Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography

A 2016 European Commission report titled Survey report: data management in Citizen Science projects provides interesting insights into how such projects manage the data they collect. Proper management is, of course, essential to ensure that the collected data can be used and reused by project leaders as well as by other downstream users. It is relevant as well to the protection of the privacy of citizen participants. The authors of this report surveyed a large number of citizen science projects. From the 121 responses received they distilled findings that explore the diversity of the citizen science projects, and that reveal a troubling lack of thorough data management practices. A significant shortcoming for many projects was the lack of appropriate data licences to govern reuse of either raw or aggregate data collected.

There has been growing pressure on those carrying out research using public resources to make the fruits of the research – including the research data – publicly available for consultation, verification or reuse. But doing so is not as simple as a binary open/closed choice. There are a number of different questions that researchers must address: Should the raw data be made open or only the aggregate data? Should it be immediately available or available only after an embargo period? Is all data suitable for release or should some be protected for public policy reasons (such as protecting privacy)? And what, if any, terms and conditions should be imposed on reuse?

The authors of the EC report, Sven Schade and Chrysi Tsinaraki, found that overall there was a relatively high level of data sharing from citizen science projects. Significantly, 38% of the respondents to their survey provided access to their raw data; 37% provided access to aggregate data and 30% provided access to both. One interesting observation in this respect was that 68% of those respondents who provided access to their raw data also included within this dataset personal identifiers of citizen contributors to the project. Such data might be advertently collected, as where individuals provide personal information with their data uploads. In some cases, the scope of personal information might be significant. Contributions to a project might include geolocation information and geodemographic details. Schade and Tsinaraki asked respondents about their practices when it came to obtaining informed consent to data collection from project participants; they found that 25% of respondents did not obtain such consent whereas 53% relied upon a generic terms of use document to obtain consent. It was not entirely clear whether the consent being sought related to privacy issues or to obtaining any necessary rights to use or disseminate the data being collected (which might, for example, include copyright protected photographs). In any event, the results of the survey suggest that there is a significant lack of attention to both privacy and IP rights issues in citizen science projects.

On the issue of data licensing, Schade and Tsinaraki found that the conditions imposed on reuse by different projects varied. A majority of those who made data available believed that the data was in the public domain, while others imposed conditions such as non-commercial or share-alike restrictions. When asked which license they used to achieve these goals, 32 out of 56 respondents indicated that they used one of the commonly available template licences such as Creative Commons or Open Data Commons. A surprising number of respondents indicated that no particular licence was used. While data released in this way might be presumed to be “open”, the usefulness of the data might well be hampered by a lack of clarity regarding the scope of permitted reuse.

In addition to providing access to data, the authors of the Report asked whether citizen science researchers allowed open access to research results (presumably in the form of published papers and other output). While the overwhelming majority of projects indicated that they used open access options (ranging from public domain dedication to open access with conditions), Schade and Tsinaraki also found that 14 of the projects they considered used licences with terms that were not consistent with the reuse conditions that the researchers had identified. Clearly there is a need for greater support for projects in developing or choosing appropriate licences.

Although many of the projects indicated that they provided access to their data, the duration of that access was less certain. The authors found that 42% of projects intended to guarantee access to their data only within the lifespan of the project. The authors also found that 40% of projects that provide data access do not provide comprehensive metadata along with the data. This would certainly limit the value of the data for reuse. Both these issues are important in the context of citizen science projects, which are often granted-funded and temporally-limited. The ability to archive and preserve research data and to make it available for meaningful access and reuse should be part of researchers’ data management plans, and is something which should be supported by research institutions and funding agencies.

Overall, the Report provides data that suggests that the burgeoning field of citizen science needs more support when it comes to all aspects of data management. Proper data management practices will help citizen science researchers to meet their own objectives, to share their data effectively and appropriately, and to protect the rights and interests of participants.

Note: In 2015 I drafted a report, with Haewon Chung, for the Wilson Center Commons Lab titled Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science. This report addresses many licensing issues related to the collection, sharing and reuse of citizen science data and outputs. It is available under a Creative Commons Licence.

