[CivicAccess-discuss] It's time for a more open government and an 'opendata.gc.ca'
Tracey P. Lauriault
tlauriau at gmail.com
Mon Jan 10 10:40:10 EST 2011
Hill Times: http://www.thehilltimes.ca/page/view/rubin-01-10-2011
It's time for a more open government and an 'opendata.gc.ca'
Making as much government data available to the public as possible through a
searchable online free of charge site at 'opendata.gc.ca' seems to be the
current hip flavour for making transparent government happen.
By KEN RUBIN <http://www.thehilltimes.ca/column/author/22>
Published January 10, 2011
OTTAWA—Making as much government data available as possible to the public
through a free and searchable online site at "opendata.gc.ca" seems to be
the current hip flavour for making transparent government happen.
It's been adopted as the pre-election platform by the Liberal Party, talked
up by Canada's Access to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault and
catapulted to the forefront in the ongoing pro-active disclosure study being
done by the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
But does this initiative warrant all the talk it is getting, or is it just a
mere diversion to keep us from dealing head-on with increasingly secretive
After all, undelivered promises by governments on more routine disclosures
have been around for years. The only type of information governments always
seem willing to give out daily and freely are buckets-full of publicity spun
What we are hearing as something new, is that one data-set previously
trashed—lists of past access to information requests—is likely to be
resurrected on a government-wide, online basis—possibly with released access
material also being put up on government websites. No matter that for nearly
30 years, governments have dumped and shredded hundreds of thousands of
access request replies into garbage bins. That has left the Library and
Archives primarily full of official records only. Our past history is the
poorer for that.
If the open data idea were to go further at the federal level, it would help
us to catch up to other countries' efforts. At the municipal level in
Canada, there has been some efforts made. For instance, one instant
application in use in Edmonton is for an online bus schedule information.
But do not then expect to get full disclosure or instant access to much
operational data like bus passenger complaints or accident reports.
The federal government would have us believe that it is already well ahead
in its online ventures through its information posted on government
officials' travel and contract data. But, for example, the travel expense
postings are only quarterly and only for some senior officials in some
federal agencies and exclude hospitality expenses incurred.
An Ottawa Citizen reporter, Glen McGregor, recently noted it took him four
years to get more than the skimpy "pro-active" summary travel expense data
offered online. He had sought from PCO a more detailed breakdown for those
staff who accompanied the PM to see a Stanley Cup hockey game in Edmonton.
That's the kind of routine detailed data that should be readily available.
As well, the quarterly contract expenses that are posted are sketchy. They
do not include even a brief meaningful description of the work being done or
the reports delivered, especially for professional service contracts.
Yet another example authorities like to cite is the available public opinion
polling data. Even with their release coming under the Federal
Accountability Act, there is no guarantee that the polling data released is
timely, easily accessible online or without exceptions.
And the federal government has dropped key data banks from public access,
including NavCan's air navigation safety banks or the long-form census
materials previously produced at Statistics Canada. Nor has the government
felt it needs to have an inventory of its data banks.
Authorities cite various difficulties in putting more data on-line such as
translation costs, licensing and copyright restrictions, privacy concerns or
other exemptions under current pro-secrecy rules. While engaging in their
own electronic manipulation of their holdings, they fear that outsiders
manipulating federal data will distort it and benefit commercially.
Yet it was federal authorities who fought successfully in Canadian courts to
oppose granting use of some electronically stored correctional software data
to Matthew Yeager, a university professor. The court agreed with Ottawa that
there are serious restrictions to what constitutes accessible machine
readable electronic data.
And electronic record systems are still being set up without keeping in mind
easier public retrieval. User guides for these data banks if they exist or
are accessible, are far from being user friendly. Even government reading
rooms where administrative manuals once were available have disappeared with
no E-reading rooms emerging.
Parliament itself has posted only some of its own data online. But
Parliament itself has hesitated for instance, to post the detailed expense
accounts of MPs, the Commons Board of Internal Economy full proceedings or
MPs' voting records.
The Commons Access Committee now appears to be heading towards recommending
more digital data banks be placed on so-called "open data" government
portals. This could constitute a small advance for public access and a
victory for those advocating better public data bank access.
Yet it no way does this potential advance qualify as a massive switch to
legislating a wide variety of proactive disclosure practices.
Other jurisdictions, like Mexico have at least gone further by law
designating and registering 17 specified categories for proactive disclosure
that go beyond a "hit and miss" approach to releasing some digital bank
The reality is that digital data banks are only one tiny bit of the federal
information holdings. Nobody online except WikiLeaks has come up with the
tabling of a multitude of government operational documents. And nobody is
electronically reaching out with unvarnished, useful and revealing
The Commons Access Committee is in effect distancing itself from dealing
comprehensively with restructuring Canada's weak access law. The opening up
of a few more digital data bases can be used as a diversionary tactic to
draw attention away from tackling increasing secrecy practices starting with
the PMO's exclusion from access coverage.
Ottawa is building more, not less firewalls around significant public data.
This puts Canada way behind and much further away from today's 24-hour
interactive information environment.
Ken Rubin can be reached at kenrubin.ca
Tracey P. Lauriault
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the CivicAccess-discuss