Tag Archives: canada

Canada’s Draft Open Government Plan — The Promise and Problems Reviewed

Backdrop

On Friday the Canadian Government released its draft national action plan. Although not mentioned overtly in the document, these plans are mandated by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), in which member countries must draft National Action Plans every two years where they lay out tangible goals.

I’ve both written reviews about these plans before and offered suggestions about what should be in them. So this is not my first rodeo, nor is it for the people drafting them.

Purpose of this piece

In the very niche world of open government there are basically two types of people. Those who know about the OGP and Canada’s participation (hello 0.01%!), and those who don’t (hello overwhelming majority of people — excited you are reading this).

If you are a journalist, parliamentarian, hill staffer, academic, public servant, consultant, vendor, or everyday interested citizen already following this topic, here are thoughts and ideas to help shape your criticisms and/or focus your support and advice to government. If you are new to this world, this post can provide context about the work the Canadian Government is doing around transparency to help facilitate your entrance into this world. I’ll be succinct — as the plan is long, and your time is finite.

That said, if you want more details about thoughts, please email me — happy to share more.

The Good

First off, there is lots of good in the plan. The level of ambition is quite high, a number of notable past problems have been engaged, and the goals are tangible.

While there are worries about wording, there are nonetheless a ton of things that have been prioritized in the document that both myself and many people in the community have sought to be included in past plans. Please note, that “prioritized” is distinct from “this is the right approach/answer.” Among these are:

  • Opening up the Access to Information Act so we can update it for the 21st century. (Commitment 1)
  • Providing stronger guarantees that Government scientists — and the content they produce — is made available to the public, including access to reporters (Commitment 14)
  • Finding ways to bake transparency and openness more firmly into the culture and processes of the public service (Commitment 6 and Commitment 7)
  • Ensuring better access to budget and fiscal data (Commitment 9, Commitment 10 and Commitment 11)
  • Coordinating different levels of government around common data standards to enable Canadians to better compare information across jurisdictions (Commitment 16)
  • In addition, the publishing of Mandate Letters (something that was part of the Ontario Open by Default report I helped co-author) is a great step. If nothing else, it helps public servants understand how to better steer their work. And the establishment of Cabinet Committee on Open Government is worth watching.

Lots of people, including myself, will find things to nit pick about the above. And it is always nice to remember:

a) It is great to have a plan we can hold the government accountable to, it is better than the alternative of no plan

b) I don’t envy the people working on this plan. There is a great deal to do, and not a lot of time. We should find ways to be constructive, even when being critical

Three Big Ideas the Plan Gets Right

Encouragingly, there are three ideas that run across several commitments in the plan that feel thematically right.

Changing Norms and Rules

For many of the commitments, the plan seeks to not simply get tactical wins but find ways to bake changes into the fabric of how things get done. Unlike previous plans, one reads a real intent to shift culture and make changes that are permanent and sustainable.

Executing on this is exceedingly difficult. Changing culture is both hard to achieve and measure. And implementing reforms that are difficult or impossible to reverse is no cake walk either, but the document suggests the intent is there. I hope we can all find ways to support that.

User Centric

While I’m not a fan of all the metrics of success, there is a clear focus on making life easier for citizens and users. Many of the goals have an underlying interest of creating simplicity for users (e.g. a single place to find “x” or “y”). This matters. An effective government is one that meets the needs of its citizens. Figuring out how to make things accessible and desirable to use, particularly with information technology, has not been a strength of governments in the past. This emphasis is encouraging.

There is also intriguing talk of a “Client-First” service strategy… More on that below.

Data Standards

There is lots of focus on data standards. Data standards matter because it is hard to use data — particularly across government, or from different governments and organizations — if they have different standards. Imagine trying if every airline used a different standard to their tickets, so to book a trip involving more than one airline would be impossible as their computers wouldn’t be able to share information with one another, or you. That challenging scenario is what government looks like today. So finding standards can help make government more legible.

So seeing efforts like piloting the Open Contracting Data Standard in Commitment 9, getting provincial and local governments to harmonize data with the feds in Commitment 16 and “Support Openness and Transparency Initiatives around the World” in Commitment Commitment 18 are nice…

… and it also makes it glaring when it is not there. Commitment 17 — Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act — is still silent about implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standard and so feels inconsistent with the other commitments. More on this below.

The Big Concerns

While there are some good themes, there are also some concerning ones. Three in particular stand out:

Right Goal, Wrong Strategy

At the risk of alienating some colleagues, I’m worried about the number of goals that are about transparency for transparency’s sake. While I’m broadly in favour of such goals… they often risk leading nowhere.

I’d much rather see specific problems the government wants to focus its resources on open data or sharing scientific materials on. When no focus is defined and the goal is to just “make things transparent” what tends to get made transparent is what’s easy, not what’s important.

So several commitments, like numbers 3, 13, 14, 15, essentially say “we are going to put more data sets or more information on our portals.” I’m not opposed to this… but I’m not sure it will build support and alignment because doing that won’t be shaped to help people solve today’s problems.

