Our conversation with Alex Benay, CIO of Canada.

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Not Your Typical Bureaucrat

Canada’s Chief Information Officer is probably not what you expect.

For starters, speaking with Alex Benay feels more like talking with a tech startup founder than a senior government official.

It’s is not just in the passion for what he does, which is obvious, but the disarmingly direct way that he handles the tough questions associated with the development of Canada’s AI sector.

In short, it’s refreshing to hear plain talk from one of our country’s top AI influencers when it comes to issues like gender balance in the workforce, bias in training data, and the use of citizen data.

This distinctly un-bureaucratic approach may have something to do with a non-traditional career path.

Leaving an early fast-track position in the public service for major role in the tech sector, he then returned to the Feds to take on the challenge of updating our national museums.

“So why government? Because it’s more fun, it’s more impactful, and the challenges are bigger. There is nothing that has this scale in the Country. Period. “

Alex Benay, cio of canada, speaking to ask ai podcast

Tune in to this episode to learn about innovation inside Canada’s Federal Government and to get a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the key leaders of its mission to modernize.

The Ask AI interview with Alex Benay, CIO of Canada

Our listeners can get a full view on Canada’s approach to AI by checking out our recent episode featuring Michael Karlin, the Treasury advisor working under Alex Benay who made international waves last year when drafting Canada’s AI policy as a Google Doc.

Also be sure to catch our conversation with Dr. Elissa Strome, the head of the Pan-Canadian AI strategy at CIFAR and learn how one of our top scientific bodies is fighting the threat of AI brain drain.

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About Canada’s Treasury Board

Alex Benay’s Office of the CIO is part of the Treasury Secretariat Board of Canada (aka “TBS”).

According to their website;

“The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat provides advice and makes recommendations to the Treasury Board committee of ministers on how the government spends money on programs and services, how it regulates, and how it is managed. The Secretariat helps ensure tax dollars are spent wisely and effectively for Canadians.”

– TBS website

In other words, they’re basically the ops team for the Federal government and are responsible for things like financial oversight and issues pertaining to the Federal workforce e.g. HR, training, and ethics.

From the perspective of the AI sector, Treasury also takes the lead in developing guidelines for the adoption of new technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence) for the 170 or so departments that make up Canada’s Federal Government.

Now you know 😉

What You’ll Hear

  • Alex’s journey from public to private and back to public and how that has helped him professionally.
  • Canada’s “ethical switch” being developed to help govern the use of AI within Federal public services.
  • The very different (and perhaps unfair) way that people perceive personal privacy in the context of government services.
  • The straight-forward way that Alex has approached closing the gender gap in his department.
  • The legal and legislative complexities associated with data fragmentation across government departments.

Episode Links

OCIO home

Canada School of Public Service

Treasury White Paper: Responsible AI in the Government of Canada

Alex’s Book “Government Digital: The Quest to Regain Public Trust”

e-Estonia – the digital society

Alex Benay on Twitter

Treasury on LinkedIn

Treasury on Twitter

CognitiveScale (vendor helping to develop a Canadian “ethical switch”)

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Google Podcasts

YouTube

Episode Credits

Executive Producer: Chris McLellan

Senior Producer: Mike Letourneau

Host: Jaxson Khan

Assistant Producer: Francois Desmarais

Chatbot Sponsor: Ada

About Ask AI

Ask AI is an educational nonprofit with a mission to increase connections and inclusiveness within Canada’s artificial intelligence sector.

Our volunteer-run projects include hosted events, the Ask AI podcast, our chatbot, and the Ask AI newsletter.

To learn more, and get information on sponsorships and volunteering just ask our bot!

Episode Transcript

Ask AI

Hey folks! Today we welcome Alex Benay Chief Information officer of the Government of Canada – Associate Deputy Minister also the author of a new book “Government Digital.”

Alex has a long history of work in the public and private sectors, and he’s currently leading the digital transformation of Canada’s Government.

Welcome Alex!

Alex Benay

Thanks for having me

Ask AI

So! I thought we just get right into it.

It’s holiday season we don’t have time to mess around So the office of the CIO Alex I was wondering if you could talk to our listeners about the role of your office and more about the Federal stakeholders for what matters when it comes to AI.

Alex Benay

Yeah so the Office of the CIO is responsible for policies and anything digital service technology-related for the government of Canada privacy access to information. So policies, overall architectural management; which is something fairly new over the last year where we would create an architectural review board for government and make sure that we don’t do the same thing forty five times over which we still do because it is the biggest operation in the country so it’s not small.

