Open-source politics breathe fresh air into the Big Smoke

Posted on January 31, 2009 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Technology – Open-source politics breathe fresh air into the Big Smoke: ‘Un-conferences’ like ChangeCamp are applying ‘the long tail’ to public policy – and the powers that be are listening
January 30, 2009.   IVOR TOSSELL

In a corner of his wife’s office in the Centre for Social Innovation, in an old red pile on Spadina, Mark Surman is trying to find a spot quiet enough for a phone interview.

“Tonya, can I sit here or will I drive you guys nuts?” he asks above clattering keyboards.

“You’ll drive us nuts, but we love you.”

The space is a bit too open to afford much privacy. The centre is a buzzing hive of glass offices and wood beams with a movie-set quality to it; it’s an open-concept home for dozens of social-minded groups. Tonya Surman, 39, is the centre’s executive director. Her husband, also 39, is the new, Toronto-based executive director of the open-source Mozilla Foundation, the organization behind the popular Web browser Firefox.

“Open” is a hot item in Toronto these days. Mr. Surman is an evangelist for the cause of openness. It’s not just free, open software like Firefox, built by a coalition of volunteers and paid staff. It’s open ideas, open information, and now, open government. And activists like his wife are pushing these ideas into the realm of social innovation.

Nobody ever accused Toronto of being Silicon Valley North. But the ethos of open-ness has caught on, and it’s starting to turn Toronto into a capital of a different kind.

The Surmans are in the midst of an emerging scene that’s sprung from geek culture to embrace not only programmers and designers, but also wonks and activists and politicians, right up to the mayor’s office. Social change and Internet ideals have gotten hitched, and the results are going to change the way Torontonians live.

If open culture is thriving in Toronto, it’s in part because Toronto is a conspicuously connected place. It’s not just its modest but vibrant Web-startup scene, or the fact that Google recently opened offices in Dundas Square, in the heart of downtown. The city is a perennial front runner in social-network rankings, most recently coming in eighth worldwide in a survey of Twitter users.

That prevalence of social networks is starting to have unexpected real-world results. Just before Christmas, a spontaneous party for technology types, organized over Twitter in a matter of days, took over the Mod Club and raised a surprising $25,000 for the Daily Bread Food Bank — one of their biggest private donations of the year.

Tools like Twitter, which encourage people to exchange small thoughts with each other in public, have helped knock Toronto’s open-culture scene into high gear.

“It’s intoxicatingly powerful,” says Rob Hyndman, one of the organizers behind the #HoHoTO Christmas party, as well as one of the five organizers (along with The Globe and Mail’s Mathew Ingram) of Mesh, a successful Web 2.0 conference now entering its fourth year that brings some of the biggest names in the online firmament to town. “You’re in the face of everybody who matters to you in the community all the time.”

D.I.Y. governance

Increasingly, Toronto’s tech scene is bringing people face to face in real life, too.

A ways up the street from the CSI is Mr. Surman’s 15-person Mozilla office, above a beer store just south of Bloor. Some of the most critical work on the software is co-ordinated from Toronto; Mr. Surman, whose role is more organizational, commutes to and from the head office in Mountain View, Calif.

“For a place that isn’t known as a hub of technology, Toronto really has an amazing, amazing community,” says Mr. Surman. His laptop is covered in logo stickers from various open-source software concerns. Openness, to him, is a transferable concept.

“It’s transparency, whether it’s a government or a piece of software. You can understand how it works, and look into it, and watch it in action.”

Openly sharing ideas and data has always been a part of technology culture, one side of a struggle that has companies like Microsoft or Apple, zealously guarding their secrets, on the other side. But over the past few years, this set of values has found new expression amongst social activists.

“I grew up professionally on the Internet,” says Ms. Surman, who met her husband when they both worked at a non-profit Web company. “It changed the way I understood connection. It changed the way I understood power.”

Ms. Surman, tall and cheerful, her long hair flowing from beneath a newsboy cap, seems at home at CSI, which she co-founded in 2004, and which hosts groups such as Wireless Toronto, Spacing Magazine, and the David Suzuki Foundation, in a communal setting.

“Our generation is sick of government,” she says. “I don’t have the expectation that government is going to fix stuff for me.”

Instead, social activists are turning to tools like the curiously named “un-conferences” popping up throughout the city. Appropriated from the tech world, an “un-conference” is a conference with an open-everything mindset. Participants propose seminar topics as the day progresses, sticking their titles on a schedule grid. The events have been a staple of the Toronto tech scene since 2005, when a handful of local bloggers decided they wanted more face-to-face interaction.

But the open format was picked up by social activists, and applied to topics that had nothing to do with the Web at all, like the Transit Camp that brought together the Toronto public-transit community in 2007. For activists like Ms. Surman, they reflect the spirit of open-source collaboration, applied to the offline world: If there’s a problem you’d like solved, put it out to the community, and see what they come up with.

Change, T.O.-style

So it was that, last weekend, Ryan Merkley, a senior adviser to Mayor David Miller, was working an easel in the basement of the MaRS building at College and University. Attendees of an un-conference called ChangeCamp — a collection of programmers, activists, politicians and media types — were shouting out suggestions for what municipal information they’d like to see the city put online.

Garbage-collection statistics! Voting records! Parking-meter revenues! Parks and rec updates! Ms. Surman — whose CSI helped stage the event — sat on the floor near the front, knitting, and calling out suggestions.

ChangeCamp had been put together in short order by a consultant named Mark Kuznicki, who runs his business from the CSI, across the room from Ms. Surman’s office. Trying to channel the energy from Barack Obama’s inauguration (hence the “Change”), Mr. Kuznicki took care to invite not just technology types and social activists, but also the government itself.

And, to the surprise of the jaded, the government was there. Heavy-hitting city hall staff showed up. Young provincial bureaucrats spoke conspiratorially about how best to get public information posted to the Web. Federal MP Olivia Chow was there, soliciting input about using technology for coalition-building (shortly before her coalition evaporated).

In return, the city was asking the programmers and activists in the crowd an implicit question: If we put this data online, what will you be able to do with it?

The City of Toronto is taking the open-everything idea quite seriously. As the custodian of vast quantities of data collected from the public realm, it’s looking at ways to pass some of it back to citizens.

The Toronto Transit Commission, for instance, has installed GPS trackers in every one of its buses and streetcars. It can do all manner of helpful things with that data, including building a website that will tell you not just when the next bus is scheduled to arrive, but where it actually is.

But there are some things that the city doesn’t have the time or money to accomplish: for instance, making this information come up on BlackBerries or iPhones, or perhaps combining it on a map with other useful information, such as the location of library services or daycare centres.

This is where the community comes in. The TTC has committed to not just make a vehicle-tracking website, but to make the vehicle-tracking data freely available in real time, in a format that other programmers can use. (The TTC’s spokesman, Brad Ross, says the service should be working by the end of 2009.) This means that outside programmers can pick up where the TTC leaves off.

The city is hoping to apply this same approach across the board, redesigning its website to put public data back into the public realm. (Among the first up: GPS data from snowplows, so you can tell exactly when they’ll, er, snow in your driveway, and plan accordingly.) Much of the impetus is coming from within the mayor’s office.

“When you open up the data, there’s no limit to what people can do,” said Mayor David Miller this week. “It engages the imagination of citizens in building the city.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 31st, 2009 at 1:35 pm and is filed under Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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