A worse recommendation in this vein is “establish a national network of open data users within industry to collaborate on the development of standards and practices in support of data commercialization.” There is nothing that will hold these people together. People don’t come together to create open data standards, they come together to solve a problem. So don’t congregate open data users — they have nothing in common — this is like congregating “readers.” They may all read, but their expertise will span a wide variety of interests. Bring people together around a problem and then get focused on the data that will help them solve it.

To get really tangible, on Friday the Prime Minister had a round table with local housing experts in Vancouver. One outcome of that meeting might have been the Prime Minister stating, “this is a big priority, I’m going to task someone with finding all the data the federal government has that is relevant to this area so that all involved have the most up to date and relevant information we can provide to improve all our analyses.”

Now maybe the feds have no interesting data on this topic. Maybe they do. Maybe this is one of the PMOs top 6 priorities, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, the government should pick 3–8 policy areas they care deeply about and focus sharing data and information on those. Not to the exclusion of others, but to provide some focus. Both to public servants internally, so they can focus their efforts, and to the public. That way, experts, the public and anyone can, if they are able, grab the data to help contribute to the public discourse on the topic.

There is one place where the plan comes close to taking this approach, in Commitment 22: Engage Canadians to Improve Key Canada Revenue Agency Services. It talks a lot about public consultations to engage on charitable giving, tax data, and improving access to benefits. This section identifies some relatively specific problem the government wants to solve. If the government said it was going to disclose all data it could around these problems and work with stakeholders to help develop new research and analysis… then they would have nailed it.

Approaches like those suggested above might result in new and innovative policy solutions from both traditional and non-traditional sources. But equally important, such an approach to a “transparency” effort will have more weight from Ministers and the PMO behind it, rather than just the OGP plan. It might also show governments how transparency — while always a source of challenges— is also a tool that can help advance their agenda by promoting conversations and providing feedback. Above all it would create some models, initially well supported politically, that could then be scaled to other areas.

Funding

I’m not sure if I read this correctly but the funding, with $11.5M in additional funds over 5 years (or is that the total funding?) is feeling like not a ton to work with given all the commitments. I suspect many of the commitments have their own funding in various departments… but it makes it hard to assess how much support there is for everything in the plan.

Architecture

This is pretty nerdy… but there are several points in the plan where it talks about “a single online window” or “single, common search tool.” This is a real grey area. There are times when a single access point is truly transformative… it creates a user experience that is intuitive and easy. And then there are times when a single online window is a Yahoo! portal when what you really want is to just go to google and do your search.

The point to this work is the assumption that the main problem to access is that things can’t be found. So far, however, I’d say that’s an assumption, I’d prefer the government test that assumption before making it a plan. Why Because a LOT of resources can be expended creating “single online windows.”

I mean, if all these recommendations are just about creating common schemas that allow multiple data sources to be accessed by a single search tool then… good? (I mean please provide the schema and API as well so others can create their own search engines). But if this involves merging databases and doing lots of backend work… ugh, we are in for a heap of pain. And if we are in for a heap of pain… it better be because we are solving a real need, not an imaginary one.

The Bad

There are a few things that I think have many people nervous.

Access to Information Act Review

While there is lots of good in that section, there is also some troubling language. Such as:

  • A lot of people will be worried about the $5 billing fee for FOIA requests. If you are requesting a number of documents, this could represent a real barrier. I also think it creates the wrong incentives. Governments should be procuring systems and designing processes that make sharing documents frictionless — this implies that costs are okay and that there should be friction in performing this task.
  • The fact that Government institutions can determine a FOIA request is “frivolous” or “vexatious” so can thus be denied. Very worried about the language here.
  • I’m definitely worried about having mandatory legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I’d rather get it right once every 15–30 years and have it locked in stone than give governments a regular opportunity to tinker with and dilute it.

Commitment 12: Improve Public Information on Canadian Corporations

Having a common place for looking up information about Canadian Corporations is good… However, there is nothing in this about making available the trustees or… more importantly… the beneficial owners. The Economist still has the best article about why this matters.

Commitment 14: Increase Openness of Federal Science Activities (Open Science)

Please don’t call it “open” science. Science, by definition, is open. If others can’t see the results or have enough information to replicate the experiment, then it isn’t science. Thus, there is no such thing as “open” vs. “closed” science. There is just science, and something else. Maybe it’s called alchemy or bullshit. I don’t know. But don’t succumb to the open science wording because we lose a much bigger battle when you do.

It’s a small thing. But it matters.

Commitment 15: Stimulate Innovation through Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX)

I already talked about about how I think bringing together “open data” users is a big mistake. Again, I’d focus on problems, and congregate people around those.

I also suspect that incubating 15 new data-driven companies by June 2018 is not a good idea. I’m not persuaded that there are open data businesses, just businesses that, by chance, use open data.

Commitment 17: Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act

If the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act is that same as it was before then… this whole section is a gong show. Again, no EITI standard in this. Worse, the act doesn’t require extractive industries to publish payments to foreign governments in a common standard (so it will be a nightmare to do analysis across companies or industry wide). Nor does it require that companies submit their information to a central repository, so aggregating the data about the industry will be nigh high impossible (you’ll have to search across hundreds of websites).

So this recommendation: “Establish processes for reporting entities to publish their reports and create means for the public to access the reports” is fairly infuriating as it a terrible non-solution to a problem in the legislation.

