Thursday, 17 February 2011

UNPAN applauds Canada's open data strategy - the question is when would DESA's UNPAN open itself up to the world on its own project data?

Civil servants forge ahead with open data strategy

OTTAWA— Civil servants are forging ahead with an open-data strategy for the federal government while politicians drag their heels on a formal policy.

A parliamentary committee has been studying the issue since last April and resumes debate this week, but documents obtained under Access to Information show that bureaucrats started drafting a plan in July.

Unlike the United States and Britain, Canada has no formal federal policy of making raw, taxpayer-funded data freely available to the public.

Civil servants have realized that needs to change.

At the July meeting to kick off the strategy, they drafted a five-point plan.

The goal was "to create economic opportunity and promote informed participation by the public by expanding access to federal government data," said a copy of the presentation.

Part of the plan was expected to launch last fall.

It would include a common "front door" to government data, a searchable catalogue and easy downloading, said a report to a set of OECD meetings on public governance, held in Venice in November.

"It will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians," said the Canadian chapter of the OECD report.

But the roll-out has bogged down over issues such as bilingualism, licensing and security.

"We are not able to confirm timing of the launch at this time," said an email from Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesperson for Treasury Board, which oversees the project.

Liberal MP Shawn Murphy, chairman of the Commons committee studying open data, said he was unaware of the plan.

"They haven't told us yet," he said.

"But that doesn't surprise me. There is an appetite in the public to get this done."

Part of the committee's work includes seeking submissions from the public.

Advocates for open data have made their positions clear -- two of the top three ideas submitted to the federal government's digital economy consultations were for more access to public sector and data.

Supporters say greater access would save the government money.

"Canadians often pay multiple times for the same data, since each level of government also purchases the same data, federal departments purchase these data from each other," wrote Tracey Lauriault, a researcher at Carleton University who also runs a blog about open government.

The fact that the bureaucracy is moving ahead without clear political direction isn't that unusual, suggested David Eaves, a leading advocate for more transparency in government information.

"We already have a policy infrastructure for dealing with most of the open data that's out there because we already have open data," he said.

The July presentation suggested the strategy begin simply with the data already in the public domain.

At a website called, Eaves has set up a clearinghouse for government information that's available online now.

Natural Resources Canada leads the way with 222 sets, but after that it's only dribs and drabs of what's available for free.

But it's not just about creating a portal to what is there, suggested Alberta Senator Elaine McCoy.

"You can find a lot of stuff just using Google," she said.

"What excites me is having the raw data in machine-readable form, so that I could just quickly capture it with my computer in a nanosecond and then be immediately able to mash it up."

McCoy and a group of programmers tried to create such a mashup out of data from the Harper government's Economic Action Plan.

They wanted to track stimulus spending across the country to see how it was being used, but the plan failed when the data wasn't available.

What's holding back the data isn't technology, but the desire of both the political leadership and the civil service to control their messages, McCoy said.

"You can't do that if your databases are wide open, because somebody can come in and take a look at them and say excuse me, I think your interpretation is not the correct one."

At the municipal level, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and London, Ont., are leading the way in opening up databases.

The information released has been used for everything from mapping restaurant inspections to the development of applications that track transit arrival times.

While it's trickier to think of daily uses of federal data, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be available, Eaves said.

"The great thing about this stuff is you don't know what people are going to find that's going to be successful and innovative and adding value," he said.

"If we knew, then we'd be doing it, but we don't and we don't even get a chance."

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