Open City Workshop & Participation Inequality

The City of Edmonton is hosting a workshop tomorrow at the Art Gallery of Alberta called Building Community through Open Information (on ShareEdmonton). It’s a follow-up to the open data workshop that happened last year and the conversations that have taken place since, but is focused on connecting stakeholders, increasing a shared understanding of Government 2.0, and planning the way forward. Devin wrote some great thoughts on the workshop here.

I’m really looking forward to seeing a diverse local crowd, representing a variety of agencies and interests. I’m also looking forward to meeting special guests David Eaves, Mark Kuznicki, and Nicholas Charney in person. All three are key players in Canada’s open government space.

And while I’m hopeful that we’ll see some new data released tomorrow, I’m mindful that data is not the focus. The three objectives listed on the event details page are about establishing Edmonton as a leader, and then lots of talk. I think the way you establish yourself as a leader is by actually doing things, but I’ll keep an open mind tomorrow 🙂

One thing I do want to talk about at the workshop is the divide that a number of people have picked up on. It’s great that Edmonton and other places are making progress on opening up data, but how does that impact the average citizen? There’s definitely a perception that only techies understand and can use open data. I don’t think that gives the average citizen enough credit, but I’m willing to concede that open data is not as accessible today as it needs to be. There’s lots of room for improvement.

Having said that, I think it’s important to keep participation inequality in mind:

All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background.

If we think of open data (and open government) as a large community, then we should absolutely expect that a small subset of that community will be responsible for most of the activity. In the context of the 90-9-1 rule, 90% of the community won’t participate (they just observe or read), 9% will occasionally participate, and 1% will participate a lot.

Here’s one way to visualize the open community:

I’m sure there are other ways to break it down, but this makes the most sense to me at the moment.

  1. Goverati: these are government employees, folks from related agencies, non-profits, etc.
  2. Creative Professionals: these are people such as myself, developers, designers, etc.
  3. Business: for-profit organizations.
  4. Citizens: ultimately, the beneficiaries of all this open government stuff!

Of course, this picture is somewhat misleading, because all goverati, creative professionals, and business folks are also citizens, but let’s set that aside for now. I think the goverati and some creative professionals fall into the 1% category, the rest of the creative professionals and business fall into the 9% category, and citizens account for the 90% category.

The 90-9-1 pattern can be seen in action all over the web, perhaps most notably on Wikipedia. A tiny percentage of Wikipedia’s user base is responsible for the vast majority of all content produced. I think we can do better with open data/open government, however. Through applications, interactive visualizations, and the other interesting things that the goverati, creative professionals, and businesses build, I think more and more citizens will move from the 90% category to the 9% category.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that considering how the average citizen benefits from open data is important, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back from making progress at this point. We need to empower businesses and creative professionals to build things that the average citizen will ultimately benefit from. As we do that, there’s an opportunity to educate citizens if they want to be educated!

There’s only a few hours left to register for the event. Hope to see you there!

Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan passes second reading

City Council passed the Municipal Development Plan in second reading tonight. Titled “The Way We Grow,” the document is Edmonton’s strategic growth and development plan, meant to shape urban form and guide future land use. It must now be approved by the Capital Region Board, after which it’ll return to Council for third reading (expected in the May-June timeframe). Here are a few notes on the evening:

  • Councillors Henderson and Krushell pounced on the removal of the words “winter city” from the plan. Councillor Henderson’s proposed amendment was passed unanimously, changing the wording to something like the following: “That all urban design reflects that Edmonton is a winter city, allowing citizens to enjoy it in all seasons.”
  • Councillor Iveson pushed for stronger language around intensification targets, arguing that we need to move beyond simple aspiration to achieving meaningful outcomes. His amendment was passed unanimously.
  • Mayor Mandel said that Councillor Iveson’s amendment was a clear statement that Council wants more aggressive intensification, something the Mayor has supported. He again urged creative solutions to cost difficulties for infill development.
  • There was quite a bit of discussion on the topic of gravel mines in the river valley. I suspect we’ll hear more about that in the future.

