Tag Archives: open government

The Perils, Pitfalls, and Promise of Open Government – a Geothink Interview with Daniel Paré

Untitled

Geothink researcher Daniel Paré examines design-reality gaps in Canadian municipal open government platforms.

By Drew Bush

Earlier this month, Public Sector Digest’s first Open Cities Index ranked Canada’s municipalities according to their openness in supplying municipal data online. The index examined the number of data sets available in three areas of accountability (e.g. elections or budget data), innovation (e.g. traffic volume or service requests), and social policy (e.g. crime rates or health performance) for 34 Canadian cities. Find more details on this index in a previous Geothink.ca story.

But this type of examination represents only one aspect of a city’s openness. Geothink researchers have cautioned that one must consider each city’s goals in making datasets available (as well as tracking how they are used) when assessing the openness of a city. City platforms that utilize open data, sometimes referred to as e-government, are often hailed as a panacea for making government transparent and the political process more open and inclusive. Such pronouncements have accompanied the digitization of government records and data since the 1990s.

Geothink.ca recently sat down with one Geothink researcher to assess the validity of this claim, the downsides of e-government, and to discuss his research on the topic. Daniel Paré is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa where he also serves as an associate director at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy. His research focuses on the social, economic, political, and technical issues arising from innovations in information and communication technologies in developing and industrialized countries.

Geothink.ca: So tell us a bit about your current recent interests right now, and what you are most excited about in your work.

Paré: What I’m interested in looking at is the points of convergence and divergence between the rhetoric surrounding e-government in the late 1990s early 2000s with much of what we’re hearing about open government data and open data and the promises and perils and pitfalls and such, and sort of contrasting those two. In large part, it’s motivated by the fact that one of the things that I’ve been struck by just sort of informally is it just seems to me that there’s just tremendous parallels almost to the point of sort of repeating the same sort of mantras that we were repeating a little more than 10 years ago what with regards to e-government.

So I want to see the way that that holds. It plays into this whole idea in terms of the myths that are associated with technological change in terms of the liberating potential, the progressive potential, these sort of technological developments. So certainly in the area of open government data, the question becomes, or the issue is sort of, we hear lots of rhetoric about political progress and economic progress and such, and I basically want to suss those things out.

Geothink.ca: What are the differences between citizen-government and client-government interactions and what do you think the transformation toward open government is doing for both of those audiences?

Paré: Well, if we go back to e-government, at the time that e-government came on to the scene, part of the debate was between e-governance and e-government. And a lot of the early discourse and rhetoric around there was focused on the democratic potential. So citizens would be able to now access information much more easily— government information—become more engaged with their government on multiple levels, and, in order to simplify here, everything would become rosy. The underlying assumption being basically that with the ability to have access to information, citizens would seek out that information and would become more engaged in the political domain as a result of that. And almost sort of, in its more extreme cases, [it was] presented almost as sort of linear, ipso facto, done deal.

It was quickly identified, that in many ways e-government wasn’t about e-governance per se, certainly not in the political sense. It was about delivering services more effectively to citizens but in the role of clients essentially. Nothing wrong with that but that’s fundamentally different from political engagement as it’s normally understood. So, yes, it’s fantastic that, yes, I can file all my taxes online, or that we can get information, or that we can renew our licenses, or that we can have access to that information, but that’s more of a client service based implementation and usage than a sort of political domain.

If we jump forward now to the recent years in terms of open government and open data, we have a number of sorts of different discourses that are playing around. Part of it is to say that yes there’s open data and open government—bearing in mind that they’re separate things—that, you know, with access to this information, that fosters greater transparency and hopefully greater transparency [fosters] less corruption, more effective government, etc. The other aspect of that—complementary aspect—is sort of the economic angle saying well if people have access to government information they can harvest this information, they can come up with new sorts of innovations whether that be an app or some sort of other product that gets developed as a result of an analysis of the information that’s now available to them. And this then becomes a means or mechanism for fostering economic growth.

