Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 07:05

Open Data Current Events

Written by Teresa Scassa

It’s a busy week for Open Government and Open Data in Ottawa. All week long conferences and workshops are taking place in the capital around the theme of open government. Yesterday’s Open Data Summit, hosted by organized by Open North, drew a good-sized audience of developers, public servants and academics from Canada and elsewhere. Later this week, the 3rd international Open Data Conference will unfold. There is also an open data Unconference on May 26.

The meetings are creating a buzz around open data – a practice that is spreading through all three levels of government in Canada. The Canadian government and provincial leaders such as Alberta and British Columbia have open data portals where government data sets are made available in machine readable formats for reuse by anyone under an open licence containing very few restrictions. Many municipalities, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto have also embraced open data. The City of Edmonton, a leader in this area was given an open data award at the Open Data Summit.

Other recent developments of note relating to open data include the call for comments by the Ontario Government on its new plan for Open Data by Default. The draft document is made available to the public on Google docs. Anyone can visit and leave their comments or can view the many comments of those who have already visited the document. The document also contains, in an appendix, the open licence which the Ontario government will use in relation to its data. The licence is based upon the open government licence developed by the federal government.

Also of note is the rather low-profile launch by the federal government of the ODX. The creation of this open data incubator organization is part of the government’s Action Plan on Open Data, and funding to launch this institute was announced last week.

Meanwhile, the Geothink research team of which I am a part (funded by a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) continues its work on open-data related research. Ongoing projects relate to open data standards, liability issues, privacy, intellectual property, civic participation, and much, much more. Several Geothinkers are attending and participating in this week’s Ottawa events.


Thursday, 20 November 2014 11:05

New Interactive Map of Censorship in Canada

Written by Teresa Scassa

Today a group of Canadian civil liberties organizations launched an interactive map of Canada which allows users to document and display instances of chilling of free expression in Canada. The Censorship Tracker is sponsored by PEN Canada, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression.

Interactive maps offer a great way to visualize information and to situate it in a geographic context. According to a press release issued by the sponsoring organizations, the Censorship Tracker is meant to be “an accessible and reliable resource that Canadians can use to gauge restrictions on free speech in Canada.” The map allows users to view dots reflecting all posted instances of limitations on freedom of expression, or to view instances based upon the type of limitation (suppression of personal correspondence, the banning of books, limits on public protest, and so on). Data can also be filtered based on other criteria such as the source of the threat (government, corporation, media, academic institution, and so on), the method used to limit expression, and the target of the limitation. There is also a filter to allow one to see whether the report of a limitation has been verified. The website allows users to file reports on incidents that can be added to the map.

Of course, one person’s free expression is sometimes another person’s crime, and not all reported examples will be what all Canadians unequivocally consider to be unwarranted limits on free expression. Nevertheless, the goal of the map is both to assist the organizations in responding to threats to freedom of expression by allowing for broad-based, crowd-sourced data collection, and to allow Canadians to access and visualize reported instances.


The goals of the open government movement – which has spread rapidly around the world in the last five years – are to increase government transparency and accountability, to engage citizens and increase their participation in government, and to improve governance. This is to be done primarily through enhanced access to government information and improved methods of citizen-government interaction. Open government includes three main streams: open access, open data, and open participation. The open data stream also carries with it the goal to stimulate innovation and economic development by making government data available in reusable and interoperable formats and under open licences.

Canada signed on to the Open Government Partnership in 2011. In doing so, it committed to taking a number of steps, including developing an Action Plan for open government that would set out specific goals and commitments. The OGP also requires governments to report on their progress, and provides independent review of each government’s updates.

Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government set out a series of commitments spread over a 3 year period. It was published in 2012 and Canada submitted its first self-assessment report to the OGP in 2013. This progress report has been the subject of an independent review by the OGP, through its independent reporting mechanism, and a copy of this review is now available for public comment.

The independent review confirms that the Canadian government has made significant progress on a number of the commitments it set out in its Action Plan, and that many of these commitments are either on target or ahead of schedule. Some of these achievements are considered to be “clearly relevant” to the values of the OGP and of potentially high impact. These include the completion and launch of a new Open Government Licence (commented on in an earlier blog post), measures taken under the International Aid Transparency Initiative, the online publication of resource management data, and the electronic publication by federal regulators of regulatory plans.

The review, carried out by Carleton University Professor Mary Francoli, does note, however, that a number of the government’s other commitments are less ambitious and less directly relevant to the goals of the OGP. This does not mean that they are not worth doing, just that they are less impactful. One issue, therefore, would seem to be whether the government’s plan has struck the right balance between ambitious and significant goals and low hanging fruit.

A further concern is that the broad commitment to open government has been channelled primarily into developments around open data. While open data is important, and while developments in this area have been meaningful, open access and open participation are crucial components of open government and are essential to realizing its objectives. Indeed, one of the recommendations in the review document relates to the need for the government to broaden its focus so as to give more attention to open access and participation.

Through her consultation with stakeholders and other organizations, Francoli identifies a broad range of concerns over how the federal government communicates with citizens, and how it compiles, shares and archives information. The review is particularly critical of the government’s tepid improvements to access to information in Canada, and it suggests that nothing short of legislative reform will deliver necessary improvements. The review also indicates that there have been shortcomings in citizen and stakeholder engagement and participation in the development of the goals and priorities of open government. The review also makes recommendations regarding improved information flows, the need to ensure that data is released in useable formats and with appropriate metadata, and the need to expand integrity commitments. While the review notes that open government has a strong champion at the federal level in the Treasury Board Secretariat President Tony Clement, it also identifies a need for broader support within the government.

A copy of the report and information on how to provide comments and feedback on it are available here.

 

 


Tuesday, 05 November 2013 16:05

Call to Action on Open Data

Written by Teresa Scassa

The Global Open Data Initiative, a civil-society led organization, is seeking feedback on its Citizen Call to Action on Open Data. Comments must be provided by November 8, 2013.

The Citizen Call to Action is part of a drive to engage citizens in the goals of the open data movement, notably in promoting transparent and accountable government through free access to a broad range of government data in reusable formats.

The Declaration around which the Call to Action is based calls for governments to take a number of steps considered crucial to fostering open data. The first is to make government data open by default. In other words, unless there is some reason to limit access to data, it should be made freely available, in reusable formats. The Declaration also calls on governments to engage users of data in the process of designing and implementing open data. Engagement can include involving users in identifying priority data sets and in designing initiatives meant to promote open data.

Implicit in the notion of open data is that the data be free: free of restrictions on reuse, free from restrictive or proprietary formats and free from cost. This is a broad concept of “free” data, and it is one that will require the development of common standards and formats within government, as well as co-operation and collaboration between different levels of government to ensure that data is as useful as possible once it is made available. The Declaration encourages governments to invest in capacity building both within government to ensure their own capability to generate and make available high quality, reusable data, but also within user communities. The Declaration also calls for steps to be taken to improve the quality of government data.

Finally the Declaration calls for accountability to be the core value of Open Data, requiring governments to release data that is crucial to keeping government accountable rather than to focus on data sets which are considered nonthreatening to vested political interests. The Declaration also calls for legal and political reforms to further the goals of transparency in government.


The federal government is calling for comments on its Year One progress on Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government. The government is seeking feedback on two main questions, namely: how it has done in meeting its commitments under the Action Plan; which commitments still require the most attention. They are also seeking more general feedback in the form of comments or suggestions regarding its Open Government initiative. The consultation opened on August 19, 2013 and will close on September 9, 2013.


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