

  • Our Transportation Director, Stéphane Guidoin will be speaking at TransportationCamp 2013 in Washington, D.C. next week. Stéphane is leading the development of the Open 511 API and will be speaking on the project’s progress.

  • As the excitement around Open 511 builds, Stéphane will also be attending the BC Open Data Summit on February 19th. This event, organized by the Open Data Society of BC will cover best practices for releasing new data and working with open data with a particular focus on the needs of British Columbia.

  • Patiner Montreal, our online skating rink tracker built in collaboration with Montreal Ouvert, has been updated for the 2013 season. If you like to keep rink status information handy, be sure to check out the app in the Android Market.

This Week in Open Government | January 4, 2013

2013 is off to an exciting start with the announcement of several events in the open data and open government sectors. We are looking forward to these events:

  • The Canadian University Software Engineering Conference is taking place January 17th to 19th at the Delta Hotel in Montreal. Jonathan Brun, one of our board members, will be presenting on open data and open government at the event.

  • The OpenGov Hub in Washington, D.C. will launch next week with a party on January 10th. If you are in the area, be sure to check out the new home open government organizations like Ushahidi, Global Integrity, the World Wide Web Foundation and the Open Government Partnership.

  • The Open Data Exchange mini-conference will take place on April 6th in Montreal. Experts and enthusiasts at the event will discuss uses of open data in civic engagement, scientific research, international aid and more. Open North’s executive director, James McKinney will being presenting as well.

Happy New Year from Open North!

This Week in Open Government | December 21, 2012

  • If you are interested in understanding more about participatory budgeting and how it can work in your community, check out the Participatory Budgeting toolkit. Released by the PB Unit in the UK, these resources can help you design an effective civic engagement experience.

  • The Atlantic Cities has posted what they think were the best open data releases in the US from 2012. This list could be very inspiring for Canadian municipalities who have yet to open their data!

  • Another Canadian politician, Pat Martinhas left Twitter after a heated out-burst. Can we rely on Twitter as a civic engagement tool? MP Charlie Angus, asks this question and discusses his own experience on Twitter in this Huffington Post article from earlier this year.

  • To take a break from viewing open data as a tool of open government, what about open data as art? This blog post from the PLOS research group takes a look at how data can inspire and be subverted by art.

Happy Holidays from Open North!

Sharing Citizen Budget

Connecting with your citizens

We’ve been sharing ways to get started with online public consultations, such as with our Citizen Budget tool.

Once you have your consultation set up, how do you get citizens to participate in large numbers? The greatest challenge is getting people to visit the consultation website. Once they are there, participation rates are high, from 15% to 35% in our experience. Here are some tips we learned from launching budget simulators in different municipalities.

Reach out to local media

In our experience, traffic rates to consultations closely follow mentions in local media. Announcing a new online consultation at a public meeting, with a corresponding press release, can generate significant local media coverage that will drive traffic to the consultation website. Towards the end of the consultation period, issuing another press release, announcing which proposals are receiving the most and least support and reminding citizens of the approaching deadline, can stimulate a second round of media attention and public participation.

You might also consider reaching out to community groups, local bloggers and forums.

“Cross-sell” the consultation

When a citizen uses a municipal service or attends a public event, it’s an opportunity to invite them to participate in your consultation. Here are some methods that work:

  • Put up posters and offer information cards at service points

  • Promote the consultation on flyers and notice boards

  • Set the default home page on public library computers to the consultation website

  • Collect responses at public events on tablet computers, like the iPad

  • Link to the consultation prominently from the municipality’s home page

  • End interactions with residents at service counters or over the phone by mentioning the consultation

It’s important to note that many residents will never see your home page, because they used a search engine to go directly to the waste collection schedule, for example. In that case, it’s a good idea to promote the consultation on your most visited web pages as well.

Incentivize residents

Some of our past clients have offered a prize, such as a gift card, from a draw of all participants. Alternatively, you could offer a reward to a randomly selected participant, or the participant who shares the consultation the most.

Mobilize existing networks

A municipality and its elected officials should promote the consultation through their existing networks. It’s important to get elected officials behind the consultation, as they often have large personal networks. Consider promoting your consultation through other existing outreach initiatives whether via a online engagement plan, town halls or public meetings.

  • Include the consultation in a regular newsletter

  • Use Facebook and Twitter to regularly remind followers to participate

  • Email the list of participants in previous online consultations

Social media is particularly important: in 2011 and 2012, a quarter of traffic to the Plateau Mont-Royal’s online budget simulator came from Facebook alone.

Make it easy to share

Consultations that are easier to share receive more participation. Citizen Budget, for example, creates an individual page for each participant that displays their budget choices. These pages have unique links that can be shared on social media and with friends and family.

2012-12-05-sharing-budget

Follow up with residents

After a resident participates, send a follow-up email to confirm that their input has been received and will be considered. Explain how the results of the consultation will influence decision-making and mention other opportunities to engage, such as upcoming public meetings. This simple step assures residents that participation is worthwhile; it can strengthen their commitment to the municipality and increase their interest in future consultations.

If you are interested in learning more about our experiences with online public consultations, check out our work or contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week in Open Government | December 14, 2012

  • We’re pleased to announce that a draft version of the Open 511 specification for road event data is now live on Open North’s GitHub account. Our Transportation Director, Stéphane Guidoin, and his team have done a great job preparing this API and are excited to receive feedback. If you would like to propose changes to the draft, feel free to contribute to the project’s issue list.

  • Earlier this week, Treasury Board President Tony Clement held a Twitter town hall about the government’s proposed open data license. Mr. Clement made his mission clear:

My mission: common #opengov licence for municipal, provincial, territorial, and federal data #TBMinchat

— TBS Canada (@TBS_Canada) December 11, 2012

  • WCIT 2012 took place this week in Dubai, where world telecom and Internet leaders gathered to discuss the future of international communications regulations. This year, the conference opened its process, making available to the public each country’s amendments to the regulations.

  • The Sunlight Foundation released a new app, Sitegeist, which allows users to access any data available about their current location. Designed to “reinforce the power of data around you”, the app brings together thousands of records to give you as much information about your location as possible!

  • The B.C. Open Data Summit will take place on February 19th, 2013. Hosted by the Open Data Society of B.C., the event will feature panels of leaders and innovators in the open data space, opportunities to network, interesting conversations, and a fun social event.

This Week in Open Government | December 7, 2012

  • If you’re in Ottawa this weekend be sure to check out Open Data Ottawa’s Learn Hack YOW hackfest happening tomorrow! The event is open to everyone, including non-programmers, as it hopes to encourage citizens to solve city problems no matter what their skill set is.

  • In Alberta, Alison Redford’s government announced the proactive disclosure of expense claims for all members of cabinet. Alberta claims that this is Canada’s toughest expense disclosure policy, with expenses made available online every two months. Canadian Taxpayers Federation Alberta Director, Derek Fildebrandt, writes that the policy “makes Alberta a leader in this field and an example for other jurisdictions to follow.”

  • As reported by The Guardian, the University of Albany’s Center for Technology in Government released a white paper this week titled The Dynamics of Opening Government Data. The report’s recommendations include emphasizing public interest, estimating use cases, improving data’s context and thinking about long-term value. The findings from the year-long study are an interesting read for anyone involved in the open government sector.

  • GitHub users may have noticed an interesting new user among them. As Alex Howard explains, in recent months the Sunlight Foundation’s Eric Mill, GovTrack.us’s Josh Tauberer and the New York Times’ Derek Willis came together to publish the data and scrapers for legislation in the US Congress available at THOMAS.gov. The project, which operates under a common “unitedstates” account, exemplifies the collaborative approach of the open government sector. Repositories for congressional legislators, bills, and more are now publicly available in one place, bringing together the incredible work of individuals in three different organization

Sharing Citizen Budget

Connecting with your citizens | December 5, 2012

We’ve been sharing ways to get started with online public consultations, such as with our Citizen Budget tool.

Once you have your consultation set up, how do you get citizens to participate in large numbers? The greatest challenge is getting people to visit the consultation website. Once they are there, participation rates are high, from 15% to 35% in our experience. Here are some tips we learned from launching budget simulators in different municipalities.

Reach out to local media

In our experience, traffic rates to consultations closely follow mentions in local media. Announcing a new online consultation at a public meeting, with a corresponding press release, can generate significant local media coverage that will drive traffic to the consultation website. Towards the end of the consultation period, issuing another press release, announcing which proposals are receiving the most and least support and reminding citizens of the approaching deadline, can stimulate a second round of media attention and public participation.

You might also consider reaching out to community groups, local bloggers and forums.

“Cross-sell” the consultation

When a citizen uses a municipal service or attends a public event, it’s an opportunity to invite them to participate in your consultation. Here are some methods that work:

  • Put up posters and offer information cards at service points

  • Promote the consultation on flyers and notice boards

  • Set the default home page on public library computers to the consultation website

  • Collect responses at public events on tablet computers, like the iPad

  • Link to the consultation prominently from the municipality’s home page

  • End interactions with residents at service counters or over the phone by mentioning the consultation

It’s important to note that many residents will never see your home page, because they used a search engine to go directly to the waste collection schedule, for example. In that case, it’s a good idea to promote the consultation on your most visited web pages as well.

Incentivize residents

Some of our past clients have offered a prize, such as a gift card, from a draw of all participants. Alternatively, you could offer a reward to a randomly selected participant, or the participant who shares the consultation the most.

Mobilize existing networks

A municipality and its elected officials should promote the consultation through their existing networks. It’s important to get elected officials behind the consultation, as they often have large personal networks. Consider promoting your consultation through other existing outreach initiatives whether via a online engagement plan, town halls or public meetings.

  • Include the consultation in a regular newsletter

  • Use Facebook and Twitter to regularly remind followers to participate

  • Email the list of participants in previous online consultations

Social media is particularly important: in 2011 and 2012, a quarter of traffic to the Plateau Mont-Royal’s online budget simulator came from Facebook alone.

Make it easy to share

Consultations that are easier to share receive more participation. Citizen Budget, for example, creates an individual page for each participant that displays their budget choices. These pages have unique links that can be shared on social media and with friends and family.

2012-12-05-sharing-budget

Sharing options on Citizen Budget

Follow up with residents

After a resident participates, send a follow-up email to confirm that their input has been received and will be considered. Explain how the results of the consultation will influence decision-making and mention other opportunities to engage, such as upcoming public meetings. This simple step assures residents that participation is worthwhile; it can strengthen their commitment to the municipality and increase their interest in future consultations.

