American lawmakers sign open data act while Canada strives to make good on action plan

Mark Mann
January 23, 2019

While attention was fixed on the government shutdown in the days leading up to Christmas, the United States Congress quietly passed the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act (AKA the OPEN Government Data Act) on December 24, 2018. Having already passed in the Senate five days prior, the law now awaits President Trump’s signature.   

The bill is based on two principles: 1) public data should be available in a machine-readable format by default, and 2) public policy should be evidence-based.

Supporters of open government data point out that citizens pay for the creation of the data, so they should be able to make the most of it, for the greater good of the economy. And as the OPEN Government Data Act implies, open data enables better evidence-informed decision-making.

“We don't publish data just because people might find it interesting,” said Bill Joyce, director in the Dissemination Division of Statistics Canada, commenting on the issue in a phone interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. “We  publish data because we know that there are data users… [that] are using our data to support evidence-based decision-making and that are using our data in policy development.”

Canada has been making strides toward better open data policies and practices, but still has far to go in terms of comprehensive implementation.

A plan for action on open data in Canada

Since 2012, the Canadian government has been pursuing a National Action Plan on Open Government, led by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. In April of that year, Canada joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international coalition committed to openness in four areas: 1) fiscal transparency, 2) access to information, 3) public officials asset disclosure and 4) citizen engagement.

Canada has endorsed the OGP’s Open Government Declaration, which asserts that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. Signatories to the declaration promise to develop “accessible and secure online spaces as platforms for delivering services, engaging the public, and sharing information and ideas,” among other commitments.

Multi-Stakeholder Forum on open data: lack of consensus, but big ambitions

To support the National Action Plan on Open Government Data, a Multi-stakeholder Forum (MSF) composed of eight civil society representatives and four federal government officials was established in 2017, to lead the development of the 2018-2020 plan. The MSF is an international best practice and a requirement for members of the OGP.

In their letter introducing the national action plan, the MSF claimed only modest success. “We’ll be clear: we view the current status of our collaboration as a starting point,” they wrote. Without arriving at significant conclusions, they committed to further collaboration: “From the perspective of the MSF as a whole, we did not reach consensus on the direction of the National Action Plan, or even how it should be developed. But we still believe in the value of this process and the possibilities it raises.”

Nevertheless, the 2018-2020 National Action Plan includes many detailed milestones under several broad rubrics: user-friendly open government, financial transparency and accountability, corporate transparency, digital government and services, open science, and others.

Statistics Canada stands out for open data

While the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has taken the policy lead on open government data, Statistics Canada is playing a key advisory role to the broader effort, based on the department’s long experience in this domain and early movements toward bringing more openness to government data. For example, back in 2012 Statscan replaced its paid CANSIM database with a free service that makes all standard aggregate data available in a non-proprietary machine-readable format

"Prior to 2012, you really had to get your visa card out to access data from that system," explains Joyce. Now the data is not only free to access, but organizations can use and monetize the data without paying any license fee.

Statistics Canada is also the main contributor to the Open Government data portal. Looking at the non-geospatial file, the open data portal has 9,087 datasets, of which 6,768 were contributed by Statscan, says Joyce.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based organization Open Data Watch, which monitors and assesses the coverage and openness of official statistics published by national statistical offices worldwide, Canada ranked eighth in 2016 and fifth in 2017.

Outside Statscan, not all data is created equal

Outside of Statistics Canada, however, the quality of data that’s being made available doesn’t always achieve a high standard.

“The government does own a lot of data and increasingly is making it open. However, not all open data is created equally. A lot of the data that gets released is not machine-readable and really not intelligible,” said Alexandra MacEarchern, chief of staff at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), during a panel on open data at the FWD50 conference in Ottawa on November 6, 2018. Machine-readable data is usable by researchers and other organizations, often as a CSV file; non-machine-readable data is locked in PDF, HTML, and other file formats.

"The data is still being collected like it was thirty years ago.” - Vidya ShankarNarayan, director general of the Digital Services Program at ISED

Launched in July 2017 and housed at the Treasury Board Secretariat, the CDS is the organization within the Canadian government working most directly to create and improve accessible online spaces based on the principles of open data. Composed of developers, engineers and designers and drawing talent from both inside and outside government, the simple mandate of the CDS is to help government departments with their IT projects.

In order to work in the open, the CDS must do a lot of “bureaucracy-hacking,” said MacEarchern. “For some departments, this can be a real culture shock.”

“We started collecting data when we started with the Internet, sometime in the 90s. Before that everything was paper… Now, we are three decades later, and the data is still being collected like it was thirty years ago,”  said Vidya ShankarNarayan, director general of the Digital Services Program at Innovation Science and Economic Development (ISED), to the FWD50 panel.

“When you look at the desktop environment that we have across the government of Canada, it’s essentially standardized, and our bar right now for technology is Microsoft Excel,” said John O’Brien, CDS’s head of security, at the FWD50 panel. Excel doesn’t enable developers to access the range of tools available for data science. If we want to do Big Data, relying on Excel won’t work, he says: “We are our own biggest challenge.”


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