When it comes to Open Data in Canada and the United States, things appear to be similar. Both countries have several municipalities with Open Data portals: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and now New York City in the US, Vancouver and Nanaimo in Canada with Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa thinking about or initiating plans.
But the similarities end there. In particular there is a real, yawning gap at the federal level. America has data.gov but here in Canada there is no movement on the Open Data front. There are some open data sets, but nothing comprehensive, and nothing that follows is dedicated to following the three laws of open data. No data.gc.ca in the works. Not even a discussion. Why is that?
As esoteric as it may sound, I believe the root of the issues lies in the country’s differing political philosophies. Let me explain.
It is important to remember that the United States was founded on the notion of popular sovereignty. As such its sovereignty lies with the people, or as Wikipedia nicely puts it:
The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. With their Revolution, Americans substituted the sovereignty in the person of the English king, George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Henceforth, American revolutionaries by and large agreed and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. (italics are mine)
Thus data created by the US government is, quite literally, the people’s data. Yes, nothing legally prevents the US government from charging for information and data but the country’s organizing philosophy empowers citizens to stand up and say – this is our data, we’d like it please. In the United States the burden is on the government to explain why it is withholding that which the people own (a tradition that admittedly is hardly perfect as anyone alive from the years 2000-2008 will attest to). But don’t underestimate the power of this norm. Its manifestations are everywhere, such as in the legal requirement that any document created by the United States government be published in the public domain (e.g. it cannot have any copyright restrictions placed on it) or in America’s vastly superior Freedom of Information laws.
This is very different notion of sovereignty than exists in Canada. This country never deviated from the European context described above. Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III’s descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared. This is the (radically different) context under which our government (both the political and public service), and its expectations around disclosure, have evolved. As an example, note that government documents in Canada are not public domain, they are published under a Crown Copyright that, while less restrictive than copyright, nonetheless constrains reuse (no satire allowed!) and is a constant reminder of the fact that Canadian citizens don’t own what their tax dollars create. The Queen does.
The second reason why open data has a harder time taking root in Canada is because of the structure of our government. In America, new projects are easier to kick start because the executive welds greater control over the public service. The Open Data initiative that started in Washington, D.C. spread quickly to the White House because its champion and mastermind, the District’s of Columbia’s CTO Vivek Kundra, was appointed Federal CIO by President Obama. Yes, Open Data tapped into an instinctual reflex to disclose that (I believe) is stronger down south than here, but it was executed because America’s executive branch is able to appoint officials much deeper into government (for those who care, in Canada Deputy Ministers are often appointed, but in the United States appointments go much deeper, down into the Assistant Deputy and even into the Director General level). Both systems have merits, and this is not a critic of Canada’s approach, simply an observation. However, it does mean that a new priority, like open data, can be acted upon quickly and decisively in the US. (For more on these difference I recommend reading John Ibbitson’s book Open & Shut).
These difference have several powerful implications for open data in Canada.
As a first principle, if Canadians care about open data we will need to begin fostering norms in our government, among ourselves, and in our politicians, that support the idea that what our government creates (especially in terms of research and data) is ours and that we should not only have unfettered access to it, but the right to analyze and repurpose it. The point here isn’t just that this is a right, but that open data enhances democracy, increases participation and civic engagement and strengthens our economy. Enhancing this norm is a significant national challenge, one that will take years to succeed. But instilling it into the culture of our public service, our civic discourse and our political process is essential. In the end, we have to ask ourselves – in a way our American counterparts aren’t likely to (but need to) – do we want an open country?
This means that secondly, Canadians are going to have to engage in a level of education of – particularly senior – public servants on open data that is much broader and more comprehensive than our American counterparts had to. In the US, an executive fiat and appointment has so far smoothed the implementation of open data solutions. That will likely not work here. We have many, many, many allies in the public service who believe in open data (and who understand it is integral to public service sector renewal). The key is to spread that knowledge and support upwards, to educate senior decision-makers, especially those at the DG, ADM and DM level to whom both the technology and concept is essentially foreign. It is critical that these decision-makers become comfortable with and understand the benefits of open data quickly. If not we are unlikely to keep pace with (or even follow) our American counterparts, something, I believe is essential for our government and economy.
Second, Canadians are going to have to mobilize to push for open data as a political issue. Even if senior public servants get comfortable with the idea, it is unlikely there will be action unless politicians understand that Canadians want both greater transparency and the opportunity to build new services and applications on government data.
(I’d also argue that another reason why Open Data has taken root in the US more quickly than here is the nature of its economy. As a country that thrives on services and high tech, open data is the basic ingredient that helps drive growth and innovation. Consequently, there is increasing corporate support for open data. Canada, in contrast, with its emphasis on natural resources, does not have a corporate culture that recognizes these benefits as readily.)