It’s about 17,000 computer systems people 4 – 5,000 Data Information Management people add the Privacy community in there and you’re quickly escalating to like 25,000 people that work in what could be defined the digital space. We spend about 6 billion a year on people and systems from our infrastructure to training, to hiring, to software development application purchasing.

So we’re responsible for all those things. We’re also responsible for Project Oversight and as of late August there’s been quite a few glaring failures so that function has really been beefed up and also responsible I guess in the context of stakeholders that means we’re working with vendors across the Country and the World.

There will be advocacy groups on the access information side or the Privacy side which we want to see both increased to release of data and at the same time protection of privacy so it’s an interesting conversation to have.

There will be advocacy groups on the access information side or the Privacy side which we want to see both increased to release of data and at the same time protection of privacy so it’s an interesting conversation to have.

So we manage all those stakeholders and more importantly we’re responsible for the service strategy for Government which means like the services you get and that in itself is a big opportunity because well for the last 151 years we’ve been imposing maybe an industrial age service model and not necessarily taking advantage of a digital sort of world that we have available to us.

We’re responsible for all that; responsible for overseeing the community and the guidelines and the policies and the standards and all of that to kind of direct you know the 17 to 25,000 people and the spend that we do.

Ask AI

When you talk with that from the industry age to a digital service model there is a particular example that you would draw on that might be helpful to elaborate on that?

Alex Benay

If you look at… – a small story to that – 1867 we had mail and “in person”. That’s how you dealt with the Government. I don’t remember the dates cause Cassandra did all the research on it but – a little bit later we had this thing called the telegram and the telephone and we added that service line.

In the middle of that we added probably 10 Departments and after that this thing called the FAX came along and we added probably another 10 departments and after that this thing called the internet came along and we added another 10 departments and so we kind of impose their bureaucratic model on the citizen, and how we deliver services. It doesn’t mean that it’s completely bad. It just means that if you look at other sectors they tend to bring people along into certain service lines that are easier more efficient; deliver better services over time

So, imagine sending a fax machine to Apple because your iPhone doesn’t work. Right? Or sending mail. And so the difference though with public-sector is that for us we can’t leave anybody behind. So there are communities that don’t have Internet Access. There are communities that rely on Canada Post. So! absolutely that does not replace those channels but increasingly there is a new way of delivering Services.

Why could you not use the Internet of Things in all the devices that are connected to deliver Government of Canada services seamlessly. I also don’t personally buy the excuse that for example we tell ourselves that the elderly population in Canada are not digital! It is the fastest growing demographic of digital usage. You can go to any study and find it.

Also anecdotally my parents live in the Laurentians. Them driving the middle of a winter storm to go to get services to the government in Canada or getting their service from Google Home – I can guarantee you they will invest in learning the Google Home because there’s a lot of snow in the Laurentians in the winter.

So we have to kind of move away from our traditional excuses and our traditional reasons we don’t want to leave anybody behind but we have built up these multiple service lines with sort of multiple service opportunities and channels and not necessarily modernize all of them or in some cases any of them in and in some cases there is a really good reasons for that.

Our laws for example have the word FAX in them in some cases. So I’m not quite sure which human beings thought the FAX was going to be the end all and be all of Technology forever but it’s in our laws. So we have to become more technology agnostics when we create laws and clean up some of this other stuff. So it’s just all of this stuff together makes it… it’s a very very interesting time to be working in the Public Sector space in digital.

Ask AI

One of the reasons I’m fascinated by the way that you talk in the different examples that you’ve drawn is you’ve only set in this role two, three, four years ago?

Alex Benay

OK. My beard is very white. Whiter than I expected it to be when I let it grow but I’m 20 months in now.

Ask AI

Though and perhaps from a relatively informed outsider, I’ve seen so many changes; the profile in documenting and I think it’s so fascinating that you’ve taken this very very different new approach to look at government services and obviously this digital transformation more broadly in Society.

It’s been going on for a while but it seems like Government maybe only the last couple years really actually seems to be catching up and I’d like to give you a compliment I think you had a huge part of that.

