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

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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.

This Week: Google's Civic Information API adds US representatives

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  • 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.

Announcing JeVeuxSavoir.org and Infothon on Nov 30th

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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

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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:

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:

  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.

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.

Read the blog archive