A refresh for open government in British Columbia

British Columbia joins the ranks of governments embracing open gov platforms.

The citizens of British Columbia have much more to be proud of than extraordinary natural beauty and abundant resources. Last week, Canadian citizens in the province of British Columbia saw three new websites go online that focus on releasing open government data, making information related to accountability available, and providing easier access to services and officials. These websites include:

With the launch, the province has joined a growing community of states that have adopted open government principles for governance. As the Vancouver Sun reported, the open government initiative and open data portal fulfill campaign promises made by British Columbia premier Christy Clark during her campaign. Clark has committed to making information on surgical wait times, school test scores and public-sector salaries available to the public. Last week, the premier directed her ministers and ministries to make more data available and then report back to the B.C. cabinet every quarter. Clark recorded a video, embedded below, in which she talks about what open government means to her and the accompanying change in culture that she’s asking of public servants.

This was the first time a premier’s video message was embedded in British Columbia’s internal intranet for public servants, said David Hume, executive director of citizen engagement, business and workforce transformation, in a phone interview. “We, like many other public services, try to maintain this difference between the political and the non-partisan,” he said. “The reason that we did this was because the challenge that she gave to public servants is so significant. The culture shift isn’t trivial.”

In other words, the legal, cultural and technical aspects of open government have to be in sync, along with a strong rationale for people to become more civically engaged. “In order to have meaningful conversations with citizens, they need to have the same information government has in raw form to do their own work,” said Kevin Jardine, assistant deputy minister, in a phone interview. “You have to see a cultural change that sees opening up data as the default condition, versus one having to have an excuse, legal or otherwise, for having it otherwise.”

Risks and rewards for open government

The value proposition for the average citizen comes from when you bundle the whole of this open government initiative together, explained Stephanie Cadieux, minister of citizens’ services and open government, in a phone interview. “The open data initiative, and what we’re going to be doing with public engagement, that’s when you get the real value,” she said. “When the information is out there, the community has access. It enhances democracy and citizenship.”

“I think it’s natural for people to be apprehensive at first,” said Cadieux. “This is a really different way of doing government than in the past. We need to find the best ways to use all the technologies to enhance what we do for citizens. There’s potential value in opening up the data. Quite frankly, we don’t have all the answers. This opens up a whole new world of looking at the data from different perspective, some of which may be “validating ways of doing things that we’ve done in the past.”

The outgoing chief information officer of the United States, Vivek Kundra, recently highlighted concerns about unanticipated sensitive information being revealed through the combination of multiple datasets. Critics of open data initiatives also have focused on the potential for open government data to be misrepresented in the public sphere.

Cadieux acknowledged the need to protect privacy and security, along with the reality of democratized data. “Whenever data is released, in a report or otherwise, it will be misused,” she said. “You can say the same about statistics. I think it’s the responsibility of government, who have collected the data, to make sure it’s correct.”

Realistically, said Cadieux, anything new comes with risk. “Government tends to be quite risk averse, and for good reasons. We must do the best job with dollars and for citizens.” Simply having the information is valuable, emphasized Cadieux. While the same opportunity exists for open data to be used negatively, “there’s opportunities for incredible innovation,” she said. “We have to be open to it.”

Once government releases open data, it’s up to the larger community of civic coders, media, government, citizens, activists and nonprofits to further vet its accuracy and representations based upon it. “I think there will be a lot of self-regulation,” she said. “That’s what we see on Twitter. You have to have faith in people.”

While officials in some state or national governments may be interested in adding direct revenues through selling public data, Cadieux doesn’t support that direction. “It’s data that was collected on the public dollar,” she said. “To charge the public to use it doesn’t seem like the best use. I think we’re going to be received well. Releasing government data provides a great opportunity for governments around the world to speak differently and gain value,” said Cadieux. “I would hate to see it as a revenue stream when what I think it should do is engage in a meaningful way with our citizens.”

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Separating good government from open innovation

One of the semantic challenges that has dogged open government advocates lies in the difference between good government, traditionally associated with transparency and accountability, and open innovation, where public servants collaborate with the public in co-creating services or policy. The B.C. government chose to separate these concerns into two components, calling each “open data” and “open information.”

You have to make a distinction between the types of information early on, said Kevin Jardine, assistant deputy minister for business and workforce transformation. The most recent version of B.C.’s Freedom Of Information & Privacy Act (FOIPA) has been on the books since early 1990s, he explained, and it provides a pathway for citizens to request information from government.

“The bulk of those requests are for person information, like for adoption, for example,” he said. “Some are for other information, like meeting notes, calendars or expenses from government officials. We’ve made distinction that open information is information about government, versus open data, which is data that government uses that is about the business of government.”

Jardine said the B.C. government will be posting expense information for ministers and deputy ministers, along with proactively publishing information that people request and often pay for to the public broadly. “We anticipate — and this is part of the premier’s thinking — that there will be more of this,” he said. “As we look at what we think open government is — transparency, engagement, participation, citizen-centered design — we’ve tried to reflect that in the sites we’ve developed. Doing government differently is about engaging the public directly, becoming greater partners in governance, solving problems we collectively face.”

This compartmentalization may help to focus on separating the specific requirements of good government advocates from the innovation community in B.C.. “We can never be transparent enough,” said Jardine. “It’s a game you can never win. We might hope that it reduces FOIA requests, but we anticipate that it may increase them.”