So you have those discourses or those narratives playing out. Now the issue, or one of the many issues, is the fact that realizing those benefits depends on a whole host of factors. And [governments] are dealing here with issues in terms of how do [they] organize and respond to demand, how do [they] organize and respond to supply, and how do [they] organize and respond and try to promote innovation. So you have those sorts of three things playing out. And so to come back to what I mentioned earlier about notions of myths around technologies…we tend to do away with, narratively, with the complexities and ambiguities that are associated with these processes. And so if we say, yes, you know, open data and open governance is a fantastic tool for promoting transparency and enhanced democracy, well possibly, yes, and possibly, no. We need to unravel that. It’s not a done deal. But the myth of that rhetoric is a punchy message. Likewise if we say, yes, well open data and open government is fantastic because it can spur economic growth and all sort of innovations. Fair enough. But again that covers up the challenges and complexities that are associated with that.

Geothink.ca: How does this relate to gaps you are seeing in how platforms are designed for e-government and their actual implementation in terms of how they are used?

Paré: In other work that I’ve done, we do a lot of stuff around the ideas of design-reality gaps. And so the notion there being that, you know, we may design a particular platform with a particular purpose in mind. And it has particular potential but then when we look at the implementation of a particular platform often times it has a host of unintended consequences. There is no guarantee that it will be used in a particular way. And so the opportunities and potentials that were meant to be reaped don’t materialize, right?

In some of those cases that might be linked to the platform itself and in others cases it might be linked to organizational factors. So we can think in terms of a government information system. If we are going to put in a new information system in the government bureaucracy, for example, the assumption is that it will enhance interdepartmental exchanges of communication and information. What that view overlooks is the turf battles between departments and agencies within government. The idea there, in this example, being that it’s not because we have the effective communication system in place that it will actually be used in an effective manner because there are other sociopolitical and cultural factors in that regard.

In the case of open data and open government, we tend to see for example a lot of claims about, sort of, hey, it’s great this information is online people are going to use it. But one of the early challenges that we encountered was, say, well those who can actually use it and do something with it are a very limited and niche segment of the population…The raw data—the raw information that’s there—is in such a form that people don’t know what to do with it or how to manipulate it. So on the one hand, yes, it’s open data the information is there, on the other hand, great, it’s there but what do I do with it if I don’t have the computer savvy or the statistical skills to deal with the information that’s there? So those are those sorts of gaps and complexities that I’m interested in.

Geothink.ca: How does your work relate to Geothink’s research goals and what do you think of the partnership?

Paré: Great question. Geothink relates to this for me in the sense of the open data, open government aspect of it. I had come to this project, Geothink, sort of as an outsider. For me, Geothink, very early on before I knew very much about it was oh, you know, you’re talking about geographical information systems. Which I’ve since learned we’re moving well beyond that. So for me, the issue in terms of Geothink and Geoweb, it fits into issues of open data, open government and clearly the geo part sort of entails a locational element in terms of locational types of data.

Tweet your ideas on this interview to Daniel Paré @DJ_Pare

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

An Expert’s View on Civic Participation on the Geoweb

By Naomi Bloch


As an early warm-up to our November 23 Twitter chat — What does meaningful civic participation on the geoweb look like? — we asked Geothink Head Renee Sieber to share her perspective. Here are a few highlights.


word cloud

More access, more communication

I think we’re in an environment where we’ve really broadened opportunities for citizens to participate through social media, through these various kinds of devices that we have, so I think it’s very exciting.

It’s an opportunity for citizens to be engaged when they don’t necessarily have the time to attend a meeting. So they can both watch city activities online through their own dashboards or they can communicate as issues arise. Perhaps cities may wish to create polls of online sentiment; they want to alert citizens of emergency situations or of interesting happenings in the city.  —R.S.


Citizen–City connection

We can have citizens more fully engaged as members of the city in reporting, in monitoring events in real-time. People generally point to open 311 applications. Open 311 comes from an old telephone service where you could dial a short number, 311, and you could report a nuisance complaint. This has moved online. So the prototypical example is the pothole. You can report the pothole, you can report a missing street sign. This can be enormously helpful to cities because they have more real-time information for problems in the infrastructure. So that’s another kind of engagement.  —R.S.


Hackathons

… Citizens can find new and unusual ways to use data that comes out of cities, in ways that cities had never thought about before. So it’s a very exciting way for people—particularly techies—to get into the mechanisms of governance and the mechanisms of government.

So I think that this is a great time to engage physically and digitally about what’s happening in your own cities. There are obviously challenges that are paired with that.  —R.S.