If you are interested in learning more about our experiences with online public consultations, check out our work or contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week in Open Government | November 30, 2012

We are pleased to announce our partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) on the next phase of development for OpenGovernment.org. Our Executive Director, James McKinney will serve as technical lead on this new endeavour. The partnership will work to bring open government to the local level in the United States and Canada. The PPF has full details on their blog, and we will keep you updated as the project progresses. To follow OpenGovernment.org’s development, join the Google group or follow on Twitter.

In other open government news:

Open Data, Standards and Socrata

Last week, Socrata announced “Open Data Standards,” an initiative that led to lively debate on open data mailing lists. In this post, we will dive into the issues around standardization, a core issue for the open data movement. (If you’re already familiar with these issues, skip down to the section on Socrata’s initiative.)

The Need for Standards

When a technology is widespread, standardization provides better predictability for those who rely on the technology. Consider light bulbs, for example. All incandescent light bulbs have the same screw base, and you can reliably expect that when you buy a bulb, it will fit into your lamp’s socket. Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs use the same screw base, so that your old light sockets still work with these new bulbs. You may have never even thought to worry about whether a bulb will fit your socket! All users of this technology – manufacturers, electricians, consumers – benefit from not having to think about a bulb’s screw base.

Open data is increasingly widespread, but relatively few standards exist. If you are looking for government spending data, you can’t expect the datasets on different open data portals to be in the same format. The time it takes to learn each format takes away from your time making interesting uses of the data.

We need open data standards to encourage people to invest in using open data. The best examples are the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) and Open311 which transformed public transit data and municipal service requests. Hundreds of transit agencies publish GTFS data, and hundreds of applications have been built using the data, including trip planning, ridesharing, timetable creation, and interactive voice response systems. A similar software ecosystem exists around Open311 data. The same can happen for many other types of data.

There is an urgent need to standardize information about open data catalogs, datasets and APIs and to standardize the formats in which datasets are published. There are millions of datasets across the hundreds of open data portals, but we have no efficient way to process that data or to even know what’s there.

De Facto Standards

Most open data standards to date have begun life as de facto standards. Working closely with the TriMet transit agency in Portland, Google developed a first version of GTFS in 2005. As more transit agencies adopt the standard, Google updates the specification to satisfy new requirements. Google currently handles additional changes through a discussion group.

In the case of GTFS and Open311, the original authors own the standard, and the only way to participate as a third-party is through a mailing list. These communications are consultative in nature, giving third-parties no real power over the standard. If a third-party requires a change for its use case and the original authors either can’t or won’t implement it, then the third-party has no other option than to use its own custom format.

We’ve witnessed this with Open311, where the author, OpenPlans, did not have the resources to satisfy the new requirements of participating cities. The result: The City of Chicago, with the help of Code for America, created its own custom version of Open311 to implement the features it needed. Unless adoption exceeds fragmentation, this sort of activity will kill a standard.

De facto standards are especially at risk of lacking the resources or the incentive to maintain a standard for everyone’s benefit. Many de facto standards therefore go through a standards body to mitigate this risk.

Standards Bodies

The goal of standards bodies is to ensure a clear, effective and fair standardization process. Organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) bring stakeholders together to develop standards based on the consensus of member organizations, staff, and the community at large.

Why do some authors not go through standards bodies to ensure the maintenance and evolution of their de facto standards? There are both good and bad reasons, which range from: wanting to avoid losing control over the standard; desiring a fast, flexible, lightweight process; believing current processes are satisfactory; having ideological differences or distrust in relevant standards bodies, etc.

Access to standards bodies can also be tedious and/or expensive. Most open data innovators are small organizations and startups. Few are willing to invest money and time in such an effort. Open North faces this issue with respect to submitting Open511 to the Open Geospatial Consortium, where high membership fees discourage participation.

Lastly, open data is about open access. Some standards bodies like ISO do not provide free access to their standards. Such bodies are inappropriate for open data standards.

Socrata’s Initiative

Socrata’s pitch for its new “open data standards” initiative is that it is a no fee, community-driven meritocracy that moves quickly to establish needed standards. It’s a worthwhile project; the problem is that there are already several organizations working together to do the same thing. Why is Socrata launching yet another initiative instead of working with others?

Socrata’s CTO Will Pugh describes how the initiative is different than what exists on the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF)’s open-government mailing list. OKF Co-Founder Rufus Pollock, however, shares doubts over the need for a new initiative which seems to duplicate existing work by the OKF and W3C among others.

In its “Why Not a Traditional Standards Organization?” section, it describes a process similar to what the W3C already does. The W3C:

  • writes its specifications in Mercurial (to Socrata’s choice of Git)

  • tracks issues in its own tracker (to Socrata’s choice of GitHub)

  • uses mailing lists (to Socrata’s choice of Google Groups)

Unlike the W3C, Socrata gives little information on the initiative’s governance. Who will have the power to change the standards? Will Socrata follow a consensus model or be a benevolent dictator? If a third-party contributes to a standard, what control does that third-party have over its continued evolution?

Nonetheless, “outsider” initiatives with loose governance models can be helpful in creating new standards quickly. For example, WHATWG was formed in 2004 by individuals from Apple, Mozilla and Opera to create HTML5. The working group was formed in response to technical disagreements and the slow development of web standards at the W3C. Three years later, the W3C adopted WHATWG’s HTML5 specification, which led to wider adoption of this major advancement in web technology. The two now co-develop the standard.

It’s important to note that the individuals who later formed WHATWG first tried to work within the W3C; they formed the working group only after reaching an impasse. Socrata, on the other hand, does not seem to have made any effort to participate in existing efforts before starting its own.

The W3C’s Government Linked Data Working Group, which develops open government data standards, did not approach Socrata, though it did approach many other vendors and stakeholders. Pugh cites this omission as a reason for Socrata to form its own group… but the easy solution would have been to join these efforts! Socrata should participate in these ongoing discussions, not fragment them by starting new initiatives and mailing lists.

Tangentially, Socrata describes its initiative as an “industry organization,” which is more ambitious than a working group like WHATWG. What will be the scope of this organization? As a publisher and consumer of open data, we look forward to more details on this subject.

The Future of Open Data Standards

A lot of work is being done on the open data standards of interest to Socrata, and there are many opportunities to partner with existing organizations in their development, as the OKF has done in working with the W3C on DCAT. The W3C’s Government Linked Data Working Group, of which our executive director James McKinney is a member, is nearing the publication of several important standards, including vocabularies for data catalogs (DCAT), statistics (Data Cube) and organizations. Meanwhile, Microsoft and others are proposing OData – a protocol for querying and updating open data – to OASIS, an open standards body like W3C.

With respect to Open511, Open North has brought together stakeholders in government, industry and academia to develop a high-quality standard, which we hope to submit to an appropriate standards body once it’s ready. The debate fostered by Socrata’s announcement underlines the need for Open North, within Open511, to communicate with and reach out to many stakeholders and to work hard to identify and coordinate with similar efforts, to avoid coordination problems down the road.

Sunlight Foundation collaboration kick starts Open 13

We previously wrote about welcoming the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States team to work with us in Montreal. Open States tracks the legislators, committees, bills, votes and legislative events in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico and makes this data available via an API and bulk downloads for other groups to reuse.

Over the past week, Open North worked with Sunlight Labs developers James TurkPaul Tagliamonte and Thom Neale, as well as Michael Mulley of OpenParliament.ca, to set up a Canadian version of Open States. Working together, we were able to adapt Open States to Canada’s parliamentary system and bilingual nature and to integrate information on speeches, which are of particular relevance in Canada – in addition to collecting information from several provinces.

Open 13 fits into our strategy of making participation easier by improving access to information. We hope to make Open 13 a useful tool for Canadians to monitor and understand provincial and territorial legislatures. The goal of the project is for it to be an educational, political, and community resource that helps us all be more involved in the decision-making processes of government.

In the US, elected officials use the Open States app to track legislative activity; teachers design civics curriculums around the Open States website; and newspapers, policy institutes and nonprofits use it to keep tabs on legislation of interest. We are thankful for the support and leadership of the Sunlight Foundation on this project, and we hope to reproduce the same level of impact it has had.

If you are interested in learning more about Open States, visit their website or follow them on Twitter. In the coming months, Open North will look to secure funding to complete the project, but we already have a running start. Stay tuned for more updates about the launch on Open 13.

This Week in Open Government | November 16, 2012

We are pleased to announce the release of a Drupal module to integrate our Represent API with Drupal’s Webform module. Represent offers the most comprehensive postal code lookup service for elected officials at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government in Canada. With this module, nonprofits and advocacy groups can easily create email campaigns to elected officials at all levels of government. The module works on Drupal 6, and we plan to support Drupal 7 in the near future.

In other news:

  • Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote a guest post on Wired UK entitled “Raw data now!” in which he explains the importance of The Web Index, a tool designed by the World Wide Web Foundation to help decision-makers understand the impact of the web’s growth.

  • The City of Edmonton launched a new citizen-focused dashboard as part of their open data catalogue to chart performance results. The dashboard currently contains mostly transportation information, but Metro News notes that it will soon include information on finance, the environment, and other sectors of the municipal government.

  • If you missed Hackons la Corruption last weekend, the Montreal Gazette has compiled an overview of the event. Congratulations to Quebec Ouvert for a great event!

Open North on the road!

Open North was in Toronto last week to present at two exciting events, and we want to share our experiences with you. Ellie Marshall, our communications coordinator, spoke about our work in the open government sector on Monday at the Gov 2.0 YYZ meetup at City Hall and on Thursday at the Public Engagement and Consultation Summit.

2012-11-14-gov-meetup

The speakers of the GOV 2.0 Meetup

Richard Pietro and Anita Chauhan of Citizen Bridge organized a Gov 2.0 YYZ meetup on the subject of civic tech and its potential in Canada. We were joined by the team from Citizen Center, Joey Coleman of Open Hamilton, Christian Contreras of Next Parliament, Hussain Saleem of the Rocket Man iOS app, and Jury Konga, who’s presented to governments on multiple occassions on the opportunities of open data.

In his presentation, Konga explained that open data projects that try to make decision-making processes more transparent and participatory are particularly helpful in making governments understand the importance of open data. Konga described how our community can affect a change in thinking throughout government with the tools we create.

Among other fantastic projects presented that evening, Saleem’s Rocket Man app demonstrated the impact open data can have on public services like transportation when the right dataset, such as the TTC’s Next Vehicle Arrival System, is released to the public.

At the Public Engagament and Consultation Summit, Ellie presented as a part of the panel for “Implementing Meaningful Citizen Engagement Under Time and Resource Constraints”. Alongside case studies from the Canadian Transportation Agency and the IEFH, we demonstrated the cost and time effectiveness of online consultation through our experience running Citizen Budget in the Plateau Mont-Royal borough of Montreal. Citizen Budget was well received by conference attendees as a concrete example of an innovative tool to help government communications departments create meaningful engagement under tight constraints. Throughout the conference, speakers reiterated the importance of asking good questions and being good listeners. You can view our presentation on SlideShare.

