After transforming Open North from an idea to an organization over the last four years, I stepped down as executive director earlier this month.
The seed of this decision was likely sown a year and a half ago, when I started thinking about Open North’s path and mine. In the beginning, Open North’s reputation, direction, and interests were dominated by my own. When Stéphane Guidoin joined a year later, Open North operated more as a partnership than as a company, with each of us generating business and delivering projects more or less independently: Stéphane ran Open511, JeVeuxSavoir, and CKAN consulting, and I ran Citizen Budget, Represent API, and Popolo. As the organization grew and matured, it developed its own reputation and interests, grounded in Citizen Budget and open data (though I didn’t acknowledge this until later). With Stéphane’s departure to work at the Smart and Digital City Office of the City of Montreal in June, we took the opportunity to wind up some activities in his portfolio. This consolidation afforded the opportunity to rethink the direction of the organization as a whole.
Over the summer, I reflected on my own activities and interests at Open North, which led to my decision, for which, ultimately, one factor was sufficient. Inspired by projects like TheyWorkForYou, I had founded Open North to increase the transparency of and participation in Canadian legislatures; in those early days, Citizen Budget and open data were merely mechanisms for subsidizing and serving this activity. Given the dearth of domestic funding for legislative projects, and the growing demand for Citizen Budget, open data, and international projects, I had a choice: to allow the organization to settle down and focus on its successful activities, or to continue to explore the frontiers in search of a business model for domestic legislative technology projects. The former was the healthier choice for both the organization and me. Although those successful activities are important and valuable, they didn’t advance my priorities or satisfy my passions. I therefore stepped down to allow for new leadership.
As you’ll read in his upcoming post, my colleague Jean-Noé Landry has stepped up as executive director. I look forward to Jean-Noé taking Open North to new levels, building on his experience in international democratic development and his leadership in Canada’s open data community, including as co-founder of Montréal Ouvert and Québec Ouvert. He has demonstrated his ability to build partnerships to grow the open data community inclusively and collaboratively, most recently with this year’s Canadian Open Data Summit for which he was the driving force. I’m eager to see how Jean-Noé will spread our work and expertise internationally, as with our current projects in Ukraine, where Open North is working with local and international partners to set up a budget simulator with the City of Kiev, coordinate the development of a legislative monitoring website, and advise the national working group on e-democracy and open data.
In addition to building an organization with its own identity, reputation, and goals, my most proud accomplishments are:
- Proving it’s possible to fund a civic tech nonprofit in Canada
- Creating the Represent API with Michael Mulley, a fundamental service to nonprofits, unions, companies and groups in Canada
- Building consensus around Popolo, adopted by dozens of civic tech organizations to model and publish legislative data
As executive director, I believed that we shouldn’t do what others do better, that the people in open government will succeed or fail as a group, and that “a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it” 1. Together, these attitudes made it easier to focus on getting good work done, whether that meant referring deals to others, adding partners to projects, or contributing to others’ work. Personally, after over 300 pull requests to others’ projects and countless helpful messages on mailing lists 2 and in private conversations, the generosity afforded by these attitudes has generated tremendous goodwill for me in the open government community.
I’d like to thank my co-founder Jonathan Brun, for introducing me to Montreal’s open data community, and Michael Lenczner, for introducing me to my co-founder Bernard Rudny; without my two co-founders’ early coaching and advice, I doubt Open North would have achieved independence from me. I’d like to thank mySociety, the Sunlight Foundation, Open Knowledge, and Personal Democracy Media for bringing together the international civic tech community, an incredible source of inspiration, motivation, and friendship. And I’d especially like to thank the people who’ve benefited from our work – there would have been little point otherwise.
What next? While I won’t be directly involved in Open North, I will remain available to the new executive director as senior technology adviser. In the short term, I’ll be working on Popolo and Influence Mapping. Otherwise, I’ll be taking the time to think about what to do next. If you enjoyed working with me, I’d be happy to hear from you.