Digital divides

One way that we frame technology is by saying that, “It’s so easy now that anyone can participate.” The flipside of that, unfortunately, is that if you cannot participate it’s your fault: “We made it easy for you, so if you don’t want to participate — or if you cannot or you didn’t choose to participate — in that particular poll, well, we can’t be responsible if we didn’t hear your voice.”

But that ignores all sorts of reasons that people cannot participate. The digital divide and digital inequities have not gone away, they merely shift and hide. So we can be relatively sure that a lot of people have e-mail, but in parts of rural Canada we can’t always be sure that people will have sustainable connections to the Internet, to broadband connections, to connections of a sufficient speed, to connections that persist over time as opposed to connections that drop out in the middle of an e-mail transmission or a call. That’s a real challenge if all of a sudden you decide to move a good portion of your citizen activity online; you cut out a large number of people.

We may say, “Oh great, we can build all these apps for smart phones.” Well, that of course presumes that people own smart phones, that people have data plans on smart phones, that people have sufficiently high speed connections on their phones so that they can transmit, upload and download data quite quickly. We can’t make those kinds of assumptions.  —R.S.


Persistent social divides & inequities

You have to couple that with persistent digital divides and divides in general. Why are we assuming that illiteracy has been abolished in North America? We know that people still are illiterate. The hallmark of these technologies is that they’re increasingly relying on the written word. You have a phone, and you think we’re going to interact with the phone via voice. But increasingly people use their phones with text. Well, if you can’t read then you can’t participate. If you cannot see, you cannot participate. So we have all sorts of inequities based on disabilities.

So we have to be in tune to that, even as we trumpet the increased advantages and increased opportunities for people to participate. There will be people who will still find it extraordinarily challenging. Obviously people are working on solutions, but we have to be mindful of this in our rush to embracing digital engagement completely.   —R.S.


Public space meets proprietary space

In terms of technologies and processes that are shaping these conversations, obviously social media and social networks have been incredibly important. We almost take for granted now that cities have Facebook pages—that departments in cities have Facebook pages. But that’s an odd concept when you step back and you think about it. That, (a) a city should have social media, and (b) that cities need to attach themselves to a specific proprietary network.

But the fact that cities are socially engaged via these platforms, that they actually spend the resources and see the need to have Facebook pages that are updated, that they have Twitter accounts, that they have YouTube channels, that they may be increasingly looking at applications like Meerkat and Periscope to allow for live streaming—that they may be incredibly concerned that applications like Meerkat and Periscope may be used to inadvertently live stream a conversation that they heretofore thought was private—I think these technologies have rapidly transformed the way that cities feel they must now be engaged with the public.

These technologies absolutely have technological implications and they have institutional implications as well. You have to have a person who updates your Facebook accounts. That takes some time to do. You may have to find someone who automates posting not only on Facebook, but to LinkedIn, to Twitter—that automation may require a systems administrator or coder employed by the city. The fact that cities now employ social media people, these are job titles that we did not see before: open data architects, CTO [chief technology officer] positions in cities. These are processes that have changed in cities.
—R.S.


Progress is not always made to measure

I think that in the future cities will increasingly start to grapple with what succeeds and fails. I think we’re in a publishing mode right now. I think that cities are doing all they can to keep up. So, the city has to publish as much data as it can on an open data platform. They have to engage in as many social media platforms as they can. I think they will increasingly need to take hard looks at what succeeds and what fails.

It is by no means easy to evaluate these platforms in terms of success and failure. What is an effective Facebook profile? How do you measure that? Do you measure it with “likes”? OK, that’s one very technical way of measuring it, but what does a “like” tell you about meaningful engagement? It might not tell you a lot.

So it’s easy to take the low-hanging fruit of measurements to determine whether platforms are successful or not. That may not be the right way to go. Cities are increasingly looking at analytics and predictive analytics to gauge the success of these various platforms and their engagement. But once again, that tends to based on what can easily be quantified.  —R.S.


Humanizing the city

A lot of engagement between cities and citizens is much more longitudinal. It happens slowly over time. Cities and citizens build up trust. Distrust is easily gained, and very hard to get rid of.

I’ve been talking about cities as these homogeneous unions. But there are people in cities; there are citizens employed by cities, and often it is the ways that individuals in city governments reach out to individual citizens or groups of citizens, building up those linkages—using these technological platforms to heterogenize the city [that builds trust].

