Archive for August, 2009

Action over words – combining electronic and analogue facilitation

At the Open Government Data Barcamp this Saturday I was asked to facilitate the closing session. The purpose of the session was to come up with a shortlist of projects to be worked on the next day at the hackfest. Nat Torkington, while not physically present at the event had been looking over our shoulder virtually on Twitter, and had beseech-ed us to leave the weekend with some real things built. How on earth was I going to pull this off?

There were 160 people at the Barcamp, and three rooms, a large auditorium, a medium sized room, and a cafeteria. Earlier in the day I’d facilitated a session on environmental data management in the medium sized room, with about 40 people. That was about capacity for that room, so I really had to use the auditorium. The challenge with facilitating in an auditorium style setting is that it’s very hard to get people up and moving to do Post-it note clustering exercises, and small group work is impossible. I only had 45 minutes to get suggestions brainstormed and short listed, and I wanted to involve everyone in the process.
During the day the 60% or so of people with Internet connected devices (iPhones, laptops and netbooks) had been twittering the event using the #opengovt tag. I’d been keeping an eye on all the tweets using Twitterfall.

So I decided to experiment with a hybrid electronic/analogue approach. I got the people with Internet connected devices to sit in the middle of the rows, and those without to sit at the edges. I then got a couple of people to hand out Post-it notes and pens to those without devices, and asked them to write suggestions for projects to work on tomorrow, one per Post-it. I also asked those with devices to tweet the suggestions using the #opengovt tag.
I then had the Twitterfall projected onto the large screen so everyone could see the suggestions rolling in. There was one every 30 seconds or so for a good 15 or 20 minutes. Dan Randow and Jonathan Hunt were on stage with laptops summarising the suggestions on the open.org.nz wiki.

Once people had finished writing suggestions on the Post-it notes I got those on the edges of each of the rows up on stage, and got them to put the Post-its on a wall I’d covered with large sheets of paper. I gave them the standard instruction to ‘put like with like’ and keep moving the Post-its until they had stabilised into categories. Two of the people were given vivid markers and asked to draw circles around the groups of Post-its and give each group a title.

After this was all done we had a set of suggestions, with an emerging set of priorities based on the categories of Post-its and the frequency of suggestion tweets on particular topics. I took photos of the Post-it clusters and emailed them to Mark Harris who later that evening summarised it all down to six projects for the Hackfest.

The projects were:

In the morning these were written up on big sheets of paper at the front of the room, and Mark asked for expressions of interest in working on each project. The cat.open.org.nz project didn’t need any work currently, as it was waiting on software from the Sunlight Foundation to be ready to migrate to. The Transport project was seen as a bit difficult to achieve on the day, so the remaining four projects were selected, and a table assigned for each project. People got to work, and the results so far can be seen by following the links above.

For a much more comprehensive write up of the whole Barcamp, see Julie’s fantastic post on Idealog.

3 Pillars of Open Government

Can politicians embrace social computing in a way that is open, honest and truly participatory, rather than simply cynical bandwagon jumping? Was David Cameron, UK opposition leader wrong when he said that “too many tweets might make a twat“? It seems so.

The visit of Senator Kate Lundy to New Zealand, and the talk she gave to a packed room at Archives NZ on the evening of 26 August, proved, irrevocably, to me, that at least one politician is using social computing in a very powerful and authentic way.

Here’s what Kate had to say:

The ’3 Pillars of Open Government’ are:

  1. Citizen Centric Services
  2. Facilitating Innovation
  3. Open and Transparent Government

1. Citizen Centric Services

There are three tiers of government in Australia, local, state and federal. One of the big challenges is achieving an appropriate level of coordination between these three tiers, so you as a citizen you are not mired in the mesh of bureaucratic red tape. For example, even moving house and getting a new broadband connection can hit each of these three spheres.

How do we deploy geospatial data and geocoding data held by government? One site that demonstrates this is the Australian stimulus package projects and investments. where you can tap in your postcode and it will show you the projects in your area, how the money is being spent, and how the projects are going.

How do we engage citizens in the process of service delivery? The Australian Govt2.0 taskforce is the way the current government is codifying the potential uses of Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate citizen engagement. Government agencies are large bureaucracies that often act as silos. The Govt2.0 taskforce aims to provide input to Cabinet on a number of policy ideas that would never have come up from individual agencies, or even through a set of agencies working together. It includes a blend of both public and private sector leaders in digital innovation. The taskforce reports in December and has been asked to come to Cabinet with some excellent ideas that can be implemented immediately, and some examples of exciting things we can do in the future. The taskforce is focusing on showcasing innovations that are happening in the public sector and then can be emulated, mashed up and remixed. Kate said that “Unless we create environments where we can ask citizens how they want things done, we’re crippling our ability as a nation to innovate.”

