CIDA announces Open Data portal: What it means to Canadians

For those who missed it, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced it is launching an open data portal.

This is exciting news. On Monday I was interviewed about the initiative by Embassy Magazine which published the resulting article (behind their paywall) here.

As (I hope) the interview conveys, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Minister’s announcement. I’m conservative in my reaction only because we don’t actually know what the Minister has announced. At the moment the CIDA open data page is, quite literally, a blank slate. I feel positive because pretty much anything that gets more information about Canada’s aid budget available online is a step in the right direction. I’m cautious however, because the text from the Minister’s speech leads me to believe that she is using the term “open data” to describe something that may, in fact, not be open data.

Donors and partner countries must be accountable to their citizens, absolutely, but both must also be accountable to each other.

Transparency underpins these accountabilities.

With this in mind, today I am pleased to announce the Open Data Portal on the CIDA website that will make our searchable database of roughly 3,000 projects quick and simple to access.

The Open Data portal will put our country strategies, evaluations, audits and annual statistical and results reports within easy reach.

One of the core elements of the definition of “open data” is that it be machine readable. I need to actually get the “data” (e.g an excel spreadsheet, or database I can download and/or access) so that I can play with it, mash it up, analyze it, etc… It isn’t clear that this is on offer. The minister’s announcements talks about a database that allows you to search, and quickly download, reports on the 3000 projects that CIDA funds or operates. A report however, is not data. It may cite data, it may (and hopefully does) even contain data in charts or tables, but if what we are getting is access to reports then this is not an open data portal.

What I hope is happening – and what I advocated for in an oped in the Toronto Star – is that the Minister is launching a true open data portal which will share actual data – not analysis – with Canadians. More importantly, I hope this means Canada will be joining the efforts of Publish What you Fund, as it pushes donor organizations to share their aid data in a single common structure, so that budgets, contributions, projects, timelines, geography and other information about aid can be compared across countries, agencies, and organizations.

Open data, and especially in a internationally recognized standardized format, matters because no one is going to read all 10,000 reports about all 3000 projects CIDA funds. However, if we had access to the data, in a structured manner, there are those at non-profits, in universities and colleges and in the media (among other places) that could map the projects, compare budgets and results more clearly, compare our efforts against those of other countries, and do their own analysis to say, find duplication and overlap. I don’t, for a second, believe that 99.9% of Canadians will use CIDA’s open data portal, but the .1% who do will be able to create products that can inform the rest of us, and allow us to better understand Canada’s role in the world. In other words, Open Data portal could be empowering and educating to a broad number of people. Access to 10,000 reports, while a good step, simply won’t be able to create a similar outcome on any scale. The difference is, quite frankly, dramatic.

So let’s wait and see. I’m excited that the Minister of International Cooperation is using the language of Open Data – it means that she and her staff understand it has currency. What I also hope is that they understand its meaning – so far we have no data on whether they do or do not, and I remain cautiously optimistic, they should, after all, realize the significance of the language they are using. Either way, they have set high expectations among those of us who think about, talk about and work in, this area. As a Canadian, I’m hoping those expectations get fulfilled.

7 thoughts on “CIDA announces Open Data portal: What it means to Canadians

  1. Rolf Kleef

    Hi David, I agree data would be better than documents, but several organisations in development aid I talk to seem to feel that making documents available is easier, less scary: at least the content was written for others to read.

    Getting those out with an open license is already engaging in an important aspect of the required mind shift, and a step towards publishing spreadsheets etc: moving to data.

    Once you deal with spending data, the lawyers and accountants join the conversation, and those folks are much harder to convince that “open is good”, they look at (legal and political) risks rather than opportunities. It helps if people “on the floor” by then are already enjoying the benefits of “open” and perhaps even “data” :-)

    Reply
  2. Peter Krantz

    In Sweden the government has launched http://openaid.se which contains both a user interface explaining aid initiatives and documents (you can actually find detailed expense slips including scanned McDonalds receipts). There is also an API for developers to access the data and create alternative visualizations (which happened within two days after the launch: http://bistandet.se/).

    But the important thing is that the minister herself has launched a “transparancy guarantee” which spans internal processes and culture change.

    Reply
  3. Tim Davies

    Hey David,

    Looking forward to seeing what does emerge, and as you say, it will be good if CIDA do follow the IATI Standard (great <a href="campaigning work from EWB on that BTW). Even if they are not ready to publish transactional or budget data yet – it’s worth reminding them that the IATI Standard includes can be a wrapper around documents (you can find some examples of IATI Activities with documents in them here) and in theory (politics aside) there’s nothing to stop them starting with use of the IATI standard to publish docs categorised by country, sectors etc, and then moving towards adding in more data over time. 

    That would get them the advantage of the many tools and tips for exploring IATI data that stacks of people are already working on..

    (Plus, currently scheming with Rolf on some possibly cool things we could do with IATI+documents+some data extraction from docs…) 

    Reply
    1. David Eaves Post author

      Sadly no. I received a copy, but couldn’t find one online anywhere. She gave the talk at a conference hosted by the North-South Institute in Ottawa I believe.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Lots of Open Data Action in Canada | eaves.ca

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