Maybe the legislation has been fixed. But I don’t think so.

The Missing

Not in the plan is any reference to the use of open source software or shares that software across jurisdictions. I’ve heard rumours of some very interesting efforts of sharing software between Ontario and the federal government that potentially saves tax payers millions of dollars. In addition, by making the software code open, the government could employ security bug bounties to try to make it more secure. Lots of opportunity here.

The Intriguing

The one thing that really caught my eye, however, was this (I mentioned it earlier):

The government is developing a Service Strategy that will transform service design and delivery across the public service, putting clients at the centre.

Now that is SUPER interesting. A “Service Strategy”? Does this mean something like the Government Digital Service in the UK? Because that would require some real resources. Done right it wouldn’t just be about improving how people get services, but a rethink of how government organizes services and service data. Very exciting. Watch that space.

Open Mandate Letters

The newly elected Government of Canada made its ministerial mandate letters available to the public last week. They are absolutely worth checking out both for their content and as a example of public disclosure/communication. I’ll talk about that latter part in a second, but let me first let’s discuss some background information and context.

From a content perspective the mandate letters are filled with a number of ambitious goals. Tzeporah Berman outlines a range of initiatives Ministers have been tasked to attend to from an environmental perspective (this may require access to Facebook). There are other goals to be excited by beyond the environment – the Justice Minister’s mandate letter in particular is worth looking at in detail. Again, it is an ambitious and exciting set of goals.

Some of you may ask: What IS a ministerial mandate letter? In Canada’s parliamentary system they have been how the Prime Minister and the Premier formally articulate the goals, priorities, specific task as well as general tone, for their ministers. In other words, they’re a way for the leader to tell cabinet ministers what he or she expects them to do (and presumably, how they will evaluate their performance).

Interestingly, while this is the first time I’m aware of that the federal government has made mandate letters open, it is actually part of an emerging trend. I believe this first happened in British Columbia under the current Premier (Premier Clark). They also formed part of the recommendations my colleagues and I proposed as part of the Open By Default report I helped draft at the request of Premier Wynn of Ontario. Premier Wynn, after winning the subsequent election, made her ministerial mandate letters public as well.

What I find fascinating is that mandate letters have not been made public before. Making them public has a number of advantages, both to the government, but also for more effective governance in general.

Making them public should help focus the government. It makes everybody, from the Minister, their advisors, down to every employee in the department that minister oversees aware of the minister’s goals. Such clarity is likely quite helpful and probably the most compelling reason for making them open. Governments are super tankers. The more the crew knows which way the ship is supposed to be going, the more individual decisions can be made to help ensure it’s course is accurate. And of course, any crew members that were planning on trying to push a ship in the direction they wanted to go, were likely to do so with or without seeing the mandate letters. At least now they can’t plead ignorance.

It also effectively communicates the government’s goals to the public. This makes it easier for actors outside of government – individual voters, NGO’s, industry groups and others – to better see where their priorities fit into the governments priorities. Some will be happy, others will be frustrated, but at least they know where they stand in a specific tangible and reference-able document.

Finally, mandate letters matters from a governance perspective. Mandate letters that veer far from campaign promises or from the political mandate the government received from voters will make for good fodder by opposition leaders. In addition, Ministers ability to execute against the goals and tasks laid out in their mandate letters are more visible to the public and, of course, the opposition. This form of accountability is likely to be helpful, spurring ministers to be more effective and on task while also granting opposition parties greater ability to point out problems.

Is it possible that a Minister could receive an additional “secret” mandate letter? Absolutely. But having mandate letters be completely secret strikes me as little better. And if a minister is working to complete some of their “secret” tasks, at least the public and opposition can hammer away at the minister asking them why they are not working on completing their stated “public” goals as outlined in the public mandate letter.

Open Postal Codes: A Public Response to Canada Post on how they undermine the public good

Earlier this week the Ottawa Citizen ran a story in which I’m quoted about a fight between Treasury Board and Canada Post officials over making postal code data open. Treasury Board officials would love to add it to data.gc.ca while Canada post officials are, to put it mildly, deeply opposed.

This is of course, unsurprising since Canada Post recently launched a frivolous law suit against a software developer who is – quite legally – recreating the postal code data set. For those new to this issue I blogged about this, why postal codes matter and cover the weakness (and incompetence) of Canada Post’s legal case here.

But this new Ottawa Citizen story had me rolling my eyes anew – especially after reading the quotes and text from Canada Post spokesperson. This is in no way an attack on the spokesperson, who I’m sure is a nice person. It is an attack on their employer whose position, sadly, is not just in opposition to the public interest because of the outcome in generates but because of the way it treats citizens. Let me break down Canada Posts platform of ignorance public statement line by line, in order to spell out how they are undermining both the public interest, public debate and accountability.

Keeping the information up-to-date is one of the main reasons why Canada Post needs to charge for it, said Anick Losier, a spokeswoman for the crown corporation, in an interview earlier this year. There are more than 250,000 new addresses and more than a million address changes every year and they need the revenue generated from selling the data to help keep the information up-to-date.