So, we begin to see the city and we see government as people engaging, just like you. They’re engaging with you, as opposed to being just The State (and you always must have this opinion about The State, or be in opposition to The State, or protest The State).

So [citizens can] use these technologies to sort of reach in, and stop looking at it as a monolith and more as a group of people who really are in city government because they wanted to work with citizens; they wanted to work on issues that were important and very close to the people who live in their cities.  —R.S.

 Join us for our #Geothink Twitter chat on civic participation on the geoweb: Monday, November 23 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time.

Geothoughts 7: Unpacking the Current and Future Value of Open Civic Data

Geothink researcher Peter Johnson and his students have been working with government partners across the country to examine the state of civic open data projects in Canada.

Geothink researcher Peter Johnson and his students have been working with government partners across the country to examine the state of civic open data projects in Canada.

By Naomi Bloch

Peter Johnson image

Peter Johnson, assistant professor in the University of Waterloo Department of Geography and Environmental Management, was recently awared Ontario’s Young Researcher Award.

Geothink co-applicant researcher Peter A. Johnson is an assistant professor of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. Johnson and his students have been working with Geothink government partners across the country to examine the state of civic open data projects in Canada. In our latest podcast, he discusses how the seemingly desirable ethos of open data may nonetheless hamper our understanding of how end users are interacting with government products.

In their July article published in Government Information Quarterly, Johnson and Geothink head Renee Sieber discuss what they see as the dominant models—and related challenges—of civic open data today. The authors suggest that these models may carry potentially conflicting motivations. Governments can distribute data and leave it to users to discover and determine data’s value, they may aim to track civic issues in ways that are cost efficient, or they may also try to support market innovation via data provision and the promotion of crowd-sourced contributions. On the other hand, open data efforts also have the potential to enable productive and empowering two-way civic interactions when motivated by non-economic imperatives.

What future directions will government data provision take? That may depend a lot on the choices that government agencies—and end users—make today.

 

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

Reference
Sieber, R. E., & Johnson, P. A. (2015). Civic open data at a crossroads: Dominant models and current challenges, Government Information Quarterly, 32(3), pp. 308-315. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2015.05.003. OR: View pre-print copy.

Abstract
As open data becomes more widely provided by government, it is important to ask questions about the future possibilities and forms that government open data may take. We present four models of open data as they relate to changing relations between citizens and government. These models include; a status quo ‘data over the wall’ form of government data publishing, a form of ‘code exchange’, with government acting as an open data activist, open data as a civic issue tracker, and participatory open data. These models represent multiple end points that can be currently viewed from the unfolding landscape of government open data. We position open data at a crossroads, with significant concerns of the conflicting motivations driving open data, the shifting role of government as a service provider, and the fragile nature of open data within the government space. We emphasize that the future of open data will be driven by the negotiation of the ethical-economic tension that exists between provisioning governments, citizens, and private sector data users.

Geothoughts 2: The Meaning of Open Government and the Role of Citizens with Daniel Paré

In our second Geothoughts podcast, we discuss the promise and peril of open government.

In our second Geothoughts podcast, we discuss the promise and peril of open government.

By Drew Bush

In our second edition of Geothoughts, we’re excited to bring you an interview with an expert in the issues that arise with innovations in information and communications technology. Daniel Paré is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Ottawa. You can also subscribe to this podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this interview, we explore how Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 focuses too much on the technological side without emphasizing the need for open government across the entire Canadian government information environment. In particular, Paré discusses his views on open data and what the evolving role of the engaged citizen might be.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

This week we ask the opinion of an expert in the issues that arise with innovations in information and communication technologies about Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 and the role of open data. Daniel Paré is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Ottawa.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

For Paré, open government has much less to do with the technological aspects of the portal being emphasized in the Action Plan than whether the idea has transcended the technological issues to include all aspects of governance.

“What we need to do—what people need to do—is clearly distinguish between when we are talking about open government are we talking about the data platform and the portal. Or are we talking about the idea of open government being government-wide in terms of the policies that are in place, in terms of the whole information environment, if I can call it that, that includes the platform but that transcends it?”

If implemented with the whole information environment in mind, he argues, the idea of open government has the potential to democratize and make transparent Canada’s government. However, such a step requires more than data being made available online.

