Standardized Global Data Structure Common Sense Next Step for Open Data

Throughout the world we have thousands of open data sets being published. A subset of this data is cataloged here. This is a good thing. Data is the next emerging frontier of the democratization of information, possibly as revolutionary as the Internet in bringing information into the hands of people so they can make informed decisions, hold companies, governments, and leaders into account, and drive the new economy into the future with innovative data-driven start ups. Data is the building block of information, and information makes the world go round.

data(Data chaos 3 image by sachynroyalty free)

Wouldn’t it be great to have a common standard that governments and other organizations adhere to when publishing their data? That way data from one company or jurisdiction could be compared with the data from another. Global comparative analysis of local government financial, traffic, or crime data, for example, would reveal the best-run local governments and shed light on best practices that could be shared between jurisdictions.

Common standards vastly increases the number of people who can use a data set and exponentially increases the reach and impact of code that is written against that data for use in other jurisdictions. It also means that linked data can be used for exponentially more uses as more and more data is connected. Like the Internet, connected data becomes more and more useful as a building block for information as its reach and inter-connectivity expand.

Standardization is one of the main reasons that transit data is one of the most leveraged data sets across the globe. In 2005, Google and the City of Portland Tri-Met created the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), a standardized format for transit data. Any transit agency that stores transit data in this specified format can use the open source TimeTable Publisher developed by Tri-Met and Google and many other free applications built on the GTFS data including mobile transit planning apps and trip planners that use text messaging.

The benefits of standardized data structure for open data is clear. The question is how do we bring governments together to standardize the open data structure so we can better leverage open source development based on open data and more effectively link open data for better analysis, transparency and accountability. Perhaps, this is question that is best addressed by the Open Government Partnership or the Open Data Institute. The mandate of the Open Government Partnership is to make governments better by making them more transparent, effective and accountable. A standardized open data structure would go along way towards that goal. The Open Data Institute, which will officially launch on December 4th “will catalyse the evolution of an open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value.” Either organization is well positioned to champion the cross-government open data standard.

Canada’s Open Government? What about the F-35?

Let’s face it. We’ve got to get this right. Our economy and the future of children depend on it. It’s called an open and transparent government.

Canada has taken some steps forward in the last year. We are members of the Open Government Partnership. As such we have a commitment and action plan for becoming open and transparent. But we have a long way to go.

Kudos to the fifth estate for their excellent investigative broadcast on the F-35 controversy. It’s a shame that our government procurement system is so broken. It seems like the larger the price tag, the more room for corruption and cronyism. I mean if this was a procurement for a $1 M there would be more transparency and accountability for the decisions being made. At least, a government official would be available for interview. In this case (for a $25 B, and rising, procurement), the Royal Canadian Air Force presented the F-35 as the best option with key missing information from the competing aircraft.

Then, according to the fifth estate, when Canada decided to sole-source the F-35, the government based its decision on subsequent information obtained from the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter’s office who will benefit the most from the Canadian sale.

Photo credit: Defense Industry Daily

In his interview with the fifth estate, Pierre Spring, an ivy league “systems genius” who was a designer of the F-16 (the most successful U.S. fighter) is convinced that the F-35 is “inherently a terrible airplane” based on a “terrible idea.” It will not be successful as a combat plane or as a bomber. “The point is to spend money. That is the real mission of this airplane … to send money to Lockheed Martin,” says Spring.

A procurement process like this needs to be transparent, otherwise we do not know whether the government is acting in the interest of taxpayers.

We need to ask why the following people refused to be interviewed by the fifth estate for their investigation: Defense Minister Peter MacKay, Deputy Defence Minister Robert Fonberg, Associate Defence Minister Bernard Valcourt, Assistant Deputy Defence Minister (Materiel) Dan Ross, Chief Financial Officer, National Defence, Kevin Lindsey, Tony Clement, Industry Minister from 2008 to 2011,Lieutenant General Andre Deschamps, Chief of the Air Staff … the list goes on.

Canadians need to demand this transparency. We need to hold our government accountable. Otherwise, we are not taking responsibility for ourselves and for future generations of Canadians.

So what can we do? I suggest we unite online. Join a Facebook page. Demand transparency for the F-35 initiative from our elected government officials. Stop the bleeding, if that is what is required.

Government 2.0 or Social Government?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet – Shakespeare

 Okay. I’ll admit it. I have a problem with Government 2.0.

