A city that thinks like the web, slides + audio

November 27, 2008 § 50 Comments

Thanks to everyone who pitched in with comments and ideas for my City of Toronto 2.0 Web Summit talk yesterday. The idea that we can create a ‘city that thinks like the web’ — and that Toronto can learn from projects like Mozilla — seemed to go over well. Here are the slides:

… and the audio:

As outlined in my call for ideas last week, the talk ended with three simple challenges to City Hall. They went something like this:

  1. Open our data. transit. library catalogues. community centre schedules. maps. 311. expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city. do it now.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city.  somebody would have FixMyStreet.to up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen. encourage it.
  3. Ask for help creating a city that thinks like the web. copy Washington, DC’s contest strategy. launch it at BarCamp.

I also made off the cuff encouragements for the city to open source the software it produces and put Firefox on every desktop. Didn’t want to push these, but had to at least mention ;).

A fun story: the mayor was in the front row for the whole talk. Every time I’d say something challenging or controversial, he’d start typing madly on his his Blackberry. I thought he was taking notes. Turns out he was emailing people on his staff with questions about opening TTC data for Google Transit, open sourcing city-made code, and so on.

When my talk finished, the mayor came back immediately with ” … I’ve been emailing people about your challenges. Open data for Google Transit is coming by next June, and I don’t see what we shouldn’t open source the software Toronto creates.” He also said “I promise the City will listen” if Torontonians set up a site like FixMyStreet.com. Great news, and hopefully real encouragement for TransitCampers and open web geeks into Toronto start hacking away at online tools that make our city better. I’ve uploaded audio of the mayor’s remarks here:

The one challenge the mayor didn’t address directly: doing an Apps For Democracy-style contest like the one done in Washington, DC. I still think this is a super and low cost idea. I talked to Tonya, Mark K and Will P about it after the Summit, and all said they want to make something like this happen. In fact, Tonya offered to host a Toronto Social Innovation Camp (geeks gather to sprint on solutions to a problem) where people hack on ‘make Toronto better’ web projects. This could totally blend in with the contest idea. All we need is for City Hall to is open up some data and pitch in the prize money. Fun times ahead.

One the talk itself: a little longer than I’d hoped (40 mins) and got a few Mozilla facts wrong (ooops), but overall think it was okay. Comments on how to improve for similar talks welcome.

Need help: webifying city hall

November 16, 2008 § 18 Comments

In 10 days, I’m doing a lunchtime keynote for 300 councillors, tech staff and agency heads at the City of Toronto’s internal Web 2.0 Summit. Beltzner’s great Changing the World slides (warning: big) got my mind rolling on this talk. So, I started writing it up. My main point will be something like:

Openess and participation created a better internet. They can also create a better city.

The talk will start with the Firefox story, much along Beltzner’s ‘this is how we changed the world’ line. Then I’ll tour examples of people using open, participatory webishness to make cities better. This will feed into a set of simple, concrete challenges to the people who run my city.

open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

Challenges to city hall: open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

For this talk to rock, I really need help with the last two sections — the examples and the challenges.

On the examples front, I am looking for three very specific things:

  • Cities (or other governments) that have opened up their data so citizens can mash it up and add value.
  • Web apps created by normal people that do things city hall should do (e.g. transit maps), but do them better.
  • Examples of cities listening effectively to their citizens at a customer service level (i.e. whether people are happy with how clean the streets are).

A few people (thanks, Sameer!) have already fed me great examples. FixMyStreet.com. The City of Portland (first to have google transit thanks to open data). Washington, DC‘s recent useful-services-for-the-city mashup contest. But I need more. If you’ve got ’em, please comment on this post.

On the ‘challenges’ front, I want to come up with some concrete things city tech managers can do to make Toronto more open, participatory and mashable. I’m going to challenge them to:

  1. Open (y)our data. Transit. Library catalogues. Community centre schedules. Maps. Expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city. I bet somebody would have FixMyStreet.to up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen.
  3. Listen to citizens. Not just in a policy-consultation-ish kind of way, but also on everyday things-I-need-from-my-city customer service issues. First step: send a copy of the Cluetrain Manifesto to every manager in City Hall.

The City of Toronto CIO has promised more Web 2.0. That’s great. Maybe it’s the right time for challenges like these to actually be taken up. In any case, my question is: are these the right three things to push? If not, what would you ask for? Again, comments below encouraged.

Unconferencing collaboration (and public policy)

January 28, 2008 § 3 Comments

I was just reading on the Doors of Perception blog that Collaborative Innovation is this year’s theme at the World Economic Forum. Maybe this is a good thing (Jimmy Wales got to talk), and maybe it’s not (Don Tapscott got to talk). In either case, the really sad thing is the continued trend events about mass collaboration that are as uncollaborative as possible. Davos is just one long-lecture-fest, with most people zoned out in the audience in passive listening mode. It’s not collaboration, it’s television.

