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.
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 first, second 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 Institute, offers 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.
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 email@example.com
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:
- Decision influencing organizations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.
- Regime changing organizations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.
- Citizen empowering organizations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit.
- 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:
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 celebrity blog 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:
- become a decision-maker (get elected, for example)
- cooperate with a decision-maker (educate, partner)
- confront a decision-maker (petition, whistleblow)
- coerce a decision-maker (attack, blackmail)
- 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.
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.
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:
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 Democracy) helps people demand better from institutions, while its subsidiary (mySociety Ltd) helps 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 building, policy research, market development, mobilization 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.
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.
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 Ireland, Japan 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.
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.
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.
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.