Not the movement. The term. It connotes technology. The second version or release of software. We had the web, then we had web 2.0. We had government, we now have Government 2.0.

But Government 2.0 is not technology, it’s people.

The term Open Government works. Open Government is a government that is more transparent, accountable and responsive to citizens. As a movement, it is well defined in the description of the Open Government Partnership:

The Open Government Partnership is a global effort to make governments better. We all want more transparent, effective and accountable governments — with institutions that empower citizens and are responsive to their aspirations.

Open Government is something I understand and can describe to others in a couple of sentences.

Government 2.0 doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work for many people. Part of Government 2.0 is technology: using social media (Facebook, Twitter and the like) and open data to connect with citizens and put them at the center of government. But it is so much more than the technology. The technology facilitates and enables, but it is citizens that are at the center – not the technology.

I believe the term Social Government is more precise than Government 2.0. Social Government recognizes that it is the people, communities and culture, and not the technology, that are at the center of this movement.

People will disagree saying that Social Government has other connotations. It can easily be mistaken or affiliated with socialist government. Sure, I had this concern too, but you will never get a perfect term. There will always be objections, but I object less to Social Government than I do to Government 2.0. Besides, Social Government by its very nature is politically neutral and is a movement towards smaller, more efficient and responsive government. Furthermore, we use the term Social Business. We do not associate this with socialist business.

The term Social Government puts communities and the people that make up these communities at the center of the discussion. And that’s where they should be. The term Government 2.0 has always put the technology at the center of the discussion, and that is a mistake.

So how’s this for a definition of Social Government? Social Government is government of, for and by the people. It is communities of people coming together to do some of the business that was traditionally done by government. Citizens are providing services, developing policy, balancing budgets, and writing constitutions. This public engagement is facilitated and/or led by government and leverages technology, data and the read-write web.

Of course, the term Government 2.0 does not go away.  It’s still used in when we are focused on the technology, especially when we are talking about government as a platform or hackers writing an application programming interface (API) using open government data. But when we are talking about people coming together, in the streets and over the web, to make a difference in the world in which they live. That phenomenon is better described as Social Government.

Lackadaisical Media Coverage of Open Government Partnership Launch

The Open Government Partnership Initiative was officially launched this week in New York. Originally conceived by President Obama to promote government transparency globally, the meeting was co-chaired by the US President and Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil and was attended by the other founding heads of state from Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the UK.

This international initiative aims at securing concrete action plans from governments across the globe to promote transparency, expose corruption, increase citizen participation, and leverage web 2.0 technologies to make government more efficient, responsive, and accountable.

I’d like to make two points.

First, this event was very important. The meeting of 8 heads of state committed to information access, transparency, accountability and citizen participation is giant milestone in political history, never mind the history of open government. Additionally, another 40 countries (including Canada) have committed to joining the Open Government Partnership.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude (the UK representative) expressed the importance of the Open Government Partnership (with a bit of humour thrown in): “It is a law of politics that all oppositions are passionately in favour of transparency. In office governments tend to favour transparency and openness in their first 12 months when what they are exposing are their predecessor’s errors. After that, it is altogether less comfortable. There is nothing cozy, fluffy or soft about transparency. It’s hard-edged. It needs to be rigorous. It gets governments out of their comfort zone. It enables the citizen to hold the government to account. Not just every few years at election time, but week by week and month by month. And in embracing transparency, we volunteer to having our feet held to the fire on a daily basis. Today is a pivotal moment.” (Listen to the rest of Minister Maude’s address at 46:38 in the video at the end of post).

Second point I’d like to make is that this event was not well covered in the U.S./International media. For example, I did a search on “Open Government Partnership” with the news source being the New York Times over the last couple of days and came up with a big goose egg …

When I did the same thing for CNN, two pieces of journalism appeared. One on a botched group photo because President Obama had obscured the face of a person to his right when he raised his hand in a wave. The second was a behind the scenes look at the travel escapades of journalists following the President on the day of the meeting. Really, the President of the US and 8 world leaders meet on an initiative that will change the face of the world and nothing of substance about the meeting in the two of the largest media sources in the world? Weird.

Good media coverage or not the Open Government Partnership launch was a great day for global democracy, government transparency and citizen participation, a movement I fully expect to continue growing in the years to come. As Minister Francis Maude said in his address, “The shutters are being thrown back and the light is flooding in. And today we are at an inflection point. Today the demand for openness is unstoppable.”