“One of the weaknesses with that point is that you know when you look at the information available online, one of the things you increasingly see is that it’s actually quite difficult for the average individual like you or me to actually do something with those datasets unless we have some pretty advanced understandings of computers and standards and how to do stuff with that.”

A Geothink researcher, Paré specializes in social, economic, political and technical issues arising from innovations in information and communication technologies (ICTs) in developing and industrialized countries. In particular, his research examines e-commerce, Internet governance, information and communication policy, e-government, and knowledge networks.

It’s for this reason that he believes Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 might have a very nice technological and economic agenda but still miss on making the government transparent if a flawed access to information system is left in place legislatively. Some of his concerns echo those expressed by Tracey Lauriault in previous Geothink.ca stories.

“Open government is a wonderful narrative contract and you can have a wonderful discourse about that in terms of yes, you know, we’re open so were more transparent, we’re more democratic. It’s all a great thing. But the issue comes down to how that’s really manifest and how that’s really open. How that’s really sort of implemented. And, so, what my concerns is that when we talk about open government, is that it does tend to focus our attention, I think, too narrowly on things like the open government portal or the technological side.”

As for the emphasis on technological innovation and economic gain in much of the Action Plan, Paré believes it juxtaposes the need to enhance democratization and citizen engagement. A better question, he asks, is if government should see citizens as their clients or as simply requiring information to “facilitate, improve, enhance and participate in the democratic process.

This story originally reported by Prajakta Dhopade, many thanks to her.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

###

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

Geothoughts 1: What’s in a Plan? Innovation at the Cost of Democracy in Canada

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 8.30.05 PM

Our first podcast delves deeper into how Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 has failed to fully engage civil society groups.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our first Geothink.ca Podcast in our series, Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

Our first podcast delves deeper into the opinions of Tracey Lauriault, a researcher at The Programmable City project who specializes in open data and open government in Canada. We explore how Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 has failed to fully engage civil society groups and take you inside her work with front-line groups like the Canadian Council on Social Development and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

Last week Geothink.ca brought you a story about the lack of civil society engagement with Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0. This week we delve deeper to find out what exactly is missing.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

“For me that’s the disappointment. There wasn’t outreach to civil society as I know it. And that’s the civil society organizations that are actually involved in policy formulation or evidence-informed policy on whatever—a variety of issues from transportation planning to anti-poverty to mining extraction.”

That’s the opinion of a researcher at The Programmable City project who specializes in open data and open government in Canada.

“So my name is Tracey Lauriault and I’m working on a European Research Council funded project called The Programmable City. It’s based here at the National University of Ireland in the village of Maynooth at the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis.”

Lauriault believes that Canada’s government is failing to meet the promise held out by new technology and open data. That’s because it’s falling way behind in actually engaging citizens in public policy debates even as it closes institutions such as Canada’s census, scientific organizations or civil society groups that produce this data. In essence, the government’s plan has gotten really good at creating more efficient e-government services but, for Lauriault, this is a very limited view of what open government and open data should be.

As an indication of this failure, Lauriault asks a simple question. Each year the Federation of Canadian Municipalities undertakes a quality of life indicator system that measures a number of factors including the environment, economy, sustainability, poverty and accessibility. Working with approximately 110 indicators and 200 variables, the organization surveys more than 40 different government organizations, including 24 cities across Canada.

“Can we go to that federal portal and could we construct that indicator system with the data in that portal? No. We’re still at the making cold calls, trying to find that public official who knows something about, you know, personal bankruptcies or whatever dataset that we’re looking at on the federal level—an expert at citizen immigration— and so on to collect those data, every year, to construct that indicator system.”

She points out that there are a number of civil society organizations which already do quite good work with data—often data they’ve had to collect and create an infrastructure for themselves. For example, the Canadian Council on Social Development’s Community Data Program has undertaken capacity building, held workshops, made community maps, created newsletters and worked with data all in collaboration with local groups like fire and police departments, anti-poverty organizations, school boards and ethnic groups.

“They’ve been doing that kind of data literacy piece on the front lines, but they’re not called open data. They’re just doing this for evidence-informed policy. So I think it’s not just the fault I think of the Treasury Board secretariat of Canada. I think that there is this kind of epistemic disconnect between, you know, civil society that works with data on an ongoing basis to inform policy and those who make apps.”

