October 9, 2011

open data and behaviour change

I have an application on my smartphone that keeps track of my data usage for me. It lets me know when I start to get close to the monthly data limit covered by my cell plan. A week ago, it informed me that if I continued on at my current rate, I would use 110% of my allowed limit for the billing period. The feedback helped me to make some changes, such as setting my phone to use wifi instead of the cell network for data where available. Getting realtime feedback from the app made it possible for me to change my behaviour. I moved from unconscious use to paying more attention to what I am doing. It works. Today my app tells me I will be within my use limit.

This is a simple example of an approach that makes a difference for us in areas of concern. For example, we might be concerned about our own electricity use, water use, or carbon production, but not have information available that could enable us to modify our behaviour in these areas.

Think of what would be possible if we had access to our own data, and to data in general about populations similar to us.

I look at my hydro bill each month. I like that my usage data is provided on a month to month basis, and I can compare it to the same period in previous years.  But so much information is missing that could be really helpful to me.

What do I really need from my hydro company? Access to my own data, hour by hour and day by day, so I can see what happens when I run a load of laundry, fill my jacuzzi, or leave the kitchen light on for the evening, or run my desktop computer overnight.  Give me usage data for others in houses just like mine (electric heat, 1940s construction, temperate climate) so I can really compare how I am doing and make changes.

One of the things about open data that is exciting for citizens is having access to data about things that matter to us.  I would love to have better access to data that would help me to make better decisions in areas of consumption and conservation.

October 4, 2011

the model is all wrong

Recently, I have become aware of several actions that our Canadian government is planning to take1 or has already taken that have made me uncomfortable. My experience is as if I have suddenly been transported to another country, one that does not have the values that Canada has.

Currently, the way things seem to work is that it is up to us to speak up if we DON'T want something. Our government representatives take action on any number of fronts, and we are expected to let them know if we don't support it. This model doesn’t work well, for a number of reasons.
  1. We have to know about it in order to speak up about it. If it’s discussed only in private, we can’t know about it. If it is discussed openly, the majority of Canadians are dependent on the traditional media’s interpretation of the initiative. The media reports on what they see as important, and from their own particular point of view. This leaves a lot up to someone else.
  2. Even if we know about it, we might not know what it means to us. Most of the time, I need someone with expertise in that area to explain it to me in words I can understand. Ideally, it would be my government representative who would explain to me the implications of actions being considered by government.
  3. Knowing about it seems to come at the last minute, just before something is about to be voted on by government representatives. This does not foster an ideal climate for collaboration or respectful communication.
  4. My expertise in customer service means I know that almost none of us complain. The percentage of people who will actually complain to a business when there is a service failure is somewhere in the range of 3%. Compound that statistic with being Canadian and being known as 'nice', and the inclination of citizens to speak up and say they don't want something is next to none. That doesn't mean we actually want it. It means we are naturally wired to not speak up. Why then are public input models often designed around the concept that something is going to be put in place unless we speak up against it?
  5. The very nature of ‘speak up if you don’t want something’ creates an adversarial environment. It also seems as if you have to be nasty, to use dramatic, sometimes inflammatory language, to be listened to. This tends to perpetuate the belief that those who speak up are the fringe element. I want to see citizens and government representatives engage in discussions in a cooperative, collaborative, respectful fashion.

What, fundamentally, is the point of a public input process? In large part, it is about making sure that government representatives are getting it right. That citizens are in support of what is to be done, and that representatives are acting truly on their behalf. Ideally it involves asking citizens what they want. It isn't about checking a box to say it was done.

There is another critical piece that is missed if public input is not done well. It is about leveraging the intelligence of citizens.  For example, I am not an expert on privacy or civil liberties.   I am an expert on a set of other things. Our governments need to be able to access and use the intelligence and expertise of Canadians as we move into our future. The public input model is a critical access point to our collective intelligence.

Perhaps I notice the contrast more as I watch the B.C. government, and my local governments, make shifts toward greater openness and transparency.  They get it, and they are headed in the right direction.  I want our Canadian government to understand the time is now and begin to make the shift as well.  There is nothing to be lost, and everything to be gained. 

1the most recent example, the proposed Lawful Access legislation, compelled me to write this post (and is the reason for this particular photo).  If you are interested, watch this video, read this article, do some other research and decide for yourself what you think about that legislation.