The Greater Edmonton Alliance has played a key role in the evolution of the MDP, through it’s campaign to “create a vibrant and sustainable food economy.” Hundreds of Edmontonians once again filled City Hall this evening to show their support. Here are a few photos:

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second ReadingMDP Second Reading

If you’d like to be notified about future GEA events and initiatives, consider joining their mailing list.

GEA has had great success with the campaign, perhaps most memorably with The Great Potato Giveaway. It’ll be interesting to see which issue GEA turns its attention to next.

You can see a few more photos from the evening here.

UPDATE: Don posted his thoughts here.

What would make you attend the Open Data event on March 6?

As you might have seen on Twitter, the City of Edmonton is planning another open data event for Saturday, March 6, 2010 at City Hall. If you haven’t already, block that day off in your calendar! It’ll be a great opportunity to connect with others who are interested in open data and open government, as well as a chance to provide feedback to the City on its data catalogue and plans for the future.

And who knows, if we’re lucky, there might even be some new data to play with! For more information on the data catalogue, which launched last month, click here.

The details for the event will go up on the website soon I’m sure, but first we need to have a better idea of what everyone wants to get out of the event. Here are some ideas:

  • An unconference, followed by a hack night. Maybe a keynote to kick things off, then time for unconference-style discussions about open data and open government. The hack night could take a variety of forms, and the discussions could be wide-ranging.
  • Discussing how to frame open data in terms of citizen benefit might a potential topic. Why would my parents or grandparents be interested in open data?
  • One idea for the hack night is to get some developers together to try to improve the tooling around OGDI. This might be writing custom formatters (CSV, plist, etc) or perhaps something else. All of this would be contributed to the community.
  • Another idea is to hold a competition – what can you build in just one evening?!
  • Or a twist on that, a competition where teams produce mockups & ideas, not necessarily a working app.
  • Or the hack night could be as simple as a walk-through of how to use the open data catalogue, etc. Or maybe it’s a longer “hack day”.

What do you think? What would make you attend the open data event on March 6? Either leave a comment below, or email with your suggestions.

It would be great to have representatives from a variety of organizations too, not just the City and developers. If you’re at all interested in open data or open government, please join us. Hope to see you there!

Alberta Budget 2010 website – security through obscurity

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is budget day here in Alberta. Like many Albertans, I am curious about what Finance Minister Ted Morton is going to deliver, so I started poking around online. First stop, last year’s budget, available at

Seems logical that the 2010 budget would be at So I tried that URL, and was prompted with a login screen. First thing that came to mind was “administrator” and “password”. Voila:

Fortunately for Mr. Morton, the documents don’t appear to have been uploaded yet. You can see all the placeholders though, which is kind of funny. And it seems you can leave feedback.

It does reveal the theme of the budget, Striking the Right Balance. Last year was Building on Our Strength.

This is what is known as “security through obscurity”. It’s not really secure, it’s just hidden. I’d suggest that programmers working at the Government of Alberta invest in Writing Secure Code, a fantastic book on the subject.

I hope this isn’t a reflection of the budget we see tomorrow…cutting corners, etc.

UPDATE: Sometime around 9:45 AM today they changed the password, and I think pointed the virtual directory somewhere else.

UPDATE2: The Journal wrote about this today.

UPDATE3: The site is now officially live with all the budget documents. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Edmonton’s new City Manager

On Tuesday evening I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Simon Farbrother, the City of Edmonton’s new City Manager. He started on Monday, just less than three months after his selection was announced. There were a lot of people there on Tuesday, so I only had a couple of minutes to introduce myself, but based on that quick interaction and Simon’s brief remarks to the crowd, I can say that he seems very genuine, personable, and intelligent.

Simon is no stranger to Edmonton. He earned his MA in Geography from the University of Alberta in 1985, started as a city planner at the City of Leduc in 1989, and after moving up there, left to become the City Manager of Spruce Grove in 1997, a position he held until 2005 when he became Chief Administrative Office for the City of Waterloo. You can read more about Simon’s background here and here.