And it’s this dichotomy, Lauriault believes, that’s at the heart of why Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 is failing to engage citizens and groups interested in policy.

“If the strategy is going to be innovation and economic return then we’re going to stay with app developers. That’s what’s going to stay as an open data planned strategy and outreach plan. If we think it’s about democratic deliberation and evidence-informed policy and real public engagement, then the strategy has to be different and how the open government plan and open data plan are evaluated also has to differ and change.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

###

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

Crosspost: Canada’s Information Commissioner Tables Recommendations to Overhaul Access to Information Act

The Access to Information Act was first passed by parliament 1983 (Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org).

The Access to Information Act was first passed by parliament in 1983 (Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org).

This post is cross-posted with permission from Teresa Scassa, from her personal blog. Scassa is the Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa.

By Teresa Scassa

Canada’s Access to Information Act is outdated and inadequate – and has been that way for a long time. Information Commissioners over the years have called for its amendment and reform, but generally with little success. The current Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault has seized the opportunity of Canada’s very public embrace of Open Government to table in Parliament a comprehensive series of recommendations for the modernization of the legislation.

The lengthy and well-documented report makes a total of 85 recommendations. This will only seem like a lot to those unfamiliar with the decrepit statute. Taken as a whole, the recommendations would transform the legislation into a modern statute based on international best practices and adapted both to the information age and to the global movement for greater government transparency and accountability.

The recommendations are grouped according to 8 broad themes. The first relates to extending the coverage of the Act to certain institutions and entities that are not currently subject to the legislation. These include the Prime Minister’s Office, offices of Ministers, the bodies that support Parliament (including the Board of Internal Economy, the Library of Parliament, and the Senate Ethics Commissioner), and the bodies that support the operations of the courts (including the Registry of the Supreme Court, the Courts Administration Service and the Canadian Judicial Council). A second category of recommendations relates to the need to bolster the right of access itself. Noting that the use of some technologies, such as instant messaging, may lead to the disappearance of any records of how and why certain decisions are made, the Commissioner recommends instituting a legal duty to document. She also recommends adding a duty to report any unauthorized loss or destruction of information. Under the current legislation, there are nationality-based restrictions on who may request access to information in the hands of the Canadian government. This doesn’t mean that non-Canadians cannot get access – they currently simply have to do it through a Canadian-based agent. Commissioner Legault sensibly recommends that the restrictions be removed. She also recommends the removal of all fees related to access requests.

The format in which information is released has also been a sore point for many of those requesting information. In a digital age, receiving information in reusable digital formats means that it can be quickly searched, analyzed, processed and reused. This can be important, for example, if a large volume of data is sought in order to analyze and discuss it, and perhaps even to convert it into tables, graphs, maps or other visual aids in order to inform a broader public. The Commissioner recommends that institutions be required to provide information to those requesting it “in an open, reusable, and accessible format by default”. Derogation from this rule would only be in exceptional circumstances.

Persistent and significant delays in the release of requested information have also plagued the system at the federal level, with some considering these delays to be a form of deliberate obstruction. The Report includes 10 recommendations to address timeliness. The Commissioner has also set out 32 recommendations designed to maximize disclosure, largely by reworking the current spider’s web of exclusions and exemptions. The goal in some cases is to replace outright exclusions with more discretionary exemptions; in other cases, it is to replace exemptions scattered across other statutes with those in the statute and under the oversight of the Information Commissioner. In some cases, the Commissioner recommends reworking current exemptions so as to maximize disclosure.

Oversight has also been a recurring problem at the federal level. Currently, the Commissioner operates on an ombuds model – she can review complaints regarding refusals to grant access, in adequate responses, lack of timeliness, excessive fees, and so on. However, she can only make recommendations, and has no order-making powers. She recommends that Canada move to an order-making model, giving the Information Commissioner expanded powers to oversee compliance with the legal obligations set out in the legislation. She also recommends new audit powers for the Commissioner, as well as requirements that government institutions consult on proposed legislation that might affect access to information, and submit access to information impact assessments where changes to programs or activities might affect access to information. In addition, Commissioner Legault recommends that the Commissioner be given the authority to carry out education activities aimed at the public and to conduct or fund research.

Along with the order-making powers, the Commissioner is also seeking more significant consequences for failures to comply with the legislation. Penalties would attach to obstruction of access requests, the destruction, altering or falsification of records, failures to document decision-making processes, and failures to report on unauthorized loss or destruction of information.