This Week in Open Government | November 9, 2012

Sharing Citizen Budget

Setting up your online consultation

We recently discussed the benefits of holding public consultations online. Tools such as our Citizen Budget simulator provide municipalities with the opportunity to reach their residents in unprecedented ways that save time and money. In this part of our series on online consultation, we focus on what governments should consult citizens about.

Choose the right data to consult on

Budget information should be accessible to all citizens, not only accountants. For example, the budget information for a municipal library is spread across multiple accounts, such as capital expenditure, salaries, supplies, etc. But it is ineffective to give citizens the option to change the amounts allocated to accounts, because citizens don’t know what the impact of, for example, increasing capital expenditure by 10% would be. Similarly, it’s not clear what the impact would be of cutting 10% from the total library budget. Instead of consulting on low-level accounts or high level services, governments should consult on activities and levels of service.

For example, the Plateau Mont-Royal’s Budget Plateau simulator asked residents if they would change the opening hours of indoor pools in the summer. Residents could move a slider to increase or decrease the hours in one hour increments, and the cost (or savings) of their choice would appear above the slider. The impact of their choice on the overall budget balance would also be clearly shown.

2012-11-01-slider

Example question with sliding scale

Using this tool, the Plateau shares information on the costs of its services in a way that is simple, engaging and easy to understand. Citizens, in turn, are able to offer clear direction about how they want tax dollars spent. Tying money to each option encourages participants to consider more carefully what is feasible.

Getting the necessary data for this sort of consultation may require more work to calculate unit costs for each service and activity, but it pays off with clearly expressed, quantifiable information from residents.

Ask good questions

The Plateau received over 700 responses from its residents during its 2012 online consultation by observing the following guidelines for asking effective questions:

  • Ask questions citizens care about – a few questions on hot issues generate more participation

  • Ask specific questions – a question about potholes gets more attention than a question about infrastructure in general

  • Provide enough context to inform people’s choices – if you offer the option to close indoor pools in the summer, explain the difference in pool usage between the winter and the summer

  • Use everyday language that citizens understand – avoid jargon

  • Keep it clear and concise – a wall of text discourages participation

  • Let citizens fine-tune the budget – instead of asking a yes–no question about tree planting, give citizens more flexibility by letting them choose the number of trees to plant

  • Offer citizens alternative ways to give feedback – adding a comment box lets citizens expand on the reasons for their choices, so you can better understand their priorities and needs

Further reading and next steps

There are many online resources to help governments connect with citizens over budget information. For example, the Digital Engagement Guide provides many suggestions and templates for engaging with citizens from the public sector. If sharing this type of information is new to your city, this could be a great tool to help you get organized. Also, ParticipateDB provides a database of public participation tools, which can be a helpful starting place as well.

If you are interested in setting up Citizen Budget in your municipality or want to learn more, feel free to contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week in Open Government | November 2, 2012

  • We are pleased to announce that we will be welcoming a team from the Sunlight Foundation’s Boston office next week. Throughout the week we will be working together on open data projects and look forward to learning from each others’ experiences. We will be sure to share the results of our collaboration with you soon!

  • Next weekend is Hackons la Corruption! This much-anticipated event is finally here, and Montreal Ouvert has posted details of the many workshops offered that weekend. Tickets for the November 10th and 11th event are still available on EventBrite.

  • Amidst the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in the northeast this week, open data apps (maps in particular) were put to the test. TechCrunch has an article explaining why we are all a little bit safer when governments release open data. Hopefully this experience will raise open data on governments’ priority list.

  • The UK’s Cabinet Office released the final version of their open standards principles which outline requirements for government software and data interoperability. These principles, which are the result of much public consultation, are a landmark for the open data community. A detailed explanation of their impact on sole-proprietor software and the industry at-large can be found in this post from the Editor of ComputerWeekly.com.

This Week in Open Government | October 26, 2012

This Week in Open Government | October 19, 2012

  • Open Parliament launched a new email alert feature. Now, whenever something happens in Parliament that matches your interests, an email will be sent to you directly from the website. You can sign up today to try this new feature.

  • The City of San Francisco has appointed a Chief Data Officer. According to the press release, the new CDO will “be responsible for sharing City data with the public, facilitating the sharing of information between City departments, and analyzing how data sets can be used to improve city decision making.” Hopefully, this will encourage other cities around the world to step up their commitment to open data.

  • The Guardian has written a piece about the one year anniversary of the Open Government Partnership, noting that, although the occasion deserves celebration, there is still much work to be done with respect to citizen participation.

  • Code for America has launched a new kind of app contest, that focuses on the re-use of existing civic engagement tools, rather than on creating new apps from scratch. Participants have until next month’s presidential election to re-deploy one of four successful online apps. Everyone can be a winner, as all participants can earn rewards including free hosting for their app. Bring on the Code for American Brigade!

Sharing Citizen Budget

Why Do It Online?

Public servants often receive suggestions, requests, comments and criticisms from the public over budgetary decisions. The challenge every municipality faces is balancing its budget while also responding to the input and priorities of its residents. To meet this challenge, governments often hold public consultation sessions to solicit feedback on budgets, laws and projects. However, various constraints may limit participation in these in-person sessions. Let’s take a look at the advantages of holding public consultations online.

Benefits of Online Consultations

In traditional public consultations, residents are invited to share opinions and file demands with the municipality, without necessarily understanding the costs of their proposals. With online budget simulators, like the one used by the Plateau Mont-Royal, residents are put in the public administrator’s shoes. Simulators challenge residents to satisfy their priorities while maintaining a balanced budget. Realistic simulators help residents understand the trade-offs and tough decisions in a budget while collecting their input.

Unlike offline consultations, residents may contribute to online consultations at a time and place (and through a medium) that is convenient for them – from the family computer at home to a smartphone in transit – with no need to find a babysitter in order to attend a public meeting. Municipalities can therefore reach more residents by using online tools.

In offline consultations, time is limited; not all attendees can speak, and each speaker can only address so many issues. Other citizens may be uncomfortable speaking in a public arena. An online system lets participants voice their views on each budget priority at their leisure.

A traditional public consultation stretches over many months, in order to afford residents sufficient opportunities to participate. With effective marketing, a typical online consultation receives the majority of its responses within two weeks, making it possible for municipalities to receive public opinion on urgent issues.

Trends in Internet use are favorable to an online approach in Canada. Indeed, over 83% of Canadians living in cities and towns have regular access to the Internet, and 54% of Canadians would engage more with government if there were ways to participate online.

Three Keys for a Successful Online Consultation

1. Use every opportunity to share your consultation The success of your online consultation depends on how well you promote it. The interactive nature of online tools drives participation once a resident has reached the website; the problem is getting them there. In our experience, issuing a press release and getting local coverage has generated the most responses. The Plateau Mont-Royal found that releasing a few stimulating or controversial results a few weeks into the consultation is a great way to get a second round of media coverage. Social media is another key platform for promoting your consultation: almost a quarter of responses to come from Facebook in our experience.

2. Make it very easy to use Keep your questions clear and concise. Use language that people are familiar with and avoid administrative jargon. Focus on the key issues and questions that you are interested in, rather than trying to cover every aspect of the budget. These strategies will make your consultation accessible to more people, maximizing the number who take the time to participate.

3. Follow-up and engage with participants To maintain or increase participation in the following years, it is essential that residents see how their input translates to action. Following up with residents can be as simple as sharing the results of the consultation at a public meeting, in the paper and on your website, and sending a follow-up email to participants. Be sure to explain how the results had an impact on your decisions.

Where Do I Start?

Online budget consultations are a powerful new way to share information with residents, to involve them in the decision-making process, and to demonstrate your commitment to citizen engagement. By doing it online, you can quickly and easily collect responses from residents who are interested in understanding the key issues and priorities of your municipality.

Open North’s Citizen Budget is one example of an online consultation solution. This customizable budget simulator lets citizens modify the amounts allocated to municipal services and submit realistic, balanced budget proposals that express their budget priorities. To learn more about Citizen Budget, visit citizenbudget.com.

This Week in Open Government | October 12, 2012

  • The Open Knowledge Foundation presented to the United Nation Public Administration Network on how to design an open government data initiative. In their presentation, they stress to administrators that open government is about citizen engagement, government transparency and accountability – not mainly about better public service delivery – and that the focus should be on legislative reform and publishing data, not on “shiny web interfaces.”

  • Quebec Ouvert’s final preparatory session before November’s Hackons la Corruption will take place next Saturday on October 20th. Join on EventBrite if you’re interested in helping prepare datasets for the big event.

  • The International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Government will take place next week in Albany, NY. Check out Gov 2.0radio’s exclusive coverage in the lead-up to the event.

  • This week, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page extended his deadline for the Canadian Government to turn over details on the impact of recent budget decisions. Some departments, such as Public Works and Government Services, have started to comply, which puts pressure on their peers to do so as well. Assuming Page receives the data he requested, the next question is, will his office share it with the public?

This Week in Open Government | October 5, 2012

Last month, the Open Knowledge Foundation blog posted an entry regarding what we can expect from the open data movement. They conclude “that open information and technology will often be complements to institutional change not substitutes,” acknowledging that the release of information from governments is just one step. The next step, they note, is creating action - engaging with the information we have. We have collected some examples of active engagement with data to exemplify this next step:

  • For the upcoming Saskatoon municipal election, Whitespace has launched #YXEVotes, which compiles information about candidates and tracks their recent activity. This is a great resource for Saskatonians to get engaged with their local government and is also a fine example of civil society groups using government information to create an active resource for citizens.

  • Open Data Communities, a project by the UK’s Department for Communities, and Local Government posted an map charting the subjective understanding of residents’ own well-being around the city of Manchester. This project is fascinating as it is an example of how we can use data to share our experiences, feelings, and habits with one another, to foster understanding and dialogue.

Sharing Citizen Budget

Results from the Plateau

Earlier this month, the Plateau Mont-Royal borough of Montreal, Quebec completed their second annual public budget consultation for the 2013 budget. Using Open North’s Citizen Budget platform, the Plateau engaged 645 residents in two months. The borough used Citizen Budget’s latest features to consult citizens on both revenues and expenses and took advantage of its revamped interface.

The results of the consultation were integrated into the borough’s budget presentation on September 17th. The results show how Citizen Budget can be used as an effective tool for residents to express their budget priorities and openness to new revenue-generating activities, such as additional parking spaces or new property taxes.