Alex Benay

Thank you

Ask AI

One other thing I wanted to ask you about before we dive deeper into the issue is just about your background when you get a bit of a multi-sector background. Well you’ve got a bit of multi sector background I know you spent five years in Open Text and also Heritage Canada and then across a number of different Agencies and Corporations – I was wondering if you could tell a bit more about your story and also why you jumped back into the Public Sector

Alex Benay

So I’ll give you the path and I was lucky and fortunate to be Acting Director General in Government at 27; and the system told me that I had to do my time and cool my jets, and so I don’t particularly take well to that so I left and went to Open Text for 5 years where I got to work directly with the chairman of the company Tom Jenkins who is a good friend of mine and showed me the ropes on how to work in the private sector globally and in Canada.

Got called by a recruiter for the museum role. I’ve always wanted to be a CEO so checked it out; did not anticipate one of our three Museum to close and have to run three hundred million dollars of infrastructure project. But that was also a learning curve and then this role when I was approached to possibly take on this role it but there’s two things that are striking…

Every time you change sector – so I’ve done public-private and Crown – every time people want to lobotomize you and tell you why “ In private-sector we don’t do it this way because of government is silly” and then you go to the government you say “All your private sector experience really – This is how we do it in government and then the Crown wants somewhere in the middle.

The thing that I’ve learned the most I think through that is I’m just not ever going to listen to anybody tell me that ever again. I made the mistake of doing that once when I went from public-sector to private-sector and after a year in the private sector – Well there are some good lessons from the public sector that you guys should be applying here. But I made the mistake of being influenced. And so it’s not that I don’t listen – it’s that unless you’ve worked in multiple sectors like I have it’s hard for me to have a conversation with you.

Because if you only ever worked in one sector then you will only ever have that lens. And where I’ve been accused of having an eclectic background – it’s in the papers when I took over the museum I think it was meant to be an insult and I think I took it as an insult initially but now that I look back on it with all the digital work we’re doing that eclectic background is a huge advantage and anybody that doesn’t have it and it doesn’t need to be as varied as Museums to Tech Sector to government I get that that’s maybe a bit much but diversity of your background is so important because if not if you especially if you’re in government designing policies for Citizens and maybe you never worked outside of the government but some interesting approach – actually it’s like you would be at Apple designing a product with no users.

Right? so we’re getting better at engaging users in Canadian Digital Services there. We’re seeing some of our Veterans Affair services being designed with users. We’re getting better at regaining empathy but so but it’s not it’s not an easy thing when it takes us so long to accomplish certain things according to the traditional excuses and we’re proving that that’s not accurate either

So why government? Because it’s more fun, it’s more impactful, and the challenges are bigger. There is nothing that has this scale in the Country. Period. There are no Private sector companies. I always laugh when again mocked by my CIO my private sector CIO called “Why are you doing this? Like we make a hundred times more than you with a hundred times less headache” and I go “Yeah, but like the stuff we work on is amazing like responsible artificial intelligence for the Country right by modernizing Services of like the biggest service provider that is Employment Social Development Canada is an amazing challenge. Right! like all of these things are so cool and you don’t you just don’t have that impact in the private sector.

Ask AI

That’s awesome. I mean I’m much earlier in my career but I’m definitely trying to aspire toward something similar. I think that I can see that it allows you to have different lenses and make more sense.

I personally read an article and maybe this is interesting to the listeners that – It’s called triple Strength Leadership – This Harvard Business review a few years ago changed my life when I read it because it was profiling over 150 cross sector leaders from around the world and it was looking at well even if they didn’t necessarily work themselves and have experience in multiple sectors they looked at it through multiple lenses and they interacted with the different sectors and allowed themselves otherwise it seems an intractable problem.

So it’s an interesting and useful framework ?? case studies for someone like Alex someone who has worked under different issues but I would say almost there is one thing which is you do have an intellectual track I mean it it is sort of the intersection of government and technology.

Alex Benay

I’d like to think that there is at least some form of thread that sort of holds it together.

Ask AI

That was one of the things that the article identified about a lot of the prospective leaders that even if things seemed eclectic that there was some sort of guiding line for it.

I want to dive into some of the issues but slightly before that you know we’re gonna talk about AI and the podcast is based on AI. AI and our ability to get into it is based on basically having lots of data – effective data. And one issue that we come across is a lot of the data is bad. A lot of the data can be very fragmented. So the official question is: “Is data fragmentation is a big issue especially for the big Organizations?” specially Government.

It could be spread across thousands of different separate databases, silos it’s difficult for me to even imagine the complexity of issues at the federal level in one Department let alone tons of them. So I’m wondering how you’ve even begun to manage install the unpregnant data in such a huge system.