So what is interesting about this is that – as far as I understand – it is not Canada Post that actually generates most of this data. It is local governments that are responsible for creating address data and, ironically, they are required to share it for free with Canada Post. So Canada Post’s data set is itself built on data that it receives for free. It would be interesting for cities to suddenly claim that they needed to engage in “cost-recovery” as well and start charging Canada Post. At some point you recognize that a public asset is a public asset and that it is best leveraged when widely adopted – something Canada Post’s “cost-recovery” prevents. Indeed, what Canada Post is essentially saying is that it is okay for it to leverage the work of other governments for free, but it isn’t okay for the public to leverage its works for free. Ah, the irony.

“We need to ensure accuracy of the data just because if the data’s inaccurate it comes into the system and it adds more costs,” she said.

“We all want to make sure these addresses are maintained.”

So, of course, do I. That said, the statement makes it sound like there is a gap between Canada Post – which is interested in the accuracy of the data – and everyone else – who isn’t. I can tell you, as someone who has engaged with non-profits and companies that make use of public data, no one is more concerned about accuracy of data than those who reuse it. That’s because when you make use of public data and share the results with the public or customers, they blame you, not the government source from which you got the data, for any problems or mistakes. So invariable one thing that happens when you make data open is that you actually have more stakeholders with strong interests in ensuring the data is accurate.

But there is also something subtly misleading about Canada Posts statement. At the moment, the only reason there is inaccurate data out there is because people are trying to find cheaper ways of creating the postal code data set and so are willing to tolerate less accurate data in order to not have to pay Canada Post. If (and that is a big if) Canada Post’s main concern was accuracy, then making the data open would be the best protection as it would eliminate less accurate version of postal code data. Indeed, this suggests a failure of understanding economics. Canada states that other parts of its business become more expensive when postal code data is inaccurate. That would suggest that providing free data might help reduce those costs – incenting people to create inaccurate postal code data by charging for it may be hurting Canada Post more than any else. But we can’t assess that, for reason I outline below. And ultimately, I suspect Canada Post’s main interest in not accuracy – it is cost recovery – but that doesn’t sound nearly as good as talking about accuracy or quality, so they try to shoe horn those ideas into their argument.

She said the data are sold on a “cost-recovery” basis but declined to make available the amount of revenue it brings in or the amount of money it costs the Crown corporation to maintain the data.

This is my favourite part. Basically, a crown corporation, whose assets belong to the public, won’t reveal the cost of a process over which it has a monopoly. Let’s be really clear. This is not like other parts of their business where there are competative risk in releasing information – Canada Post is a monopoly provider. Instead, we are being patronized and essentially asked to buzz off. There is no accountability and there is no reasons why they could give us these numbers. Indeed, the total disdain for the public is so appalling it reminds me of why I opt out of junk mail and moved my bills to email and auto-pay ages ago.

This matters because the “cost-recovery” issue goes to the heart of the debate. As I noted above, Canada Post gets the underlying address data for free. That said, there is no doubt that it then creates some value to the data by adding postal codes. The question is, should that value best be recouped through cost-recovery at this point in the value chain, or at later stages through additional economy activity (and this greater tax revenue). This debate would be easier to have if we knew the scope of the costs. Does creating postal code data cost Canada Post $100,000 a year? A million? 10 million? We don’t know and they won’t tell us. There are real economic benefits to be had in a digital economy where postal code data is open, but Canada Post prevents us from having a meaningful debate since we can’t find out the tradeoffs.

In addition, it also means that we can’t assess if their are disruptive ways in which postal code data could be generated vastly more efficiently. Canada Post has no incentive (quite the opposite actually) to generate this data more efficiently and there for make the “cost-recovery” much, much lower. It may be that creating postal code data really is a $100,000 a year problem, with the right person and software working on it.

So in the end, a government owned Crown Corporation refuses to not only do something that might help spur Canada’s digital economy – make postal code data open – it refuses to even engage in a legitimate public policy debate. For an organization that is fighting to find its way in the 21st century it is a pretty ominous sign.

* As an aside, in the Citizen article it says that I’m an open government activist who is working with the federal government on the website’s development. The first part – on activism – is true. The latter half, that I work on the open government website’s development, is not. The confusion may arise from the fact that I sit on the Treasury Board’s Open Government Advisory Panel, for which I’m not paid, but am asked for feedback, criticism and suggestions – like making postal code data open – about the government’s open government and open data initiatives.

Open Data Movement is a Joke?

Yesterday, Tom Slee wrote a blog post called “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke,” which – and I say this as a Canadian who understands the context in which Slee is writing – is filled with valid complaints about our government, but which I feel paints a flawed picture of the open data movement.

Evgeny Morozov tweeted about the post yesterday, thereby boosting its profile. I’m a fan of Evgeny. He is an exceedingly smart and critical thinker on the intersection of technology and politics. He is exactly what our conversation needs (unlike, say, Andrew Keen). I broadly felt his comments (posted via his Twitter stream) were both on target: we need to think critically about open data; and lacked nuance: it is possible for governments to simultaneously become more open and more closed on different axis. I write all this confident that Evgeny may turn his ample firepower on me, but such is life.