 


Tuesday, 02 August 2016 07:20

Interactive Crime Maps: A Critical Perspective

Written by Teresa Scassa

Municipal police services in North America now commonly make digital crime maps available to the public online. These interactive maps allow individuals to choose a particular part of their city, as well as a window of time (crimes in the last 7, 14 or 21 days, for example). They can search for all mapped crimes in this time frame or can limit their search to particular types of crime. The results are returned in the form of icons on a map of the selected area. The icons represent different categories of criminal activity, and clicking on each icon will reveal basic information about the incident. The maps can be used for many purposes. For example, someone who is thinking of parking their vehicle overnight in a particular part of the city might search to see if there are many thefts of vehicles or thefts from vehicles in that area. Prospective home buyers or renters might also use the maps to assess the incidence of crime in neighborhoods they are considering. Most crime maps of this kind allow users to sign up for email alerts about crime in their neighborhood, and the maps also provide a means for individuals to send in tips about mapped crimes.

A police service that decides to offer an interactive crime map to the public can choose to create their own crime map (usually by hiring a tech services company to build one) (for examples of this option see the maps from Winnipeg or Halifax) or they can contract with one of a number of leading crime mapping companies in North America. These companies typically offer a range of data analytics services to police. Often the crime maps are offered for free, with the hope that the police service will purchase other analytics services. The 3 leading companies are all based in the United States, but they offer hosting on their platform to police services across North America.

In a new paper that has just been published in the International Journal of e-Planning Research, I look at the practice of crime-mapping in 3 Canadian municipalities – Ottawa, London and Saint John. The police services in each of these cities have contracted with a different one of the 3 leading U.S.-based crime mapping companies. In my paper I consider how these crime maps present particular narratives of crime in the city. These narratives may be influenced in subtle or not so subtle ways by the fact that the mapping platform is U.S.-based. These influences may show up in the rhetoric around the crime maps used by the host company, the crimes or other types of data chosen (or not chosen) for mapping, and the descriptions on the host platforms of the type of data featured on the maps. I also evaluate the quality of the mapped data, and explore how laws shape and constrain the use and reuse of crime data.

While the crime maps are superficially attractive and easy to use, there is reason to be concerned about their use. In my research for this paper, I learned that it is possible to access the maps either through the host company’s site or through the police service’s website. Depending on the route chosen, the messaging (including a description of the mapped data, the purpose of the map, and its limitations) is different. While disclaimers on the police services’ sites may warn of the limitations of the data provided, those who access through the host platform are unware of these deficiencies. The mapped data provide a very partial account of crime in the city, and critics of this type of crime mapping have raised concern both about the potentially misleading nature of the maps, and the particular narrative of urban crime they convey.

My paper also explores issues of control and ownership of the mapped data and the impact that this has on the ability of civil society groups either to critically assess the data or to create other tools and analytics that might combine crime data with other urban data. While the crime mapping platforms do not claim ownership of the data that they map (according to the sites, ownership rests with the police services), they do prohibit the scraping of data from their sites – and there is evidence of legal action taken to pursue data scrapers. In most cases, police services do not make the same data provided to the crime mapping companies available as open data. This allows the police service (in conjunction with the limitations built into the crime mapping platforms) to largely control how the data is presented to the public. At the same time, the presence of a publicly accessible crime map might itself be used by a police service as a justification for not making the same crime data available as open data. (I note that Vancouver, which hired a company to create its own crime map, also makes the mapped data available as open data (although it updates it with less frequency than the mapped data).

Ultimately, the paper asks whether this model of crime mapping advances or limits goals of transparency and accountability, and what lessons it offers about the use of private sector civic technologies to serve public sector purposes.

Note: The research behind this paper was recently featured by H.G. Watson in her article in J-Source titled “Reporters need to dig deeper into crime maps to tell the whole story”. The article also discusses April Lindgren’s interesting article on the relationship between police information and journalism titled “Covering Canadian Crime: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Question”.

 


The federal government has just released for public comment its open government plan for 2016-2018. This is the third such plan since Canada joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012. The two previous plans were released by the Conservative government, and were called Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2012-2014 and Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-2016. This most recent plan is titled Canada’s New Plan on Open Government (“New Plan”). The change in title signals a change in approach.

