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(More) On Open Data, Open Standards and Vancouver City Staff

Last week, I met with Jackie Wong from the West Ender to talk a bit about my thinking on open data, open standards and City Staff. We touched on a wide variety of topics — the impact of the motion and technology in general on non-profits, my thoughts on how well City Staff would glom to the motion, and some thoughts on what might happen next.

I’m pretty happy with the resulting article., which also had quotes from David Eaves and local Freebase guru Jim Pick. This is the part with my quotes:

“If we bring this idea of open standards and open data to [City] staff, and this is the first time they’ve ever heard about it, they can take a very confrontational approach to it,” says Fung, who is also a master’s student at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. “If they have a chance to think about it systemically and really get a sense of why it’s a good thing to do… then they’ll be much more ready to be on board.”

Bridging the gap between early and late adopters to new technologies, Fung says, will be key to the success or failure of Vancouver’s open-data efforts, and, as with anything, the best learning will happen through experience. In response to the “To Twitter or Not to Twitter” question, Fung recalls an article she read that likened the microblogging service to sex. “You can talk about it, but you really just don’t understand it until you’ve actually done it,” she says.

As for skeptics — or “conscientious objectors,” as Fung calls them — to new ways of using technology, she maintains that times, and people, will change. “When we make those projections of the worst… we’re assuming that what we’re proposing is going to come to fruition in a world that looks exactly like ours,” she says.

Here’s the much less concise but slightly more nuanced version of what I think about open data, as Jackie and I discussed it:

  • My thinking is very much informed by my internship at a large organization. Based on that experience, I expressed concern the impact on staff of a top-down directive for opening up through a motion like this, versus a bottom-up dispersion of the idea of being more open, and the precise mix of these factors being key to how well staff take to the idea. (This is pretty hard to get across in an article.) I’m also not in any position to gauge this, however, but that’s where things could possibly get dicey.
  • As with the general population, there will be a range of attitudes towards the merits of the motion. There will be some city staff who will be more technological adept or who immediately see the potential of weaving principles of openness into their work, and some others for whom those benefits aren’t obvious, or who have reservations about what the impact on their daily work will be. With that, generalizing the impact across teams and departments will be troublesome at best.
  • Especially with technologies like Twitter, individuals come to their own understanding of the enhancements, drawbacks and oddities of a tool, even as friends or media may draw attention to some features over others. Staff will be the same with having their data open, just as they undoubtedly currently are about e-mail.
  • That said, none of these factors are commentary on the spirit of the motion of itself — which is that as citizens, we’ve paid for the collection of this data and the services that are delivered using it; and if we are able and willing to innovate alongside staff in improving the quality and impact (GHG-speaking) of these services, data should not be the obstacle to that (where it does not violate the rights of citizens, such as those to privacy).

I’ve obviously been hanging around the Master of Nuance too long. Next time, more snappy!

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