The Liberals are promising to create an open data portal – opendata.gc.ca – much like President Obama has done in the United States and both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have done in the United Kingdom.
It’s a savvy move.
In May 2010 when it launched a public consultation on the Digital Economy, the government invited the public to submit proposals and vote on them. Two of the top three most voted ideas involved asking the government to open up access to government collected data. Three months after the submissions have closed it appears the opposition has decided to act on Canadians wishes and release a 21st century open government strategy that reflects these popular demands.
Today, at 1pm EST, I’ve discovered the Liberals will announce that, if elected, they will adopt a government-wide directive in which “the default position for all departments and agencies will be for the release of information to the public, both proactively and responsively, after privacy and other legal requirements are met.”
There is much that both ordinary citizens and advocates of greater government transparency will like in the proposal. Not only have the Liberals mirrored the most aggressive parts of President Obama’s transparency initiatives they are also promising some specific and aggressive policies of their own. In addition to promising to launching opendata.gc.ca to share government data the document proposes the creation of accesstoinformation.gc.ca where citizens could search past and current access to information requests as well as see response times. A third website, entitled accountablespending.gc.ca is also proposed. It would allow government grants, contributions and contracts to be searched.
The announcement brings to the Canadian political debate an exciting issue that first gained broad notoriety in early 2009 when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, called on the world’s governments to share their data. By May of that year the United States launched data.gov and in September of 2009 the British Government launched data.gov.uk both of which garnered significant domestic attention. In addition, dozens of cities around the world – including Vancouver, Edmonton and, most recently, Ottawa – have launched websites where they shared information that local charities, non-profits, businesses and ordinary citizens might find useful.
Today, citizens in these jurisdictions enjoy improved access to government information about the economy, government spending, access to information requests, and statistical data. In the United States developers have created websites that empower citizens by enabling them to analyze government data or see what government data exists about their community while a British program alerts citizens to restaurant’s health inspections scores. The benefit however, not limited to improved transparency and accountability. An independent British estimated that open data could contribute as much as £6 billion to British economy. Canada’s computer developers, journalists and entrepreneurs have been left wondering, when will their government give them access to the data their tax dollars paid to collect?
One obvious intent of the Liberals is to reposition themselves at the forefront of a debate around government transparency and accountability. This is ground that has traditionally been Conservative, but with the cancellation of the long form census, the single source jet fighter contract and, more recently, allegations that construction contracts were awarded to conservative party donors, is once again contestable.
What will be interesting to see is the Conservative response. It’s been rumored the government has explored an open data portal but to date there has been no announcement. Open data is one area where, often, support exists across the political spectrum. In the United Kingdom Gordon Brown’s Labour government launched data.gov.uk but David Cameron’s Conservative government has pursued the project more aggressively still, forcing the release of additional and higher value data to the public. A failure to adopt open data would be tragedy – it would cause Canada to lag in an important space that is beginning to reshape how governments work together and how they serve and interact with citizens. But perhaps most obviously, open data and open government shouldn’t be a partisan issue.