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We're a Canadian non-profit that builds online tools to make democracy better.

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New National Program Funds Open North Project to Enhance Canada's Internet

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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  • 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

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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

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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

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  • 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

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Replicating the Open Data Institute

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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.

Read the blog archive