Open Data and Municipal Election Results

As local readers will know, I created an election results dashboard for the municipal election that took place in Edmonton on October 18, made possible thanks to the City of Edmonton’s open data. I’d say it was very well-received! There was lots of positive feedback, and it resulted in the highest-trafficked day ever for ShareEdmonton. There were also hundreds of tweets about the dashboard, including some from people in other cities.

I was able to update the dashboard on-the-fly that night, fixing the graph colors and other issues as they were identified. Overall I was pretty happy with how it turned out, though I wish I had been able to add a few more features in time for the big event. Over the last couple days, I decided to extract the dashboard from ShareEdmonton and I have now added that new functionality. Specifically, the page updates automatically (no more refreshing) and there’s a mobile view as well, so it looks decent on your mobile device.

New Dashboards

Today is election day in Ontario, and thanks to open data from Toronto, Ottawa, and London, I was able to launch three new election results dashboards, all featuring the latest improvements:

Some new issues have appeared that I didn’t have to worry about in the Edmonton election (for example, there are 40 candidates for mayor in Toronto, so having them all appear on the graph is difficult at best) but the sites all seem to be running smoothly. I guess we’ll find out at 8 PM EST tonight when the results start to come in!

Open Data

All of these dashboards were made possible because the cities made election results data available, so kudos to each of them for doing so. The tricky thing for a developer like me is that all four cities (Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, and London) made the results available in a different format!

  • Edmonton – XML/JSON using OGDI
  • Toronto – plaintext, pipe-separated
  • Ottawa – plaintext, HTML scrape, kind of a pseudo-CSV
  • London – XML

Fortunately, when I had created the dashboard for Edmonton, I had built in a translation-layer. So instead of loading directly from the City’s catalogue into ShareEdmonton, I loaded it first into an internal format. So to get the dashboard working with the other cities, all I had to do was write that translation piece, from their catalogue to my internal format. As you can see, that strategy has worked fairly well (Ottawa was by far the most difficult, and did not provide me with enough information to calculate voter turnout, so that was removed from the ShareOttawa dashboard).

I’m not complaining about the need for this translation layer. I would much rather have a city make its data available than delay just to try to find a common format. But I do hope to see convergence over time. It would be great if these cities (and others that offer this data, like Vancouver) could agree on a common format. That would remove the extra work required to make an application reusable, and would hopefully result in even more applications that make use of the data.

And Beyond!

I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of open data, especially as it relates to politics and democracy. There are some really great apps being built, such as, and we’re really just scratching the surface. If we keep at it, I’m confident that open data will have a positive impact on the way we engage with politics.

Canada gets a conference for startups: Startup Nation

Early this morning Jevon MacDonald at StartupNorth announced Startup Nation, a conference for startups in Canada. The two-day event will take place in Toronto on November 13th and 14th and features a number of high profile speakers, including Howard Lindzon, Lane Becker, Leila Boujnane, and Canadian participants in the YCombinator Summer ’08 class. Here’s how the conference is described:

StartupNorth is Canada’s only grassroots conference for startups. Created for entrepreneurs and by entrepreneurs, StartupNorth aims to educate and inspire by connecting you with other entrepreneurs, mentors and the ecosystem of support needed to create and operate a successful startup in Canada and the world.

Yes, they seem to be conflicted about what to call it. Some pages and images say “Startup Nation” while others say “Startup North”. The URL is

I think this type of event is great for Canada. The more opportunities we have to get people face-to-face meeting one another, sharing knowledge and ideas, the better. That said, there’s something about this conference that rubs me the wrong way.

At first I was put off by the fact that it takes place in Toronto, yet is called “Canada’s conference for startups.” I guess you can’t really hold that against them though – you’ve got to start somewhere, and Toronto is as good a place as any. Other conferences such as Mesh and Northern Voice are similar in this regard.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problem with the conference is the price. A regular ticket costs $355 CDN, with early bird tickets running $295 CDN (before October 12th). What was that about grassroots and such in the description?

I am kind of surprised at the price. Even if the conference wasn’t completely free, it seems expensive compared to something like Northern Voice which only costs about $50. They are able to do that with the help of sponsors – surely Startup North could have signed up enough sponsor support.

I was further put off by Jevon’s comments on his post when others asked about the price. He seemed to take a very defensive approach. Furthermore, he listed Red Herring Canada and TechCrunch50 as examples of more expensive events. Sorry Jevon, I hope the conference is a success, but you’re not TC50.