The previous government structured its commitments around three broad themes: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue. It is fair to say that it was the first of these themes that received the greatest attention. Under the Conservatives there were a number of important open data initiatives: the government developed an open data portal, an open government licence (modeled on the UK Open Government Licence), and a Directive on Open Government. It also committed to funding the Open Data Exchange (ODX) (a kind of incubator hub for open data businesses in Canada), and supported a couple of national open data hackathons. Commitments under Open Information were considerably less ambitious. While important improvements were made to online interfaces for making access to information requests, and while more information was provided about already filled ATIP requests, it is fair to say that improving substantive access to government information was not a priority. Open dialogue commitments were also relatively modest.

Canada’s “New Plan” is considerably different in style and substance from its predecessors. This plan is structured around 4 broad themes: open by default; fiscal transparency; innovation, prosperity and sustainable development; and engaging Canadians and the world. Each theme comes with a number of commitments and milestones, and each speaks to an aspirational goal for open government, better articulating why this is an initiative worth an investment of time and resources.

Perhaps because there was so great a backlash against the previous government’s perceived lack of openness, the Liberals ran on an election platform that stressed openness and transparency. The New Plan reflects many of these election commitments. As such, it is notably more ambitious than the previous two action plans. The commitments are both deeper (for example, the 2014-2016 action plan committed to a public database disclosing details of all government contracts over $10,000; the New Plan commits to revealing details of all contracts over $1), and more expansive (with the government committing to new openness initiatives not found in earlier plans).

One area where the previous government faced considerable criticism (see, for example Mary Francoli’s second review of Canada’s open government commitments) was in respect of the access to information regime. That government’s commitments under “open information” aimed to improve access to information processes without addressing substantive flaws in the outdated Access to Information Act. The new government’s promise to improve the legislation is up front in the New Plan. Its first commitment is to enhance access to information through reforms to the legislation. According to the New Plan, these include order-making powers for the Commissioner, extending the application of the Access to Information Act to the Prime Minister and his Ministers’ Offices, and mandatory 5-year reviews of the legislation. Although these amendments would be a positive step, they fall short of those recommended by the Commissioner. It will also be interesting to see whether everything on this short list comes to pass. (Order-making powers in particular are something to watch here.) The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has recently completed hearings on this legislation. It will be very interesting to see what actually comes of this process. As many cynics (realists?) have observed, it is much easier for opposition parties to be in favour of open and transparent government than it is for parties in power. Whether the Act gets the makeover it requires remains to be seen.

One of the interesting features of this New Plan is that many of the commitments are ones that go to supporting the enormous cultural shift that is required for a government to operate in a more open fashion. Bureaucracies develop strong cultures, often influenced by long-cherished policies and practices. Significant change often requires more than just a new policy or directive; the New Plan contains commitments for the development of clear guidelines and standards for making data and information open by default, as well as commitments to training and education within the civil service, performance metrics, and new management frameworks. While not particularly ‘exciting’, these commitments are important and they signal a desire to take the steps needed to effect a genuine cultural shift within government.

The New Plan identifies fiscal transparency as an overarching theme. It contains several commitments to improve fiscal transparency, including more extensive and granular reporting of information on departmental spending, greater transparency of budget data and of fiscal analysis, and improved openness of information around government grants and other contributions. The government also commits to creating a single portal for Canadians who wish to search for information on Canadian businesses, whether they are incorporated federally or in one of the provinces or territories.

On the theme of Innovation, Prosperity and Sustainable Development, the New Plan also reflects commitments to greater openness in relation to federal science activities (a sore point with the previous government). It also builds upon a range of commitments that were present in previous action plans, including the use of the ODX to stimulate innovation, the development of open geospatial data, the alignment of open data at all levels of government in Canada, and the implementation of the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act. The New Plan also makes commitments to show leadership in supporting openness and transparency around the world.

The government’s final theme is “Engaging Canadians and the World”. This is the part where the government addresses how it plans to engage civil society. It plans to disband the Advisory Panel established by the previous government (of which I was a member). While the panel constituted a broad pool of expertise on which the government could draw, it was significantly under-utilized, and clearly this government plans to try something new. They state that they will “develop and maintain a renewed mechanism for ongoing, meaningful dialogue” between the government and civil society organizations – whatever that means. Clearly, the government is still trying to come up with a format or framework that will be most effective.