So, a few comments on Slee’s post:

First, the insinuation that the open data movement is irretrievably tainted by corporate interests is so over the top it is hard to know where to begin to respond. I’ve been advocating for open data for several years in Canada. Frankly, it would have been interesting and probably helpful if a large Canadian corporation (or even a medium sized one) took notice. Only now, maybe 4-5 years in, are they even beginning to pay attention. Most companies don’t even know what open data is.

Indeed, the examples of corporate open data “sponsors” that Slee cites are U.S. corporations, sponsoring U.S. events (the Strata conference) and nonprofits (Code for America – of which I have been engaged with). Since Slee is concerned primarily with the Canadian context, I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on how these examples compare to Canadian corporate involvement in open data initiatives – or even foreign corporations’ involvement in Canadian open data.

And not to travel too far down the garden path on this, but it’s worth noting that the corporations that have jumped on the open data bandwagon in the US often have two things in common: First, their founders are bona fide geeks, who in my experience are both interested in hard data as an end unto itself (they’re all about numbers and algorithms), and want to see government-citizen interactions – and internal governmental interactions, too – made better and more efficient. Second, of course they are looking after their corporate interests, but they know they are not at the forefront of the open data movement itself. Their sponsorship of various open data projects may well have profit as one motive, but they are also deeply interested in keeping abreast of developments in what looks to be a genuine Next Big Thing. For a post the Evgeny sees as being critical of open data, I find all this deeply uncritical. Slee’s post reads as if anything that is touched by a corporation is tainted. I believe there are both opportunities and risks. Let’s discuss them.

So, who has been advocating for open data in Canada? Who, in other words, comprises the “open data movement” that Slee argues doesn’t really exist – and that “is a phrase dragged out by media-oriented personalities to cloak a private-sector initiative in the mantle of progressive politics”? If you attend one of the hundreds of hackathons that have taken place across Canada over the past couple years – like those that have happened in Vancouver, Regina, Victoria, Montreal and elsewhere – you’ll find they are generally organized in hackspaces and by techies interested in ways to improve their community. In Ottawa, which I think does the best job, they can attract hundreds of people, many who bring spouses and kids as they work on projects they think will be helpful to their community. While some of these developers hope to start businesses, many others try to tackle issues of public good, and/or try to engage non-profits to see if there is a way they can channel their talent and the data. I don’t for a second pretend that these participants are a representative cross-section of Canadians, but by and large the profile has been geek, technically inclined, leaning left, and socially minded. There are many who don’t fit that profile, but that is probably the average.

Second, I completely agree that this government has been one of the most – if not the most – closed and controlling in Canada’s history. I, like many Canadians, echo Slee’s frustration. What’s worse, is I don’t see things getting better. Canadian governments have been getting more centralized and controlling since at least Trudeau, and possibly earlier (Indeed, I believe polling and television have played a critical role in driving this trend). Yes, the government is co-opting the language of open data in an effort to appear more open. All governments co-opt language to appear virtuous. Be it on the environment, social issues or… openness, no government is perfect and indeed, most are driven by multiple, contradictory goals.

As a member of the Federal Government’s Open Government Advisory Panel I wrestle with this challenge constantly. I’m try hard to embed some openness into the DNA of government. I may fail. I know that I won’t succeed in all ways, but hopefully I can move the rock in the right direction a little bit. It’s not perfect, but then it’s pretty rare that anything involving government is. In my (unpaid, advisory, non-binding) role I’ve voiced that the government should provide the Access to Information Commissioner with a larger budget (they cut it) and that they enable government scientists to speak freely (they have not so far). I’ve also advocated that they should provide more open data. There they have, including some data sets that I think are important – such as aid data (which is always at risk of being badly spent). For some, it isn’t enough. I’d like for there to be more open data sets available, and I appreciate those (like Slee – who I believe is writing from a place of genuine care and concern) who are critical of these efforts.

But, to be clear, I would never equate open government data as being tantamount to solving the problems of a restrictive or closed government (and have argued as much here). Just as an authoritarian regime can run on open-source software, so too might it engage in open data. Open data is not the solution for Open Government (I don’t believe there is a single solution, or that Open Government is an achievable state of being – just a goal to pursue consistently), and I don’t believe anyone has made the case that it is. I know I haven’t. But I do believe open data can help. Like many others, I believe access to government information can lead to better informed public policy debates and hopefully some improved services for citizens (such as access to transit information). I’m not deluded into thinking that open data is going to provide a steady stream of obvious “gotcha moments” where government malfeasance is discovered, but I am hopeful that government data can arm citizens with information that the government is using to inform its decisions so that they can better challenge, and ultimately help hold accountable, said government.

Here is where I think Evgeny’s comments on the problem with the discourse around “open” are valid. Open Government and Open Data should not be used interchangeably. And this is an issue Open Government and Open Data advocates wrestle with. Indeed, I’ve seen a great deal of discussion and reflection come as a result of papers such as this one.

