The federal government says it’s committed to making more data public

Originally published in Media magazine, Winter 2014.

If the government of Stephen Harper is to be known for one signature achievement, it may well be the iron grip it has placed on the flow of information.
Harper has taken control to new heights with his clampdowns on federal scientists and the virtual elimination of media interviews. Even those who are paid to interact with reporters have become purveyors of carefully crafted emailed statements that are nearly devoid of actual content.
But there’s one area in which Ottawa would like to claim great openness, and that’s data. Last summer the government rolled out the new and improved version of its open data portal ( data.gc.ca ). It is part of a larger open government initiative that is in turn part of an even larger international open government partnership.
The open data movement holds that a government that allows unlimited third- party use of its non-personal data holdings will not only be more transparent and accountable, but will spark all sorts of private sector activity as developers work with the data to develop innovative applications.
Open data also has the potential to make sophisticated data journalism techniques more accessible to journalists in newsrooms large and small, or working on their own, by cutting down on the need to use the Access to Information Act to obtain data for analysis and visualization.
In June 2013, Harper signed an open data charter at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Among the elements of the charter, a statement that “ open data are an untapped resource with huge potential to encourage the building of stronger, more interconnected societies” and a promise to make openness around data the default governmental position. Each G8 country can implement the principles within the context of “national political and legal frameworks,” a caveat that presumably allows for significant latitude in how the policy will actually be rolled out. Nonetheless, it’s better than nothing.
In Canada, the initiative is to be driven by a government- wide directive that will mandate departments to release their data unless there is good reason not to do so. While I doubt that this will lead to a sudden willingness to open the vaults to give the public access to byte-loads of contentious information, there are some small signs that the initiative is starting to bear fruit.
For example, the Canada Revenue Agency has recently posted detailed charities data that once required an Access to Information request, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada provides mission-by-mission data on the flow of immigrants and permanent residents to Canada.
The new version of the portal is also easier to navigate than the old, with the option to browse or search the data, and features such as the top 10 datasets and a link to newly released data. While the federal open data site is still dominated by innocuous datasets with arcane titles such as, “Anthropogenic disturbances across the Canadian boreal ecosystem collected from 2008 to 2010 Landsat imagery Gridded to a 1km resolution,” there seems to be some promise that there will be more datasets posted that will be of real value to journalists, even if they may not always produce breaking news. In fact, the government is promising to take into consideration what is being requested through ATI in deciding what datasets to make available in the future.
“The desired effect of this would be to increase access for Canadians to the data they want most,” the government says in an assessment of the first year of its open government plan.
So, are we on the cusp of a new era of open government that freely shares its vast data holdings with the public and journalists? I think for sure more and more data will be available, and some of it will be genuinely valuable for journalists. We have seen this with many of the municipal open data sites, such as in Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, which have all improved their offerings over time. Will governments give up their penchant for secrecy and will Stephen Harper begin running a truly open government? I don’t expect so. But making more data available is at least a step in the right direction.