I never really had the opportunity to interact with Al Maurer, Simon’s predecessor, but by most accounts he was a competent manager and all-around great guy. He joined the City of Edmonton back in 1970, as a traffic operations engineer. He became the department general manager in 1982, and went on to lead the Asset Management & Public Works department, and the Corporate Services department, before being appointed City Manager in 2000. During his tenure, quality of life remained constant (93% in 2000 vs. 91% in 2009) as did overall citizen satisfaction with City services (79% in 2000 vs. 72% in 2009 – all figures come from the Citizen Satisfaction Surveys of those years). It’s easy to find negatives too, such as the ballooning amount spent on consultants ($22 million in 1999 vs. $92 million in 2008). When Al joined the City, the population of Edmonton was about 430,000. When he became Manager 30 years later, Edmonton had grown to about 660,000. And today, as Simon takes over, Edmonton’s population sits at just over 780,000.

Obviously, Al Maurer and Simon Farbrother are quite different from one another. Al spent his entire career at the City of Edmonton, while Simon has moved around (and not just in Canada either, he earned his BA from the University of Portsmouth). Simon has never worked at a city with a population greater than 100,000 while Al has throughout his entire career. Al’s education was in engineering, Simon’s was in geography and economics. And of course, Simon is quite a bit younger at 49 than Al is. Here they are:

I was by far the youngest person in the room the other night, so maybe that’s why I took note of the age difference. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but I quite like the fact that Simon is a bit younger. My guess is that he’s younger than many of the other senior managers at the City, so I hope he uses that to his advantage. He said the right things in his letter to citizens, citing the need to “take advantage of new technologies and emerging opportunities” and generally exuding optimism and excitement for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

We’ve got a municipal election coming up on October 18, 2010 – maybe the average age of City Council will come down too?

Congratulations to Al Maurer on his retirement, and on the creation of the Al Maurer Awards Fund to recognize excellence in public service. And good luck to Simon Farbrother – I look forward to seeing Edmonton grow and prosper under his watch!

Tony Caterina on the issues in 2009

It’s not surprising that City Councillors are often in the news, offering comment, explanations, and other thoughts on the latest decisions and issues. Some are generally in the news for positive reasons, others, not so much. Ward 3 councillor Tony Caterina is one of the members of council who seems to be mentioned for negative reasons more than positive ones (thanks to Dave for the photo). I mean, he’s even got his own hashtag on Twitter to track all of the bizarre things he says and does! I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Caterina’s quotes throughout 2009. Ideally I could just point you to his voting record online, but we’re not there yet, so quotes will have to do!

A note on the data: I decided to make it simple and to only look at quotes from the Edmonton Journal. I searched the Canadian Newsstand database (anyone with an Edmonton Public Library card can access it for free) for “tony caterina” in the Edmonton Journal for any date in 2009. A total of 71 articles were found, up to December 3rd. For each one, I looked for direct quotes. I also added some quotes from articles written after December 3rd.

First off, here’s a Wordle of all the quotes:

And here, by subject, is a selection of Tony Caterina quotes on the issues in 2009. You can download all of the quotes I found here in PDF.

On the City Centre Airport:

"We’re talking about closing aviation down, and businesses, and putting people on the unemployment line. Really, that doesn’t make sense."

"In regards to economic development, it’s critical … here we are contemplating getting rid of something that’s already here. That just doesn’t make sense to me."

"If we’re not going to talk about the possibility of improved aviation service, what are the possibilities? From our perspective on council, we will want to push for that to be part of the debate."

On the Edmonton Indy:

"It’s not a cost, it’s an investment into promoting Edmonton as a world-class city. We made a decision as council to support this event because it is world-renowned … Given the exposure we have had, it’s money well spent."

"The publicity, you can’t even put a price tag on it. The Indy is being seen by countries around the world."

On EXPO 2017:

"The prudent thing would be to get a…firm commitment from the province and the federal governments (that) if this bid is successful, they are prepared to support the $2.3 billion."