2012-10-02-budget-plateau-example

Through BudgetPlateau.com, the borough invited residents to submit their own balanced budget by modifying services and activities taken from its current budget. The consultation website generated several important and detailed insights for the borough. For instance, the Plateau learned that 72% of respondents are interested in eliminating one waste collection per week and implementing a food waste collection instead. It also learned that its residents are open to increased taxes if the additional revenue is tied to a specific project: when asked if they would accept a new local tax, almost 70% said “no,” but when asked if they would agree to a $50 tax to fund a specific project, such as planting trees or repurposing a church, 68% were in favour of a special project. The respondents of the consultation also showed a preference for adding new activities to the budget: 63.9% were in favour of instituting a budget for public art, with an annual budget of $37,023 suggested on average.

2012-10-02-local-tax 2012-10-02-local-tax

In addition to the 645 budget proposals, the Plateau received 462 comments through Citizen Budget. This direct input allows city officials to clearly document and understand the needs of their residents, and provides citizens with a channel to ensure their voice is heard by representatives. In their budget presentation, the borough announced that they would not institute a local tax and would avoid reducing services to ensure that they pay attention to the priorities expressed by residents. The Plateau will be presenting its 2013 budget to city council on November 13th to confirm this citizen-oriented plan.

2012-10-02-budget-decisions

We look forward to working with the Plateau again next year to engage even more residents on their local government’s budget. If you’re interested in having Citizen Budget in your own borough, municipality or province, use Represent to find your local officials and ask them for it!

This Week in Open Government | September 28, 2012

We’re off to Ottawa next week to meet with leaders regarding our new civic engagement initiative, Citizen Voice, which we hope to launch early 2013. We look forward to sharing the results of these meetings with you in upcoming posts on this blog. Until then, here are some updates and interesting stories from this week in open government and open data.

  • Our budget simulator tool, Citizen Budget, will be featured next week at the Library Innovators Community Technology Fair in Washington, D.C. This event introduces “library champions” to the basics of international development, advances library-government partnerships, and nurtures innovative project ideas.

  • The Open Government Partnership has posted a summary of B.C.’s Information Summit, reminding us that, while new technology is helpful, it is political will that will bring about truly open government.

  • Beth Noveck, former White House deputy Chief Technology Officer for open government, has compiled a list of great TED talks about open government on her blog.

  • In response to Opening Parliament’s declaration on eParliaments, DemWorks, the National Democratic Institute’s blog, posted a comparison of open parliament initiatives around the world. If you haven’t had the chance to look at how some other countries are approaching open parliament tools, like Canada’s own OpenParliament.ca, we suggest checking this out!

  • Halifax’s city council has voted unanimously in favour of instituting a municipal open data initiative similar to projects in Vancouver, Toronto, and Edmonton. The city has not announced a timeline for this new initiative yet but their council notes suggest the decision will go into effect very soon.

Right to Know Week

September 24th to 28th is Right to Know Week across Canada, which coincides with the 10th annual International Right to Know Day on September 28th. Organized by the Office of the Information Comissioner of Canada, this is Canada’s seventh Right to Know Week.

Since its creation in 1983, the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has ensured that the rights conferred by the Access to Information Act are respected, thereby enhancing transparency and accountability across the federal government. The Access to Information Act creates the right for Canadians to demand information from governing bodies and permits the retrieval of government files respecting the timelines enforced by the Information Commissioner. Each province has its own access and privacy legislation which is enforced by provincial commissioners. Events will be taking place across the country this week to promote the freedom of information worldwide.

For instance, on Monday September 24th, Newspapers Canada released its seventh annual National Freedom of Information (FOI) Audit which reviews the performance of Canadian governments with respect to their access to information regimes. The audit provides the public the opportunity to see which governments are in compliance with their own FOI legislation, as well as facilitating comparisons between jurisdictions.

We have previously written about our experience with requesting data from governments and we’ve learned that ATI laws are powerful tools, not only to release data, but also to change behaviour. With increased access comes increased transparency, which can help achieve more responsible governance and give citizens opportunities to better understand decision-making processes. We are particularly interested in the talks taking place this week regarding strategies for using ATI requests by the public and the experiences of cities like Calgary that have adopted open data policies.

A list of all events is available on the Right to Know Week calendar. We encourage you to visit the Right to Know Week website where you will find information on the history of ATI laws in each province and territory.

To follow Right to Know Week on Twitter, the official hashtag for the week is #RTK.

This Week in Open Government | September 21, 2012

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in open data and open government is the great sense of community. This week, we want to highlight some achievements in Open North’s networks (both local and at large) in government transparency and civic access.

  • In preparation for Right to Know Week, which starts Monday, the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner has issued a press release calling for public institutions to release more data and follow their Access by Design principles. As we mention in our Lessons from Represent series, access to information laws are powerful tools not only to release government information but to change government’s behaviour.

On the subject of Represent and the open government community, we’d like to thank our many volunteers for their continued support in contributing to our database and API of elected officials. We’ve made great progress collecting electoral boundaries of Canadian municipalities, but we need more help collecting information on their elected officials. If you’re interested in programming a “scraper" for a municipality, please contact james@opennorth.ca.

Lessons from Represent

Data Licenses in Canada

In August, we shared our experiences requesting digital electoral boundary files from municipal governments for Represent, our open database of Canadian elected officials. Represent uses this data to tell you what electoral districts you belong to.

Nonprofits, civic innovators, and citizens often want access to this raw data, so we go one step further to make it available: once we receive data, we ask governments for permission to share these files with the public through a public server.

In the previous post of this series, we learned that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” But once you have the data, what can you legally do with it? In this post, we highlight some bumps in the road to open data licensing across Canada as well as a few important advancements.

Why license agreements?

In Canada, government information is automatically protected by copyright. This differs from the United States where works of the federal government and of some state governments are automatically within the public domain. Canadian governments can, however, relax the constraints of copyright through license agreements.

At a minimum, a license agreement allows you to make private use of the data. An open data license, on the other hand, typically grants permission to use, modify and distribute the data or your modifications. We don’t have the space to get into fair dealing here, but suffice it to say: if you have government data without a license, you may not have permission to use it! That’s why we ask governments for explicit permission to redistribute the data they send us, or ask for an exemption to a standard license that otherwise forbids distribution.

Humble beginnings

Nanaimo was the first city in Canada to launch an open data portal in 2009, with Vancouver following a short three months later. It was Vancouver’s data license, however, that was adopted by most cities to follow – nearly a dozen, including Edmonton and Ottawa.

Having this sort of de facto standard license is good for licensees, because they can spend less time reading licenses and more time using data. It’s also good for new cities adopting open data policies, as they can spend more time preparing data and improving their open data strategy. That’s the good.

The bad: Unfortunately, the Vancouver license (and its copies) has some oddities within it. David Fewer and Kent Mewhort of CIPPIC (Kent sits on Open North’s board) detail some of them in a 2010 recommendation to the City of Ottawa. For example, Ottawa’s Open Data Terms of Use stipulates that, “If you distribute or provide access to these datasets to any other person, you agree to ensure they agree to and are bound by these Terms of Use.” This clause is not only onerous; as Kent Mewhort describes elsewhere, “it may even be infeasible for you to comply with it, as minors without the capacity to agree will never be bound by the agreement.”

That same clause applies to the “original or modified form” of the dataset, thereby imposing a “share-alike” obligation. This means that if you add value to a dataset from the city, you can only share your new dataset under a license consistent with the city’s. This is bad for business: it’s hard to start a company that builds on open data if you need to share your value-added data with your competitors. As CIPPIC explains in another document, this clause likely arose out of misconceptions about share-alike.

We believe these and other issues are oversights, that merely speak to how nascent open data licensing is. (We don’t believe Vancouver and others were making a conscious effort to exclude minors.)

The changing landscape

Data licenses have had time to mature since 2009. In the past year, more and more Canadian governments have adopted licenses based on the UK’s Open Government License for Public Sector information, which clearly outlines rights, obligations and exemptions. This easy-to-read license is now in use by British Columbia, Toronto, Region of Waterloo, Region of Peel and Grande Prairie No. 1. In our correspondence with municipal officials in the process of drafting new open data licenses, it’s the license we suggest most often.

2012-09-19-opendatalic

The Township of Langley and City of Surrey instead adopt the Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL), another standard license which CIPPIC reviews favorably in this draft document.

Moving forward

We must remember that municipalities build their datasets with taxpayer funds. As a public good, access to non-personal, non-confidential data should not be limited to those with the necessary time, knowledge and financial resources. Represent is an example of a useful tool that can be built when Canadian cities open up their data. As more cities adopt open data, organizations like Open North can spend less time writing emails and access to information requests, and more time helping others make full use of the data in their own projects.

The Sunlight Foundation has compiled Guidelines for Open Data Policies which serves as an excellent starting point for governments or anyone interested in these issues. One of the guidelines is that “information released by the government should be sticky: once released, it must remain ‘findable’ at a stable location or through archives in perpetuity.” Open North strives to respect this principle in its own projects, by making the data they use available via APIs like Represent’s and via direct download. These are our ways of ensuring that the public will have access to government information over the long-term.

Open North receives $10,000 from SDEVM

The Société de développement économique Ville-Marie (CLD) has awarded Open North $10,000 to support its work of better involving citizens in the decision-making processes of governments in Canada. Open North received the grant through the SDEVM’s Development Fund for Social Economy Enterprise (FDEÉS) which aims to support nonprofits and cooperatives based in the Montreal borough of Ville-Marie.

The SDEVM’s mission is to provide frontline services to businesses in Ville-Marie in order to create sustainable enterprises that generate new jobs and services and increase the quality of life in downtown Montreal.

This grant was made in particular to support Citizen Budget, our consultative budget simulator. Citizen Budget is already used by two municipal governments – Plateau Mont-Royal and Newmarket – and more are planning to implement the tool later this year. With the support of SDEVM, Open North is able to promote to more municipalities the advantages of involving citizens in the difficult choices and trade-offs surrounding municipal budgets.

Canada’s Democracy Week

This week is Canada’s Democracy Week, an initiative led by Elections Canada to celebrate the positive impact of democracy in the country. The week kicked off alongside the United Nations International Day of Democracy on September 15th. Several events will be held across Canada encouraging citizens to participate in the democratic process.

Jonathan Brun, one of Open North’s directors, will be speaking on Thursday, September 20th at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, as part of the series “Canada’s Democratic Culture: Ideas Worth Spreading.” Jonathan will argue that, as a way to promote democracy in Canada, all levels of government should make available the information they collect on behalf of citizens, such as data on representativesbudgetscontracts and votes. By making these datasets available at no cost in open formats, governments allow citizens to create new tools to increase democratic engagement in Canada – tools to build better relationships between citizens and government, to improve understanding and access to information. Access can foster citizen engagement and, in turn, democratic action for a more representative democracy.

