Tag Archives: open government

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


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.

Canada Action Plan on Open Government 2.0: Much Still To Do?


Canada recently completed their public consultation on Open Government (Photo source).

By Drew Bush


For the savvy traveller headed over Canada’s border this holiday season, Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0 holds promise. A visit to the site in December 2014 yielded a multi-media list of steps to follow when travelling abroad and even an iOS “Travel Smart” application.

Drafted after a June 2013 G8 Summit, Canada’s plan results from agreements it made when it signed on to the summit’s Open Data Charter that lays the foundation for usage of open data to promote best government practice.

As a result, Canadians can now get online help with more than just travel. Ever wanted to know how much tax money you spend on government contracts? Or need information on the fuel consumption of a car you might buy?

The goal of the 65 nations committed to these plans is to increase government transparency and accountability, encourage citizen engagement, and stimulate innovation and economic opportunities.


Making this type of data more freely available fits with a long tradition in Canada. When the country began participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in September 2011, it committed to making open data (or machine readable, freely used, re-used and redistributed data) open to anyone able to attribute and share it.

Applications of Web 2.0 technologies and social media allow for these types of interactions online with information, datasets and records. In fact, many modern computer programs incorporate Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) to gain access to datasets for users.

The Open Data Charter recognizes the central role open data plays in improving governance and stimulating innovation in data-driven products and services. It endorses the principle of open by default, an idea also supported by U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 Executive Order on open data.

The drafting of the Charter and Obama’s order have elicited praise but also criticism. As Rufus Pollock, Founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, wrote on his foundation’s blog, “there is still much for the G8, and other countries, to do.” In particular, the early results from an Open Data Census in July 2013 show that G8 countries have a long way to go in opening up essential data.

User Generated Input

Making data and information more available to Canadians isn’t the only goal of the plan. Open government is increasingly becoming a positive force for unity and international cooperation, according to Canada’s President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, in his statement “About Open Government”. He claims that open data makes government “more open, accessible, and responsive” by harnessing the “collective ingenuity, drive, and imagination of its people.”

In Canada, this means finding a way for citizens to engage in a two-way dialogue and even contribute datasets. In 2014, the Canadian Open Data Experience appathon again brought together government, industry, academia, and the public to mash up, reuse and remix federal government data. Events like these and communities the plan encourages around interest areas like maps, labour and law help encourage the development of useful, effective applications that use government data.

Short History of Open Government in Canada

  • The Open Government Partnership formally launched on September 20, 2011 when eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Canada joined the partnership later that year.
  • On March 18, 2011, the Government of Canada announced its commitment to an open government initiative that focuses on three areas: 1. Making information such as records and activity more easily accessible; 2. Making raw data available in machine-readable formats to citizens, governments, and non-profit/private sector organizations; 3) Giving citizens an opportunity for dialogue on federal policies.
  • In 2011 the Government of Canada launched an Open Data Portal – data.gc.ca – which now has more than 272,000 datasets from 20 departments and which has already resulted in over 100,000 dataset downloads since its launch.
  • All government departments began publishing summaries of completed Access to Information (ATI) requests 2012 monthly on their Web sites.
  • In 2012, the Government of Canada issued its enhanced Values and Ethics Code of conduct for all public officials.
  • A 2013 Government of Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant asks ‘How the Geospatial Web 2.0 is Reshaping Government-Citizen Interactions.’ GeoThink now includes 13 team members and 36 collaborators and partners.

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.

Re-identification Risk and Proactive Disclosure of Data for Open Government: Lessons from the Supreme Court of Canada?

By Teresa Scassa

One of the challenges with the proactive disclosure of government data, and with open data more generally, is the obligation that governments have to not disclose personal information. This challenge is made more acute by the fact that the definition of “personal information” is, generally speaking, “information about an identifiable individual”.

Courts in Canada have said that identifiability is not considered solely in the context of the particular data set in question – information is personal information if it can lead to the identification of an individual when it is matched with information from virtually any other source.

The Supreme Court of Canada has just released a decision dealing with the issue of whether Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services was right to refuse to disclose information relating to the province’s sex offender registry. The concern in this case was that although the applicant sought only data about sex offenders living within the forward sortation areas, indicated by the first 3 letters of a postal code, this information could still be matched with other available information to specifically identify and locate individuals. Although the case deals with the province’s access to information regime, lessons can be extracted that are relevant to both the proactive disclosure of government information and to open data.

For more detail, see my blog post about this case, here: http://www.teresascassa.ca/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=159:re-identification-risk-and-proactive-disclosure-of-data-for-open-government-lessons-from-the-supreme-court-of-canada?&Itemid=80

Teresa Scassa University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law

Canada’s Open Government Licence V2.0 Is Released



Written by Teresa Scassa

Read more posts by Teresa @ http://www.teresascassa.ca/

With little fanfare, the Canadian government has released its much awaited, newly revised Open GovernmentLicence. The previous version that had been available on its Open Data site was a beta version on which public comments were invited. The government has also published its Open Government Licence Consultation Report, which summarizes and discusses the comments received during the consultation process.

The revised version of the licence is an improvement over its predecessor. Gone is the claim to database rights which do not exist in Canada. (These rights do exist in the UK, the Open Government Licence of which was a template for the Canadian licence). The new licence also discards the UK term “personal data” and replaces it with “personal information”, and it gives this term the meaning ascribed under the federal Privacy Act. The language used in the licence has been further simplified,making it even more accessible.

It should be noted that Alberta’s new open government licence – released as part of the launch of its open government portal earlier this year – is very similar to V2.0 of the federal government licence. There are some minor formatting differences, and a few changes in wording, most of which can be explained by the different jurisdiction (for example, the definition of “personal information” refers to Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). The similarities between the two licences are no coincidence. Although the Alberta licence was made public prior to the release of the federal government’s V2.0, work has been going on behind the scenes to move towards some form of federal/provincial consensus on the wording of open government licences with a view to ensuring that there is legal interoperability between data sets released by different governments in Canada. The efforts to reduce barriers to interoperability (whether legal or technical) are important to the ability of Canadians to work with and to integrate different data sets in new and innovative ways. Thus not only is the COGL V2.0 to be welcomed, so are the signs that cooperation and coordination may lead to a greater legal interoperability of open government licences across Canada.