Alex Benay

Yeah I mean we’re going to have to answer this question in like unsexy terms. Let’s start with the foundational layer. So a few things we are you’re very good at replicating, duplicating and triplicating databases of content everywhere within departments and institutions let alone across 43 departments. In some cases there are laws that says that you cannot share within an institution. So you can imagine what it’s like to share across an institution.

So going to answer your question from a service lens perspective because I always try to go back to service to the Canadians. We offer a lot of services but not as much as provinces or municipalities. So we have Veterans Affairs maybe some Business Services, CRA. And you know we have Employment Social Development Canada, Employment Insurance Oh yes stuff like that. So maybe five core Service Departments and let’s say maybe eleven at most.

We did a study of the 11 and there’s 187 pieces of legislation that we would have to change to permit data sharing. And it’s not sharing. It’s “Is there a source of the truth” and “Can people tap into that source. It’s not a copy and paste of the data. If you look at what Estonia has done; it is one core network on blockchain that has one version of the truth they have legislation that says “You must tell us once only. And if another department asks you a second time it’s in Law that they can’t. So they’ve done the polar opposite of what we’ve done. And the result of that has been single instances of Truth much better cyber security mechanism around it. Much much much much much much like significantly better privacy a citizen in Estonia can log in with their Digital ID into their own personal portal and see what government department has touched their data one and if the department can’t give an answer people will lose your job.

Right so it’s actually way more private than anything we’ve ever had. The citizen has regained control of their data over there. So I cannot say that we have these things in Canada yet. So we’re working on that So to your point on fragmentation, it’s baked in the law. It’s baked in service approaches and our policies you know reflect those laws. So we have to update sort of the foundational element of that so we’re looking at that. The other part that that for me I have a hard time with when we talk about automation; we’re having a lot of fears around responsible AI not just in Ottawa but frankly in most of the Countries around the world that worry about this.

I may get in trouble for saying this but I think part of the reason why we`re so fearful about it is because it’s automating the worst in us and bias that already exists. It already exists in the data. So you look at Amazon’s recruiting tools did not hire executive women because the data didn’t have a lot of executive women in the pool of existing hires. We would be no different in the women in Tech and we have a very bad ratio of women CIO for the government of Canada. So if I was to automate that hiring today it would hire more white males, alright so I think part of the reason why we’re fearful of some of these things is because the data is already biased in there. I travel with some of my friends that are from a certain ethnic group and I can tell you that every time they get pulled over at the Airport. So it’s not the algorithm and it’s not even the data it’s actually our behaviour, Right so like if you start pulling on the thread a little bit one of the opportunities around sort of this Ai world is that it kind of put our issues right in our face. We have to deal with it.

And so it’s not a technology one it’s not even a data one it’s actually human value and ethics which is what’s so fascinating is because for the last 20 years has been about the Tech and now it’s created a mirror of ourselves and sometimes we like it. Sometimes we don’t. And then that will tie in with the data question of yours. You know as well like so if we have all these pools of data across government which in a lot of cases are probably biased in one way or another and now we are servicing citizens with black box codes from Private Sector Vendors – I can’t guarantee you the outcome of the service at the end of this.

So data fragmentation is an issue but I like to wrap it around the context of service and around the context of values and ethics in like we’re in a battle globally for augmenting value. You know China has scale and America has industry and Canada’s kind of stuck in the middle all right so I mean it’s a really really important societal conversation for the next 25 years.

I think I just blew up your question and actually didn’t answer it so I apologize.

Ask AI

It actually ties in really well then where we I want to go. Earlier this year we spoke with one of your Colleagues Mike Karlin also from the Treasury Board. He’s done a lot of work to lead lot of the AI strategy and I believe basically duty and action in Canada action strategy.

I also seen a lot of your updates on Linked-In Alex talking about how the Canadian Government is leading in a way and creating a new ethic play as strategy as well as the CIO Strategy Council. There’s a lot of different collaboration happening there with Industry on AI. So I’m wondering maybe with our listeners. Can you give us more of an insight of those pieces and what’s happening with some of those. And he talked about you know Canada kind of stuck in the middle between industry and scale you know talk about the much bigger example of US and China but what is the Canadian approach what are the goals for AI in Canada.