There is a lot of talk about connecting, and networking, and meeting with some really smart people. Thing is, many of them are fairly accessible already – no $400 fee required. So what does Startup Nation offer beyond that? Can the workshops and training make up for the steep entry fee? I’m not convinced you can learn that much in a day or two.

What do you think? Would you pay $400 on top of travel and accommodations to attend Startup Nation?

Hockey Hall of Fame

Post ImageAs I mentioned previously, Dickson and I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday while we were in Toronto. It was pretty cool to be Edmonton Oiler fans from Edmonton the day after we secured our spot in the Western Conference finals at the hall of fame for the great sport of hockey! I ended up posting 56 pictures of my trip, which you can check out at Flickr.

So like I said, I somehow thought the place would be bigger, area-wise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty big, just not the size I envisioned. There is a section for the IIHF and international hockey, the main trophy room, a section for NHL dynastys, a Legends section (with people like Gretzky), a local hockey section, a broadcast section, a historic merchandise section, a Montreal Canadians section, and a “shooting game” section. There’s also a couple of theatres, and a fairly large gift shop. I think I most enjoyed the dynasty section and the legends section, lots of really interesting stuff.

We got to the hall of fame around 11 AM, and there wasn’t that many people there. By the time we left, a large group of students had arrived and were creating quite a ruckus. The website says the average visit length is three hours, but were only there a little longer than an hour. I guess if you read everything and took in one of the shows in the theatres, you could be there quite a while.

I quite enjoyed my visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and I’d suggest that any hockey fan who gets the chance should check out it.

Toronto Trip Day 2

Well the conference wrapped up today, and aside from that, we didn’t do too much. We wandered around this evening trying to find a Wendy’s (for the recently returned Bacon Mushroom Melt) but came up empty. We settled for McDonalds instead (no shortage of those), where Dickson finally learned that the McDeals are gone (have been for weeks now!). We also watched more TV than we should have.

Tomorrow we’re going to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, and in the evening, Ashish is joining us for the broadway production of The Lord of The Rings. Unfortunately, the show is the same time as the Oiler game, so I will be following along on my cell phone. If it’s really close near the end, I’m planning to ditch the show to find a TV. I am quite confident the Oilers will take the series tomorrow night however. If you’re in Edmonton, get some pictures of the parade (starts at noon) for me!

I’m still pretty tired, so I think I’ll sleep in a little tomorrow. Certainly not getting up at 7 again (5 in Edmonton) if I don’t have to! Hopefully the weather is nice here tomorrow, I hear it’s going to be lovely in Edmonton! Though I suppose it could be worse, I could be in Inuvik where they got a little bit of every season today (yep, it snowed!).


Post ImageNow that Mesh is over, I’ll need to begin reviewing the things I heard discussed, the things I learned, and the different perspectives on things I already knew. Conferences like this one always give me so much to consider – I never leave empty handed or bored.

As I mentioned previously, the conference wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was far less geeky than I had anticipated. Even the two “15 Minutes of Fame” sessions were not demos, but rather introductions or high level overviews. Things like Ajax or Javascript or Ruby on Rails were rarely mentioned, and even then only in passing. More people had paper notepads and pens than laptops for taking notes (there were still a lot of laptops, don’t get me wrong). All in all, the audience seemed much more “business-like”.

I think this conference was good for me. I got some interesting perspective on “Web 2.0”, and I met some very intriguing people. I also think the conference is good for Canada, we need events like Mesh to remind us of the talent and opportunity that we have – we don’t need to go to Silicon Valley. At the same time, Mesh reminds us of the areas that we could and should be doing much better.

Thanks to Stuart, Mark, and the entire organizing and planning team for putting on a superb conference! I look forward to next year’s Mesh (and yes I think there can be one, even if we no longer talk about “Web 2.0”, because the discussions held over the last two days are still relevant).

Is Web 2.0 Changing the Software Industry?