Our friends at Samara and Apathy is Boring are among the many supporters of the Democracy Week program. They will both be presenting as part of the “Ideas Worth Spreading” series at the UBC event on Monday, September 17th. The full listing of events is available on the Democracy Week website.

This Week in Open Government | September 16, 2012

As the open data movement spreads across the globe, methods of measuring and critiquing its impact are increasing. This week, we start our round-up with two reports about the state of open data and open government.

  • A report by US-based Open the Government concludes that, while secrecy in other parts of the federal government is decreasing, national security secrecy continues to expand.

  • The Global Center for ICT in Parliament released their World e-Parliament 2012 Report, which documents efforts of governments to use information and communications technologies (ICT) to support constitutional functions, noting important progress over the past two years.

  • CIPPIC launched the beta of its Licensing Information Project. The website aggregates open source and open data licenses, with a focus on Canadian licenses. For each license, it clearly explains your rights and obligations as a licensee. You can also edit or add new licenses to their database.

  • Citizinvestor launched a pilot program in Philadelphia for crowdsourced funding of city projects. Philadelphians can visit Citizinvestor.com to find and invest in the local projects they care about most, starting with Tree Philly, a campaign led by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation in partnership with Wells Fargo and Fairmount Park Conservancy.

  • Quebec Ouvert’s Hackons la corruption has been rescheduled for November 10 and 11th. The website lists the datasets specially prepared for the event, which looks to create tools that will help prevent collusion and corruption in Quebec; more will be added closer to the event. Registration is open, and tickets start at $10. A “minihack” in preparation for the event takes place October 20th.

To learn more about open data, government transparency and civic access, follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @opennorth.

This Week in Open Government | September 7, 2012

September is off to a politically charged start as the party conventions wrap up in the US and Quebec ushers in a new government. The election brought good news for civic engagement: 74.61% of eligible voters in Quebec turned out this past Tuesday, the highest participation rate since 1998Open North and our friends are hard at work on opening up other democratic processes to the public through open data and open government to sustain this momentum.

To learn more about open data, government transparency and civic access, follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @opennorth.

This Week in Open Government | August 31, 2012

As the summer draws to a close, the open data and open government communities are preparing for a very exciting fall season full of events and launches. Open North is excited to participate in upcoming events like Hacking Corruption and Canada’s Democracy Week.

To learn more about open data, government transparency and civic access, follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @opennorth.

Here are this week’s must-reads:

Lessons from Represent

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

2012-08-28-represent

Earlier this year, we launched Represent, an open database of Canadian elected officials at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. Hundreds of citizens across the country use it to find their representatives’ contact information, and nearly a dozen nonprofits and civic innovators now depend on it to power their projects, campaigns and products. For example, the David Suzuki Foundation uses it in its online campaigns so that their supporters’ emails go to the correct Members of Parliament.

Represent has quickly become the largest database of its kind in Canada, with information on all provincial and federal representatives, and we already have municipal-level information for 40% of Canadians. In this post, we highlight some lessons we learned about getting data from municipalities, from our experience interacting with several dozen cities across Canada.

When things go right

In order to tell you what electoral districts you belong to, we need to know their boundaries. These boundaries are described in “geospatial” files. Sometimes, electoral offices and municipal governments publish these files on their websites. But most of the time, we have to email an authority to request the files. In the large majority of cases, we receive the electoral boundary data without question or comment, which leads to a first lesson:

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Too often, when government data isn’t readily available, citizens assume defeat. If you’re in this situation, give yourself a chance of receiving the data by sending a simple email request (and sometimes a short reminder a couple weeks later). If the information requested is non-sensitive, non-confidential and already exists, there’s a good chance you’ll get it within a few weeks time.

When things go wrong

Not all cities are familiar with the values of open data. Although in most cases we receive data without fuss, we must sometimes take extra steps like in the case of Vaughan, Hamilton and Whitby in Ontario.

Vaughan

Vaughan makes digital boundary data available only to organizations with whom the city has a contractual arrangement, like Microsoft or IBM. That policy didn’t make sense to us, so we completed the form to submit a formal request under Ontario’s Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA). Within a month, the files were sent to us on CD for a fee of $22.50 ($5 to submit the request, $10 for the CD and $7.50 for 15 minutes of labor). The city is now reviewing its policy relating to the digital spatial data in light of our request.

Hamilton

Hamilton charges $75 for their digital ward boundaries, subject to a license agreement that prohibits redistribution. We submitted a formal request as we did for Vaughan, to see if this license and fee structure would be upheld under MFIPPA. Our request was denied on the grounds that the information was already publicly available (section 15 of MFIPPA). The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) explained that a record is publicly available unless, according to the IPC, the cost is too high or the license agreement is too restrictive. We believe electoral boundaries should be freely available, because knowing who represents us is fundamental to our democracy. Thankfully, there’s hope that Hamilton’s data will be freely available, as the city council considers a new open data policy later this year.

Whitby

Whitby’s policy is to not release geospatial files at all. We submitted a formal request, which to our surprise was denied under section 15 of MFIPPA (like Hamilton), which means that the files are publicly available. However, in our correspondence with the city, staff clearly stated that these files were not publicly available. Furthermore, according to the IPC, Whitby must describe how to obtain files denied under section 15, which they did not. We’ve written to Whitby’s town clerk to clarify the situation. If we can’t resolve the issue, we may have to appeal their decision at a cost of $25. (Interestingly, no other access to information law in Canada charges a fee to submit an appeal.)

Conclusions

We should not interpret the above cases as rejections of open government or open data. Rather, the wide range of responses to our data requests suggest that governments’ attitudes towards open data are changing. These delays and misunderstandings can be seen as part of ongoing developments. Municipalities may be slow to add open data policies; however, these changes are happening.

At Open North we’ve learned that if you ask (and, in most cases, ask again) municipalities and other public bodies will be responsive and supportive. And if they’re not, we’ve learned that access to information laws are powerful tools, not only to release data, but also to change behaviour as in the case of Vaughan.

In the coming months, we will build new tools to make the Represent database more accessible to non-profits and advocacy groups. If you’re interested in using Represent in your organization, please contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

This Week in Open Government | August 24, 2012

This week we begin a new blog series that will share pieces from around the world that speak to Open North’s mission to make democracy better in Canada. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and on Twitter at @opennorth and check this space every week to learn of recent events in open data, government transparency and civic access.

To start our roundup, here are this week’s must reads:

  • Saskatoon joins dozens of other Canadian cities in the open data movement after council approved $40,000 to create a catalogue of datasets.

  • The Sunlight Foundation, an American nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, launched a new project this week called AdHawk. This new app allows viewers to identify political ads as they air and immediately learn who is behind them.

  • HackTaVille will take place on September 8th, co-organized by Open North, McGill University and Ecole Polytechnique. The event builds on the success of the local open data movement, exploring themes of transportation, urban planning, urban agriculture, sustainable development, urban land use, housing, parks, public spaces – and more. All are welcome to join the workshops and hack sessions regardless of experience.

  • If you happen to live in the Plateau of Montreal, be sure to check out the borough’s use of our open source budget consultation app, Citizen BudgetBudgetPlateau.com gives every Plateau resident the opportunity to submit a budget based on how they want resources to be allocated to city services. Budgets must be submitted by September 1st.

Save the Date

Transportation and urban issues hackathon on September 8

2012-08-23-hacktaville

Last December, hundreds of people gathered at the Maison du développement durable for TransportationCamp Montreal 2011, an “unconference” dedicated to transportation questions organized by the Living Lab of Montreal. Given the popularity of last year’s associated hackathon, we’ve decided this year to organize HackTaVille, an independent hackathon two weeks before TranspoCamp.

HackTaVille will increase the scope of last year’s hackathon to include related topics like urban planning and sustainable development. Open North is co-organizing the event with McGill University and école Polytechnique to create links between the “hacker” world and academia, with the hope that each group may gain insights from the other. We expect to be joined by experts and professionals from public bodies to share their experiences and points of view.

To fulfill this vision of exchange, workshops will run alongside the hackathon. The purpose of these workshops is to introduce to all participants the hacker method and new computer tools in the fields of transportation and urban planning. Experts and hobbyists in these fields will come away with a better understanding of what they can do with the available tools (open source!) and data (also open!).

Like many other open data hackathons, new datasets will be released in anticipation of the event. We can already announce the following: on-street parking data, the exhaustive list of trees for the City of Montreal, land use (residential, commercial, etc.) for the metropolitan area, and some Bixi use data (bike and bike dock availability).

Hacktaville is closely related to TransportationCamp taking place two weeks later on September 21st. Participants of the hackathon are invited to join TranspoCamp to present their work to the transportation-oriented crowd.

Visit HackTaVille for more information or register for the event.

Open North wins social entrepreneurship award

2012-08-23-inm

Through the à go, on change le monde! program organized by the Institut du Nouveau Monde, the Caisse d’économie solidaire Desjardins has awarded Open North $5,000 to continue to foster effective citizen engagement through the innovative use of technology. Open North was selected as one of seven prize winners from a pool over 240 applicants. This award will support Open North’s work to promote government transparency and increase participation in democratic processes.

INM is a not-for-profit and non-partisan organization whose mission is to promote citizen participation and the renewal of ideas in Quebec. INM champions justice and social inclusion issues, as well as a respect for democratic values, open-mindedness and innovation.

The Caisse d’economie solidaire Desjardins is a fund dedicated to supporting solidarity within their community’s economy. With a commitment to inclusive development, the fund focuses on strengthening social cohesion and supporting collective entrepreneurship.

For more information on our projects, visit http://opennorth.ca/work/

Let’s Upgrade our Democracy

This past spring, I had the great privilege of presenting at the recent TEDxMontreal event. In my 18 minute presentation, I try to make the point that democracy needs an upgrade. While technology is not a solution in and of itself, it can be used as a tool to improve democratic processes.

The talk spans my grandfather’s escape from Nazi controlled Poland to our budget simulator to bullying in high school. Hopefully you enjoy it, please post comments and rebuttals!

Canada Day campaign raises $4,180

During our one-week campaign from June 25 to July 1st, we raised $4,180 for a new online project, Citizen Writes, that will allow citizens to publicly ask questions both to candidates during elections and to representatives in office.

Open North will continue to explore options to finance this project, but with the current funding we will nonetheless be able to launch a version of the public question-and-answer system. Work will begin in September, and we plan to launch in time for the winter holidays (a holiday gift to Canadians!).

In this first phase, funds will primarily be spent on technical aspects, such as designing an intuitive interface and programming tools for moderators. As the project’s launch approaches, more time will be spent on communications and editorial work, and the recruitment and training of moderators.