On Budget 2010:

"We have gone all year asking administration to work on this budget, three per cent (plus) two per cent for (neighbourhood) renewal. They have certainly done that. It’s a very fair budget to everyone. If we don’t accept this recommendation on this after a full year’s work, then going forward from this, any time we ask them to do something, where’s the credibility?"

On Jasper Avenue:

"The pedway system is there. Certainly, we’re not going to get rid of that, but there probably needs to be better planning for the buildings that are going up. The main floor has to be commercial, more so. They should be concentrating on getting merchants back on the street so people have a reason to be outside, and not just in the pedway system. To bring people back on the street, you need something for people to attract them -clothiers and shoe shops."

On the York Hotel:

"They make everybody else look bad. The majority in the…industry are good operators, but you have the few who, they can’t comply or won’t comply."

On cats:

"I don’t know what it is about me, I’ve always denied that I like cats but I’m always the first one they come to."

"When it’s a cat involved, there are more people saying ‘just keep Fluffy, I’m not paying 250 bucks for it. It seems dogs have more value."

On infrastructure:

"We’ve been so far behind in infrastructure repairs. The more we can get done, the better. There are a little sharper pencils putting the prices out. This will help go a long way to making sure we come in with a very very reasonable tax rate for next year."

On the U-Pass:

"There’s enough residual benefits, from (lower) carbon dioxide emissions and fewer vehicles…We subsidize (student) tuition, we subsidize transit, we subsidize all kinds of things, but they’re an important group."

On the new ward system:

"Even with the system that we have now, you’re running against each other. There’s always a chance that one incumbent, as happened in the last election, or both, could be defeated. I don’t think that’s an issue for consideration."

On bike trails:

"There’s a limited amount of money and we have to look after higher priorities. Edmonton already has a lot of paths for a winter city — about 1,000 kilometres of bike trails and roads — so I think we’ve done a good job."

On the Citizen Panel:

"How many members, how many panels, do we need? We might as well just ask the public where to put the money. That’s a big part of the councillor’s responsibility. It sounds good to have public involvement, but at the end of the day that’s what council is here for."

On the idling bylaw:

"All it’s going to do is pit neighbour against neighbour. I would have to agree with my constituents that have phoned in to say this sounds like the silliest thing we have done here in a number of years. I think this is a little excessive. People in general are good. They understand the environment and will do what they can in order to mitigate their contribution to … pollution."

On bloggers (thanks Dave for saving it):

"A number of bloggers — who knows where they come from — are treated as gospel."

As you can see, not all of the quotes are negative. As an aside, I think Scott McKeen wrote more about Caterina than anyone else this year. He must love him 😉 In quite a few articles, Caterina is mentioned as the only councillor to vote for or against something. He likes to be different, I guess! I couldn’t find a quote, but earlier this year Caterina said he worked longer hours and spent fewer nights at home when he worked in the private sector. That’s no surprise though, as Caterina apparently likes to get out of his duties as a city councillor.

Some other related reading you might be interested in:

Anyone else looking forward to more fun with #toncat next year? Election day is October 18, 2010.

Edmonton’s improved online City Council meeting agendas & minutes

A little over a week ago a new online system for Edmonton City Council’s meeting agendas and minutes went live. The long overdue update brings a number of improvements for public access, notably an integrated view of all information on the same screen. As someone who frequently accesses the agendas and minutes, I’m really happy the old system is gone, and at least so far, I think the new one is great!

The previous system for managing agendas and minutes, built in-house about 15 years ago, was called OCCTOPUS (Official Council and Committee Tracking Output Publishing and Updating Services). If you’ve never used it, consider yourself lucky! Based on Microsoft Word documents, OCCTOPUS was clunky and awkward to use. To get at the details for an agenda item, you often had to click through four connected Word documents. It always reminded me of the ETS Trip Planner, which loves to spawn dozens of new windows.

If you want to see the old system, check out the minutes for the November 10th Council meeting. Then compare that to the new system, by looking at the minutes for the November 24th Council meeting. I think you’ll agree that the new one is much better!