Third, the arguments around StatsCan all feel deeply problematic. I say this as the person who wrote the first article (that I’m aware of) about the long form census debacle in a major media publication and who has been consistently and continuously critical of it. This government has had a dislike for Statistics Canada (and evidence) long before open data was in their vocabulary, to say nothing of a policy interest. StatsCan was going to be a victim of dramatic cuts regardless of Canada’s open data policy – so it is misleading to claim that one would “much rather have a fully-staffed StatsCan charging for data than a half-staffed StatsCan providing it for free.” (That quote comes from Slee’s follow-up post, here.) That was never the choice on offer. Indeed, even if it had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The total cost of making StatsCan data open is said to have been $2 million; this is a tiny fraction of the payroll costs of the 2,500 people they are looking to lay off.

I’d actually go further than Slee here, and repeat something I say all the time: data is political. There are those who, naively, believed that making data open would depoliticize policy development. I hope there are situations where this might be true, but I’ve never taken that for granted or assumed as much: Quite the opposite. In a world where data increasingly matters, it is increasingly going to become political. Very political. I’ve been saying this to the open data community for several years, and indeed was a warning that I made in the closing part of my keynote at the Open Government Data Camp in 2010. All this has, in my mind, little to do with open data. If anything, having data made open might increase the number of people who are aware of what is, and is not, being collected and used to inform public policy debates. Indeed, if StatsCan had made its data open years ago it might have had a larger constituency to fight on its behalf.

Finally, I agree with the Nat Torkington quote in the blog post:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Moreover, it is possible for a policy to have two different possible drivers. It can even have multiple contradictory drivers simultaneously. In Canada, my assessment is that the government doesn’t have this level of sophistication around its thinking on this file, a conclusion I more or less wrote when assessing their Open Government Partnership commitments. I have no doubt that the conservatives would like to turn government provided services over to the private sector, and open data has so far not been part of that strategy. In either case, there is, in my mind, a policy infrastructure that needs to be in place to pursue either of these goals (such as having a data governance structure in place). But from a more narrow open data perspective, my own feeling is that making the data open has benefits for public policy discourse, public engagement, and economic reasons. Indeed, making more government data available may enable citizens to fight back against policies they feel are unacceptable. You may not agree with all the goals of the Canadian government – as someone who has written at least 30 opeds in various papers outlining problems with various government policies, neither do I – but I see the benefits of open data as real and worth pursuing, so I advocate for it as best I can.

So in response to the opening arguments about the open data movement…

It’s not a movement, at least in any reasonable political or cultural sense of the word.

We will have to agree to disagree. My experience is quite the opposite. It is a movement. One filled with naive people, with skeptics, with idealists focused on accountability, developers hoping to create apps, conservatives who want to make government smaller and progressives who want to make it more responsive and smarter. There was little in the post that persuaded me there wasn’t a movement. What I did hear is that the author didn’t like some parts of the movement and its goals. Great! Please come join the discussion; we’d love to have you.

It’s doing nothing for transparency and accountability in government,

To say it is doing nothing for transparency seems problematic. I need only cite one data set now open to say that isn’t true. And certainly publication of aid data, procurement data, publications of voting records and the hansard are examples of places where it may be making government more transparent and accountable. What I think Slee is claiming is that open data isn’t transforming the government into a model of transparency and accountability, and he’s right. It isn’t. I don’t think anyone claimed it would. Nor do I think the public has been persuaded that because it does open data, the government is somehow open and transparent. These are not words the Canadian public associates with this government no matter what it does on this file.

It’s co-opting the language of progressive change in pursuit of what turns out to be a small-government-focused subsidy for industry.

There are a number of sensible, critical questions in Slee’s blog post. But this is a ridiculous charge. Prior to the data being open, you had an asset that was paid for by taxpayer dollars, then charged for at a premium that created a barrier to access. Of course, this barrier was easiest to surmount for large companies and wealthy individuals. If there was a subsidy for industry, it was under the previous model, as it effectively had the most regressive tax for access of any government service.

Indeed, probably the biggest beneficiaries of open data so far have been Canada’s municipalities, which have been able to gain access to much more data than they previously could, and have saved a significant amount of money (Canadian municipalities are chronically underfunded.) And of course, when looking at the most downloaded data sets from the site, it would appear that non-profits and citizens are making good use of them. For example, the 6th most downloaded was the Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada used by many environmental groups; number 8 was weather data; 9th was Sales of fuel used for road motor vehicles, by province and territory, used most frequently to calculate Green House Gas emissions; and 10th the Government of Canada Core Subject Thesaurus – used, I suspect, to decode the machinery of government. Most of the other top downloaded data sets related to immigration, used it appears, to help applicants. Hard to see the hand of big business in all this, although if open data helped Canada’s private sector become more efficient and productive, I would hardly complain.

If your still with me, thank you, I know that was a long slog.

Canada Post’s War on the 21st Century, Innovation & Productivity

The other week Canada Post announced it was suing Geocoder.ca – an alternative provider of postal code data. It’s a depressing statement on the status of the digital economy in Canada for a variety of reasons. The three that stand out are:

1) The Canadian Government has launched an open government initiative which includes a strong emphasis on open data and innovation. Guess which data set is the most requested data set by the public: Postal Code data.

2) This case risks calling into question the government’s commitment to (and understanding of) digital innovation, and

3) it is an indication – given the flimsiness of the case – of how little crown corporations understand the law (or worse, how willing they are to use the taxpayer funded litigation to bully others irrespective of the law).

