The Innovators: Opening Government

Who’s the Inventor?

With laptop and espresso on hand, David Wasylciw’s a well-known sight to the denizens of Javaroma, that is, when he’s not tweeting up a storm from the legislative assembly. The public policy and IT consultant moved North in 2008 and has since worked for the GNWT and the private sector, even taking a crack at territorial politics last fall as an MLA candidate for Frame Lake. To Yellowknife’s politicos, Wasylciw, whether tweeting or meeting, seems ubiquitous. But perhaps his biggest contribution to NWT civics so far is his passion project: OpenNWT.

What are his inventing credentials?

Wasylciw began his IT career as a teenager, when people in the office next door to his dad’s offered him $20 to compress a file onto a couple of disks. Impressed by his apparent technical wizardry, they asked Wasylciw to develop their computer network, and soon the teenager was managing IT for a company expanding quickly from two to 60 people. After studying Computer Science at university, Wasylciw spent a decade running his own IT company in Ontario, doing network support and software development for companies as big as McDonald’s. He ended up working for the Government of Ontario creating online policy tracking tools, which opened the door to his second, intertwining career as a policy wonk.

“I ended up totally veering off IT for a while, talking more about policy. But throughout all of it, it’s been talking about how technology solves business problems. Even when I was doing IT stuff, it was more about, what can it solve? Like when I was programming, I like the solution part of it rather than just programming away, there’s not a lot of people involved in that side of things.”

What’s the innovation?

It’s a searchable database, in short — which hardly sounds interesting in itself. But two years since its launch, Wasylciw’s OpenNWT has proved remarkably useful to a range of users, from politicians and researchers to private companies and journalists. The online tool brings together government data from a number of sources — Hansard (the record of what’s said in the Legislative Assembly), the GNWT’s contract registry, MLA travel records, Elections NWT data, etc. — organizes it and makes it easily searchable.

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“It’s all based on public information, but it’s different ways of looking at it and using it. That’s been the biggest difference for people. Everyone said, ‘Oh, we already had this stuff, you can search Hansard.’ Well, you could search the files before, you go to the library and look through it, there’s indexes, but it’s not quite the same thing. This is changing the way people actually use the information.”

Wasylciw began working on the project about six years ago, when he was a policy advisor with the GNWT’s Department of Transportation. “It came purely out of my own research and trying to find things and having a hard time,” he says. “But I got a lot of blank stares when I first suggested anything like that.”

Because there wasn’t much institutional support for the project at first, Wasylciw spent a number of years coding away by himself and compiling information — although he’s been supported by a robust international community of people working on similar initiatives.  

“It’s a bit of fun, it’s interesting to to do. I think it’s also a bit of a public service, I think it’s important to have that information available.”

Why is it important?

Information is only as good as its accessibility, is the short answer. All of the data OpenNWT offers is public. But it’s scattered and often published in a manner that makes it difficult to search. For example, ministerial travel records show the minister’s title, but don’t list the name of the person who held the post at the time. Or with government contracts, prior to OpenNWT, you couldn’t to search by the bidder’s name; since reconfiguring the contract data to make it searchable in multiple ways, Wasylciw says an increasing number of companies have been using OpenNWT to search their competitors’ contract history or even their own history.

“If we don’t have access to information, what’s the point of any of this stuff being open?” asks  Wasylciw. “The old ways of making information accessible doesn’t work anymore. People in Yellowknife, aren’t going to the Leg library. It’s an amazing resource to have, but it’s not the way most people do things any more. So I think it’s important to get stuff online and get information about bills and make sure it’s public and easily accessible.”

What’s next?  

By the next sitting of the legislative assembly, Wasylciw is hoping to have email alerts in place: i.e. you’ll be able to enter a keyword, say “diamonds,” and you’ll get an notification every time someone says it in the Legislative Assembly . He’s also been inputting historical Hansard data, and hopes, in the coming months, that people will be able to search all the way back to 1997.

“It’s amazing when we talk about government today, if you start looking at Hansard 10 years ago or 20 years ago, it’s the same conversations. So much of it’s similar, but it’s pretty hard to find.”

OpenNWT is still mostly a labour of love — a registered nonprofit that makes little money beyond the occasional donation. But Wasylciw envisions a time when it becomes integrated into the fabric of how the GNWT manages information.

“It would be nice if I didn’t have to do it on the outside. The goal of the product isn’t so much, I need to be doing it, it’s that the information should be available this way and how do we make it that way? And if we can get the government, frankly, start to produce information in a usable searchable way, all the better. If there was no need for this stuff,  it would be fantastic.”

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