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On Friday, more than 300 public servants, community activists, developers and designers will converge in Toronto for Open Data Day – and Microsoft’s Keith Loo will be among them. Loo, a Strategy Lead for Microsoft’s Openness team in Canada, is also the driving force behind Make Web Not War. MWNW is a community-driven open source and open government initiative supported by Microsoft that has been pivotal in bringing stakeholders to the table. They’re bound together in a belief that technology can help close the gap between citizens and the municipal and provincial agencies that serve them.
“It’s tremendous – you can really interact with people and the industry here,” says Loo. “Our role here is to empower interaction and be seen as community-driven partners. It’s a perfect match of everybody getting together … We’re also going to nurture people coming up with ideas, to help them build an ecosystem – ensuring any outcomes, not just apps, turn into something real.”
For those who’d like more access to government information, events like Open Data Day provide an important opportunity to connect with others through all-day workshops and hackathons. These activities build on the foundation of open government and open data, which is a movement that uses technology to make public institutions more accountable, transparent and collaborative.
And they don’t just talk about problems at this event – they brainstorm and share solutions to those challenges. Apps (such as those that track bus arrivals) come out of the sessions, but so do relationships that can produce tangible results later. Behind the scenes, a lot of work has gone into planning Open Data Day and making valuable information available to the public all year.
Out of this free event, which is open to the public, MWNW will launch a federated open data site using Windows Azure, where the public can get to open data sets in the cloud, making it easier for the public to interact with data and cut through layers of jurisdictional challenges.
“They’re doing more than just talking. What has impressed me about Make Web Not War is the amount of trust they have in the community,” says Richard Pietro, a founding member of CitizenBridge. He advocates for open data through educational sessions and government consults four days a week while paying the bills as a server in a restaurant three days a week. “Instead of taking control, they’re truly allowing the community to self-organize, acting as facilitators as needed… From my perspective, they’re not only talking the talk but walking the walk. They truly seem to genuinely value the potential of open government and open data. It’s very much system independent – whatever is the best way to do it that’s the way it should be done, and not necessarily using Microsoft products.”Make Web Not War has won over longtime proponents of open source and open data, who were initially skeptical about a corporate-backed initiative.
In July, Pietro is also going to be the star of a cross-country, 90-day tour promoting open data – on his motorcycle. “I wholeheartedly believe open government and open data have the potential to become the norm, like how social media has become the norm. That’s what people want. Open government and open data are the result of necessity being the mother of invention. There’s an incredible lack of trust in our government and an exponential growth in creating transparency.”
Loo is a big reason why the impression of MWNW is so popular. As an MBA student, he created a group that met every week for four years, growing into a network of more than 1,000. Loo’s passion is volunteering with charities, especially the Canadian Abilities Foundation, which represents all disabled people and senior citizens in Canada. (Loo has a personal stake in this: His grandmothers – the two loves of his life who have passed away – were both disabled.) The organization needed to modernize their site, and MWNW is developing an app, using open data, to check-in on phones and enter useful information.
“They really see Microsoft as partners, not just as a software vendor,” Loo says.
Loo is truly appreciative of Canada’s drive to being more open. “We are fortunate that the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario truly believe in Open Government. For them, this is a true commitment to making government more efficient, transparent and accountable. At the end of the day, we as citizens benefit from their courageous efforts.”
Loo acknowledges he is not alone at Microsoft Canada. “Microsoft’s support for open government is truly amazing. Our team is committed to furthering open data and open government. For instance, Bruce Chau, our Open Source community manager has dedicated the past year to everything open data and he’s also one of the organizers of Open Data Day.”
In a world driven by information – and access to it – what’s happening in Canada is an example of the good that can come out of meaningful, authentic connections when people are on the same side of supporting open source and open data efforts. Events like Open Data Day have the potential to produce not only helpful apps (such as those used for cycling and transportation) but also infographics, maps and other evidence-driven illustrations that can help the public understand its government better.
Featured at this Open Data Day are groups representing accessibility, affordable housing, budget, cycling and civic engagement, says Bianca Wylie, co-founder of the Canadian Open Data Institute. “They helped guide the work, talked about challenges and opportunities, and will influence the hackathon.” She says that once organizers are able to get people to the table – at an event like Open Data Day – they realize how helpful the connections can be for their cause. Those connections can translate to tools that can inform and strengthen advocacy.
This is truly a community effort. Loo points out that “MWNW shares a great deal of the credit for the tremendous effort committed by the open data community. What CODI, CitizenBridge and the Open Data Day planning committee are doing is truly inspiring – and it is a privilege and a pleasure to work with such selfless people.”
Friday, government reps will join these groups to discuss the current situation so the community can give their feedback on what to do with data. There will be a “speed dating” session that will link participants to stakeholders and match up folks with resources. But organizers are also looking beyond the weekend to events in March, April and May that provide time to develop projects and the data they need to complete them.
“Who knows where those connections can lead to,” Pietro adds. “But we’ll plant those seeds, and they may grow into a Sequoia or shrubbery – but it’ll grow, and that’s what matters most.”
Wylie says MWNW is “a critical piece” in creating an infrastructure that will keep the open government and open data work sustainable, providing value to the broader community. “They give it legs.”
And MWNW and Loo do it all far away from the spotlight – though that makes them no less effective. Thanks to them, organizers could rent a bus to bring high school teachers and students to participate, and not worry about having food and supplies at hackathons. That kind of flexibility and support has endeared MWNW to community organizers, government reps and developers – a foundation that promises creative solutions in the near future.
“There’s a whole push toward what can we do with data – from the province, city, transportation, etc. It’s been very much a positive,” says Keith McDonald, the open data lead for the city of Toronto’s Information & Technology department. “The Make Web Not War guys have made a great impression. It’s amazing their commitment to this thing – that’s what we hear from community developers. They’re enthusiastic, they’re at the table, they have lots of great ideas and they set up bridge connections to do conference calls, so we can more easily get together. We don’t get the impression it’s a one-off either.”
And the guy behind the scenes helping move things forward is Loo, who Wylie says is on the same page with her in trying to make data available to organizations that may not be in constant contact with the city or province – or may not even know where to start. Luckily for them, MWNW can help.
“Make Web Not War is visible and extremely accessible to the community. The team is out there and very human,” Wylie says. “Keith can make this make sense to people and that’s really important. It’s really about building relationships with people. Technology is not the hardest thing. The hardest thing to do is to build relationships to get people involved with open data. We have to go find them.”
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Athima ChansanchaiMicrosoft News Center Staff