Archive for the ‘opengovt’ category

Open Government vs Government 2.0

Australia and New Zealand have a proud history of calling the same thing different names, for no reason other than etymological coincidence. Duvet vs doona, thongs vs jandals, togs vs cossies. These differences are defended fiercely, in a kind of friendly rivalry.

It’s the same with open government. In 2009 the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce developed a significant report that went on to inform government policy. The term stuck, and the open government communities in Australia are called Gov2QLD, Gov2NSW, Gov2ACT.

In NZ from 2008 we had open government barcamps, then Open NZ was formed. In 2011 the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government was passed. We’ve settled on ‘open government’ or in abbreviated form ‘opengovt’.

Despite these differences, the formation of open government policy in both countries, and the development of related communities of practice, has involved a lot of trans-Tasman exchange of ideas. Through visits to NZ by people like Senator Kate Lundy, Pia Waugh, and Nick Gruen, collaborative standards bodies like the Australia New Zealand Land Information Council (ANZLIC), and participation in conferences in Australia by our government officials, open government is a journey ourselves and our cousins across the ditch are travelling together.

The paths we take won’t be exactly the same. There are many differences, Australia has a state and federal system and two houses of parliament, NZ just has central and local government. Fundamentally though, we both come from the Westminster system, have cultures founded on egalitarian values, and share much in common in our economies and place in the Pacific.

In that spirit, I’m off to Australia this week. After my long stint head down at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, it’s time to renew and strengthen ties. I’ll be speaking at a range of events, and hoping to learn lots from Australian progress in open data, shared services, geospatial data infrastructure, and participative engagement.

Among other things I’ll be speaking at:

I’ll blog what I learn as I go.

The four noble truths of open data

In October this year Chris McDowall wrote a post called The Zen of Open Data 1. This got me thinking, somewhat quizzically, about the relationship between Zen thinking and ‘open’ thinking. In commenting on the post Chris and I came up with the somewhat tongue in cheek ‘Four Noble Truths of Open Data’:

  1. Life means suffering.
  2. The origin of suffering is email attachments in proprietary formats and data embedded in PDFs
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable through open standards and APIs.
  4. Open data is the path to the cessation of suffering.

So, apart from a pun on the word ‘attachment’, what am I on about here? What does Zen thinking have in common with ‘open thinking’?

Firstly, my understanding of what Zen’s four noble truths2 mean, then a comparison with open data.

One way I’ve heard ‘life means suffering’ explained, is that ‘life is unsatisfactory’. Life, due to our own limitations, it is imperfect. It’s not that the universe is somehow imperfect, it’s that due to the way we perceive and process our interactions with the universe, our experience of it is unsatisfactory.

The origin of this suffering is our attachment to the things we desire. We desire material possessions, wealth, popularity, love, happiness. We crave for these things when we don’t have them, and cling to them when we do. We even cling to our own idea of self, to our own continued existence. These things are not inherently bad or wrong, but they are transient, impermanent. The inevitable loss of them, or even the fear of their possible loss, causes us to suffer.

But it’s OK. Because the cause of our suffering is internal, not something outside us that we can’t control, we can do something about it. All we have to do is to let go of these attachments. There is a way to do this, a set of actions and ways of thinking that take us out of suffering. Buddhism calls this the Eightfold Path3, and it comprises things like right intention, right speech, right action.

So what does all this have to do with open data? While I facetiously said that the origin of suffering is email attachments in proprietary formats, perhaps it is a valid comparison. What are proprietary formats if not an effort by the company that designed them to hold on to market share, to control their customers, to protect against loss of them as a source of revenue? When a public (or even private) sector organisation puts up arguments that it shouldn’t release data, what are they expressing? Things like it’s our intellectual property, people might misinterpret it, it might damage our reputation, are these not all simply fears of loss?

At a deeper level, is it that opening up data is to acknowledge that the boundary around an organisation is simply an idea, an arbitrary construct? Do people in those organisations feel, at some level, less safe the more diffuse that boundary becomes?

Buddhism teaches that it is not easy to let go of attachment. Our idea of self as an independent entity, and our desires for things, are deeply entrained. Is this also the case with organisations moving to open up their data?

If so, what is the path? I suggest that use of open standards, of licensing terms that permit reuse in some way, and describing your data in a catalogue, are a good way to begin the journey. Letting go, even in this small way, is the first step to acknowledging the possibility that we are all part of something bigger.


  1. The Zen of Open Data –
  2. The Four Noble Truths –, and
  3. The Noble Eightfold Path –

The texture, sound and smell of the digital world – a tribute to @littlehigh

In season 1, episode 8, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “I, Robot, You Jane”, Giles, the librarian comments to Jenny Calendar, the computer science teacher that what he doesn’t like about computers is the smell.

“What do you mean, computers don’t smell”

she says. Giles replies

“Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell… musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is… it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um… smelly.”

I first met Paul Reynolds of McGovern Online (or @littlehigh as he became known on Flickr, Twitter and other social networks), at the National Digital Forum conference in 2007. The NDF is a “a coalition of museums, archives, art galleries, libraries and government departments working together to enhance electronic access to New Zealand’s culture and heritage”, something which I learned was very dear to Paul’s heart.

I had seen Paul on TV once or twice before, and admired his insightful and engaging style. We bumped into each other once or twice a year at conferences, or walking along Lambton Quay. I regularly listened to podcasts of his ‘Virtual World’ discussions with Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand.