Let me break down the situation into three parts. 1) Why this case matters to the digital economy (and why you should care), 2) Why the case is flimsy (and a ton of depressingly hilariously facts) and 3) What the Government could be doing about, but isn’t.

Why this case matters.

So… funny thing the humble postal code. One would have thought that, in a digital era, the lowly postal code would have lost its meaning.

The interesting truth however, is that the lowly postal code has, in many ways, never been more important. For better for worse, postal codes have become a core piece of data for both the analog and especially digital economy. These simple, easy to remember, six digit numbers, allow you to let a company, political party, or non-profit to figure out what neighborhood, MP riding or city you are in. And once we know where you are, there are all sorts of services the internet can offer you: is that game you wanted available anywhere near you? Who are your elected representatives (and how did they vote on that bill)? What social services are near you? Postal codes, quite simply, one of the easiest ways for us to identify where we are, so that governments, companies and others can better serve us. For example, after to speaking to Geocoder.ca founder Ervin Ruci, it turns out that federal government ministries are a major client of his, dozens of different departments using his service including… the Ministry of Justice.

Given how important postal code data is given it can enable companies, non-profits and government’s to be more efficient and productive (and thus competitive), one would think government would want to make it as widely available as possible. This is, of course, what several governments do.

But not Canada. Here postal code data is managed by Canada Post, which charges, I’m told, between $5,000-$50,000 dollars for access to the postal code database (depending on what you want). This means, in theory, every business (or government entity at the local, provincial or federal level) in Canada that wants to use postal code information to figure out where its customers are located must pay this fee, which, of course, it passes along to its customers. Worse, for others the fee is simple not affordable. For non-profits, charities and, of course, small businesses and start-ups, they either choose to be less efficient, or test their business model in a jurisdiction where this type of data is easier to access.

Why this case is flimsy

Of course, because postal codes are so important, Geocoder came up with an innovative solution to the problem. Rather than copy Canada Post’s postal code data base (which would have violated Canada Post’s terms of use) they did something ingenious… they got lots of people to help them manually recreate the data set. (There is a brief description of how here) As the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) brilliant argues in their defense of Geocoder: “The Copyright Act confers on copyright owners only limited rights in respect of particular works: it confers no monopoly on classes of works (only limited rights in respect of specific original works of authorship), nor any protection against independent creation. The Plaintiff (Canada Post) improperly seeks to use the Copyright Act to craft patent-like rights against competition from independently created postal code databases.”

And, of course, there are even deeper problems with Canada Post’s claims:

The first is that an address – including the postal code – is a fact. And facts cannot be copyrighted. And, of course, if Canada Post won, we’d all be hooped since writing a postal code down on say… an envelop, would violate Canada Post’s copyright.

The second, was pointed out to me by a mail list contributor who happened to work for a city. He pointed out that it is local governments that frequently create the address data and then share it with Canada Post. Can you imagine if cities tried to copyright their address data? The claim is laughable. Canada post claims that it must charge for the data to recoup the cost of creating it, but the data it gets from cities it gets for free – the creation of postal code data should not be an expensive proposition.

But most importantly… NON OF THIS SHOULD MATTER. In a world of where our government is pushing an open data strategy, the economic merits of making one of the most important open data sets public, should stand on their own without the fact that the law is on our side.

There is also a bonus 4th element which makes for fun reading in the CIPPIC defense that James McKinney pointed out:

“Contrary to the Plaintiff’s (Canada Post’s) assertion at paragraph 11 of the Statement of Claim that ‘Her Majesty’s copyright to the CPC Database was transferred to Canada Post’ under section 63 of the Canada Post Corporation, no section 63 of the current Canada Post Corporation Act  even exists. Neither does the Act that came into force in 1981 transfer such title.”

You can read the Canada Post Act on the Ministry of Justice’s website here and – as everyone except, apparently, Canada Post’s lawyers has observed – it has only 62 sections.

What Can Be Done.

Speaking of The Canada Post Act, while there is no section 63, there is a section 22, which appears under the header “Directives” and, intriguingly, reads:

22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

In other words… the government can compel Canada Post to make its Postal Code data open. Sections 22 (3), (4) and (5) suggest that the government may have to compensate Canada Post for the cost of implementing such a directive, but it is not clear that it must do so. Besides, it will be interesting to see how much money is actually at stake. As an aside, if Canada were to explore privatizing Canada Post, separating out the postal code function and folding it back into government would be a logical decision since you would want all players in the space (a private Canada Post, FedEx, Puralator, etc…) to all be able to use a single postal code system.

Either way, the government cannot claim that Canada Post’s crown corporation status prevents it from compelling the organization to apply an open license to its postal code data. The law is very clear that it can.

What appears to be increasingly obvious is that the era of closed postal code data will be coming to an end. It may be in a slow, expensive and wasteful lawsuit that costs both Canada Post, Canadian taxpayers and CIPPIC resources and energy they can ill afford, or it can come quickly through a Ministerial directive.

Let’s hope that latter prevails.

Indeed, the postal code has arguably become the system for physical organizing our society. Everything from the census to urban planning to figuring out where to build a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks will often use postal code data as the way to organize data about who we are and where we live. Indeed it is the humble postal code that frequently allows all these organizations – from governments to non-profits to companies – to be efficient about locating people and allocating resources. Oh. And it also really helps for shipping stuff quickly that you bought online.