The government also commits in rather vague terms to fostering citizen participation and engagement with government on open government initiatives. It would seem that the government will attempt to “enable the use of new methods for consulting and engaging Canadians”, and will provide support and resources to government departments and agencies that require assistance in doing so. The commitments in this area are inward-looking – the government seems to acknowledge that it needs to figure out how to encourage and enhance citizen engagement, but at the same time is not sure how to do so effectively.

In this respect, the New Plan offers perhaps a case in point. This is a detailed and interesting plan that covers a great deal of territory and that addresses many issues that should be of significant concern to Canadians. It was released on June 16, with a call for comments by June 30. Such a narrow window of time in which to comment on such a lengthy document does not encourage engagement or dialogue. While the time constraints may be externally driven (by virtue of OGP targets and deadlines), and while there has been consultation in the lead up to the drafting of this document, it is disappointing that the public is not given more time to engage and respond.

For those who are interested in commenting, it should be noted that the government is open to comments/feedback in different forms. Comments may be made by email, or they can be entered into a comment box at the bottom of the page where the report is found. These latter comments tend to be fairly short and, once they pass through moderation, are visible to the public.


A recent news story from the Ottawa area raises interesting questions about big data, smart cities, and citizen engagement. The CBC reported that Ottawa and Gatineau have contracted with Strava, a private sector company to purchase data on cycling activity in their municipal boundaries. Strava makes a fitness app that can be downloaded for free onto a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device. The app uses the device’s GPS capabilities to gather data about the users’ routes travelled. Users then upload their data to Strava to view the data about their activities. Interested municipalities can contract with Strava Metro for aggregate de-identified data regarding users’ cycling patterns over a period of time (Ottawa and Gatineau have apparently contracted for 2 years’ worth of data). According to the news story, their goal is to use this data in planning for more bike-friendly cities.

On the face of it, this sounds like an interesting idea with a good objective in mind. And arguably, while the cities might create their own cycling apps to gather similar data, it might be cheaper in the end for them to contract for the Strava data rather than to design and then promote the use of theirs own apps. But before cities jump on board with such projects, there are a number of issues that need to be taken into account.

One of the most important issues, of course, is the quality of the data that will be provided to the city, and its suitability for planning purposes. The data sold to the city will only be gathered from those cyclists who carry GPS-enabled devices, and who use the Strava app. This raises the question of whether some cyclists – those, for example, who use bikes to get around to work, school or to run errands and who aren’t interested in fitness apps – will not be included in planning exercises aimed at determining where to add bike paths or bike lanes. Is the data most likely to come from spandex-wearing, affluent, hard core recreational cyclists than from other members of the cycling community? The cycling advocacy group Citizens for Safe Cycling in Ottawa is encouraging the public to use the app to help the data-gathering exercise. Interestingly, this group acknowledges that the typical Strava user is not necessarily representative of the average Ottawa cyclist. This is in part why they are encouraging a broader public use of the app. They express the view that some data is better than no data. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask whether this is an appropriate data set to use in urban planning. What other data will be needed to correct for its incompleteness, and are there plans in place to gather this data? What will the city really know about who is using the app and who is not? The purchased data will be deidentified and aggregated. Will the city have any idea of the demographic it represents? Still on the issue of data quality, it should be noted that some Strava users make use of the apps’ features to ride routes that create amusing map pictures (just Google “strava funny routes” to see some examples). How much of the city’s data will reflect this playful spirit rather than actual data about real riding routes is a question also worth asking.

Some ethical issues arise when planning data is gathered in this way. Obviously, the more people in Ottawa and Gatineau who use this app, the more data there will be. Does this mean that the cities have implicitly endorsed the use of one fitness app over another? Users of these apps necessarily enable tracking of their daily activities – should the city be encouraging this? While it is true that smart phones and apps of all variety are already harvesting tracking data for all sorts of known and unknown purposes, there may still be privacy implications for the user. Strava seems to have given good consideration to user privacy in its privacy policy, which is encouraging. Further, the only data sold to customers by Strava is deidentified and aggregated – this protects the privacy of app users in relation to Strava’s clients. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know if the degree of user privacy protection provided was a factor for either city in choosing to use Strava’s services.

Another important issue – and this is a big one in the emerging smart cities context – relates to data ownership. Because the data is collected by Strava and then sold to the cities for use in their planning activities, it is not the cities’ own data. The CBC report makes it clear that the contract between Strava and its urban clients leaves ownership of the data in Strava’s hands. As a result, this data on cycling patterns in Ottawa cannot be made available as open data, nor can it be otherwise published or shared. It will also not be possible to obtain the data through an access to information request. This will surely reduce the transparency of planning decisions made in relation to cycling.