Unconferencers and openspacers of the world have be running real collaborative events for years. However, trying to roll participation into conferences ranging from WEF (big and showy) to the iSummit (small and groovy) almost always meets with heavy push back. Even when talking about collaboration, most event organizers seem to think TV-style lectures are the only viable format. Strange, and maddening.

Happily, today saw a small victory for the unconference crowd, with an article on Toronto’s TransitCamp appearing in the Harvard Business Review’s 2008 Breakthrough Ideas section. My friend Mark Kuznicki describes it here:

… [the HBR] piece tells the tale of a community and a public agency coming together to solve problems in an innovative new way, using social web technology, social media and design methods together with the Barcamp unconference framework. The approach helped to shift the relationship between the organization and its customers and community stakeholders. That organization was the Toronto Transit Commission and the event and the open creative community that emerged from it was called Toronto TransitCamp.

Put simply, TransitCamp was an unconference to gather input on the redesign of the Toronto Transit Commission’s web site. What’s amazing is that the chair of the TTC attended and that many of the new and creative ideas from the event actually got fed into the site design process. Vancouver and San Francisco have ripped off the idea by holding their own TransitCamps.

My hope (and the hope of the TransitCamp ringleaders) is that the HBR article will give some legitimacy to the unconference idea, especially as a way to engage in both public policy dialogues and big conferency conferences (a participatory unDavos? … okay, maybe not). Here’s to hoping.

PS. You can read the article in Harvard Business Review, or visit this wiki page
for links that provide a comprehensive overview of the background, the
design, the experience, the media coverage, the conceptual foundations
and the influence of TransitCamp.

Open source chamber of commerce

July 2, 2007 Comments Off on Open source chamber of commerce

The open source chamber of commerce is one of the few ideas really sticking with me from last weekend’s Open Cities Camp.

The concept is simple: create an association to network and promote open source businesses in Toronto (or wherever you live). The members could be big (Google) or small (the Linux Caffe), focused explicitly on open source (a Linux support company) or just use open source (a phone company or a bank), work on software (Mozilla) or on other kinds of ‘open’ (why doesn’t Lulu.com have a Toronto office?). The common thread would be that open source plays a central role in the work of all these companies.


Why? To focus and build buzz around the significant volume of open source activity that is quietly (and disconnectedly) happening in Toronto. The number of companies, projects and research labs focused on open source is growing in this city, yet they are spread out a thousand nooks and crannies. There is no sense of community, no sense of anything bigger. Of course, that’s totally okay on one level. No need to invent community, especially when most people are tapped in globally. However, there is another level where staying disconnected locally represents a missed opportunity to make Toronto a better place to work on open source.

This ‘make Toronto a better place to do open source’ impulse was the thing that originally got me talking about open cities in the first place. The event last week had people taking the idea in all sorts of crazy and fun directions. Yet my interest in open cities still centres around the idea that there is a huge economic and cultural opportunity around becoming a hub for open source business, research and culture, and that a number of cities around the world will soon start actively wooing projects and companies in this space. We already see this in other industry sectors, with cities actively trying to attract and cluster businesses in green energy, biotech and so on. Why not do this with open source? And why not Toronto?

Of course, there are a number of good answers to ‘why not Toronto?’ Our colleges and universities focus very little on open source (with the exception of CDOT at Seneca). There are no big name open source or open content companies headquartered here. And, the idea that open source represents a huge economic development opportunity – or even an interesting topic of conversation – is totally off the City of Toronto radar. We don’t have a buzz or critical mass around ‘open’.

Or, at least, we didn’t. The buzz factor is slowly starting to increase. CDOT’s annual Seneca at York open source conference is building a name internationally. Open cities made a connection and got some attention from 70 people spending a day talking about how ‘open’ impacts their work. Places like the Centre for Social Innovation and SIG@Mars are talking about open source as a potential driver of social invention and innovation. We’re building some buzz, slowly.

The Toronto Open Source Chamber of Commerce (or whatever it wants to be called) could be one way to amp up this buzz, and to engage business more actively in promoting Toronto as a good place to work on open source. Getting it started – and making it useful – wouldn’t be hard. The Chamber of Commerce could: convene a few open source focused barcamps; run occasional networking breakfasts / lectures when key open source people are in town; build volunteer teams to use open source to help local charities. It could start small, and grow if there is traction. The only way to find out is to try.

PS.  David Eaves and I are thinking about doing a session on the Open Source Chamber of Commerce at the Seneca FSOSS conference in October. Ping us or comment here if you are interested in being involved.

Know hope, and other scribbles

February 11, 2007 Comments Off on Know hope, and other scribbles

I always feel welcomed by a city with good graffiti. And so it was that I felt very much at home as I explored Tel Aviv today. Particularly powerful was this slogan:


… which appeared a number of places in the centre of the city. I kept looking. And shooting. And saying. “Know hope”.

There were also a number of places where I found this slogan hastily and passionately splashed on a wall:


Based on accompanying text in some places, this was about neither speech nor beer. It was about love. As good thing to celebrate with a spray can.

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