Some of the improvements & features of the new system include:

  • No more Word documents! Agendas and minutes now appear in HTML.
  • You can access the agenda, minutes, supporting materials, and archived video for a meeting from within the same screen.
  • Archived video and supporting materials (often PDF reports) appear in column on the right side and open with a single click.
  • If you really want to, you can get a print view of the agenda or minutes with a single click.

Aileen Giesbrecht, Director of Governance and Legislative Services in the Office of the City Clerk, told me that the project to replace OCCTOPUS started in the summer of 2007, and in the fall of 2008 SIRE Technologies was awarded the contract. SIRE provides “legislative management technology” for county and local governments, and offers a number of off-the-shelf solutions or modules. According to Sarah Ellington of SIRE Technologies, the City of Edmonton is using three such modules: Agenda Plus, Minutes Plus, and Workflow. Each of the modules have been configured to meet the City’s requirements for formatting, business processes, etc. The City of Edmonton’s implementation is the first major SIRE project in Canada.

The biggest challenge in getting the new system in place, according to Aileen, was simply “finding the time to make it happen.” The work isn’t finished yet, either! The project currently improves access primarily for the public, and Aileen and her team are now working on improving access internally too. She said the related internal systems being implemented will help with ease of use and will support the City’s paperless strategy.

The proposed 2010 budget for Corporate Services (PDF), which mentions $164,000 for operational maintenance and support of SIRE, offers some additional insight into what’s next:

Operational funding of SIRE will allow for: Maintenance of SIRE software, including ‘Agenda and Minutes Plus’ and web integration between SIRE and our current ‘Thunderstone’ web-based search function; licences associated with SIRE software, including access for Councillors (‘Agenda To Go’), as well as access for City Clerks and other Administrators, Bi-annual updates to the SIRE software suite; and one staff position to coordinate and maintain the entire SIRE system.

The new system isn’t perfect – it still uses Windows Media for video, and it would be nice to be able to click directly from an item on the agenda to the corresponding item in the minutes – but it’s much better than what we had previously. I think it’s great that the City is working to improve access to information for citizens, and I hope this is just the beginning (think: open data).

Reboot Alberta: Tweets & Blogs

A very interesting event took place in Red Deer this weekend called Reboot Alberta. Participants discussed the state of politics in Alberta, and explored ways to “reboot” things. I was invited, but decided to stay home. I’m not as well-versed in provincial politics as others and I was unsure what I would be able to contribute. Perhaps it would have been a good learning opportunity for me, but I got the impression that Reboot Alberta was (like ChangeCamp) looking for participants rather than observers. That said, I think I’ll start participating now!

There were a lot of tweets and blog posts written over the weekend, and during the week leading up to the event. I counted 1243 tweets with the #rebootab hashtag from November 21 until last night around midnight. After removing the hashtag, RT, and usernames, this is what you get if you combine them into a Wordle:

Likewise, there were a lot of blog posts written, with many more on the way I’m sure. Here’s a Wordle for them:

And here are the blog posts I included for that:

Watch for many more posts from participants and others, and be sure to check out Reboot Alberta.

Recap: City of Edmonton Open Data Workshop

On Saturday afternoon about 45 people met at City Hall to discuss open data in a workshop hosted by the City of Edmonton’s IT department (you can read the Edmonton Journal’s coverage here). I think we made great progress, and I’m happy that so many people gave up their Saturday afternoon to come out and help!

Open Data Workshop
Photo Credit: Ryan Jackson, Edmonton Journal

Our emcee for the day was Jas Darrah, and he did a great job of keeping us on track. We started with an introduction to open data, delivered by me. My job was to just make sure everyone was on the same page, and to hopefully start a little excitement by sharing what other cities have done. Here are the slides I presented:

Stephen Gordon spoke next, adding some context and background on the City of Edmonton’s perspective. It was great to have him available throughout the day to answer questions. After that, Gordon Martin took over to facilitate a session on defining our guiding principles for open data. We broke into three groups to brainstorm, and I was surprised that each group came up with different principles. Here’s the tag cloud that Devin created based on the results of our work:

That took us to lunch, which was catered by Three Bananas. After the break, we reconvened to talk about the City of Edmonton’s approach, and about a potential data catalogue. Devin Serink led the discussion, which at times got very intense! People have strong feelings about how a catalogue for data should work. I’m not sure we came to a decision, but I think the general feedback was that both a data catalogue and an app catalogue are necessary, but that the City of Edmonton doesn’t necessarily need to create and host both.