Many important tasks are already completed. Thanks to our earlier project, Represent, we have a database of elected officials with contact information. And thanks to open source code from the UK charity, mySociety, we have a strong foundation on which to build our public Q&A platform.

A sincere thanks to our donors, and to all those who spread the word about our campaign, for supporting our efforts to improve Canada’s democracy.

Opening new roads with Open511

I am proud to announce that Open North is launching a new project, Open511, funded by GeoConnections, a federal program dedicated to geospatial data infrastructure. Open511’s goal is to develop an open data standard and API to help governments publish road event data (such as accidents, road closures, etc.). We believe the project will have a great impact in local communities across Canada, and we hope it will foster an ecosystem around road event data, much as GTFS has fostered one around public transit data.

2012-07-05-open511

Open511’s origin story

It all started with ZoneCone.ca, a webapp I developed that aggregates road closure data from the Transports Quebec and the City of Montreal.

I soon realized that many different organizations work on our roads: municipalities, the province, the federal government (bridges), private infrastructure contractors (Highway 30, Highway 25 bridge) and all the utilities you can think of (Hydro-Québec, Gaz Métro, Bell, etc.). Some of these bodies publish data, others don’t. When they do, the data provide insufficient detail and each organization uses a different format. In short, painting a global picture of current road obstructions is impractical.

Open511’s goal is to solve this problem.

At the start line

Open511 is about simply and sustainably making road event data available and accessible, following an open data philosophy. The core components of Open511 are: a standard, an API and a lightweight open source webapp to manage and publish road event data. This last tool is for jurisdictions that don’t have the capacity to develop their own software. Open511 has three main benefits:

  • By making relevant data available in a single, common and detailed format, third parties can easily develop apps and integrate data into their offerings.

  • Given the various actors working on our roads, cities have a hard time coordinating road maintenance and construction. Some develop internal tools, others use commercial offerings, but all these solutions are “closed,” making it difficult for cities to share information with relevant parties. The adoption of a standard format would make sharing and collaboration much easier.

  • Although governments are working hard to improve their data’s precision and coverage – such as by installing traffic cameras – there is still much work to do, especially in cities. By carefully adopting crowdsourcing, governments can use reports sent by people on the road to improve their data quality.

The project takes many lessons from the development of Open311, a successful project by OpenPlans to create a common and ready-to-use data format for 311 services. Open511 faces some new challenges, like how to support multiple organizations having jurisdiction over the same geographical territory. And whereas Open311 focuses on data from citizens, Open511 mixes authoritative data from governments with data requiring verification from citizens.

The road ahead

We are in discussions with government technicians to understand how they work and to learn more about existing solutions, needs and wishes. We can count on several high quality collaborators:

In the coming months, expect to see a dedicated website where we will document our progress... and challenges!

We are always eager to speak with others in this field. If this project interests you, email Stéphane Guidoin, transportation director at Open North.

This Canada Day, help improve our democracy

2012-06-25-houseofcommons

Canada’s democracy needs your help. Canadians across the country are frustrated with the state of affairs, from the local level to national issues. Open North, a national non-profit organisation, uses internet technology to improve our democracy.

Already convinced? Make a contribution here.

Founded in 2011, Open North has already made a positive impact, but there is much left to do. We build digital tools to educate and empower citizens to exercise their political influence and participate actively in Canadian democracy. We want to make it easier for Canadians like you to have a voice and make a difference.

You might already be familiar with some of Open North’s most popular projects:

  • Citizen Budget helps local governments like the Plateau Mont-Royal organize online budget consultations

  • Represent is the most comprehensive database of Canadian elected officials, making it easier for citizens to find and contact their representatives at the municipal, provincial and federal levels

  • Ma Mairie (My City Hall) helps Montrealers follow local politics (and we would love to bring it to other cities)

Open North funds its work through projects with media organizations, corporate sponsorships, government grants, and sales of Citizen Budget. But to increase the impact of our work across the country, we need your help. This Canada Day, Open North hopes to raise $10,000 to invest in a high-impact project that will improve Canada’s democracy: Citizen Writes, inspired by the successful Parliament Watch in Germany.

Parliament Watch allows citizens to publicly ask questions both to candidates during elections and to representatives in office. Since 2004, average citizens have asked more than 140,000 questions and 80% of them have been answered by politicians.

This type of public question-and-answer system acts as a shared memory for voters, helping them hold politicians to their word. By engaging publicly with representatives, citizens empower backbench MPs to take a stance on issues before public and party policy is set. These personal exchanges strengthen the identity of individual MPs. And having the conversation in public encourages politicians to respond authentically, because it’s obvious when they’re using stock answers. With your help, we can develop this powerful tool for Canada.

Make a contribution today to our non-profit with all major credit cards or with your PayPal account. For corporate contributions, contact us at info@opennorth.ca. Contributions are not tax deductible.

James McKinney, Executive Director, and the rest of the Open North team

P.S.: Follow us on Twitter or Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter to keep tabs on our work.

What is Open North?

Open North is a Canadian non-profit that creates websites to increase citizen participation in democracy. We’re building online tools to lower the barrier to entry to active participation, using two main strategies:

1. Improve access to government information

  • make it easily available, by pulling it out of dark corners of government websites, taking it out of PDFs and making access to information requests

  • make it accessible, by providing context to numbers, explaining legislative jargon and using language everyone understands

  • make it relevant, by letting citizens find information specific to their community, interests and situation

2. Make participation easy, fun and meaningful

  • work with governments to design new participatory processes and to ensure citizen’s voices are heard

  • increase the number of ways citizens can engage with elected officials and government information

  • help citizens connect with each other and organize around issues they care about

We believe that the internet has the potential to transform democratic engagement. Around the world, we have begun to see this potential realize itself, whether it’s helping citizens send over 100,000 access to information requests (UK), ask questions – and get over 100,000 answers – from their representatives (Germany) or track political activity in their nation’s capital (US).

As Open North approaches its first anniversary, we take stock of our efforts thus far to improve Canadian democracy. Working with the Montreal borough of Plateau Mont-Royal, we ran an online consultation in which citizens re-balanced the borough’s budget according to their budget priorities, in an easy-to-understand, fun and interactive way. We’ve since made this consultation platform available to municipalities nationwide, so that decision-makers in participating cities can base their budgetary decisions on the balanced budgets submitted by residents.

We built Gazette Docs with The Gazette to help both journalists and citizens search contracts awarded by the City of Montreal to construction companies. Several reports on corruption have since been written using this database. Represent is now the most comprehensive database of Canadian elected officials at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. Organizations use our database to mount advocacy campaigns, like the David Suzuki Foundation, and make legislative information more accessible, like CitizenBridge. Ma Mairie (My City Hall) is an in-development platform to make it easier to track and interact with municipal elected officials.

As we look ahead to next year, we look forward to starting conversations with more Canadians about how our work can make democracy better. We encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter and connect with us through our Facebook or Twitter accounts.

To learn more about Open North and its projects, please explore our website or listen to the recent CBC Spark interview with Jonathan Brun, one of Open North’s directors.

Dataware Project Update

The Food Data Ecosystem in Montreal

2020-09-15-dataware-workshop

Data literacy: essential skills for the 21st century

Data and technology are now ubiquitous in our daily lives. Although we have unprecedented access to data from various sources, we increasingly have to provide our personal data in order to access various online services. Even though this exchange is voluntary, we are not entirely aware of its implications. 

This flow of data clearly raises many questions about privacy, consent and the reliability of information, among other issues. To be better prepared to deal with these issues, people need to develop new data literacy skills. These are described by the government of Quebec as 21st century skills, as the ability to find, access and verify relevant data and information while viewing digital technology with a critical eye.

Background: Dataware Project 

At Open North, we recognize the importance of developing responsible, critical and engaged citizens, prepared to deal with the world of data. It was in that vein that we launched the Dataware Project, the aim of which is to improve the data literacy skills and knowledge of youth aged 17 to 29. The project has focused on two concrete objectives: 

  • A series of workshops aimed at improving basic skills in data use, while developing critical thinking.

  • The creation of an open and reusable curriculum on public data use. 

We chose to develop a data literacy curriculum on food security and food environments in Montreal. Why address these topics? 

For several decades, we have been witnessing the development of an agricultural production and mass consumption system. This model generates a considerable number of negative externalities among individuals and communities. It contributes to social inequities, climate change and the depletion of natural resources. These challenges encourage a large number of players (food citizens, decision-makers, distributors and producers) to explore and adopt new paradigms and production methods. To make informed choices and take action, players need new means and information. This is why we are providing this data literacy curriculum to better equip people to address food issues in their communities. 

The Dataware Project, funded by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) under its Community Investment Program, was carried out in cooperation with our partner Communautique from May 2019 to end of April 2020.

To share the fruits of this work, this blog post takes stock of the main activities carried out by Open North as part of the project. We first summarize our research, co-creation and experimentation efforts to highlight the main results of these efforts, after which we provide an overview of the curriculum components. 

Research 

In the initial stages of the project, Open North undertook literature searches with the aim of determining which issues and datasets would be the focus of the educational materials to be developed. This approach has enabled us to identify social and civic issues that will benefit from greater openness of public data as well as citizen support. Our approach focused on identifying needs in Montreal so that we could target topics that are important to our local data user community. This research phase led to the selection of two main themes: Local democracy and healthy, sustainable local food systems

We then undertook a review of academic and grey literature to identify theories and practices relevant to our project. Based on these sources, we reviewed data literacy concepts and approaches that enabled us to identify and define the main themes of the curriculum. 

Co-creation

Next, we contacted food experts to obtain their opinion on the creation of the curriculum and determine the target learning objectives. At a co-creation session in November 2019, contributors included food sector players such as Transformations Hub in Food Justice and Sustainability at Dawson College, Food Banks of Quebec, and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec.

In concrete terms, we invited stakeholders to share their knowledge, experiences and challenges by accessing and working with data on local food systems. The discussions and interactive workshops held on that day confirmed the skills and knowledge that would be transmitted through the curriculum. 

In these discussions, we brought up how data with a civic interest, once made understandable and accessible to the general public, can become a real tool for citizen action. In this regard, participants expressed the importance of developing this data literacy learning tool, as it will provide a means for the public to become informed and subsequently to respond to food issues in their communities.

Experimentation with Factry students

To test the educational materials we developed, we organized a workshop with a group of young Montrealers. This group of students was contacted as a result of their participation in the Pause programme. The educational program, designed and run by Factry, provides 20 young people with active creativity training and a group learning experience over an eight-month period. 

