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There’s been a lot of talk about open government, but one province is finally walking the talk. Last month, the B.C. government unveiled DataBC, a broad initiative to make available at no charge a wide array of data gathered by government that had previously mostly sat unused in filing cabinets.

B.C. is making close to 2,500 data sets available, such as birth rates, provincial obstacles to fish passage, old-growth management areas, carbon emissions statistics and information on schools. This information is searchable and available for anyone to use. The goal is to help citizens and businesses make informed decisions, conduct research, analyze statistics and develop applications.

Premier Christy Clark said the new data, available through www.data.gov.bc.ca, will do two important things. “First, open data will help us do a better job of spurring innovation within the public service and ensuring government is open, transparent and accountable. Second, we will be working with a group of leaders from the technology community who will help us transform this data into information that can make a difference in people’s lives.”

Many people think the idea of open government is all about freedom of information, but its impact goes much deeper. In fact, it’s part of the biggest change in the past century to the structure and architecture of the public sector.

The idea is a simple one. In the past, governments collected tax dollars from citizens. Government employees inside the boundaries of government created services that were delivered back to the citizens. This exchange of tax dollars for services will continue, but, courtesy of the Internet, there’s an expanded model of government whereby government acts as a platform.

There’s an enormous amount of data inside government, such as data about climate change, the success of entrepreneurs, radon gas, bicycle accidents and so on. With governments starting to make this raw data available to citizens, people will self-organize to use the data to create value. This is not about outsourcing or privatization. This is about a new division of labour in society about how we create public value. The result is better government services and a government that costs less.

B.C. is a leader in this thinking. It recently challenged programmers to create innovative Web-based and mobile apps that would raise awareness of climate change and inspire B.C. residents to take action. As an incentive, the private sector chipped in $40,000 in prize money.

One of the winning apps helps students track their carbon footprints. Users record activities such as bathing, eating and transportation, and the app calculates an impact statement with annualized kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents generated. Another winning app, targeted at small and medium-size businesses, lets a business measure its emissions, then benchmark its score against industry peers.

None of the initiatives spurred on by the contest required new rules or new legislation to move forward. The B.C. Challenge created millions of dollars of public value but cost the government virtually nothing. And it took a small step toward becoming a data platform on which private companies, civil society organizations and individual citizens can collaborate to create public value.

Other initiatives taking us toward open government are under way. Ontario recently developed a policy framework for social innovation by engaging citizens on a wiki, and sources say the province is preparing its own open government initiative.

Overall, however, Canada is a laggard in the open data movement, especially compared with the Obama administration. Washington’s data.gov website offers close to 390,000 data sets. And rather than a collection of Excel spreadsheets, users can now search, sort and filter data without actually having to download it.

In true social-networking style, the U.S. site offers the ability to form user groups and communities around data themes. For example, the site offers energy.data.gov, “where data and insight are combined to facilitate public discussion of and awareness on our Nation’s energy activities. Whether you are interested in alternative fuels, managing buildings to be more energy efficient, or trying to manage energy in your own home, we have something for you. Look at the data, use the apps, join the conversation.”

To be sure, these initiatives are in their early days and will receive resistance and skepticism from many quarters. But governments at all levels in Canada need to learn from them and take action to reinvent how we create public value for a new century.

Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books, most recently (with Anthony D. Williams) Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World .

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