Many of us in the Internet, open government, and open data space spent much of our formative years in the digital world. Playing video games as kids and teenagers, hacking on early home computers, and reading cyberpunk novels. The digital world had colour, and sound, but it was garish, tinny, maybe even a bit sterile.

What I loved about Paul Reynolds was the way he brought texture and richness to the digital world. He had a unique way of connecting the beautiful, tactile, physical, and even musty nature of art galleries, museums, and libraries with the expression of knowledge in digital environments. He seemed to understand the innately human aspects of both, and bridge them in a way no one else could.

He understood the relationship between content, people, and place in the physical world, and effortlessly applied that understanding to technology, the web, and social media. He did so in a way that was wry, amusing, and both pragmatic and visionary. He explained new things in ways that were easy to understand, often simultaneously with the excitement of a 7 year old boy, and the wisdom of a 70 year old man.

Paul, with your beautiful lilting accent, your expansive mind, and your love for literature, art, culture and technology, you gave the digital world texture, smell and sound. You shall be missed.

Blogstorming, Wikipolishing and simultaneous emergence?

I’ve been listening of late to Dave Snowden’s podcasts (mostly keynotes from various KM conferences around the world). In the last year he’s added a strong focus on social computing, as, in inimitable Dave style, he’s in the last three years leaped head first, experientially, into the world of blogging, editing the Wikipedia pages on KM, Welsh Rugby and other topics, and into Facebook and Twitter.

In his recent podcasts Dave poses the argument that social computing is bring the 3rd wave of change in management science, the first two being Taylorism (scientific management based on functions), and Business Process Re-engineering (horizontal integration/optimisation of processes across and between functional silos). He explains this in the context of his work on narrative, using the cognitive rather than social sciences, and in relation to the many methods he has developed for sense making in complexity.

He also suggests the use of a new double loop iteration method using blogs and wikis to develop policies, strategies, and other plans in organisations.

I was fascinated therefore, to hear Australian Senator Kate Lundy explaining her use of exactly the same method in her PublicSphere events for consultation with citizenry on public policy issues.

Had Kate been listening to Dave? After her talk last week, I asked her whether she was familiar with Dave’s work, as he has been in Australia frequently, but she hadn’t. I asked Pia Waugh, Kate’s advisor on such things, and she too had not heard of Dave’s work. Pia had simply taken and adapted such methods from the open source community.

So, unless Dave had seen and copied Pia & Kate’s methods, which seems unlikely as Dave was podcasting about this before Kate launched her first PublicSpheres, I think we’re seeing the separate emergence of nearly identical approaches, perhaps based on fairly similar starting conditions.

First, I’ll look at the methods, then explore the starting conditions, then I’ll ask Dave, Kate and Pia to challenge any of my assumptions and hypotheses.

Dave, in a number of podcasts, describes the traditional method for collaborative document authorship. People meet, discuss an issue, someone takes notes then goes away and writes up a draft in Microsoft Word. They then email it to others and request feedback, using tracked changes. The initial author then struggles with the mire of integrating the suggested changes into a document, the group meetings in person again, and around we go.

He then proposes a different approach. First, get a group of say twenty staff with an interest in the issue to blog about it once a day, for two weeks. If people are unfamiliar with blogging, get an IT person to sit down with them at 4pm each day and help them write their blog, teaching them new blogging concepts and features as they go. Once this process is complete, employ a technical writer to synthesise all the raw material from the blogs into a cohesive draft document and put it on a wiki. Using a technical writer enhances the quality of the first draft, and more importantly removes the issue of ownership of the draft by a staff member. Where strong ownership of a draft by a single person exists, they will be resistant to having it changed, and others will be reluctant to contribute. Once the wiki is up, give the people two weeks to edit the wiki until a final version is agreed upon. For training in wiki editing Dave suggests getting staff to spend a couple of months editing pages on the Wikipedia as that has highly developed coaching and mentoring systems, along with robust methods for disciplinary action against those to transgress the rules and established cultural norms.

Kate Lundy’s PublicSpheres work in a very similar way. So far they’ve done three, on High Speed Bandwidth, Government 2.0 and Australian ICT & Creative Industries Development. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. People are first asked to post comments, links to papers, case studies and ideas to the relevant PublicSphere blog post comments, and to blog themselves using the tag ‘publicsphere’ and Twitter with #publicsphere. All of this is then summarised and presented at an in person workshop, where there are face to face discussions, presentations, live streaming of the event to those who can’t be physically present, and ongoing blogging and twittering. The content is then synthesised onto a wiki, and the public are given two weeks to edit it. It is then closed off, and turned into a nicely presented PDF, and submitted to relevant Government Ministers as a briefing paper. The most recent PublicSphere had 1100 tweets, 100 in person participants and 400 remote participants on the workshop day.

So, if these two, very similar approaches emerged separately, what were the starting conditions that enabled this? I suggest the following:

  • An experiential rather than theoretical understanding of the utility of, and differences between, blogs and wikis
  • An understanding of the importance of multiple iterations in a sense making process (Dave from complex systems theory and the non-interventionist facilitation practices he’s developed, and Pia from the open source community’s ‘release early and often’ practice)
  • A belief that the authentic opinions of individual participants can be abstracted up into a cohesive whole, without the biased intervention of ‘expert’ consultants or policy analysts
  • A lack of fear that people might say the ‘wrong’ thing
  • A belief, not in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (individuals making decisions in isolation from each other, with the correct answer being the median), but in the collective intelligence of a complex system (one in which the system lightly constrains the participants, and the participants’ actions affect each other and the system itself).

Am I right? We’ll see what they say.

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 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 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.

The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.
Albert Einstein