My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

Attached below is my submission to the Open Government Consultation conducted by Treasury Board over the last couple of weeks. There appear to be a remarkable number of submission that were made by citizens, which you can explore on the Treasury Board website. In addition, Tracey Lauriault has tracked some of the submissions on her website.

I actually wish the submissions on the Government website were both searchable and could be downloaded in there entirety. That way we could re-organize them, visualize them, search and parse them as well as play with the submissions so as to make the enormous number of answers easier to navigate and read. I can imagine a lot of creative ways people could re-format all that text and make it much more accessible and fun.

Finally, for reference, in addition to my submission I wrote this blog post a couple months ago suggesting goals the government set for itself as part of its Open Government Partnership commitments. Happily, since writing that post, the government has moved on a number of those recommendations.

So, below is my response to the government’s questions (in bold):

What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?

First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.

FINDING DATA:

My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.

More specifically, what works includes:

1. Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
2. Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc…) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
3. Preview: Once I choose a data set I’m given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
4. Social: Here there is a ton on offer
- I’m able to sort data sets by popularity – being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
- Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I’m more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
- Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
- Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
5. Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one’s skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.

USING DATA

Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.

Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API’s into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here – http://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ – product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.

Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn’t going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.

More importantly, and missing from Socrata’s sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation – such as the NPRI – are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.

 

How would you use or manipulate this data?

I’m already involved in a number of projects that use and share government data. Among those are Emitter.ca – which maps and shares NPRI pollution data and Recollect.net, which shares garbage calendar information.

While I’ve seen dramatically different uses of data, for me personally, I’m interested mostly in using data for thinking and writing about public policy issues. Indeed, much has been made of the use of data in “apps” but I think it is worth noting that the single biggest use of data will be in analysis – government officials, citizens, academics and others using the data to better understand the world around them and lobby for change.

This all said, there are some data sets that are of particular usefulness to people, these include:

1. Data sets on sensitive issues, this includes health, inspection and performance data (Say surgery outcomes for specific hospitals, or restaurant inspection data, crime and procurement data are often in great demand).
2. Dynamic real-time Data: Data that is frequently updated (such a border, passport renewal or emergency room wait times). This data is shared in the right way can often help people adjust schedules and plans or reallocate resources more effectively. Obviously this requires an API.
3.Geodata: Because GIS standards are very mature it is easy to “mashup” geo data to create new maps or offer new services. These common standards means that geo data from different sources will work together or can be easily compared. This is in sharp contrast to say budget data, where there are few common standards around naming and organizing the data, making it harder to share and compare.

What could be done to make it easier for you to find government information online?

It is absolutely essential that all government records be machine readable.

Some of the most deplorable moment in open government occur when the government shares documents with the press, citizens or parliamentary officers in paper form. The first and most important thing to make government information easier to find online is to ensure that it is machine readable and searchable by words. If it does not meet this criteria I increasingly question whether or not it can be declared open.

As part of the Open Government Partnership commitments it would be great for the government to commit to guarantee that every request for information made of it would include a digital version of the document that can be searched.

Second, the government should commit that every document it publishes be available online. For example, I remember in 2009 being told that if I wanted a copy of the Health Canada report “Human Health in a Changing Climate:A Canadian Assessment of Vulnerabilities and Adaptive Capacity” I had to request of CD, which was then mailed to me which had a PDF copy of the report on it. Why was the report not simply available for download? Because the Minister had ordered it not to appear on the website. Instead, I as a taxpayer and to see more of my tax dollars wasted for someone to receive my mail, process it, then mail me a custom printed cd. Enabling ministers to create barriers to access government information, simply because they do not like the contents, is an affront to the use of tax payer dollars and our right to access information.

Finally, Allow Government Scientists to speak directly to the media about their research.

It has become a reoccurring embarrassment. Scientists who work for Canada publish an internationally recognized ground break paper that provides some insight about the environment or geography of Canada and journalists must talk to government scientists from other countries in order to get the details. Why? Because the Canadian government blocks access. Canadians have a right to hear the perspectives of scientists their tax dollars paid for – and enjoy the opportunity to get as well informed as the government on these issues.

Thus, lift the ban that blocks government scientists from speaking with the media.

 

Do you have suggestions on how the Government of Canada could improve how it consults with Canadians?

1. Honour Consultation Processes that have started

The process of public consultation is insulted when the government itself intervenes to bring the process into disrepute. The first thing the government could do to improve how it consults is not sabotage processes that already ongoing. The recent letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver regarding the public consultation on the Northern Gateway Pipelines has damaged Canadians confidence in the governments willingness to engage in and make effective use of public consultations.

