Catching up with Government 2.0 at Mesh

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

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

Three examples of what’s happening at the federallevel include: GCPEDIA, an internal wiki for collaboration and knowledgesharing that launched in 2008 for federal public servants; the GCconnexprofessional networking site; and the GCforums chat space for discussions, shesaid.

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 GeoGratissite and Environment Canada opens its weather data, she said. 

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

ChrisMoore, CIO of the City of Edmonton,provided a municipal perspective. “For us, Gov 2.0 is about engaging thecommunity, leveraging the technology, and for me, one of our big focuses hasbeen 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 citiessuch as San Franciscothrough the Open311 initiative.

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

“There aredevelopers who are absolutely willing to go out of their way to do thesechallenging projects to help out other citizens,” said Michael Mulley, a Montreal-basedWeb developer who recently launched

The opendata project “keeps tabs on parliament” by re-publishing what is happeningwithin the House of Commons. The site organizes MP’s by postal code andprovides information such as how they voted, what bills they sponsored, theirmedia mentions, Twitter posts, when they speak on the floor and searches Housetranscripts by keyword, he said.

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

There are ahandful of very interesting projects in Canada, he said. “A couple of themore heroic and interesting stuff is around transit and bus schedules,” hesaid. Some cities, like Toronto and Halifax, don’t provideaccess to bus data, he said.

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

What arethe incentives for developers to donate their time and get involved with opendata from government? “Altruism and fun,” said Mulley.

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

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

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

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

Municipalgovernments are closer to citizens, so they are more accountable and reactiveto their needs, he said. They are also more interested in efforts that promiseeconomic development or the reduction in operating costs because they are thepoorest, he said.

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

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

Federalgovernment isn’t even “at the table,” said Eaves. “Different departments aredoing different things, but there is no centralized policy. No one is eventalking open data at a political level,” he said.

But thefeds are “finally beginning to wake up to social media,” said Eaves. “They are starting to see the benefitsalready, so it is spurring interest. And they have the resources to fund anddrive that,” he said.

Socialmedia may also help increase interaction with citizens. “They actually havethe hardest time reaching out and capturing the attention of the public, sothings that enable them to do that more effectively, I think, they areinterested in,” he said.

The Ontario government is also 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 mediasuite and said it is “an amazing platform.” OPSpedia changes the way publicservants work internally, which is “massively important” because governmentneeds to adapt internally first, he said.

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

Eaves saidhe has “two big dreams” right now for open government.

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

Cities needto understand that data is a strategic asset and “probably the most importantasset they have,” he said. “Almost all of the open data portals we have rightnow 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 developapplications that they themselves need.”

Doing opensource within government “could radically reduce the cost of softwareprocurement,” he said. “There is a whole bunch of software that every provinceneeds that I think the private sector is not developing for them,” he said.

Follow meon Twitter @jenniferkavur. 

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