Tag Archives: Canadian government

Spotlight on Recent Publications: Open Data and Official Language Regimes

screenshotCanadian  open government website

The bilingual federal Open Government portal

By Naomi Bloch

Teresa Scassa is a Geothink co-applicant researcher and Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. In a recently published paper, Scassa and co-author Niki Singh consider some of the challenges that arise for open data initiatives operating in multilingual regions. The authors use Canada’s federal open data initiative as a case study to examine how a government body in an officially bilingual jurisdiction negotiates its language obligations in the execution of its open data plan.

The article points out two areas for potential concern. First, private sector uses of government data could result in the unofficial outsourcing of services that otherwise would be the responsibility of government agencies, “thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages.” Second, the authors suggest that the push to rapidly embrace an open data ethos may result in Canada’s minority language communities being left out of open data development and use opportunities.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 figures, approximately 7.3 million people — or 22 percent of the population — reported French as their primary language in Canada. This includes over a million residents outside of Quebec, primarily in Ontario and New Brunswick. Canada’s federal agencies are required to serve the public in both English and French. This obligation is formalized within Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Official Languages Act. Government departments are provided with precise guidelines and frameworks  to ensure that they comply with these regulatory requirements in all of their public dealings and communications.

Scassa and Singh reviewed the various components of the federal open data initiative since the launch of the program to determine how well it is observing bilingual requirements. The authors note that while the open data infrastructure as a whole largely adheres to bilingual standards, one departure is the initiative’s Application Programming Interface (API). An API provides a set of protocols and tools for software developers. In this case, the API supports automated calls for open data housed in government databases. According to the authors, “As this open source software is not developed by the federal government, no bilingualism requirements apply to it.” While professional developers may be accustomed to English software environments even if they are francophones, the authors point out that this factor presents an additional barrier for French-language communities who might wish to use open data as a civic tool.

In their analysis of the data portal’s “apps gallery,” Scassa and Singh observed that the majority of apps or data tools posted thus far are provided by government agencies themselves. These offerings are largely bilingual. However, at the time of the authors’ review, only four of the citizen-contributed apps supported French. In general, public contributions to the federal apps gallery are minimal compared to government-produced tools.

As part of their analysis, the authors also looked at the two Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) hackathon events sponsored by the government in order to promote civic engagement with open data. Communications leading up to the events were provided in English and French. Government documentation also indicated strong participation from Quebec coders at the CODE hackathons, though native language of the coders is not indicated. Interestingly, the authors note, “In spite of the bilingual dimensions of CODE it has produced apps that are for the most part, English only.”

The 2015 event, which was sponsored by government but organized by a private company, had a bilingual website and application process. However, Scassa and Singh found that social media communications surrounding the event itself were primarily in English, including government tweets from the Treasury Board Secretariat. Given this, the authors question whether sufficient effort was made to attract French-Canadian minorities outside of Quebec, and if specific efforts may be needed to gauge and support digital literacy in these minority communities.

While it is still early days for Canada’s open data initiative, this case study serves to highlight the challenges of supporting an open data platform that can meet both legal obligations and broader ethical objectives. The authors conclude that, “In a context where the government is expending resources to encourage the uptake and use of open data in these ways, the allocation of these resources should explicitly identify and address the needs of both official language communities in Canada.”


The open data movement is gathering steam globally, and it has the potential to transform relationships between citizens, the private sector and government. To date, little or no attention has been given to the particular challenge of realizing the benefits of open data within an officially bi- or multi-lingual jurisdiction. Using the efforts and obligations of the Canadian federal government as a case study, the authors identify the challenges posed by developing and implementing an open data agenda within an officially bilingual state. Key concerns include (1) whether open data initiatives might be used as a means to outsource some information analysis and information services to an unregulated private sector, thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages; and (2) whether the Canadian government’s embrace of the innovation agenda of open data leaves minority language communities underserved and under-included in the development and use of open data.

Reference: Scassa, T., & Singh, Niki. (2015). Open Data and Official Language Regimes: An Examination of the Canadian Experience. Journal of Democracy & Open Government, 7(1), 117–133.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Tracey P. Lauriault on Citizen Engagement (or lack thereof) with Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0


Tracey is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the new field of Critical Data Studies.

By Drew Bush

More than 1,450 individuals collectively generated 2,010 ideas, comments and questions for the Canadian Government on its Action Plan for Open Government 2.0. But one researcher with The Programmable City project who studies open data and open government in Canada feels these numbers miss the real story.

The process leading up to the “What We Heard” report, issued after the completion of consultations from April 24–October 20, 2014, only reflected the enthusiasm of the open data programming community, she says. A broader engagement with civil society organizations that most need help from the government to accomplish their work was severely lacking.

“They might be really good at making an app and taking near real time transit data and coming up with a beautiful app with a fantastic algorithm that will tell you within the millisecond how fast the bus is coming,” Tracy Lauriault, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA), said. “But those aren’t the same people who will sit at a transit committee meeting.”

She believes the government has failed to continue to include important civil society groups in discussions of the plan. Those left out have included community-based organizations, cities having urban planning debates, anti-poverty groups, transportation planning boards and environmental groups. She’s personally tried to include organizations such as the Canadian Council on Social Development or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities only to have their opinions become lost in the process.

“There is I think a sincere wish to collect information from the people who attend but then that’s it,” she said.  “There is no follow up with some people or the comments that are made—or even an assessment, a careful assessment, of who’s in the room and what they’re saying.”