Post ImageThe last session of the day that I am attending is with Mike McDerment, Chris Messina, Matt Mullenweg, and Stowe Boyd, who will be discussing whether or not they thing Web 2.0 is changing the software industry. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Matt describes a web service as a web page meant for a computer.
  • Mike is confusing web services and web applications maybe? What Mike means is a service like Basecamp, where users pay a monthly fee to use the service.
  • Stowe likes the term/phrase, “the freemium model”, where base capabilites are free and you turn on a for fee model after some limit is hit. I like the phrase too, and the business model. It’s a natural way that people get hooked and then like a service so much they’ll pay.
  • Matt points out that a nice thing about these services is that you don’t have to worry about security, or upgrades, or any of that sort of thing.
  • The significance of consuming apps online instead of in a shrinkwrapped way, is huge, according to Stowe. Products will get much better, much more quickly. It’s like the difference between American Airlines and JetBlue.
  • Matt thinks the unsexy name for freemium is shareware, and it’s been around for a while. The difference now is that we have broadband.
  • Chris thinks wifi is also a huge change, and that we have laptops everywhere.
  • In three years, Stowe thinks the software landscape will look increasingly web-based. People will have connectivity all the time, on increasingly more capable mobile devices.
  • What Chris wants to see is interfaces and interactions with software that translates into something real.
  • People are the center of the universe, not data, not information. Stowe thinks the buddy list is the most important metaphor for the future. He says RSS aggregators follow the wrong model, we don’t need bits of information coming through a pipe, but instead we want to know what Chris has written lately, for example.
  • Good question from the audience about innovation exhaustion, what happens after the 38th signal? How do these web apps become useful for real people?
  • Stowe: another trend, small companies.
  • If you can make things intuitive, you wont have as many people bug you, says Matt.
  • Chis says microformats is an area he’s been doing a lot of work right now.
  • Matt says at the end of the day, formats and standards don’t matter. He says they should arise afterward as codifications of market trends. All of the great standards were not written first, but followed an existing market trend.
  • Stowe says we don’t need a replacement for Office on the web.
  • Stowe thinks apps with the social stuff built in will be the most successful Web 2.0 apps.
  • The “social architecture approach”, look at the social stuff during design.

Very interesting session, lots to think about after this one.

Creating a Viable Web Business

Post ImageThis should be an interesting session, all about creating a viable web business. On hand is Malgosia Green, Michael McDerment, Albert Lai and Leila Boujnane. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Leila says it’s not trivial to get someone to pay, its hard to get out of the “free” hell.
  • Michael, from FreshBooks, says that they had to change their name (they used to be 2ndSite or something) because the old name had many shortcomings. The name was not memorable, did not describe the business or industry, etc.
  • Albert says to make sure you do a trademark search, and trademark your name.
  • Albert says to ship early, and ship often. He also thinks that you shouldn’t build desktop software unless you have to.
  • Malgosia says not to get attached to your code. Sometimes rewriting is vital. Alex agrees, you can’t be afraid of shifting gears.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to the community, bloggers will talk about you if they like what they see.
  • Enable people to help each other.
  • Michael says the support department is the sales department, they don’t really have a separate group for sales.
  • Support, development, and marketing are like the holy trinity of online web apps.
  • If the application is for something leisure-related, upgrading from a free account to a paid account is’nt as common as something more focused on business.
  • Malgosia says to be humble.
  • Michael thinks that just as important as knowing what you know, is knowing what you don’t know.

There seems to be one session per conference that I don’t pay an incredible amount of attention to, and this one turned out to be the one. Some interesting ideas, but everything is really applicable only on a per-business basis. What works for one of these panelists isn’t going to work for everyone. That, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Does Web 2.0 need VCs?