In keeping with the government’s professed commitments to Open Government, the report includes a number of recommendations in support of a move towards proactive disclosure. The goal of proactive disclosure is to have government departments and institutions automatically release information that is clearly of public interest without waiting for an access to information request that they do so. Although the Action Plan on Open Government 2014-2016 sets goals for proactive disclosure, the Commissioner is recommending that the legislation be amended to include concrete obligations.

The Commissioner is, of course, not alone in calling for reform to the Access to Information Act. A private member’s bill introduced in 2014 by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also proposes reforms to the legislation, although these are by no means as comprehensive as what is found in Commissioner Legault’s report.

In 2012 Canada joined the Open Government Partnership, and committed itself to an Action Plan on Open Government. This Action Plan contains commitments grouped under three headings: Open Information, Open Data and Open Dialogue. Yet its commitments to improving access to information are focussed on streamlining processes (for example, by making it possible to file and pay for access requests online, creating a virtual library, and making it easier to search for government information online.) The most recent version of the Action Plan similarly contains no commitments to reform the legislation. This unwillingness to tackle the major and substantive issues facing access to information in Canada is a serious impediment to realizing an open government agenda. A systemic reform of the Access to Information Act, such as that proposed by the Information Commissioner, is required.

What do you think about Canada’s Access to Information Act? Let us know on twitter @geothinkca.

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

Behind the Scenes with Geothink Partner Yvonne Chen: Edmonton’s Open City Initiative

By Drew Bush

Sometime early next week, Edmonton’s City Council will vote to endorse an Open City Initiative that will help cement the city’s status as a smart city alongside cities like Stokholm, Seattle and Vienna. This follows close on the heels of a 2010 decision by city leaders to be the first to launch an open data catalogue and the 2011 awarding of a $400,000 IBM Smart Cities Challenge award grant.

Yvonne Chen, Strategic Planner at City of Edmonton

Yvonne Chen, Strategic Planner at City of Edmonton.

“Edmonton is aspiring to fulfill its role as a permanent global city, which means innovative, inclusive and engaged government,” said Yvonne Chen, a strategic planner for the city who has helped orchestrate the Open City Initiative. “So Open City acts as the umbrella that encompasses all the innovative open government work within the city of Edmonton.”

This work has included using advanced analysis of open data streams to enhance crime enforcement and prevention, an “open lab” to provide new products that improve citizen interactions with government, and interactive neighbourhood maps that will help Edmontonians locate and examine waste disposal services, recreational centres, transit information, and capitol projects.

For Chen, last week’s release of the Open City Initiative represents the culmination of years of work.

“My role throughout this entire release was I was helping with the public consultation sessions, I was analyzing information, and I was writing the Open City initiative documents as well as a lot of the policy itself,” she said.

In fact, the document outlines city policy, action plans for specific initiatives, environmental scans (or reviews), and results from public consultations on city initiatives. More than 1,800 Edmontonians commented on the Initiative last October before it was revised and updated for the Council.

“The City of Edmonton’s Open City Initiative is a municipal perspective of the broader open government philosophy,” Chen adds. “It guides the development of innovative solutions in the effort to connect Edmontonians to city information, programs, services and any engagement opportunities.”

Like many provincial and federal open city policies, the document focuses on making Edmonton’s government more transparent, accountable and accessible. What sets Edmonton apart, Chen said, is a focus on including citizens in the design and delivery of city programs and services through deliberate consultations, presentations, public events and online citizen panels. In fact, more than 2,200 citizens are on just the panel asked questions by city officials as they design the Initiative’s infrastructure.

So what will it mean to live in one of North America’s smart cities? Edmonton is already beginning to provide free public Wi-Fi around the city, developing a not yet ready 311 application for two-way communication about city services, and working to fully integrate its electronic services across city departments.

“So one of the projects which has been reviewed very, very popularly is we have opened public Wi-Fi on the LRT stations,” Chen said of a project that includes plans for expanding the service to all train and tunnels. “A lot of commuters are utilizing the service and utilizing the free Wi-Fi provided by the city while waiting for their trains.”

What do you think about Edmonton’s Open City initiative? Let us know on twitter @geothinkca.