2.  Facilitating Innovation

The Govt2.0 methodology was designed as an example of facilitating innovation through digital technology. The core focus of facilitating innovation is about opening access to government data so both public and private institutions can build useful services and tools on top of it. This adds value to the datasets, as well as providing better ability for collaboration between the government and broader community. An example of this in action was the recent emergency management response and coordination in the Victorian bushfires in Australia.

Kate mentioned the report that’s just been released in NZ on the significant economic benefits of open access to spatial data. In a digital environment, technologies enable collaborations that provide economic benefit and can enhance the way government works. It’s about not being afraid of sharing.

3. Open and Transparent Government

All constituencies want greater accountability from Government.

Australia has made a decision at Cabinet level to change the default position of government in relation to public sector information. Government now will make everything publicly available unless there is a reason not to. There are still complexities and costs around the Freedom of Information Act, and these are a profound barrier. The policy statement from Cabinet however changes everything. A default position of openness is a great place to be. The time the most dynamic change is possible is during a change in government, and during a recession.

Australia has a reform of the Freedom of Information Act legislation underway in order to reduce the complexities and costs of information that would otherwise be publicly available. Their National Archives policies on openness have helped with this process. They also have an Information Commissioner Bill before parliament currently, Kate believes that this role will be quite central in guiding agencies to make their information more accessible in a digital environment.

She said “Open standards are absolutely critical, they are tax payers’ insurance against government project cost blowouts in the future.”

Kate made an interesting and important distinction between transparent and accessible government, and transparent and accountable politicians. The line between these is a bit blurry at the moment, and that  conversation needs to be furthered at a public policy level. There is a need to separately understand agency public consultation through social computing technologies, and politicians using the same method to create more open conversation with their constituents. This will get very interesting when the advice politicians are getting from their agencies/officials conflicts with the advice they get from open, social computing enabled engagement with citizens.

I was hugely impressed by Senator Kate Lundy’s enthusiasm, passion, and belief in the viability of increasing openness in government. More on her innovative PublicSphere methods in a subsequent post.

Australasian geospatial metadata, standards, spaghetti and disappearing spacecraft

I’ve just been to the ANZLIC metadata presentation held by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ).

ANZLIC is the Australia & New Zealand Spatial Information Council. They provide leadership in the collection, management and use of spatial information in Australasia.In Australia they are working on the standards for a national address register, including standards, schema etc, but stop short of the implementation.

They are associated with, but independent from The [Australian] Office of Spatial Data Management facilitates and coordinates spatial data management across Australian Government Agencies.

ANZLIC is working on a range of initiatives, including ANZsi, a spatial marketplace, similar to GeoConnections in Canada. This will provide a marketplace for all spatial resources in Australasia. It will include integration with and to existing supply side infrastructre and initiatives, and anticipates demand side involvement.

They believe that spatial data use is becoming an everyday thing, involving off the shelf technology, increased user knowledge (due to Google Maps, Google Earth etc), and driven in part because at least 80% of government transactions have a ‘where’ component. They challenged us to think of what fell into the 20%, and the audience couldn’t come up with any government transactions that don’t have a spatial component.

ACIL Tasman did a study which estimated that inefficient access to data reduces the direct productivity of some sectors by between 5-15%. (Summary of findings here). ANZLIC sees metadata as an important solution to this problem.

They used the metaphor of a can of spaghetti to explain what metadata is. The can’s label includes a title (product name), an abstract (product description), a statement of quality (99% fat free, no artificial preservatives or colours), instructions on use (heating/cooking directions), a detailed list of fields in the data (the ingredients), and the extent of the data (weight, nutritional information). They also illustrated the importance of the use of standards with this story “Two Teams, Two Measures Equaled One Lost Spacecraft“.

ANZMET Lite is a tool that has been developed by the OSDM, with the help of the jurisdictions. Its target user groups are organisations with up to 30 resources requiring metadata records to be published, contractors who are collecting resources on behalf of clients, and are required to provide metadata records. It allows for the production of linked (connected to the resource) or unlinked metadata records. It also allows for parent/child relationships between metadata. There are a number of classes in the parent/child hierarchy, including dataset, service, model, tile, document, and many others.

There is also the ANZLIC metadata profile, and the profile guidelines, which include a mapping between AGLS / NZGLS and the ANZLIC Metadata Profile.

