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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Too many cooks and not enough kitchens

NOTE: This is content from the web re:Brand posts going back to November 2010. We have kept the re:Brand posts as a legacy archive but, on a go forward basis as of October, 2011, the new DATA eh? content takes over this space.

A fantastic exchange happened at yesterday's Toronto Innovation Showcase.  This was during the Open Data Lab review.  I want to post the moment in video and eagerly await the video archive form our webcaster.  Meantime, let me describe what happened.

The exchange was between panelists Greg Wilson and Jay Goldman. I'm paraphrasing here but Jay essentially said the government makes wonky apps - not so good while the community can do better.  Greg countered by saying having begun partnership exchanges with his U of T class and the City, he can see how much effort is being put into development work - all while staff continues to put out fires.

A later bit of conversation talked about trust issues - namely who would you trust more in giving your credit card information: "Greg's class or the City?"

What pulled my attention is how delicate perceptions are when it comes to (1) government and (2) application development.

There seemed to be a consensus that the City would be more trustworthy in getting credit card info. But it was not so clear on who should be developing the apps that may need the credit card information.

I find it interesting that you do tend to trust the government when it comes to personal data such as a credit card details.  But we tend to balk - in the Social Media universe anyway - when the same government lays down all kinds of terms of use statements and privacy notes before you can get access to the content or the application. 

We are going through a "collections" issue with this blog as a matter of fact.

I personally want you to identify yourself should you want to comment here. Our privacy folks, on the other hand, want you to be anonymous. For me it's very much a rock and a hard place kind of thing.  I don't want credit card info from you, I just want a name and, maybe, if we get to hosting threaded community forums, some profile/registration info.

Whatever, it's the same laws that govern something as simple as giving me your name or giving me your credit card. The laws are much more ambiguous when it comes to non-government.  I could set up my own blog (not a City of Toronto blog) talk about the exact same things and ask you for anything I want. If you give it to me, it's not my problem. Maybe I'd add a few collection statements to make you feel all warm and comfortable but, if I wanted to, I could do a lot with what info you choose to give me. That's a bit over simplified but more-or-less true.

So, in short, representing the government, I'm not free to compete with private enterprise on an equal basis.  I believe that's true when it comes to a straight ahead app vs app or even blog vs. blog discussion.

Too many cooks
This may be where the clunkiness Jay is talking about comes from. Afterall, you go to an app created by the City and it may not scan easy or get you there (to the app) fast.  In some cases, it doesn't scan that well simply because of the thickness of the "privacy" side of the content - what you "need" to know etc.

Again, all of this even before you get to the guts of the thing you want to use! At one point Jay said: "the City develops apps by committee." Dah, yeah we do and part of the "committee" includes people representing the other elements beyond the actual app.

Maybe there are ways around it, maybe not.  My point is we haven't tumbled on them yet or been allowed to implement them yet.  Consider us app developers with one hand tied behind our backs.

All that being said, there are cases where we can do better with the actual app and I think it's fair to say our own user experts are hammering home that message to us.

And I don't mean to slam Jay either.  Most everyone acknowledges there are talents in government and talents outside government as Jay himself later said.

I think it's probably more accurate to say there is a risk in any process of too many cooks taking over in one kitchen.  Anyone making something they hope will be used would do well to consider the end user over and above whatever bureaucracy there is.  But we are not alone here. How many of you who work in private enterprise feel you've got a raging bureaucracy of your own to contend with?

More kitchens
As the panel discussion progressed, some of the needs for collaboration became more pronounced and I think the conversation became more grounded - it may not be the cooks that are the problem - it's not enough kitchens.

The plan is for City data releases to continue forever - or until something better comes along! And that means it's not going to matter who did "what" so much as "how" apps are being developed.  

I like the "what" and "how" means to organize an issue or project. We often start talking about the "how" when we haven't figured out the "what".  At least at this point we know "what" (data) and we can leave the "how" to anyone who can deal with it.  For a long time we (the City) controlled the "what". Now we have a market place where anyone can make a kitchen and use the base ingeredients coming off our City data. 

For anyone interested in the City of Toronto open data project (and have been living on another planet for the last three days) get 'ye to: http://www.datato.org/app/ and http://groups.google.com/group/datato?pli=1 and toronto.ca/open

Reminder, I'll present some video clips of the actual exchanges when I can.

I'll leave you with a great find from YouTube.  It made my day and I hope it makes yours especially if you haven't seen it yet. Development by committee indeed.

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Anonymous said...

Keith —

Thanks for the great summary of the conversation!

I really want to stress that I think the City is full of extremely creative and intelligent people who are doing an amazing job despite the limitations placed on them. You are absolutely right in refering to yourselves as developers with one hand tied behind your backs.

I equally want to stress that the end result should be paramount to the bureaucracy. You're right (again) in saying that the end user is the most important part. I picked on the traffic tickets web app because I've used it and it's not ideal — but it's much better than not having one.

It's maybe a poor example of the promise of OpenData (I don't see the City providing me an API to build my own ticket payment app anytime soon!), but I do think there's an obvious path here in which some of the committee-designed, less-than-ideal City apps get all but officially replaced by community built apps. That's part of the promise of opening the data and something to celebrate and look forward to. Many kitchens is a great analogy for this, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to be the chef in at least a few of them.

Thanks for the video too! I'd watched it a while back but only noticed this time that it's a Toronto-based production. Check the intersection at the 4:04 point and you'll spot Yonge and Dundas, looking west along Dundas as a Red Rocket heads toward University. How approporiate :)

— Jay Goldman

Anonymous said...

Will the City release information on businesses that hold a City of Toronto business license. Trying to get information form MLS is like a fifty year old waiting for the tooth fairy "it ain't going to happen"

Releasing this information allows the public to choose from businesses that are hopefully in compliance with all regulations and by-laws and we will hopefully be able to avoid the fly by night scam artist and unlicensed mechanics who are operating businesses in the City of Toronto.

This information will also assist other departments in the City of Toronto with much needed information "how can by-laws be inforced if you don't know the businesses are there".

This information can be used in so many ways to assist the public and businesses to help make this an even greater City.

Keith from the TO web re:Brand team said...

Reminder to "Anonymous" from above, don't forget to take you thoughts to: http://www.datato.org/app/ and http://groups.google.com/group/datato?pli=1 - that's where all the action is taking place.