Rudy and McKinney: Making government information more accessible

Valid points and practical suggestions made by Bernard Rudny of Powered by Data, a project of Tides Canada, and James McKinney.

My experience is mixed with respect to data requests.

Some departments (CIC/IRCC) have established procedures and protocols to access data, and have been very forthcoming in my requests (apart from the Comms folks who refused to provide polling data in spreadsheet form!).

TBS was similarly forthcoming with respect to diversity among ADMs but PCO was not able (or unwilling) to provide the public information on the more than 1,300 GiC appointments in spreadsheet form (like any database, this should be easily exportable):

ATI is simultaneously an invaluable and cumbersome system. Any record that is requested must be manually reviewed, regardless of how innocuous it may be, which makes the process slow and inefficient.

Consider a common example: you request a spreadsheet from a federal department. Its contents are neither confidential nor controversial. Under the present system, that spreadsheet will be printed, reviewed, scanned, then mailed to you as a PDF file on a CD-ROM. The whole process takes weeks, months or even years. By the time it’s complete, any functionality the spreadsheet had as a digital document — like being able to search for text, or add up the numbers in a column — is gone. Instead, you’re dealing with a low-grade image of something that was once useful data that could be searched and sorted.

This is a 20th-century approach to information. It treats every “record” like a paper document. That’s appropriate in some cases, but in the era of the Internet and databases, it’s out of step with the times. The alternative is to release information pro-actively — not just in response to requests — and to use formats that preserve the value of digital data. True openness is about eliminating barriers to access and going out of your way to publish open data.

To be fair, there has been some good news on that front: the Treasury Board Secretariat has done a laudable job of creating an open data program and the 2014 Directive on Open Government included a commitment to being open by default.

If the federal government is going to become more open, it needs to be transparent about the progress it is making

So where do we go from here? How can the government build trust and make progress on this issue? The first step is to inventory all the information of value the federal government holds. Canada has already committed to creating that inventory under the open government directive, but it’s not required to happen before 2020. Speeding up the process is essential.

As we write this, more than 245,000 datasets are available through the government’s open data portal. That’s an impressive number, but it raises a question: how many are still closed? The number is likely in the millions, but ultimately unknown. Without it, there’s no meaningful way to measure the progress being made.

Moreover, some federal departments have been better about releasing information than others. Of the open datasets mentioned above, about 236,000 come from Natural Resources Canada. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, meanwhile, has released two datasets, Public Safety has released one. Inventories would help assess which departments need more help to open up their information.

Completing this inventory of information sooner rather than later would provide other benefits. Once the inventory is available, stakeholders — including researchers, communities, non-profit organizations and businesses — can provide informed input on what data to release first. That allows government departments to prioritize the opening of information that will enable positive social and economic impacts.

No one expects “open by default” to be implemented overnight. There are many steps to take — from reforming the ATI system to dealing with Crown copyright — and the road is long. Some information will also need to be kept within government for reasons of privacy and security.

Source: Rudny & McKinney: Making government information more accessible | National Post