Throughout the day we had flip chart sheets on the wall to capture opportunities, desired data sets, and anything else we didn’t have time to discuss. I think all of those, including the principles that each group came up with, will be typed up and shared sometime soon. Devin documented some of the day’s work on Prezi.

Open Data WorkshopOpen Data Workshop

It was great to have a focused discussion on open data at the City of Edmonton, but there’s still a lot to be done! There were a number of times during the day that we could have broken off into another sub-discussion, so there’s probably still a lot more input the City could gather. The report back to Council still needs to be written and presented. And of course, we need to start releasing some data sets. Still, I’m grateful that we have a supportive Councillor (and potentially more than one) and an engaged and open City Administration to make it happen.

Thanks to the City of Edmonton IT department for hosting the workshop, and especially to James Rugge-Price, Devin, and Jacob Modayil for making it happen! I’m really looking forward to the next steps.

You can see the rest of my photos here. Stay tuned to the Open Data page on the City website and to the #yegdata hashtag on Twitter for updates.

2009 Edmonton Citizen Satisfaction Survey Results

The results of the 2009 Citizen Satisfaction Survey are being presented to City Council today. The survey was once again conducted by Banister Research & Consulting Inc. Some quick facts:

  • The total cost of the survey was $13,650.
  • A total of 800 telephone interviews with Edmonton residents aged 18 or older were completed between June 2 and June 14, 2009.
  • A total of 7989 calls were attempted, 2328 of which resulted in refusals.
  • 50% of respondents were male, 50% were female.
  • 79% of respondents have lived in Edmonton for more than 10 years.
  • 69% of respondents were aged 45 or older.
  • 76% of respondents reported average household income of less than $150,000
  • City-wide results provide a margin of error no greater than +/- 3.5% at the 95% confidence level, 19 times out of 20.

There’s lots of great information in the report, which you can download in PDF here. Or if you prefer, you can just download the highlights, also in PDF.

One of the survey questions is the following:

Now, taking into consideration all City of Edmonton services and programs, overall, how satisfied are you with the services and programs provided by the City of Edmonton to residents?

And here are the results:

In the report, Banister explains:

It is important to note that in 2007, 2008 and 2009 this overall satisfaction question was asked following the satisfaction ratings for specific City services. This was done in order to allow respondents to think of all facets of the service provided by the City of Edmonton, thereby providing a cumulative and overall rating.

I thought it would be interesting to check how effective that is. Unfortunately, the results of the survey are in PDF, not the easiest format to work with. Fortunately for you, that didn’t stop me!

Download the Satisfaction Results by Area in XLS

(I recognize that Excel isn’t the ideal open format, but it was quicker than creating 18 different CSV files. And hopefully this data will be made available as part of the open data initiative anyway.)

Citizens were asked how satisfied they were with 18 different service areas (one, environmental programs, was new this year so I ignored it). The data is available for each area for 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2003. I added up the “very satisfied” and “somewhat satisfied” percentages for each and compared it with previous years. Here is the percentage change in satisfaction for each area from last year:

And here is the percentage change in satisfaction for each area from 2003 (affordable housing was not scored in 2003):

Now we can compare the reported and actual change:

Respondents reported a 1% decrease in overall satisfaction from 2008, and the average change of all the services was the same. Compared with 2003 however, respondents reported a 13% decrease in overall satisfaction, but the average change of all services was a decrease of just 5%.

See how much fun you can have with open data? Now imagine combining this dataset with other datasets! I’d love to compare the results of the satisfaction survey with 311 call volumes, for instance.