The tool is pseudo opensource, in that its origins were in the Australian Defence Force, who won’t let it be fully opensourced. You can however get the source code, and modify it, as long as you notify OSDM of the changes, and provide them back.

LINZ is working with MoRST to create a GeoNetwork node for NZ. In the meantime metadata created using ANZMet Lite can be emailed to nzgo@linz.govt.nz for external publishing. More information on NZ Geospatial Office activity at www.geospatial.govt.nz.

Head in the Clouds?

As an independent consultant I’ve always worked hard to be technology agnostic. This means understanding (and to the extent that I can, using) the full range of operating systems, desktop and server software platforms, stacks, and development tools and languages. It also means mixing and mingling with people from different parts of the IT landscape, including free software advocates, Microsoft evangelists, and everyone in between.

I use Linux, Windows and MacOS on a daily basis, and for the last 10 years have been watching with interest the philosophical and commercial battle between opensource and proprietary software. About three years ago however, I started wondering whether the next big battle wouldn’t be between Microsoft and Linux, but rather it would be between Microsoft and Google.

It first started being described as ‘Application Service Providers’, then ‘Software as a Service’, and it finally seems to have settled on ‘Cloud Computing’. ASPs had promise, but in terms of infrastructure and middleware provision seem to have suffered in part from lack of initial scale to get the required cost benefits. SaaS has had some successes, such as Salesforce.com and others.

What’s made me really realise that the space has changed from an idea to a business reality is not the media, the reporting, or the fact that ‘Cloud Computing’ on Google Trends has almost overtaken SaaS. It’s the people, and the business names.

I’m seeing a third set of people emerge, they’re not OpenSource stallwarts, or Microsofties, they’re Cloud junkies. They’re embracing Google Apps, Amazon’s S3 and EC2, and to a lesser extent, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace and others. They’re starting businesses in New Zealand with names like Cloudbreak, Waveadept and Memia Cloud Services Architecture. They’re advocating, promoting, and selling Cloud based solutions. They’re starting to address and answer questions about sovereignty of data, privacy, security, disaster recovery, service level agreements and contracts with cloud providers, and total cost of ownership calculations.

In New Zealand we’ve seen these companies helping Auckland University put 50,000 students on Gmail, and NZPost moving 2,100 staff to Google Apps.

I recently went to an event in Wellington hosted by Cloudbreak and Waveadept.  There were a couple of telling quotes from Google staff:

“Is email [provisioning] core to your business, I hope not because if so you’re in competition with me” (and implicitly, you’re going to lose…)

“Microsoft Office is like Photoshop, every business should have a couple of copies”

I don’t agree or disagree with these statements, but they are telling. They signal a potential shift from the way we’ve been using information technology over the last ten years.

Is cloud computing just an obvious next step after the server virtualisation movement we’ve seen in the last five years? Will organisations move everything to the cloud? Or will they maintain a mix of proprietary/opensource solutions hosted behind the corporate firewall, and couple that with some Cloud based services.

There are some obvious benefits to cloud computing:

  • Reduction in risk of data loss/security breaches due to people losing their laptops or thumbdrives while travelling
  • Cost take out, i.e. switching from a mixed fixed cost (capex) + variable cost (opex), to a purely variable cost model
  • It gets rid of the challenges of building out your own overcrowded server rooms/data centres
  • Improved functionality rolled out in real time, without having to go through painful upgrade cycles
  • Reduced time to value in implementation of new services

There are also some real risks and concerns about:

  • Performance and reliability over Internet connections and the (limited) bandwidth we have in & out of NZ
  • Sovereignty of data (data sitting under different jurisdictions and laws)
  • Control over the data, and restricting others from using it inappropriately
  • Risk of the cloud computing provider holding the data going out of business
  • The implications for staffing levels in IT departments

The SSC recently released a set of guidelines about Government Use of Offshore Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Service Providers to help agencies make good decisions about venturing into the cloud computing realm.

On the small business front, I have a friend who’s started a niche online business providing parent-teacher interview scheduling services for schools. It’s being adopted at a much faster rate than he’d imagined. Although he has expertise in providing web hosting services himself, he’s now very glad he decided to build it in Google App Engine, as it’ll scale to meet the increasing demand in a ‘pay as you go’ fashion.

While the way it will play out is still a little misty, it’s clear cloud computing is going to have a major impact, and I predict we’ll see a lot more startup companies with cloud based metaphors in their names.

In closing, I’m reminded of the ever prescient Mark Andresson, founder of the Netscape browser. In 1999 he started a company called Loudcloud to provide managed Internet services. It was a bit before its time, but even so evolved into a successful business that HP acquired for $1.6B…

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Captain James Cook