“I’m generally disappointed in what I see in most of these documents,” she added. “When they were delivering or working towards open data back in 2004, 2005 it was really about democratic deliberation and evidenced-informed decision-making—making sure citizens and civil society groups could debate on par with the same types of resources government officials had.”

For it’s part, the government notes that 18 percent of the participants came from civil society groups. But such groups were really just ad-hoc groups who advocate for data or are otherwise involved in aspects of new technology, according to Lauriault. Such input, while useful, is usually limited to requests on datasets, ranking what kind of dataset you’d like to see or choosing what platforms to use to view it, she added.

The report itself notes comments came from the Advisory Panel on Open Government, online forums, in-person sessions, email submissions, Twitter (hash tag #OGAP2), and LinkedIn. In general, participants requested quicker, easier, and more meaningful access to their government, and a desire to be involved in government decision making beyond consultations.

Some suggested that the Government of Canada could go even further toward improving transparency in the extractives sector. For example, proposed legislation to establish mandatory reporting standards could stipulate that extractives data be disclosed in open, machine-readable formats based on a standard template with uniform definitions.


Major themes to emerge from citizen comments on the “What We Heard Report” (Image courtesy of the Government of Canada).

Find out more about this figure or the “What We Heard” report here.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

CODE Hackathon Set to Kick-Off as New Report finds the World’s Governments Slow to Open Governmental Data


A new year for open data? (Photo Credit: Tactical Technology Collective)

By Drew Bush

In the first weeks of the New Year, two important news items for the Geothink audience made headlines. In Toronto, the Canadian federal government got ready to kick-off its second annual multi-city Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) while the World Wide Web Foundation ranked the United States 2nd and Canada 7th for openness of governmental data in its second annual Open Data Barometer.

Canada Ranked 7th

Canada tied with Norway out of 86 countries surveyed based on whether government data was “open by default” as stipulated in the 2013 G8 Open Data Charter. Of more importance, however, was the country’s positive movement in the rankings and scores from last year, moving one spot up the index.

The survey examines availability of core government data such as company registers, public sector contracts, land titles, how governments spend money and how well public services perform. The U.K. is considered the global leader for open government data, publishing nearly all of these types of data.

Globally, the authors of the report state “there is still a long way to go to put the power of data in the hands of citizens. Core data on how governments are spending our money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or pay-walled in most countries.”

That’s because fewer than 8 percent of surveyed countries publish datasets on subjects like government budgets, spending and contracts, and on the ownership of companies, in bulk machine-readable formats and under open re-use licenses.

A few key highlights of the report: 1. Only the U.K. and Canada publish land ownership data in open formats and under open licenses; 2. Only the U.K. and the U.S. publish detailed open data on government spending; 3. And, only the U.S., Canada and France publish open data on national environment statistics. Finally, open mapping data is only published in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany (an area where Canada lags).

CODE Hackathon Kicks-Off

In Toronto, developers, graphic designers, students, and anyone interested in trying their hand at coding are getting ready to create innovative uses for the Canadian government’s open data and to win up to $15,000 from the Government of Canada. The 48-hour event is set to begin on February 20th.

Innovations developed at hackathons like this could one day fuel improvements in access to government data. The event attracted 927 developers in 2013 and that number increased to over 1,000, organizers said, the day of the event.

“Open data is a brand new industry,” Ray Sharma, founder of the event and XMG Studios, told CTV News. “We are in an ice berg situation where we’ve only seen the tip of the data that will become available.”

But just what kind of industry is open to debate, as Geothink researchers Peter Johnson and Pamela Robinson examined in a recent paper. Their questions included whether civic hackathons have the potential to replace the traditional ways that government purchases products and services, and whether these events can be considered new vectors for citizen engagement, according to a post Johnson wrote for Geothink.

For more on CODE, you can watch Canada’s President of Treasury Board, Tony Clement here or read more about this year’s event here.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Crowdsourcing Ventures in the Canadian Public Sector


Ventures in the Canadian Public Sector

Daren C. Brabham

University of Southern California

As crowdsourcing ventures become more widespread in the Canadian public sector and abroad, many questions arise as to how these ventures come into being from an institutional standpoint; what motivates participants to engage these ventures; how citizens perceive these ventures as extensions of democratic governance; and what the impacts of these ventures may be on public sector employees and budgets.

This research project aims to tackle these questions. Students will help in the collection and analysis of data, the creation of interdisciplinary literature reviews, and the reporting of findings in scholarly and professional formats.

The first phase of this project will identify crowdsourcing cases from across the country and some other cases abroad for comparison’s sake. Students will assist in finding these cases through searches in popular and trade publications and through partner networks, and cases will be classified according to accepted crowdsourcing typologies.

The next phase will be to contact key figures in these various governmental entities to set up interviews and collect archival data on crowdsourcing projects. These interviews and analysis of documents will help round out case studies on these crowdsourcing ventures, focusing on institutional dynamics and tensions that went into the launch (and maintenance) of crowdsourcing programs.

The final phase will involve surveying or interviewing citizens who participated in these projects, to get a sense of their appraisal of the programs in terms of democratic principles and to understand what motivated them to participate in these programs.

Resulting case studies will dovetail with the case study projects of other researchers in Themes 1 and 6. If you would like more information or would like to be involved in the study, please contact Daren Brabham, brabham (at) usc (dot) edu.

Admin note: Daren is our primary American researcher on the grant and has just joined the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is well known for his research on crowdsourcing in the American public sector and has just published his first book called Crowdsourcing.