Friday, July 17, 2015

A Week in Ottawa: Partying With the Data Nerds

Me, to senior staffer from Stats Canada:
Given the red-hot Open Data movement, you must be a rockstar at parties now. What's that like? 

Senior staffer from Stats Canada:
*smiles softly* We've been popular for a long time. Son, you've just been going to the wrong parties.

In late May, I attended several conferences in Ottawa, regarding Open Data. This is a (long overdue) review. (Or perhaps highlights. It is now high summer on PEI, so I don't know how many will read this.)

I attended the Canadian Open Data Summit, CKAN Con, and the 3rd International Open Data Conference. Later on, I might write about CKAN Con for PEI Developers (as it is a software platform). This post is a mix of #CODS15 and especially the huge #IODC15.


I'm a software developer. I've been interested in Open Data for some time, on the side, and guessed that attending #IODC15, and satellite conferences, in Ottawa would be a special opportunity, given its relative proximity. (I had no idea: as it turns out, the 4th IODC will be in Madrid.)

But that was a relatively small surprise. The larger surprises included: the size of the flourishing Open Data community, world-wide; the tremendous activity within Canada; and the duality that Open Data, as a movement, is both mature and adolescent, simultaneously.

Another surprise: my preconceived notions about Open Data and its practitioners were often wrong. See the opening quote. Though everyone was very friendly, I was definitely in foreign territory (see Big Tent below). It was intimidating, yet exhilarating.

And so, the highlights below are simply one nerd's observations, offered with a grain of salt.

Inside the Shaw Centre, at #IODC15
Open Data is a Big Tent

During the week, I was surrounded by an improbable mix of statisticians, policy wonks, map geeks, power brokers, social activists, vendors, librarians, entrepreneurs, academics, and technocrats. Software nerds were a minority.

Everyone knows about smart cities, but did you know that there is an open data movement in agriculture? In education? An Open Contracting Standard (re: government contracts)? 

Or that some estimate the economic impact of Open Data in trillions of dollars?

Open Data is a Small Subculture

From what I can tell, that trillion-dollar report above has become a drinking game in Open Data: every time the report is mentioned, take a shot.

Practitioners seem pleased with the gains of Open Data, yet frustrated that it hasn't grown more. The attendance was large for the conferences (1500-1800 for #IODC15), but this was mitigated by the sense that the entire Open Data Universe was often in the same ballroom. Some panelists wondered if Open Data is insular (versus mainstream).


Along with the UK and USA, Canada has a major footprint in Open Data. Federally, the subject falls under the Treasury Board. Resources include: the Open Data Portal (which includes a "no wrong door" plan to integrate with provinces and municipalities), the CODE hackathon program, and the recently announced Open Data Exchange program.

Provincially, many provinces are actively involved in Open Data. One of the leaders is British Columbia. BC had a strong turnout to Ottawa, and some fascinating ideas about engaging software developers to create apps (the critical next step after releasing data).

Outside of government, there are many enterprises in the space. Check out the sponsors for #CODS15 (thanks in particular to Open North, which arranged the conference and co-ordinated accommodations).

Electrifying Moments

Though the mic didn't pick up the ambient vibe of the room, Sam Pitroda was a delight on the "Open Data Around the World" panel at #IODC15. This quip, "we're solving the problems for the rich, who don't really have problems" was a bolt of lightning. The panel went 15 minutes over time, and no one complained. It was fabulous.

Mark Headd, when in Philadelphia, was a pioneer as one of the first Chief Data Officers in the world. At one session at #IODC15, he mentioned that "there was no template on how to do this"... a welcome sanity-check. His team chronicled their experiences in the Open Data Handbook.

At a panel at #CODS15, Pamela Robinson asked (paraphrased) "what if HR performance reviews for government employees accounted for 'open data' activities? ". *goosebumps* Reward the rebels on the inside! Mind blown, I hammered out a tweet ASAP.

DJ Patil proclaimed that PDF is not open data. Again, the microphones fail here, as the ballroom heartily cheered this point. (I was shocked, thinking it was already settled law! See Open Data is a Small Subculture above.)

DJ also described the mission statement of Team Data. The top paragraph is pithy, indeed; there is a 10 minute talk, here, simply in deconstructing it (Responsibly! ROI!). Fantastic.

The value proposition: we already invest in data, so let's max ROI.

A final highlight was a #CODS15 lightning talk by Catherine McGoveran on Ottawa's Open Data Book Club. The club is regular meet-up which focuses -- not on a book -- but a specific data set. Who needs War and Peace when you have Construction, Demolition, and Pool Enclosure Permit Data ?

I loved especially that the vibe is a counter reaction to "hack event fatigue" (!). Hackathons are fine, but there must be other options, and this one is highly intriguing (see Call to Action).

Alex Howard & The Honourable Tony Clement

If possible, set politics aside, and watch Alex Howard ask The Honourable Tony Clement about the long-form census, in front of 1000+ data nerds. Yikes. There was a palpable ripple through the crowd.

There'll be fireworks, n'est-ce-pas?! What happened? Well, Mr. Clement answered the question, and they moved on. You might agree, or not: I only mention it because the sharp-yet-civil discourse made Question Period look like a three-ring circus. Alex Howard is a terrific moderator.

Call To Action

At the end of #IODC15, and the culmination of a week's worth of conferences, a speaker made an effective pitch for a call to action. Here's mine, and I hope to write more about it in late summer.

Thank you

I've comfortable attending (and speaking) at software dev conferences. The week in Ottawa was a new ballgame. Many people were very kind, but special thanks to Greg Lawrance, Bianca Wylie, Chad Lubelsky, and especially Open Gov advocate Richard Pietro: thanks for the genuinely warm welcome.

With your support (and the kindness of a senior staffer at Stats Can), I felt I was at the right party.


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