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

Torts of the Geoweb: (or the liability question) Part I

Screenshot

Mapping Ottawa’s open data on tobogganing hills (Photo courtesy of ottawastart.com)

By Tenille Brown, PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa

Recently, on March 3rd as part of the continuing Geothink Project, I hosted a Twitter chat about tort liability with Mapping Mashups. This online forum was joined by Geothink partners and friends and the primary topic discussed was the role of tort law and how and where it fits in the context of the Geoweb, liability and moral responsibility. One active participant of this Twitter discussion was British academic Muki Haklay, a collaborator on the Geothink project more broadly, and Haklay later wrote up some highlights from this discussion, available here. I have been considering the role of tort liability in multiple contexts for some time now, both prior to the online discussion and subsequent to it. I have not been thinking of this idea so much in a typical “finding a problem” lawyerly way, but more in a “trying to understand the allocation of responsibility” kind of way. From the legal perspective, questions about how we should handle the mountains of data collected and produced by governments and citizens alike, jumps out at me. For these reasons I chose to place the focus of the Twitter chat on tort liability rather than the challenges of protecting the privacy of personal information, or copyright issues in geospatial information, which have been discussed elsewhere.

With the increase in platforms and data sources (both government and volunteered) on the geoweb, there is also an increase in opportunities for legal liability to attach to this information. With Canadian cities releasing data sets of all types of information, from proposed roadways to beach water sampling data, the liability question is not hypothetical, but of increasing importance. Of course, cities are carrying out their due-diligence by ensuring personal information does not get released, following the principles of the open government license. But still, some questions remain to be answered such as, what legal tools are in place to deal with third parties who take government information and use that information in a way that causes harm?

One example that immediately comes to mind is the use of open data to create apps for the reporting of pot-holes through cities 311 app, as happens in Toronto. A more apt example for Ottawa is the recently released information about hills open to tobogganing throughout the city, which was collated in a map here. Does liability attach to this information? If so, would information which highlights any hazards on the hill amount to a defence in a negligence action? How would we assign liability if citizenship were to take government data and create an open data app which contains outdated data?

In his write-up about the chat, I think Muki Haklay framed this problem correctly as an ethics problem. Haklay writes, Somehow, the growth of the geoweb took us backward. The degree to which awareness of ethics is internalised within a discourse of ‘move fast and break things‘, software / hardware development culture of perpetual beta, lack of duty of care, and a search for fast ‘exit’ (and therefore IBG-YBG) make me wonder about which mechanisms we need to put in place to ensure the reintroduction of strong ethical notions into the geoweb. As some of the responses to my question demonstrate, people will accept the changes in societal behaviour and view them as normal… In fact, tort liability principles recognize that if a wrong has been committed (sometimes even without intent), then the person who committed the harm might be required to compensate the individual. The very basis of tort law is that we ought to provide remedies for those wronged. Based on this aim, the courts don’t always uphold contracts of adhesion (which seek to limit liability).

The principles of tort liability understood as a matter of ethics and responsibility, provides opportunities for the prevention of harm and the accountability of government. This has long been recognized in the New York context, where the law stipulates that should a person trip on the sidewalk (or pothole), the city is only liable if it has been reported. To ensure reporting, every year the Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Corporationmaps out the cracks, holes and potholes throughout the city (and here). For its part, Toronto reports it has filled in almost 50,000 potholes in 2015 to date and over the past years there has been a 40% increase in drivers receiving compensation from pot-hole induced damage to cars. (The same report does not detail the number of complaints that have been made by the 311 reporting service).

The twitter conversation demonstrates that legal analysis questions, such as who has standing to bring a legal claim, who bears legal responsibility for information, and which courts have jurisdiction, are only the beginning of tort legal questions. A second analysis begs that we understand data in a larger framework which takes into account duties and responsibilities. Focusing on the prevention of harm, we could argue, that there should be a larger set of core activities or areas for which liability cannot be contracted out. These core areas presumably would pertain to the health, safety and well-being of citizenship, particularly that they be tailored to protect the interests of those who cannot be expected to know the details of tortious liability, nor necessarily how to navigate geoweb activities.

Tenille Brown is a PhD student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and a Geothink student member. Her research is in the areas of legal geography, including property, spatial and citizen engagement, in the Ottawa context.

She can be reached on twitter, @TenilleEBrown and via email, Tenille.Brown@uottawa.ca.