Alex Benay

Yeah so a couple of things. So I’ll talk about the government of Canada and I’ll elude to the CIO Strategy Council a little bit. But we purposely did not set out to do an AI strategy for Government of Canada. Because that would take us two years or a year I’m not a huge fan of talking just for talking sake even though I talk a lot – I’m blowing my french canadian roots for saying the same thing in ten times more words – but like we just we just didn’t want to have shelfware. And everywhere else around the world they’re talking a good game right now.

They’re talking and talking and talking so we took a much more practical approach. So we did about four or five very practical things. The first one is we issued an RFP where there will be multiple dozens of vendors that are now qualified to provide automation, AI, machine learning, deep learning services. to the Government of Canada and how it conducts its internal operations and provides its services like multiple dozens of vendors will be on this thing. So the tool kit will be available.

We then set out to work with the Canada School of Public Service – the digital campus to launch training on the data side and on algorithms to public servants. Ranging from if you’re an executive that doesn’t need to have your fingers on the keyboard but at least understand the policy lines of it all the way to our computer systems people and sort of how to make sure that instead of giving money to staff augmentation firms in the Country we actually train our people to do the job. Right So that’s the second piece was the people and the training,

We then put rules Frameworks around this, So we will be issuing in January a directive from Treasury Board Secretariat to all departments saying “These are your guard rails for responsible automation” and then there is a tool called an algorithmic impact assessment tool which is a series of about 60 Questions that the Department must fill out before they start their AI project. And that’ll identify the levels of risk because if it’s a chat bot with the National Capital Commission telling you that the skating rink is open and it’s wrong – lower risk.

But if you’re automating your borders and your immigration decisions like obviously much higher risk. And let’s face it the Deputy Minister’s in town myself included we’re not experts in this stuff. And the goal here is to give you a lens on risk so that people can start managing the risk and make and make a human decision before automation happens. On how we’re going to intervene and make sure that the data is not biased that we’ve considered privacy for example and how we do our mission all that is in this algorithmic impact assessment tool. It was developed completely in the open by Michael as of January 2018 and It was on on Google Docs on GitHub…

Ironically a couple countries just kind of took it “as is” and started using it before we even consider it finish which is is really good because they’re going to contribute to the body of knowledge and it challenges our definition of final policy direction in an industrial age versus a digital one which is we need to keep evolving all the time.

So and then the last thing we’ve done that’s fairly practical as we’re working with Cognitivescale a group out of the United States. Manoj is its founder Manoj Saxena who was one of the co-founders of IBM Watson and to develop an algorithm an ethical switch where are the algorithm will evaluate the algorithm if anything is wonky on the ethical side of things based on pre described rules we will either stop it or identify it and correct it. So not a strategy but very practical things the tools, people, the rules framework and even some form of automated audit function.

And so again I’m not trying to knock what other countries are doing. We’re all sharing with each other we’re all learning. Our approach has been to be very practical and very operational because 3 python developers in this space right now could you do more damage than a really good policy or really good strategy.

And so what we’re trying to do is find the common middle ground because that is one of the key problems and public sector around the world that a lot of public sectors still see Tech as a back office function. And every other industry in the world has blended Tech and strategy together for 10 years now and government still often sees it as a back office function.

Ask AI

IT vs digital

Alex Benay

Even digital and IT versus strategy and policy. And so those two worlds have to mesh much sooner in government. So we’ve been trying to make it a very practical approach to make sure that that happens. Whether it succeeds or not time will tell but that’s at least been the approach.

Ask AI

I think that it makes a lot of sense for me ??? it’s such a nascent field right now everyone is trying to figure out this AI thing it’s like woah! what if we can do a few things. Do we at least add value to Government, to Industry to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that. Particularly the augmented audit, I hadn’t heard about that from your work, your posts, particularly very interesting.

And also suddenly we’ve seen so many people within industry and in government already running in the challenges around this thing for example like around data gather recently. It’s not quite AI but Stats Canada got quite a bit of flack around sort of an automized – they wanted to get an automized banking data in order to approve service delivery.

They’re gonna have to put that out disqualify any misinformation thereby it wasn’t automized but they still had a lot of flack and then believe delayed that approach or even you know some of Government Public-Private Partnerships recently sidewalk Labs Seen a lot of Citizen driven questions about where is that data gonna be held who’s gonna own it. Wondering about what lessons you think that Government is learning from Stats Can and (side wall clad ??) what they can do.

They’re gonna have to put that out disqualify any misinformation thereby it wasn’t automized but they still had a lot of flack and then believe delayed that approach or even you know some of Government Public-Private Partnerships recently sidewalk Labs Seen a lot of Citizen driven questions about where is that data gonna be held who’s gonna own it. Wondering about what lessons you think that Government is learning from Stats Can and (side wall clad ??) what they can do.

