Government - Written by Nitla Cooke on Friday, June 25, 2010 8:05 - 2 Comments
Impressions from Govcamp Toronto
I recently attended Govcamp–an amalgamation of table conversations where several open data activists got together to discuss the opportunities and obstacles of opening up government data. As a highlight, David Eaves spoke about how the evolution of government is inextricably linked to the implementation of an open government or an open data platform. In fact, Open Government has become a movement of its own; A movement that represents a “shift from a culture of permission, to one of participation, expression, action and innovation.”
Obstacles for Open Data
One of the mayor concerns around open data is privacy. It is probably the single most important issue that is keeping this movement from going forward. The federal government is prone to make excuses about protecting SIN numbers and citizen’s private information, but it’s simple enough to solve this: only share data that doesn’t directly implicate citizens. Nobody is saying to share health records, or address details – but health industry statistics or population census reports might be useful. On a more serious note, there is also concern about a breech in national security and how an accidental leak might lead to dangerous, unintended consequences. But this isn’t new, people that want to hack into the government’s mainframe will find a way to do it, if they haven’t done so already. The real issue here is that the government doesn’t want to give up control over the information they have gathered.
Open Data as a strategic asset
The problem is that many government decision makers don’t understand the full breadth and significance of the information they possess. Their next step, to be able move forward with Open Data, is to analyze how and by whom it can be used. Of course, there’s no way of knowing all the ways this information will be used, but it’s important to target prospective users of this information, so as to maximize the benefits that can be accrued from open sharing with the public. As David Eaves expressed in an interview with us, “[he’s] always seen open data as a way to not only empower citizens, but to drive culture change in public service.” In this sense, data can be used as a strategic asset that won’t only benefit the government, but also citizens, start-ups, and traditional businesses that can use it to evolve their organizations.
An example of this is Homezilla, a “home buying and neighborhood research assistant.” Homezilla is an online platform that gathers and puts together everything you would need to know when buying a home in one place: schools nearby, whether it’s a safe neighborhood, how far away the things that interest you are from your potential home. It reduces the amount of time a person spends researching, asking, and browsing around homes and uses open data to achieve this. Homezilla also uses open data to improve their Google street view accuracy for potential homes.
How to build a community for your platform
Another issue is participation. How do you build a volunteer community around an open source platform? How do you motivate people to participate and collaborate? Richard Weait, Open Street Map representative, says the most effective strategy they used is to make the collaboration fun. This is the same for Manor Labs, by making the online platform fun, people are more encouraged to volunteer and share. As Thomas mentioned in one of his blogposts the key motivators for participation are Love (for what you’re doing), Money and Glory. Both Manor Labs and Open Street Maps have found a way to build a contributing community on their sites.
Other platforms, such as Torontopedia.com, have not been so successful. Torontopedia is a non-governmental wiki for Toronto; it is meant to harness information from its citizen to create a comprehensive guide to everything you can find in Toronto. To do this, it needs people to participate, create pages, add/edit/update information. It is meant to be easier to use than Wikipedia because you don’t need to program or know how to use html. You do, however, need to sign up with your “Real Name” as your user name, create a page, and be “accountable” for the things you post. This, along with the fact that the site is unattractive and unintuitive, deters, rather than encourages, people to participate. It also dissuades people from commenting what they really think for fear of being immortalized negatively on the internet. Because of this, most of the pages that are on the site right now have been written by the creator of the site, HïMY SYeD; who ran for mayor last election period, and is planning to run again. The site does have some registered users that contribute from time to time, but it has yet to “take off” as a wiki platform.
For open data, or any kind of open source platform, it’s important to keep in mind that progress takes time, and even though this is the internet, and things happens at the speed of a click, people need to take some time to adapt to changing behaviours and learn to do things in a new way. We should also keep in mind that privacy will always be an issue, and the only way to move forward is to innovate pretending it’s not a pressing concern, come up with new ideas, and then tweak here and fix there to accommodate privacy. We have to push boundaries in order to create progress.
Editor’s note: Nitla is summer intern working at nGenera. She is currently enrolled fulltime at the University of Toronto majoring in Industrial Engineering.
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