2. Focus on collecting and sharing relevant data

It would be excellent if the government shared relevant data from its data portal on the public consultation webpage. For example, in the United States, the government shares a data set with the number and location of spills generated by Enbridge pipelines, similar data for Canada would be ideal to share on a consultation. Also useful would be economic figures, job figures for the impacted regions, perhaps also data from nearby parks (visitations, acres of land, kml/shape boundary files). Indeed, data about the pipeline route itself that could be downloaded and viewed in Google earth would be interesting. In short, there are all sorts of ways in which open data could help power public consultations.

3. Consultations should be ongoing

It would be great to see a 311 like application for the federal government. Something that when loaded up, would use GPS to identify the services, infrastructure or other resources near the user that is operated by the federal government and allow the user to give feedback right then and there. Such “ongoing” public feedback could then be used as data when a formal public consultation process is kicked off.

 

Are there approaches used by other governments that you believe the Government of Canada could/should model?

1. The UK governments expense disclosure and release of the COINS database more generally is probably the most radical act of government transparency to date. Given the government’s interest in budget cuts this is one area that might be of great interest to pursue.

2. For critical data sets, those that are either required by legislation or essential to the operation of a ministry or the government generally, it would be best to model the city of Chicago or Washington DC and foster the creation of a data warehouse where this data could be easily shared both internally and externally (as privacy and security permits). These cities are leading governments in this space because they have tackled both the technical challenges (getting the data on a platform where it can be shared easily) and around governance (tackling the problem of managing data sets from various departments on a shared piece of infrastructure).

 

Are there any other comments or suggestions you would like to make pertaining to the Government of Canada’s Open Government initiative?

Some additional ideas:

Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

a) Any document it produces should be available digitally, in a machine readable format. The sham that the government can produce 3000-10,000 printed pages about Afghan detainees or the F-35 and claim it is publicly disclosing information must end.

b) Any data collected for legislative reasons must be made available – in machine readable formats – via a government open data portal.

c) Any information that is ATIPable must be made available in a digital format. And that any excess costs of generating that information can be born by the requester, up until a certain date (say 2015) at which point the excess costs will be born by the ministry responsible. There is no reason why, in a digital world, there should be any cost to extracting information – indeed, I fear a world where the government can’t cheaply locate and copy its own information for an ATIP request as it would suggest it can’t get that information for its own operations.

Use Open Data to drive efficiency in Government Services: Require the provinces to share health data – particularly hospital performance – as part of its next funding agreement within the Canada Health Act.

Comparing hospitals to one another is always a difficult task, and open data is not a panacea. However, more data about hospitals is rarely harmful and there are a number of issues on which it would be downright beneficial. The most obvious of these would be deaths caused by infection. The number of deaths that occur due to infections in Canadian hospitals is a growing problem (sigh, if only open data could help ban the antibacterial wipes that are helping propagate them). Having open data that allows for league tables to show the scope and location of the problem will likely cause many hospitals to rethink processes and, I suspect, save lives.

Open data can supply some of the competitive pressure that is often lacking in a public healthcare system. It could also better educate Canadians about their options within that system, as well as make them more aware of its benefits.

Reduce Fraud: Creating a Death List

In an era where online identity is a problem it is surprising to me that I’m unable to locate a database of expired social insurance numbers. Being able to query a list of social security numbers that belong to dead people might be a simple way to prevent fraud. Interestingly, the United States has just such a list available for free online. (Side fact: Known as the Social Security Death Index this database is also beloved by genealogist who use it to trace ancestry).

Open Budget and Actual Spending Data

For almost a year the UK government has published all spending data, month by month, for each government ministry (down to the £500 in some, £25,000 in others). More over, as an increasing number of local governments are required to share their spending data it has lead to savings, as government begin to learn what other ministries and governments are paying for similar services.

Create a steering group of leading Provincial and Municipal CIOs to create common schema for core data about the country.

While open data is good, open data organized the same way for different departments and provinces is even better. When data is organized the same way it makes it easier to citizens to compare one jurisdiction against another, and for software solutions and online services to emerge that use that data to enhance the lives of Canadians. The Federal Government should use its convening authority to bring together some of the countries leading government CIOs to establish common data schemas for things like crime, healthcare, procurement, and budget data. The list of what could be worked on is virtually endless, but those four areas all represent data sets that are frequently requested, so might make for a good starting point.

2 thoughts on “My Canadian Open Government Consultation Submission

  1. Pingback: datalibre.ca · Open Government Submissions

  2. Pingback: Control Your Content: Why SurveyMonkey Should Add a “Download Your Answers” Button | eaves.ca

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