Phillip Smith

Civic Data Wants to be Free!

If what Tim O'Reilly says is right -- that "Data is the next Intel Inside" -- then civil society better get moving or they'll be left running last year's technology.

Online advocacy options in the US are plentiful; Democracy in Action, ActionStudio, GetActive -- the list goes on-and-on. However, in Canada, NGOs have always struggled to integrate even the most basic functionality -- like sending e-mails to an elected official -- into their campaigns.

Why is that? Well, as discussed before, Statistics Canada and other similar groups hold the "crown copyright" on the basic data needed to make online advocacy effective. Want to look up your Federal Electoral District via your Postal Code? Nuh-ah: can't do that unless you've licensed an expensive data set and signed a restrictive contract about how you can (or, in this case, can't) use it.

Well, I'm happy to announce that -- thanks to the efforts of Mike Gifford and Russell McOrmond -- a solution is not far away!

Last week Mike, Russell, and I sent out an invitation to a number of our clients, colleagues, and NGOs and unions across the country asking them to join Canada's first "Electoral Data Consortium." Over the next few weeks, as members sign-on, I'll post updates on the progress toward a new Web service that will deliver civic data to member organizations, and manage all the work of keeping it online, updated, and evolving to meet the needs of the consortium members. (Interested in joining? Just pop me a note via the contact form or comments.)

This comes right on the heels of a similar announcement that benefits organizations in the US from the fine folks at CiviCRM and The Sunlight Foundation (read their announcement past the jump):

If your blog runs on the popular content management Drupal and the community management tool CiviCRM, you'll be pleased to learn the CivicCRM development team is going to make it easier to connect your members to their elected officials with some help from the SunlightLabs API. (Sunlight Labs is a project of the Sunlight Foundation which prototypes tech ideas to improve government transparency and political influence disclosure.)

The SunlightLabs API is a tool for developers that provides handy, machine-readable information about members of Congress. Developers can use the API to more easily look up key information about representatives from different online databases and to find the representatives for a given zip code or state. Since developers have to spend less time managing clerical data around representatives, they can spend more time presenting that information in useful ways to you and I. In this case, CiviCRM developers will be incorporating the data directly into the CiviCRM interface and modules. As David Geilhufe pointed out in an email to us, "People could automatically email all the people in the database within a particular district."


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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