Open Source, Open Standards, Open Data, Open Vancouver

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Exciting Vancouver news!  Mayor Robertson has put forth a motion for city council to vote on next week which is chock full of amazing words, and which passed, will direct the city to have a bias towards openness — open source software, open standards, and open data.

That’s pretty impressive!  If the motion passes (which it should, riding on a global wave of sentiment towards openness, and fitting in with the platform that got seven of the councilors elected), this could mean great things for Vancouver, especially at the intersection of software, business, and the public.

On the issue of open source, I would love to show that local governments are able to recognize the strategic and control advantages inherent in software that they can influence and modify, and help push back the fear-driven campaigns which bias towards monopolies at taxpayer expense.  Similarly, promoting the use of open standards is a no-brainer that the best technocrats realize can give them the power that befits them as customers.  These ideas have been well articulated globally over the last few years, and I would hope that all high-level government staff and officials are briefed on the topics by now.  (If any local officials want to discuss this in greater detail, there are many qualified experts in Vancouver, don’t be afraid to ask for names or opinions!).

Open data is a more recent concept, the implications of which are likely as important as the rise of the web.  With open data, governments have a unique opportunity to create economic growth, reduce operating costs, and enrich the life of their constituencies, simply by making a policy decision such as the one in tuesday’s motion, and following through.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the web) discusses in this 15-minute TED talk, the simple act of releasing public data enables others to create value.  Of course, as the motion indicates, personal privacy rights trump, and we don’t want to release data on individual citizens — luckily that’s not needed in order to enable value creation.  As an example, this impressive screencast of Wolfram Alpha demonstrates the power of new computational platforms leveraging public data. Vancouver’s data belongs there.

Most government data is public data by definition.  What’s compelling about open data in the age of the web isn’t the fact that citizens have access to such data — they typically have the legal right to obtain it through administrative requests, even though those are inconvenient (and very expensive for the city).  What’s compelling is that by making what belongs to the public available via the web, the city can accomplish many laudable goals at once:

  • In many cases, simply enabling self-service on the web will reduce costs for the city and provide better service to its citizens.
  • By making data that it doesn’t have time to process and analyze available, the city allows others with time and expertise to do such analysis with no cost to the city.  This will sound unbelievable to bureaucrats unused to open source, but this kind of thing really happens.  You can’t predict who will do what with what data, but you can be sure that it can’t happen unless and until the data is available.
  • Some of those activities will just be interesting. But some will create new businesses, or allow existing businesses to become more efficient.  What if local retailers could access demographic trend data for free on the web, today?  What if companies outside of Vancouver could get a deeper understanding of Vancouver simply by looking at the data?  Everyone knows that Vancouver is a great place to live.  The city’s economic strengths are not as well advertised.  Enabling an ecosystem of people who turn data into interesting, insightful, and useful applications and sites can only help.  Think of open data as the infrastructure of a chamber of commerce 2.0.
  • The city is there to serve the citizenry.  To the extent that it is the caretaker of public data, and that the public has good ideas for using it, its job should be to get out of the way.  Part of being a transparent government is to be invisible — to not get in the way of experimentation and innovation.  Promoting open data while preserving privacy feels like a great goal for the city’s IT staff.

There are also intangible benefits that come from these kinds of attitudinal shifts in how the city relates to the internet and the software economy.  From a recruitment point of view in the software industry in particular, a city which embraced openness and the internet would be that much more attractive to the kinds of technical, creative, and public-spirited individuals that I seek.

Finally, local technology leaders are that much more likely to engage with the city and provide their help.  I know that the notion of an “Open Vancouver” makes me much more keen to engage with the city, as it would put the city on the short but growing list of governments who understand how they can leverage the web and openness to improve life for their constituencies.

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