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Government 2.0 round-up at Mesh

Cities are taking the lead with open data, but the feds are catching up in the social media space

At the recent Mesh Conference in Toronto, a four-member panel discussion moderated by open government activist/negotiator David Eaves provided the latest updates on Government 2.0 efforts at Canadian municipal and federals levels.

“In the Government of Canada, when we are taking about open, we are talking about open internally. That certainly has been our focus and will continue to be for the next little while,” said Marj Akerley, executive director of the Organizational Readiness Office within the CIO Branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat.

Three examples of what’s happening at the federal level include: GCPEDIA, an internal wiki for collaboration and knowledge sharing that launched in 2008 for federal public servants; the GCconnex professional networking site; and the GCforums chat space for discussions, she said.

Some data from the Government of Canada is open, but it is done at the departmental scale, said Akerley. Natural Resources Canada, for example, opens up all of its geospatial information through the GeoGratis site and Environment Canada opens its weather data, she said.

Akerley said she’s interested in finding ways to break down the barriers between departments. But the biggest challenge is the culture change, not the technology, she said. “In an organization of 250,000 people … we a lot of work to there,” she said.

Chris Moore, CIO of the City of Edmonton, provided a municipal perspective. “For us, Gov 2.0 is about engaging the community, leveraging the technology, and for me, one of our big focuses has been making the data available,” he said.

Edmonton was the fourth city in Canada to have an open data plan, strategy and catalogue, he said. The city is also connected to American cities such as San Francisco through the Open311 initiative.

The city’s latest effort is to create a ‘Virtual Edmonton,’ said Moore. “We are going to re-build 20 square blocks of the city in an immersive, 3D environment for collaboration, education and planning … the community has already done over 200 buildings and structures,” he said.

“There are developers who are absolutely willing to go out of their way to do these challenging projects to help out other citizens,” said Michael Mulley, a Montreal-based Web developer who recently launched OpenParliament.ca.

The open data project “keeps tabs on parliament” by re-publishing what is happening within the House of Commons. The site organizes MP’s by postal code and provides information such as how they voted, what bills they sponsored, their media mentions, Twitter posts, when they speak on the floor and searches House transcripts by keyword, he said.

Mulley said it’s easier for independent citizens to experiment and innovate with government data. “There is immense potential for interested developers like me and like many other Canadians to do interesting things with government data … that is much more difficult for government to do,” he said.

There are a handful of very interesting projects in Canada, he said. “A couple of the more heroic and interesting stuff is around transit and bus schedules,” he said. Some cities, like Toronto and Halifax, don’t provide access to bus data, he said.

“There is a great group called My TTC that entirely re-constructed the Toronto bus schedules and built their own trip planner from scratch … there is a guy I know in Halifax who constructed Halifax bus schedules going to the extent of biking around behind buses with a GPS in order to get this data,” he said.

What are the incentives for developers to donate their time and get involved with open data from government? “Altruism and fun,” said Mulley.

“It’s the ability to do something that is useful. In a slightly non-altruistic way it can contribute to your career and teach you new things, but mostly, it is the idea that here is a challenge, here is something that people can use,” he said.

Mulley said those outside of IT often ask him “why on earth did you do this” for free. “It seems like people inside the computer and IT world are much more familiar with things like open source software and it’s exactly the same sort of motivation – it’s scratching that itch,” he said.

Municipalities are at the forefront of open government in Canada right now, said Eaves in a post-panel interview. What’s most exciting are the open data initiatives in Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Nanaimo, and most recently, Ottawa, he said.

Cities are aggressively thinking about ways they are going to move data sets online to enable community activists, developers and anyone else interested in grabbing that data to make interesting things with it, he said.

There are a few reasons municipalities are taking the lead over provincial and federal governments, according to Eaves. “They have the right political pressure and the wrong financial pressure … that they don’t have the money,” he said.

Municipal governments are closer to citizens, so they are more accountable and reactive to their needs, he said. They are also more interested in efforts that promise economic development or the reduction in operating costs because they are the poorest, he said.

Not a lot is happening at the provincial level, but the provinces aren’t completely lagging behind, he noted. B.C. is probably the most active, with a data portal and the Apps 4 Climate Action (A4CA) contest, he said.

A4CA is offering over $40,000 in cash and prizes to Canadian software developers who create Web or mobile apps that use B.C.’s data to bring awareness to climate change or reduce carbon pollution.

Federal government isn’t even “at the table,” said Eaves. “Different departments are doing different things, but there is no centralized policy. No one is even talking open data at a political level,” he said.

But the feds are “finally beginning to wake up to social media,” said Eaves. Federal government has “huge coordination problems,” so internal social media does go against the grain, he said. “They are starting to see the benefits already, so it is spurring interest. And they have the resources to fund and drive that,” he said.

Social media efforts may also increase interaction with citizens. “They actually have the hardest time reaching out and capturing the attention of the public, so things that enable them to do that more effectively, I think, they are interested in,” he said.

At the provincial level, the Ontario government is making headway in the social media space with a platform similar to GCPEDIA for Ontario public servants called OPSpedia, said Eaves. He recently saw the OPSpedia social media suite and said it is “an amazing platform.” OPSpedia changes the way public servants work internally, which is “massively important” because government needs to adapt internally first, he said.

“Until we do that, it’s going to be really hard to talk about transparency – what the future of government looks like, engaging the citizens – because a government that is still working in the old way can’t work in a digital world,” he said.

“There are two big dreams I have right now,” said Eaves.

First, governments need to get more serious about open data, he said. “You can do incredible things for environmental sustainability, economic development, public safety, if you give people the data … public servants or the public,” he said.

Cities need to understand that data is a strategic asset and “probably the most important asset they have,” he said. “Almost all of the open data portals we have right now don’t have enough data on them,” he said.

Second, governments need to realize their collective software creation power, he said. Eaves recommends that governments “collectively band together to develop applications that they themselves need.”

Doing open source within government “could radically reduce the cost of software procurement,” he said. “There is a whole bunch of software that every province needs that I think the private sector is not developing for them,” he said.

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