Alex Benay

Well, so a few things.

I’ll start by saying the social license we think we have we may not always have.. So I’ll go back to the Industrial age versus Digital age comparison. In the Industrial age we operated a certain way and that was Ok cause the conditions of that time were such that it didn’t change as rapidly as the level and the pace of change that we’re seeing in the last decade.

Which means that the Social license that you take for granted in an industrial age may have changed three times over in a decade. In the Digital Age So is so there’s something to be said there about revising your laws sooner revising your policy framework sooner your communication strategies sooner.

The country that are winning so they speak in Brackets digital are the smaller ones. Israel Estonia, Singapore right even South Korea to ??? They’re not small but they’re adjusting faster. And we’re not necessarily always adjusting in Canada and I think if you look at Facebook Cambridge Analytica I think that was a trigger.

There’s a lot of privacy concerns I think this morning there was another article in the New York Times about how Facebook basically gave access to your Facebook Messenger door 100 t0 150 companies don’t quote me on the number like so the Privacy thing is now coming very much into the fold and this is where I get back to the values conversation as a country.

We’re not Estonia. We don’t have sort of post communist culture with us and they grew up a certain way over there and we grew up a certain way over here and so not having a constant dialogue with citizens and being super transparent to adjust the social license and not take it for granted is increasingly important. And I’m not saying Stats Can did or did not do that. I’m not saying Sidewalk Labs did or did not do that but if you are not radical in your transparency and having a real dialogue you will get this pushback whether people are right or people are wrong whether you are right or you are wrong. And so the transparency is very important.

The other part of this lens is we may have an outdated view of Privacy as well. As a country now I’m not commenting as government this is just Alex Benay like because like just to be clear but like we willingly give our data to Google and Facebook yes and we know we’re doing it and then we act shocked when they commercialize which is it a little bit silly of an approach but we have such a reticence to give that less data to the Government of Canada to delivery service.

And it’s not that that reaction is wrong by citizens or the Media .It’s just that we have to at least be aware of it and figure out the conversation and the dialogue. So if you’re not working in the open fully with this stuff if it’s not plan a year ahead and you’re not communicating and you can point back to communication and if it’s fake and I’m not accusing Sidewalk Labs of but communication but if people do not feel they’re not getting real answers you will get a reaction and then the interesting part of this reaction is people that are reacting have availability of the same platform then you know anybody else and except they have the power of the masses on their side. So a little bit of irony in that they’re using the platform that owns the data to anyways.

But that aside — it is this sort of cyclical thing we not going on but but I think it’s important for governments around the world that are still in the same spot as Canada and there’s a lot of them the UK, New Zealand, Australia, you know we’re all kind of in the same values boat and it’s an interesting sort of the of evolution for us right. so Sidewalk Lab, Statistics Canada I just really think it comes down to Communications values discussions, openness and really questioning ourselves as to are we really that in tune with the Canadian population at this point.

Ask AI

Yeah I love that you focus that conversation on the impact and I guess the enhanced responsibility to social license in the modern age. The other article that I want to share with listeners that I read in regards with regard in term of Facebook it’s like well you have a free service and you can use it fully what that means is you are the product of that service. There’s a great article that also goes very deep into that.

I agree with you that folks maybe should not be surprised when these things continue to come out. That being said – I think some regulation there or some inhibitors on them was probably long overdue. I think some social license absolutely I mean is a much added level for Government that Private Actors need to have as well.

I want to shift a bit in terms of gears here because I know we’re on a time scale but Government collaboration having citizens being able to engage with Government I know you’ve also open that conversation up in terms of talent mobility both within current government employees as well as I believe citizens of private group being able to collaborate with government given what we’re talking that I’m how is far more important to have that dialogue now.

What happening how are you helping to ??? and open that dialogue

Alex Benay

Yeah You guys are really good with your questions.

So a few things. We need to completely redefine the definition of talent. The definition of talent in the government is come and join us for 25 to 35 years and will put you in a box and you’ll get to do some amazing work – like again I chose Public Sector so keep that in mind in my answer – but nevertheless we put you in a box and it’s like it’s very process heavy and the rest of the world is out there working together collaborating sectors colliding things happen fast and we’re very process heavy now you want to be process heavy because we’re your government like you probably don’t want us to be Mavericks okay so there’s a reason why we are the way we are but nevertheless it’s being stressed tested in today’s world and so I’ll give you an example of maybe being able to change the business model a bit.