It would be nice to live in a country that really understood how to support a digital economy. Sadly, last week, I was once again reminded of how frustrating it is to try to be 21st century company in Canada.

What happened?

Directives
  • 22. (1) In the exercise of its powers and the performance of its duties, the Corporation shall comply with such directives as the Minister may give to it.

Ethical Oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Process

This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.

This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.

Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?

It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.

But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.

There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?

Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.

Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.

As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.

As Canada Searches for its Open Government Partnership Commitments: A Proposal

Just before its launch in New York on September 20th, the Canadian Government agreed to be a signatory of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Composed of over 40 countries the OGP signatories are required to create a list of commitments they promise to implement. Because Canada signed on just before the deadline it has not – to date – submitted its commitments. As a result, there is a fantastic window for the government to do something interesting with this opportunity.

So what should we do? Here are the top 5 suggestions I propose for Canada’s OGP Commitments:

Brief Background on Criteria:

Before diving in, it is worth letting readers know that there are some criteria for making commitments. Specifically, any commitment must tackle at least one of the five “core” challenges: improve public services, increase public integrity, more effectively manage public resources, create safer communities, and increase corporate accountability.

In addition, each recommendation should reflect at least one of the core OGP principles, which are: transparency, citizen participation, accountability, and technology and innovation.

The Top Ten

Having reviewed several other countries commitments and being familiar with both what Canada has already done and what it could do, attached are 10 commitments I would like to see our government make to the OGP.

1. Be open about developing the commitments

Obviously there are a number of commitments the government is going to make since they are actions or programs that government was going to launch anyways. In addition, there will be some that will be new ideas that public servants or politicians have been looking for an opportunity to champion and now have an excuse. This is all fine and part of the traditional way government works.

But wouldn’t it be nice if – as part of the open government partnership – we asked citizens what they thought the commitments should be? That would make the process nicely consistent with the principles and goals of the OGP.

Thus the government should launch a two week crowd sourced idea generator, much like it did during the Digital Economy consultations. This is not suggestion that the ideas submitted must become part of the commitments, but they should inform the choices. This would be a wonderful opportunity to hear what Canadians have to say. In addition, the government could add some of its own proposal into the mix and see what type of response they get from Canadians.

2. Redefine Public as Digital: Pass an Online Information Act

At this year’s open government data camp in Warsaw, the always excellent Tom Steinberg noted that creating a transparent government and putting in place the information foundations of a digital economy will be impossible unless access to government data is not a gift from government (that can be taken away) but a right every citizen has. At the same time Andrew Rasiej of Tech President advocated that we must redefine public as digital. A paper print out in a small office in the middle of nowhere, does not make for  “public disclosure” in the 21st century. It’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for transparency, and it is grossly inefficient for government.

Thus, the government should agree to pass a Online Information Act, perhaps modeled on that proposed in the US Senate, that

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.

3. Sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative

As a leader in the field of resource extraction it is critical that Canada push for the highest standards in a sector that all too often sees money that should be destined for the public good get diverted into the hands of a few well connected individuals. Canada’s reputation internationally has suffered as our extractive resource sector is seen as engaging in a number of problematic practices such as bribing public officials – this runs counter to the Prime Minister’s efforts to promote democracy.

As a result, Canada should sign, with out delay, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, much like the United States did in September. This can help signal our desire for a transparent extractive industry, one in which we play a significant role.

4. Sign on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative

Canada has already taken significant steps to publishing its aid data online, in machine readable formats. This should be applauded. The next step is to do so in a way that conforms with international standards so that this data can be assessed against the work of other donors.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) offers an opportunity to increase transparency in foreign aid, better enable the public to understand its aid budget, compare the country’s effectiveness against others and identify duplication (and thus poorly used resources) among donors. Canada should agree to implement IATI immediately. In addition, it should request that the organizations it funds also disclose their work in ways that are compliant with IATI.

5. 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.

6. Reduce Fraud: Find Fraud by 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 querry 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).

7. Save lives by publishing a API of recall data

The only time the public finds out about a product recall is after someone has died. This is a terribly tragic, not to mention grossly inefficient, outcome. Indeed, the current approach is a classic example of using 21st century technology to deliver a service in a 19th century manner. If the government is interested in using the OGP to improve government services it should stop just issuing recall press releases and also create an open data feed of recalled products. I expand on this idea here.

If the government were doubly smart it would work with major retailers – particularly in the food industry – to ensure that they regularly tap into this data. In an ideal world any time Save-on-Foods, Walmart, Safeway, or any other retailers scans product in their inventory it would immediately check it against the recall database, allowing bad food to be pulled out of production before it hits the shelves. In addition, customers who use loyalty cards could be called or emailed to be informed that they had bought a product that had been recalled. This would likely be much more effective than hoping the media picks the story up.

8. 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.

Another bonus is that it becomes possible to talk about the budget in new and interesting ways. This BEAUTIFUL graphic was published in the Guardian, while still complicated it is much easier to understand than any government document about the budget I have ever seen.

Public-spending-graphic-0051

9. 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.

10. 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.