Our data literacy workshop, attended by the 20 students from the first Pause group, involved 4 learning goals: 

  1. Become familiar with the food data ecosystem 

  2. Study the state of access to food in Montreal by consulting and handling datasets and mapping tools

  3. Develop a critical view of data and their uses in their specific context

  4. Increase your power to act for access to better data and healthier, sustainable and equitable local food systems 

At the workshop held in March 2020, we explored with students how data and mapping tools can help us observe and understand the food access situation in Montreal. To that end, we conducted a series of collaborative activities on two themes: the state of food security and food environments in Montreal. These activities required the use of critical thinking while calling for conscious and responsible use of data. At the end of the session, we offered young people concrete steps for taking action toward better data and healthier, sustainable and equitable local food systems.

What did the students from the data literacy workshop learn? Some testimonials 

 The main outcome from the workshop was an increase in the knowledge and skills of data literacy students, evidenced by the participants’ testimonials (see below).

“The training reminded me of the extent to which data are not unbiased, not to blindly rely on the information we are given… it can influence the judgment of those who produce them. We need to have a critical mind.”

“I wasn’t aware of the availability of online data, I needed information to search for and find them, and I wasn’t aware of how far you can go.”

“There’s really a lot of data out there. However, you need to know how to screen them.”

“The conclusions that can be drawn from data are really interesting, but we have to be really careful not to include our biases and reinforce certain prejudices.”

“Interesting to see how everything you do may turn into “data”. Data is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous!”

Discover the Dataware curriculum

Ultimately, the Dataware Project provided Open North with an opportunity to develop and channel its data literacy knowledge in collaboration with various stakeholders. This project is an open and reusable citizen learning tool that can have a real impact on a civic issue that concerns our local communities now and in the future: the need to have quality food in sufficient quantities.

It is therefore with great pleasure that we invite readers to discover and freely use the content of the curriculum that is now available on our website. This document contains the activities and templates needed for training purposes. You will also find an accompanying PowerPoint presentation that provides an overview of the key training concepts and activities.

Open and Ethical Procurement with Private Suppliers

How to Avoid Making Headlines for the Wrong Reasons

While the laws and practices surrounding public procurement vary widely among Canadian cities, some of them should always be taken into consideration by municipalities when interacting with suppliers. Open North has been interested in the issue for a few years and we give here an overview of some of these core practices.

Fairness Between Suppliers

The cardinal principle to be respected in public procurement is to always give all suppliers the opportunity to submit compliant bids on public procurement. Not doing so − i.e. targeting directly (by name) or indirectly (through selection criteria targeting a specific supplier) − is considered unethical behaviour that is contrary to this principle and, in several provinces, can even be an illegal practice. It also means that an industry (e.g. the open source) should not be excluded from public procurement.

Concrete Actions

In practice, implementing the above is more complex than it seems. To help you see the light of day, we have compiled a list of simple and concrete actions that will make your procurement practices fairer. 

1. Meetings With Suppliers

  • Only a small number of officials should be allowed to discuss with or meet with current or potential suppliers. In the case of information technology, they should be procurement officials and information technology architects.

  • Any request for a meeting by an information technology provider (including with elected officials) should be directed to the Chief Information Officer.

  • Any meetings or exchanges, electronic or otherwise, between an information technology provider and the City should be documented and ideally published on the City’s open data platform.

  • Never accept a product demonstration by a supplier or ask for one. This type of exchange must be framed by a tendering process to avoid placing the city in a conflict of interest situation.

2. Call for Tenders Drafting

  • It is essential to clearly define the problem to be solved before making the decision to purchase a solution. Therefore, you should always specify the problem you want to solve and its scope (whom it concerns).

  • Once you have defined the problem and confirmed that technology can help solve it, we recommend that you conduct market-neutral analyses (i.e. comparing solutions against each other using international features and standards). Don’t forget dto also conduct total cost of ownership analyses that will allow you to better estimate the costs of the various solutions available. 

  • Involving suppliers in the drafting of public tenders is an unethical practice (it gives a supplier a competitive advantage) and, in some provinces, potentially illegal. 

Where a supplier has participated in any way in an activity or in the preparation of documents that gives it an advantage on a related project, the originator should explicitly announce in the publication of the call for tender or by addendum that such supplier or people may not participate in the bidding process.

  • Since cities are public bodies subject to transparency rules for public procurement, they should refuse to sign non-disclosure agreements with suppliers.

  • Whether the procurement is a public tender or an untendered procurement, the goal should always be to maximize the number of compliant bidders in order to ensure fairness, promote competition, and reduce costs and risks.

3. Transparency: A Powerful Control Tool

Legislation to help Canadian cities fight corruption and collusion in government procurement varies widely from a province to another, with the most comprehensive having been adopted in Quebec. In addition, offices of the inspector general [1] have been created in some cities with the power to cancel suspicious municipal contracts. 

In terms of public contracts, the first effective control measure is the publication of open data on public tenders and contracts. This data should include [2], as a minimum, the following information:

  • The execution performance of the contracts awarded;

  • The unit prices of goods;

  • The risk analyses;

  • The expense evolution related to each contract.

Cities should also consider the inclusion of basic anti-corruption [3] and conflict of interest clauses in their tenders.

Concluding

Canadian cities still have a long way to go to maximize the ethics of their relationships with suppliers and their transparency in public procurement. Indeed, certain essential contractual clauses such as data hosting location, primacy of local law, or ownership of code developed by a supplier, are not yet uniformly included in public tenders. That’s why Open North has created a best practice guide to support cities in their procurement practices. It is a living document that will constantly change over time with the contributions of Open North’s network.


  1. See, for example, the site of the Office of the Inspector General of the City of Montreal.

  2. For the moment, the City of Montreal is the only Canadian city (to our knowledge) to publish its public contracts.

  3. They could use as examples those of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Moving from passive participation toward productive resistance: Building community capacity to challenge smart city tech

2020-10-05

Looking at the world around us, it’s not difficult to find instances of data and technology being used for questionable or harmful ends. Intrusive contact tracing technology, facial recognition, and crime prediction software — to name a few — not only threaten individual and collective privacy but embed further bias and discrimination into our cities.

On July 28th, 2020, Open North hosted From passive participation to productive resistance: Building community capacity to challenge smart city tech, a community lab session at RightsCon, a conference on human rights in the digital age. The session, facilitated by Miranda Sculthorp and Steve Coutts of Open North’s Applied Research Lab, invited speakers to provide an overview of issues and threats that they currently see around smart technology in cities. The session aimed to unpack the barriers to meaningful participation, while also identifying strategies to challenge the status quo. A few major themes quickly emerged: the explosive growth of surveillance technology under the guise of pandemic response; inadequate oversight of public tech procurement processes, and; the need for communities to take back control of narratives around smart city tech.

COVID-19 may accelerate the growth of networked surveillance in our cities

We kicked off the session by showing a short clip of the film Frames, one of three short films produced under the Screening Surveillance project. The film clip prompted participants to think about how networked surveillance systems are integrated into our everyday lives, in ways that are not always immediately apparent to us. Dr. sava saheli singh, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa and the film’s producer, emphasized how such systems can encode subjective norms around what is a ‘good citizen’ or a ‘good city’. For instance, the film portrays a social scoring system, which allocates points for socially accepted behaviours.

She noted that the choice of smart technology in cities will likely accelerate, under the guise of recovering or adapting to the new status quo brought on by the pandemic. For example, there are several recent cases of governments and researchers using smart city technology to monitor the effectiveness of social distancing measures. The increased use of remote education technology such as exam-proctoring software may normalize the idea of in-home surveillance for a new generation of students, from elementary school to post-secondary. While offering assurances that these technologies will only be used in the context of the pandemic response, there are no guarantees that data collection and surveillance activities will cease in the post-pandemic era.

IoT procurement often lacks public oversight and transparency

Next, the discussion shifted to the need for greater public scrutiny for the purchase, implementation and ongoing use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Tech procurement processes are often opaque, and little effort is put into explaining the technology and its opportunities or impacts. There are few engagement opportunities for the public to express their concerns to civic leaders. This was emphasized by Nabeel Ahmed, programme officer at Open North, who spoke specifically of the Sidewalk Labs Toronto/Quayside project, where the public engagement process often took the form of “technology theatre”. In other words, Sidewalk Labs’ development proposal distracted the public with futuristic images, but with few substantive details on what actual technologies they were planning to install, what data they would collect, and how it would all be governed.

We need to change the narrative on what is considered ‘smart’ and ‘innovative’

Nasma Ahmed, director of the Digital Justice Lab, a passionate civic activist and contributor to the #BlockSidewalk movement, called for residents to exercise their right to ‘active refusal’ of unwanted tech. For her, this means, in part, redirecting focus (and funding) toward basic resident needs, such as housing and transportation, and away from grandiose smart city projects. She also highlighted the need for education on citizen data and digital literacy, providing the means for communities to understand and challenge smart city projects. Several workshop participants agreed on the need to recenter the narrative – and recognize that, even before the rise of the smart city paradigm, communities have been and continue to be smart and innovative.

Forging a new way forward: some parting thoughts

Our discussion brought into focus two major narratives. On the one hand, current circumstances make the adoption of smart city technology an appealing solution for policy-makers and city officials. On the other hand, grassroots and civil society mobilizations highlight that public engagement efforts around smart city tech to-date have been inadequate, and a variety of strategies of active resistance are needed. These strategies are rooted in the belief that communities shouldn’t accept data and technological practices that aren’t in the best interest of all their residents. This is especially true in cases where data and technology perpetuate harmful, oppressive systems.

Overall, participants and speakers agreed that forging a new way forward requires a commitment from municipal governments to fund services that residents actually need, stronger transparency and oversight mechanisms, and building capacity for residents to understand, engage with and challenge smart city projects.

We’d like to thank all of our speakers and participants for making this session a success and to Access Now for hosting RightsCon 2020, providing a much-needed platform to share experiences of resistance and collective action, at a time where potentially harmful uses of data and technology are being quickly introduced in our cities. We look forward to continuing to connect with the international community of activists who joined us at RightsCon 2020.

The art of data sharing webinar - recording now available!

Thank you to all of our participants who joined The art of data sharing webinar on Nov. 24th, 2020. We are happy to share the recording of the event with you! 

EVENT

Note: The recording is bilingual, and does not include subtitles. 

Open North partnered with CAPACOA, a performing arts service organization, to explore the use of a data charter to improve data collaboration in the Canadian performing arts sector. As part of this research, the two organizations held a webinar, The art of data sharing, to learn about how Apidae Tourisme, The Audience Agency, and la BTLF developed successful data collaboration initiatives!

Claudia Peteau, Apidae Tourisme 

Apidae Tourisme is “the first information network for tourism data” in France and is designed to facilitate information sharing among local French government departments and individual culture and arts organizations. They gather and share data to create a better understanding of tourism offerings in regions, ultimately promoting the discoverability of local events and points of interest. Apidae Tourisme does this by warehousing and sharing data from the network. Because this is a voluntary approach that relies on data contribution from a network of organizations, Apidae Tourisme focuses on connecting different organizations and promoting synergies among its members. 