Smart cities and big data analytics are very hot right now, and we can expect to see all manner of public-private collaborations in the gathering and analysis of data about urban life. Much of this data may come from citizen-sensors as is the case with the Strava data. As citizens opt or are co-opted into providing the data that fuels analytics, there are many important legal, ethical and public policy questions which need to be asked.


Tuesday, 09 February 2016 10:19

Evaluating Canada's Open Government Progress

Written by Teresa Scassa

Carleton University’s Mary Francoli has just released her second report on Canada’s progress towards its Open Government commitments as part of its membership in the Open Government Partnership. The report is currently open for public comment.

The report offers a detailed and thorough assessment of the commitments made by the Canadian government in its second Action Plan on Open Government and the extent to which these commitments have been met. For those interested in open government, it makes interesting reading, and it also sets out a number of recommendations for moving the open government agenda forward in Canada.

Because the report is a review of Canada’s progress on meeting its commitments, it is shaped by those commitments rather than by, for example, a list of open government priorities as identified by multiple stakeholders. Indeed, problems with stakeholder consultation and engagement are themes that run through this report. Although Francoli notes that there have been improvements over time, there is clearly still work to be done in this regard.

Francoli’s detailed review shows that progress has certainly been made in moving forward the open government agenda. She notes that “significant progress” has been made with respect to many of the government’s commitments in the second Action Plan, and that in some cases the government’s progress has exceed its commitments. Not surprisingly, however, much remains to be done. Francoli identifies a number of shortcomings flagged by stakeholders that form the basis for her recommendations.

Foremost among the shortcomings is the woeful state of Canada’s Access to Information Act. Although this legislation has been the subject of criticism and calls for reform for decades – and by a broad range of stakeholders – the previous government remained impervious to these demands. That an open government agenda could be advanced with much fanfare without tackling access to information in any substantive way should undermine confidence in Canada’s commitment to open government. Top among Francoli’s recommendations, therefore, is reform of the legislation, and she has written a separate opinion piece on this topic in the Hill Times. In this article she notes with frustration that although the new Liberal government expressed a commitment to reform the access to information regime in its election platform, that commitment is now being expressed in terms of a “review” of the legislation. Francoli justifiably questions whether we really need further review given the many studies already conducted and the ink already spilled about the deficiencies in the legislation. A commitment to meaningful reform might just require swifter action.

Other issues flagged by Francoli include what she refers to as a “data deficit” – the apparent stalling of progress in the release of open data and the lack of diversity in the available data at the federal level. The concerns over a data deficit extend to the cancellation of government-led data collection; the axing of the long-form census being perhaps the most notorious (though not the only) example of this. Although the census has been revived, Francoli notes that other cancelled studies have not. Further, Francoli cautions that the government’s web renewal strategy is having the effect of pushing departments and agencies to reduce digital content available over the web, with the resultant loss of content available to the public. This latter concern ties in as well to Francoli’s recommendation that the government develop and publicize a clear policy on the preservation of digital material.

In addition to recommendations related to these issues, Francoli also recommends that the government overhaul the Advisory Panel on Open Government. This Panel (on which I served) met only very rarely, and opportunities to provide feedback became very limited by tight time constraints imposed on the few meetings that did take place. Francoli is concerned about a disjunction between stakeholders’ perspectives on open government and those of the government, and she sees an Advisory Panel with a new mandate and a new mode of operation as being one way to ensure more open lines of communication.

There may be a common misperception that open data and proactive disclosure are inexpensive and resource-light endeavors (after all, the government is just publishing online information already gathered, right?). Yet, this is far from the case. Open data in particular is resource-intensive, and Francoli notes that the two Action Plans had identified no additional resources for open government (apart from the $3 million dollars set aside for the mysterious Open Data Exchange (ODX)). She therefore also recommends that the government commit the necessary resources to open government in future action plans.

Francoli’s report can be found here, and comments on the report can be made here. The comments are public, and it is also possible to read comments by other stakeholders and to engage in dialogue about the report. With a new government in the process of setting its open government agenda, this is an opportunity to help shape its direction.


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