This week was a timely one for GTEC, the public sector technology event in Ottawa. As Canada ushered in a new government, it was a perfect time to consider the future of open data initiatives in Canada. Microsoft Canada’s open source guru Keith Loo was at the conference, hammering home the Redmond-based firm’s commitment to all things open.
Loo’s mission has direct relevance to CIOs, he said, who should be folding open data from government organizations into their operations.
“There is a wealth of useful information that can be derived from open data – and it’s available for free! CIOs should care because this is a low-cost means of enriching their platforms by layering additional sources of data,” he said. “The uses are endless: adding healthcare or hospital data to medical software, traffic data to logistics platforms, crime data for security monitoring, etc. The list goes on and on.”
In the U.K., real estate companies are using open data to help predict who is about to sell a house. In healthcare, the MedRed BT Health Cloud collects public health data from the U.S. and U.K. to provide new insights for stakeholders across the healthcare spectrum.
The former Canadian Government had published an open government action plan last year, but some commentators saw problems. While municipal and provincial leaders take their own approach, the previous government took several actions that appeared to reduce the data available in digital form, rather than increase it. Killing the long-form census was but one such move. Now that we have a different government, it remains to be seen whether this will change.
The biggest challenge for open data and open government initiatives is civic engagement, responded Loo, arguing that it is a challenge getting citizens interested in using it. So he made a marketing video. And Microsoft sponsored a 2014 Open Government Tour that explored open government opportunities in Canada.
Loo’s video that encourages more civic engagement towards an open data government policy.
Loo also has a lot of love for open source software, which he relates closely to open data.
“Open source, and specifically open standards, allows for increased citizen participation and collaboration which is a key component of open government,” he said. “By having open standards, open data users are better able to take the data and do meaningful things with them.”
This is all a long way from 2001, when then-CEO Steve Ballmer called open source a cancer. The company subsequently changed the way it looked at things, first moving to a ‘shared source’ model which offered varying levels of accessibility and permissions for its software products, ranging from freely accessible and modifiable to proprietary.
“Companies, like people, evolve. And in the past decade, we have seen our customers and partners leverage and integrate open source software into their businesses,” said Loo. “And at the same time, open source communities and businesses are leveraging proprietary software more and more. When we focus on the rhetoric of the past, we may miss out on the opportunities today.”
How much does this extend beyond rhetoric, some event sponsorships and videos? The firm has its own GitHub account with several open source projects on it. It uses technologies like HTML5, and has an initiative to build bridges between its technologies and others, along with a microsite dedicated to its openness ventures. One of Microsoft’s top engineers, Azure CTO Mark Russinovich, recently quipped that an open source windows is “definitely possible.”
Ultimately, the thing that is truly forcing Microsoft to open up is the move to cloud computing. Accessing infrastructure services via application programming interfaces is the coding mentality that drives cloud-based initiatives and DevOps. Microsoft has to embrace the open source community if it wants to lure people to Azure from larger incumbents like Amazon Web Services.
That’s why it is running 25 per cent of its Azure cloud on Linux and has partnered with Docker to help people run Docker containers on Windows. It also provides Hadoop services on Azure and in February partnered with open source web-based data management system CKAN, which gives open data publishers the tools to get their data sets out online.