So when I was with the Museum of Science and Tech so we had three National museums Agriculture and Food, Aviation and Space, Science and Tech. And that Institution was sitting on a gold mine of data. And arguably the Heritage sector should be working outside the firewall all the time. So historically what has happened is the Heritage sector or museums have developed exhibitions where you could only come to them if you are actually lucky enough to be in that City and the museum would preach to you.

This is your history and there would never be co-creation with the audience over the last 20 years you’ve seen the museum sector tried to co-create more so get get people into user-testing groups. Try things, talk Great! that’s a good first step. What if you could completely democratize the knowledge production and the Heritage production and it became co-owned with people of that country and the government as opposed to government financing a Museum and their foreign exhibitions.

So what we decided to do was release all of our content all of the time. I think we were the world’s first public sector institution to be fully open by default.

Obviously private data not released. If we were collecting an artifact and it was a private information we did not release that. But within 2 hours of creating a document that document was posted online on the Internet. Tens and tens of thousands of documents posted in the matter of months.

Ask AI

So what kind of documents…

Alex Benay

So you would have exhibition plans – you would have artifact collections – you would have historical research – you would have archives just a treasure Trove of things right.

We 3D scan the collection we put it out there. We embedded our digital strategy as our business strategy. Okay! which is a big big lesson. But what ended up happening is this we wanted to do all these other things while one of the three museums is being rebuilt. The game brought a national relevance.

Well the way we would do that normally; we would build the travelling exhibition it would cost millions and we would send it out all over the place and nobody could afford bring it in because they are artefacts had certain conditions with it and you would maybe reach 50,000 people over the span of five years maybe a hundred thousand.

Digital gave us an opportunity to actually do it different. So by releasing the content we had to always wanted to do video games. Except a video game or mobile game is like a half a million dollars to produce and we’re a bunch of historians. We don’t know how to do video games. So the odds of us doing a video game and then analog linear Industrial Way would have been very bad for us. We probably would have failed. Instead there’s a company out of Toronto that saw some of the data we were releasing and said hey we’ll create a business venture with you as a crown Corporation. We will take on most of the production of this game. We just want your content. We’ll give you a little bit of money. You know it was like an investment sharing and a revenue-sharing opportunity there for sure. And they ended up creating four games, mobile games for us. Millions of people downloaded it in over a hundred eighty two countries around the world.

Money was made and the museum didn’t have to acquire that talent what it did is it stuck to its core competency which was knowledge and Heritage knowledge and it worked with a small 2-person company out of Toronto which quickly became a 10 20 30 person company and we actually helped the economy by releasing the content. We augmented the role of our curators by making sure that the War – World War 1 aircraft that were in the video game were as historically accurate as possible.

We told the stories of Canadian pilots in the process and then Nintendo approached the museum did you a game on the Nintendo console. So the lesson there is release the data empower your staff to work with stakeholders get them out of their boxes. Make sure you give them air coverage if in case something happens. Challenge the status quo a little bit. Right! and blend all of these sectors together. Because maybe you don’t have to acquire the talent. Maybe you just do your data. That you can do this thing right.

And so that to me was a very powerful lesson that even government can changes his business model So now amplify that time a hundred. What if all science in government was done that way from the get go.

What would be the outcome? Right! so that’s to me like the ultimate sort of Target. We would be able to add jobs to the canadian economy, better science for Citizens we had better Services what if you could create a service ecosystem for citizens and we were not the linear only service provider in the world. And the fact is CRA has already done that. CRA we could do TurboTax Intuit for the last 15 years. So it’s not like it’s not been done. What if you did that everywhere?

To me a lot of lessons learned from that little micro experiment to how do you export that to all of Government.

Ask AI

Alex I love the Heritage example you should write another article on scaling culture or something as such.

It’s probably one of our last question cause I know we’re running short on time but just looking ahead it’s holiday time it’s heading in the New Year we’re heading into 2019 and there been a few things that have happened recently we’re sort of on the back of recent Federal investments and announcement in the AI ecosystems particularly focused on Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal and also a recent report from the World Economic Forum just came out recently and I believe you actually posted about it but it shows that Canada has quite a bit of work still to do on our AI sector despite our hype and particularly with regards to gender equality – we’ve fallen pretty far behind – Wonder if you want just maybe summarize a few thoughts for the new year and what are some challenges and opportunities in AI for Canada in 2019.