Post ImageI got to this session slightly late, but that’s okay. Jason Fried and Rick Segal are tackling the question of whether or not Web 2.0 companies need venture capital. Jason is, of course, from 37signals, a Web 2.0 company that didn’t take VC. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Jason says everything they do is profitable.
  • Rick agrees with Jason, if you don’t need the venture capital, don’t take it. Institutional money changes the dynamics of what you’re doing.
  • On the whole, Rick thinks that 37signals is an anomoly. The norm is folks come up with an idea, and then need some cash to get going.
  • If you don’t lose your limited partners’ money, they will love you. There’s a myth that you need to make millions and millions, and its probably not true.
  • Jason says the answer to “how do you monetize this” is “you charge for it.” If you build tools that people want and like, you can charge for them.
  • If you pay for something and you use it, you’ll see the value. There is a disconnect between buyer and user in the enterprise.
  • Rick says in general, free sucks. The problem is that we’ve trained people to do free, and getting people to pay for something is a non-trivial task. Rick says generating revenue quickly is important.
  • Jason says “we like to emulate drug dealers”, you give people a little bit for free and get them hooked. Most of 37signals’ business is from upgrades.
  • Jason says know what you want to do, and build something that you can manage without requiring the headcount to swell. You need to have people on board who share that vision.
  • Rick says there are definite opportunities in Canada. However, there is not enough chest pounding that this is a great place to start a company. This company has a wealth of talent, and there is capital.
  • Rick’s standard offer to any entrepreneur is 30 minutes, no harm, no foul. Rick thinks that every entrepreneur who wants to take a shot should get to take that shot.
  • Jason says to hire the best talent you can, no matter where they are. He says you don’t need to go to San Francisco.
  • The main way to keep costs down is headcount, according to Jason. Also, don’t go buy the server farm before you have any customers. Jason says you should be able to build any product with three people, max. If you need ten people or even five, its too complex, so keep the team small.
  • The way to build an audience is by teaching, according to Jason. Either you outspend your competition, or you outteach them.
  • Finding like-minded people is more difficult. 37signals has done it through the open source community.
  • Rick says that in Canada, there’s lots of opportunities for the “put me in coach” deal, and those people will often work twice as hard. And these people become like-minded, because they are looking to you for guidance.
  • Jason thinks resumes are a waste of time. He doesn’t care where you went to school or if you finished school, as long as you do great work. It’s about fucking time someone important said this, thank you Jason, I couldn’t agree more. The school system is largely a waste of time (with regards to tech) as far as I am concerned.
  • Rick believes very strongly that the Canadian VC market is not taking enough risk, doesn’t fail enough, and doesn’t take enough flyers. The problem is that the community is very small.
  • At the high school and post secondary level, we need to allow people to try things in entrepreneurship, says Rick. If anyone gets a startup camp going, Rick wants to know about it, and he’d be happy to get people and money there.
  • There’s lots of potential downsides to taking money. You might get pushed out, you might be forced to go public, etc.
  • Rick says when he does a valuation on the company, he does two things. How much capital is going to be required to create that success? How can he stage those dollars into the company? Rick doesn’t do participating, preferred, double dip shares or anything. The best deal possible is common shares. The worst thing you can do is make someone feel like they didn’t win. At the end of the day, Rick wants the entrepreneur to feel like he/she has a partner.
  • There has to be a liquidity event for a VC, so after you take money, Rick says there is a meter running to get to that event, so the entrepreneur has to want to sell, or go public.
  • Web 2.0 boils down to service, according to Rick. They are successful with passionate customers.
  • Jason says that founders shares look good for entrepreneurs nowadays.

Building a Community

Post ImageTara Hunt is on stage now, to present the third and final keynote of the day, talking about building a community. Here are my notes (my comments in italics):

  • Tara says she left thinking there wasn’t a tech community in Toronto, but thinks that things have changed now.
  • She wants the session to be interactive. Who doesn’t? Every presenter says that.
  • Tara blogs because she is creating her own personal history.
  • Tara says the consumer revolution is here. We know better than to listen to marketing lies. There are bad customer experiences, and too many unsatisfactory choices. We’re people, not consumers.
  • Once we make a choice, we’re locked in, such as with DRM. There are too many messages – ads in the bathroom, on the train, etc. People are pissed.
  • People have good choices now.
  • Okay, this is actually interactive for once, gj Tara. A side effect of that, however, is that its harder to take notes 😉
  • We’re having a discussion now about a video Tara showed. The video, on YouTube, was of a teenage girl (bowiechick) showing off the capabilities of her Logitech webcam. Some people wonder if the video is actually some sort of marketing on the part of Logitech.
  • pinko principle #1: inbound, rather than outbound messages
  • pinko principle #2: be a community advocate (not a company evangelist)
  • pinko principle #3: 100% authenticity
  • pinko principle #4: serve niche markets
  • pinko principle #5: follow open source principles
  • Tara says to stop using the term “viral”
  • Snakes on a Plane…check it out. We just watched a CNN news segment on the upcoming movie.
  • You can’t put this stuff in a list, it’s organic.
  • You have to be part of the community you serve.

Alarm at Mesh!

Post ImageApparently an alarm has been tripped somewhere in the MaRS conference centre, so there’s a flashing light and a repeating loud beeping, which has brought the conference to a halt. Every now and then a lady comes over the loudspeaker to tell us that the cause of the alarm is being investigated, causing great humor for all attendees. Apparently the Toronto Fire Department is en route.

We’re on a fifteen minute break now. You just never know what will happen at these events 😉