Apidae Tourisme has been incredibly successful. They work with over 25 departments and hold information on over 370,000 points of interest. The organizations in their network come together to solve issues related to their data, resulting in over 2,000 digital projects that use the data to the benefit of members of the community. The value comes from having a multitude of local and national actors wanting to collaborate, create better profiles of tourism offerings for regions, and keep tourists informed of local product and service offerings.  

Patrick Towell, The Audience Agency 

The Audience Agency created a national audience data and development tool called Audience Finder to help arts & culture organizations in the United Kingdom understand and compare their audiences.  With the goal to better understand audiences across the U.K., The Audience Agency aggregates data from all arts and culture organizations that receive funding from The Arts Council of England. This allows organizations to have a better understanding of their own audience, national audience trends, as well as access to tools to help them report to their funders and adapt their services. 

The Audience Agency has a robust and established governance program. One tool that has proven useful is its community charter. The community charter is a governance tool to align and share their values with partners and it helps to instill trust in data sharing. It has become an excellent tool for the Audience Agency as they moved beyond working with just English organizations to expand their services into Wales, Scotland, as well as internationally. Their charter concretizes their organizational culture of trust and listening to the needs of organizations in their network. 

Patrick Joly, La BTLF 

La BTLF is the digital partner of the French language book industry in Canada. Working in the middle of the “book chain”, la BTLF focuses on standardizing metadata to improve sales, marketing, and promotion of French language books in Quebec. A big part of their work is ensuring high-quality data flows between writers and publishing houses to book sellers and libraries. Part of how they ensure high-quality data is by specifying what that means to each actor in the “book chain”, through their “politique de referencement”. This allows La BTLF to publish metadata quickly to their two main databases: Memento, which houses information on over 2.5 million french language books, and Gaspard, a real-time book sales database.  

La BTFL’s focus on high-quality metadata for the book industry pays off. In a recent study, they found that books with enriched metadata had higher sales than those without it. 

Governing data in the performing arts sector: So what have we learned for the performing arts sector in Canada? One of the overarching themes is that it takes time to develop governance systems that generate value from sectoral data. Learning from others is an early step on the journey to a collaborative data governance system. 

There are also various models of data collaboration that exist and they all have their own benefits. We heard about a decentralized approach based on a network of individual organizations as well as centralized databases built for trusted data-sharing among competing organizations. What the models had in common were clear goals that were agreed on by all partners. 

Our project with CAPACOA will continue in 2021 in order to explore the use of a data charter for data collaboration. Stay tuned for opportunities to provide further input, such as through our upcoming survey and workshop. Please join our mailing list at the bottom of this page if you’d like to be notified of these upcoming opportunities.

Finally, we would like to thank our speakers as well as CAPACOA for collaborating with us on this important work!

Speakers’ panel for the Open COVID-19 Data consultation - Recording available

On July 2, 2020, Open North conducted a consultation on the role of data in the COVID-19 pandemic in collaboration with the Standards Council of Canada. Close to 100 people gathered to think about ways to leverage data to help recover from the pandemic and better prepare for future health crises. Five guest panelists discussed how data has been used so far during the COVID-19 pandemic. They share their thoughts on the areas where Canada can improve upon data release and sharing to mitigate disease spread, understand the impact on our communities, and evaluate government actions.

Our speakers included:

  • Mr. Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

  • Ms. Bonnie Healy, Health Director at Blackfoot Confederacy

  • Mr. Éric Martel, Head of the Performance, Analysis, and Evaluation Branch at the Integrated University Center for Health and Social Services (CIUSSS), Montreal

  • Dr. Erin Strumpf, McGill University Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in health economics, studying healthcare service delivery and inequalities in health outcomes

  • Mr. Mark Leggott, Executive Director, Research Data Canada

<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/436477311" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; fullscreen" allowfullscreen=""></iframe>

We would like to thank our speakers, the International Open Data Charter and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Digital Government and Data Unit for inspiring our work and collaborating on this consultation.

Stay tuned for the release of our report on findings from the consultation on opennorth.ca, including an analysis of comments provided by participants in the collaborative breakout session (not included in the recording). Please join our mailing list if you’d like to be notified of its release.

What does the data crisis in COVID-19 reveal?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis, it’s also a data crisis.

People are asking for better data on the pandemic and the media is echoing that call. In this blog, we will explore how this cry for data around the pandemic highlights long standing data issues, data mapping and visualization and how, despite the complexity around sharing data across jurisdictions, there is a path for making it easier to do and of more help to decision makers and the public.

The pandemic has forced governments and organizations to share data as never before; much more data is required and very quickly. It must be national, consistent across jurisdictions and respect privacy. The pressure of both the urgency and the high stakes of public health have exposed issues around collecting and sharing data. Why is healthcare data particularly difficult to share?

Most of the data about our population is based on census data. We have years of consistent census-based data and we can understand a lot about this country with that information. However, sometimes health reporting boundaries aren’t aligned with census boundaries.

Each province has its own health system structure and exposes data in a different way geographically. For example, some provinces/territories report the total number of COVID -19 cases only at the provincial level. Some count them at the health region level, and others report on individual cases with a finer focus, with health units.

Sourcing, comparing, validating and aggregating the data for each province, before mapping out the COVID-19 cases, requires a lot of detailed, manual work. To map out the situation of COVID cases nationally, someone has to comb through websites of all the ministries of health, understand their COVID-19 reporting level, obtain the boundaries of each health system and update the data daily.

Even when data is collected for each province, comparing infection rates in different provinces isn’t always possible. Ontario, BC and Alberta have similar case level information, meaning for each confirmed patient, we know their gender, age group and how they probably contracted the virus. We can compare those three provinces but other provinces such as Quebec have different data collection and sharing practices. We can’t draw an accurate national picture because not every province or territory shares data the same way.

These are some of the reasons why it is so difficult to make simple comparisons across provinces in Canada and it’s so hard to ensure that data or statistics released by each province are comparable.

This can be partly explained by Canada’s separation of powers. Separation of powers means that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), a federal government agency, cannot enforce data sharing from provincial or territorial governments or even the private sector, limiting its ability to enact health surveillance.

Different levels of government also have different capacities to collect data. In the world of GIS and mapping, the differences between municipal-level data infrastructures and provincial and federal governments can be vast. Municipalities have different GIS capacity and practices and for some municipalities a fully staffed GIS department is a luxury. Divergence in data publication practices can begin in the smallest of areas, such as how we tag data or define fields. This leads to challenges in searching for, combining, and aggregating data. Ultimately, this makes it difficult for all governments in creating a consistent set of facts and understanding for the public.

Creating national data standards is a good start. Data standards help structure data to make them consistent and reliable, which helps the recipient of the data comprehend, process, and analyse them. This builds trust in the dataset and the organization responsible for maintaining it. But the standards landscape for healthcare in Canada is as complex as the healthcare system itself.

Standards can come from general standard-setting bodies, such as the International Standards Organization, or from international associations that represent specific parts of the industry such as the International Council of Nurses. They can come at the national level from Health Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information, or provinces, such as eHealth Ontario. In fact Canada Health Infoway has a list of organizations that either define or recommend data standards for healthcare in each province.

There are so many ways to structure data from the healthcare system, and so many standards setters in Canada alone, that it’s clear that coordination remains a barrier to getting reliable and quality data aggregated from across the country.

Not knowing which data can and which cannot be freely shared has slowed down decision making and biased it towards privacy protection at the cost of data sharing. This is especially the case for vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, or Indigenous peoples, where they often feel the government breathing down their necks and they want to hold onto any protection of their privacy.

To solve this issue governments need to make the collaboration and coordination opportunities around health data more visible and accessible, provide resources for practitioners to provide standards. The public, as an end user of data, can also take part by providing our own thoughts and ideas on data visualization and analysis needs to government.

It is important for data providers, including government, to have a clear understanding of the eventual use cases for data. This allows them to share data in the appropriate formats and with the required level of detail and documentation. Understanding needs of end users is not a trivial task, particularly as public end users of data may have little interaction or influence on the original data producer. While public surveys and consultation can provide feedback on data needs, more interactive forms of engagement, such as co-design workshops between government and the public, can lead to more informed feedback on data, visualisation, user interface, and analysis needs.

This type of co-design is already being practised as part of service design in the Government of British Columbia. Even without such collaborative workshops, anyone can engage with government on data and analytical needs for health data. Canada’s open data and open government communities provide a forum for discussion on data needs. Canada’s Multi-stakeholder Forum on Open Government is a forum for dialogue between the Government of Canada and civil society, established as part of Canada’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership. At the local level, open data and civic tech meetups are another great place to start getting engaged with developers, data scientists, and researchers.

For certain kinds of data, citizen science initiatives and community asset mapping of health resources and programs can engage members of the public in the act of data collection itself. These initiatives are often led by a government, non-profit, or academic organization and often provide basic training to ensure that anyone can participate. The act of collecting data in the field or making a map is a learning experience on coordination of multiple data collectors, ensuring accurate and reliable data, and ensuring that data entry is not error prone. These types of experiences can lead to increased public awareness of the challenges of generating good quality data.

Governments around the world are grappling with this. The European Union’s joinup, is an example of a data and information sharing platform that allows anyone to share links to information, data, and software resources around the world, with a specific repository for their Digital Response to COVID-19.

Because it is an open platform, government officials can share resources with each other, but also learn from those outside government. Communities such as joinup’s Community of Practice on Core Data Models, provide a platform for government officials to share data standards, new tools and applications to implement, with regular lessons learned shared data between government institutions.

In Canada, GCCollab, is the Government of Canada’s platform for civil servants to connect with each other and share resources such as analysis workflows, code, or papers. More mechanisms may be needed to facilitate sharing across jurisdictions. Organizations such as Canada Health Infoway were established and funded by the Government of Canada to promote interoperability solutions in the health sector.

But more is needed. A strong central standards setting body, strong collaboration and coordination, and stronger institutional mandates, can help address our current fragmented health data within provinces, at the national level, and globally.

This is a joint post between Open North and Esri Canada. See the post on Esri Canada's website here.

About Esri Canada

Founded in 1984, Esri Canada provides geographic information system (GIS) solutions that empower people in business, government and education to make informed and timely decisions by leveraging the power of mapping and spatial analytics. More information can be found at esri.ca.

About Open North

Open North is a non-profit organization based in Montréal. Operating since 2011, we work with public, private and research partners and community stakeholders to foster efficient, responsible, and collaborative use of data and technology to solve complex problems.

Subscribe to our newsletter to access our latest resources!