Standing up the open information site was — and is — complicated by back-end systems, said Jardine. “The corporate system or travel system were never designed for this kind of transparency,” he explained. “We’ve had to hack and splice to make even this small innovation work. We have to really work and try to standardize processes.” Building openness into a system from the beginning, in other words, has considerable merits in open government as well as open source software.

Opening the data

At the time of launch, there were on the order of 2,400 data sets online, said Jardine. “Almost all of the data was previously available somewhere within the 400,000-page website that makes up B.C. government’s web, presence but it was extremely difficult to find, with no standards or consistent licensing.”

The first step, said Jardine, was to consolidate access to all of that data through a single place: data.bc. “This is a consistent catalog, with a license that makes it possible to use the data, with one exception — where prohibited by law. We’ve made an effort to convert many of those datasets to machine-readable format.” While there are no APIs at the moment, Jardine says that the B.C. government is collecting suggestions, “since they are definitely on the agenda.”

For the moment, Jardine said that the provincial government needs to understand more about what data people want. “One of the discussion groups is where the interests may lie,” he said, pointing to the online open data communities that already exist in the province.

“What levels of effort are necessary here? What we’ve done with our holdings to date is gather what’s out there into static datasets for download. As we progress, the APIs are definitely going to be on the table.” Inside of government, said Jardine, they expect to see many more datasets available over the coming year. “Outside, we hope to see many more people aware of it and using it. You will see links to iTunes and other apps stores.”

While there’s no automated, technical means to request data at the moment, Jardine noted that interested parties can fill out an online contact form or contact the B.C. government open data team via social media channels. “We’ve already gotten a couple questions from our Twitter channel,” he said. “The challenge is to match requests about what our holdings are. As for high value, what people are requesting, demanding it will be important, in terms of data tied to time series or geography.”

In that respect, the question is whether the data released is valuable for understanding or improving the business of government, or to the private sector. Hume, who is the lead on the open data site, said in an interview that more performance data, like surgery wait times for specific physicians, is necessary. “We’re working on getting that surgery data on the site,” said “You can get social services data now, including key performance indicators for things like child protection.”

The right open data license matters

Jardine also highlighted the importance of thinking through how the data is released. “You have to do more than just make the data available. You also have to get the license right,” he said. In that respect, open government advocate David Eaves wrote that the license that the B.C. open government data catalog is released under is the “single biggest good news story for Canadians interested in the opportunities around open data.” While Eaves is less positive about open data licenses in Canadian government at the federal level, he’s optimistic about the prospects for cities and towns. “The fact that most new open data portals at the municipal level have adopted the PDDL suggests that many in these governments ‘get it’,” he writes. “I also think the launch of data.gov.bc.ca will spur other provinces to be intelligent about their license choice.”

The British Columbia license, which was adapted from the United Kingdom’s license, might also serve as a model for an open government data license for the world, writes Glynn Moody. ” If most governments adopted the same open data licence, their projects would be compatible and therefore able to be combined easily,” he wrote. “That would mean open government data could scale in a useful way.”

Why does this license matter? “BC’s open data license allows entrepreneurial use,” tweeted Bowen Moran (@bxmx) in response to a question about the open government initiative. Bowen works on the B.C. public engagement team. “Part of the story there is how it’s different from the UK license,” Moran continued in a series of tweets. “BC’s privacy protections are more robust than the UK’s, so the links to the Act are more clearly defined … the direct emphasis on combining it with other information or by including it in your own product or application is an explicit (and thus very open) invitation to entrepreneurs to build on what we have here. Open government is more than just data being available — it’s about an entirely open approach to working with citizens. That’s the license’s spirit.”

Building upon government as a platform

The architects of British Columbia’s open government initiative specifically couched their efforts in terms of Tim O’Reilly’s Gov 2.0 paradigm. Jardine said the B.C. government wants to see future iterations of the open data site driven by users, “because we really do view this as a citizen platform, as government as a platform.”

“This open government initiative is about releasing information proactively, publishing data online or culture change. It’s about business people using data and about informed decision makers making better public policy,” said Hume. “It’s tapping the ingenuity and excellence of British Columbians to use the data as a platform, to solve their own problems, and to self organize to get things done.”

What’s especially interesting here is that they’ve clearly internalized some of the lessons other countries have learned in their open government efforts. “The experience has been to build it and they won’t come,” said Jardine. “You will get a blip from developers, from those that are proficient, and then it tails off. By adding components that enable people to use the data, to embrace this government as a platform idea, to create community, we hope this leads to greater success.” Jardine said that provincial government is working on a citizen engagement site that he expects to see linked to the open data website.

“The real success is about building community, certainly as a data publisher,” emphasized Hume. “The higher-value function is being able to connect people to one another.” (Historically, as Clay Shirky has observed, connecting citizens to one another has been undervalued, in the context of the Internet acting as a platform for collective action.) There are a number of places online for citizens, civic coders, government officials, journalists, nonprofits, user experience designers, librarians and other interested parties to connect, explained Hume. “One is the open data blog, where we’ll be able to talk, at general level, and also at technical level. We’ll also connect existing people working to government. We’re lucky to have Open Data BC and will be working closely with them. We have integrated their Google Group into the site already. We’re going to where people already are and connecting users where people who are already experienced.”

The B.C. open government initiative isn’t about data, culture, accountability or efficiency, though they all matter. “It’s not really about the data — it’s about building a community to work together to solve problems,” tweeted Moran. “I love the idea that now I don’t just serve the people of BC. With open info and open data, I serve with them.”

(Note: Bowen Moran’s quoted tweets were edited for clarity.)

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