An Afternoon of Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

Feb 01

Yesterday I attended a public meeting of the Standing Committee for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It was both exciting and awe-inspiring to walk up to Center Block on Parliament Hill and not instinctively join the tour group lineup. David Eaves, public policy entrepreneur and open government activist was providing testimony, and I was keen to both hear him speak, and see how this standing committee operated.

My interest in the committee mandate and the topic is muli-faceted: my (unfinished) PhD thesis topic was the historical evolution of Canada’s Access to Information laws 1966 -83; I believe deeply that citizens need information to make informed decisions in a democratic society, and I worry constantly about electronic data/content loss and degradation due to technology obsolescence and closed systems. Ironic tidbit: I learned about the meeting via someone on Twitter… not via any official government communication or PR.

Some highlights:

  • Eaves began by setting a clear framework for the 2 hour presentation and Q&A, defining “Open Data” vs. “Open Government” and describing the reason they are not interchangeable terms. Open Data includes the statistics, maps, data in machine readable formats made available via on-line at no charge. Open Government operates on the principles of open information: proactive release and disclosure of reports, studies, analyses, and other content created by government to be used and viewed by citizens, business and other public sector entities.
  • Access to Information in Canadian federal government today operates as an exception-handling process … and should not. Costs, excessive wait periods, and the tendency to received information in printed/photocopied form essentially renders the process and outcome useless. Production of ATIP’d materials in electronic form needs to become the norm – makes the content usable, searchable. Stacks of paper is inefficient and impossible to intelligently analyze.
  • Commitment to open data and proactive disclosure as norm will relive burden on public servants, reduce ATIP requests and need to respond individually.
  • Members of Parliament and other government entities are among the most active users of government information, they should not have to struggle to get access to data for informed decision-making and policy development
  • Other governments are getting good at this. Eaves presented examples from the City of Vancouver (produced data sets on waste removal schedules, small businesses emerge with reminder and calendaring services); US Federal Government (has historically always made government information available with no copyright or usage restrictions, currently 1000s of datasets available); UK Government (1000s of data sets); Australia (task force for Government 2.0 recommended as a model for Canada to review)
  • Canada can learn from the US – we’re a permission-based culture, conditioned to not use government information or web content without explicit authorization. US government content and data freely taken and reused for many purposes. (Including satirical news via Colbert Report or Jon Stewart)
  • Government data must be viewed as a public asset – like roads, buildings, parks. It must be available to the public to view, use, analyze for their own personal or commercial purposes. It is created and gathered with use of tax dollars, so assumption of public disclosure must prevail
  • Fee structure today introduces disparity and inequality. Data sets that are available are often fee-based. Discriminates against small businesses, start-ups and individuals that aren’t wealthy. Creates barrier to entry into new markets, this is contrary to desire to have Canada be a leader in the digital economy. Could be perceived as a subsidy for large business – all citizens have paid for its collection via tax dollars, but only companies have resources to access it.
  • Data is not a limited resource, so no reason to charge premium rates for it. Use of data does not diminish its value for other users, so charging for it as though it was limited in value/quantity doesn’t make sense
  • Favorite quote (paraphrased) “If we are going to have a knowledge-based economy, we need a knowledge-based government to serve knowledge-based people”
  • Three laws of open data:  If it can’t be spidered/indexed it doesn’t exist; it must be openly available in machine readable formats; must be available under a legal framework that allows it to be used/reproduced
  • Side note – I found it personally a bit shocking at the level of technical illiteracy among many of the elected representatives around the table. Canada needs to up its game here to seriously play in the information economy.  But, I also respected and appreciated that the elected members could freely ask questions, I did get the sense many of them were interested and were learning something.
  • Commitment to open data and information in openly accessible formats means governments can and should change their relationships with their IT vendors. Government IT is dominated by large commercial products that have a vested interest in closed, proprietary systems that keep their revenue locked in.
  • (My 2 cents: government need to put citizen interests first and take control of their own information management roadmaps, and stop letting vendors dictate the decisions. Licensing restrictions are imposing boundaries on public content that should not be there)

It was also delightful to finally meet CBC’s Parliament Hill reporter Kady O’Malley after being a fan for years, and following her wit and insights on Twitter. She live-blogged the meeting end-to-end (yes.. she types *that* fast on a BlackBerry).

And for anyone interested, here is the Parliamentary TV replay to view the full proceedings. (thanks @govloop and @nickcharney at CPSRenewal for this link)