Alex Benay

So I think 2019 is the year at least from a service delivery perspective as I mentioned earlier we’re going to have tools, sort of Policy Direction, enablement of our Community like I’m really hoping we embrace automation not as a job replacement thing but like there’s a lot of repetitive tasks that are being done or being done by humans and we can enrich their jobs as Public Servants so that’s I’m I’m hoping that the work we spend doing in the past year on really practical things turns into benefits citizens next year.

On one end. On the other end to your point earlier there’s a lot of work still to do like if we think we’re investing heavily in AI so is the United States so is China so is the UK so is France so is Brazil so is everyone else. Right! so I mean sometimes it’s easier to create a bubble for ourselves like we should not forget that these other countries are realizing the exact same thing we’re realizing. So that being said is we’re working very closely with a lot of them. We have a group called the digital or the DX or the D10 cause the number keeps augmenting but but it’s a group of like-minded digital Nations so Uruguay, us, South Korea, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Mexico, Portugal, are some of the members and basically we’ve decided to work together towards responsible deployment of automated services and we we agreed to a declaration that the last digital 9 meeting in Israel in November.

So we’re going to continue working close with like-minded countries that have similar values and ethics to us and now it’s on top of that there’s some very promising work with Canada France. I mean both heads of the countries in Canada and France are committed to the issue and it’s great to see. And there’s an amazing partnership there developing so we’ll be very working very closely with our French counterparts.

And the areas that we will continue to need to improve will be most likely commercialization of some of these Investments. Canada’s not have a great track record of commercialization and some of our ideas we’ll lead on research and we’re one of the last ones and commercializations IP management very interesting. Conundrum and maybe a reflection of culture perhaps; Canadian culture.

Ask AI

That was a fascinating story. Briefly interrupt but Canada is I believe it’s the only country I believe in the top AI producing country where our patents are half in the last 3 years where every one else ….

Alex Benay

It’s an alarming trend absolutely and another alarming trend is our relaxed approach to standard setting in some of these spaces. If you look at China has made millions of dollars of investments in making sure that they’re very prominent in ISO for example for artificial intelligence. Russia has done the same for blockchain American industry is just forging ahead as well because they have the economic might of the United States and we tend to get things done to us.

So I’m thinking for example GDPR canadian industry had to react to that. None of these things are bad but what we need to start realizing as a country and hopefully it starts in 2019 is that and we have a standard setting body in the standard Council of Canada the CIO Strategy Council that Jim Basillie and I co-founded with about 30 other members government-industry Municipal members as well as working with the standards Council of Canada start at least trying to set up a framework for ourselves in the country around some of these standards because other countries have been doing it very well and then they take these standards to ISO and their countries Industries have a leg up on everyone else. And again we’re talking about not a bottle of values but like if we’re going to start automation and things are going to go very quickly, we need to ma and it’s not it’s not an easy thing and I’ll tell you a very personal story and then I’ll stop it there.

I go out of my way to hire women Executives at the Museum. 85% of the member around the table are women. Here on this floor within the office of the CIO we’re about 300. I would say well over 50% are women. So I don’t understand when we say that it’s hard to find women in technology cause I have never seen that. I think our inherent bias is in the way. And so I would challenge the country to do better cause you can do better but it’s interesting because I get a lot of flack for doing it that way.

I get told that, you know, I prefer hiring women over men and in my mind I’m thinking well it’s just parity. So we have to we have to continuously challenge ourselves to do better on that front and challenge the norm and the status quo and specially in a field like AI we’re going to automated value we can’t automate a single gender for example Right! or a single ethnic background.

The force that Canada can bring to the table is our values; is our inclusivity, is our diversity is our multilingualism. All of these things are amazing values in the AI space. and we just have to frankly fight a little bit harder for the stuff both at home or abroad.

Ask AI

Alex I admire your tenacity. Folks if we’re going to take away anything from today’s podcast it’s the challenges ahead, challenge everything if that and also represents Canada and what we have. Alex thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today. For everyone listening, this has been a great past year.

If you haven’t already be sure to follow Alex Benay on LinkedIn. He’s a prolific poster and often directly shares exactly what’s happening in Government and it’s a great way to stay tuned and to collaborate if you haven’t called the ask a guy podcast yet you can find us on Twitter at askAI.org or check our website which is also ASKAI.org Thanks so much everyone and Happy Holidays.

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