Open government requires pragmatic approach, advocate says

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      Chris Messina applauds the City of Vancouver for endorsing the principles of open-source software, open standards, and open data.

      But the open-Web advocate told the Georgia Straight that, for council’s decision on May 21 to have a real impact, the city must clearly define what these terms mean.

      “So, it’s not enough to say we need to have open source in government, especially if the data are in formats that are not portable,” Messina said by phone from his San Francisco home. “We need to think about it from a more critical perspective and a more pragmatic perspective to say, well, what we really want to ensure is that there is freedom and competition in the marketplace.”

      On Friday (June 12), Messina, who works on the DiSo Project and sits on the board of the OpenID Foundation, will deliver a presentation about openness on the Social Web at Open Web Vancouver 2009. The two-day conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre begins on Thursday (June 11).

      In addition to endorsing open principles, city council voted last month to look for ways to distribute more of the city’s data and to publish information via the Internet using “prevailing open standards, interfaces and formats”. The city manager is expected to produce an implementation plan.

      Messina suggested that, if the city wants its bureaucrats to actually consider open-source options when purchasing software, it should provide them with a definition of open source.

      Governments shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to figuring out how to share their data, Messina said. He noted that it’s easier for developers to work with data that’s distributed via existing methods.

      “Having your own version of a geodata API—well, it’s like Google already has one or let’s say the City of New York already has one—really doesn’t add a whole lot more value and actually increases the cost to people using your specific set of data,” Messina said.

      The open-Web advocate said that “it’s imperative for open-government initiatives to really look at the work that’s already happened, even if it’s not as good as what they might do, and consider how they can align themselves with it and then work with the folks that have already done that work to then make more improvements”.

      You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.

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