Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography

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.


A new paper by uOttawa Common Law student Niki Singh and myself, and published in the Journal of e-Democracy, explores the issue of how to unroll open data programs in officially bi- or multi-lingual jurisdictions. Our focus is on Canada, although similar issues may arise in other jurisdictions with more than one official language.

The issue of linguistic equality in open data initiatives is particularly important if one takes into account the civic engagement dimensions of open government as well as the potential for use of open data by civil society organizations to meet their diverse goals. To date, at least at the federal level in Canada, there has been a strong emphasis on using open data to stimulate innovation. Much less emphasis has been placed, at least at the policy level, on using open government data to promote transparency or to support the work of civil society groups. The capacity of many civil society groups in Canada to work effectively with open data is even open to question. The necessary skills and expertise to work with open data may not yet be available to all such groups. In this context, then, compliance with the letter and spirt of official language policies requires a focus not just on bilingual data and bilingual tools to access the data (although these are certainly important), it also requires support for digital and data literacy that effectively reaches the different linguistic communities.

A few years ago, Jo Bates wrote an interesting article that explored whether and to what extent open government data initiatives within a neo-liberal frame may seek to offload responsibility for the delivery of some information-based government services to the private sector. In other words, rather than have the government develop and deliver information-based services to the public, the government might make its data available as open data and let the private sector develop useful apps involving that data. Evidence of this neo-liberal approach to information policy is present in Canada. For example, the decision of the last federal government in Canada to abolish the long form census was in part justified on the (controversial) view that equivalent data could be sourced from the private sector. If open data regimes operate within this neo-liberal frame, it is important also to consider the fate of minority language communities (among others) as data-related analysis and services are offloaded to the private sector.

Using the efforts and obligations of the Canadian federal government as a case study, our paper identifies some of the challenges posed by developing and implementing an open data agenda within an officially bilingual state. We consider two main issues. The first is whether open data initiatives might be used as a means to outsource some information analysis and information services to an unregulated private sector, thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages. The second is whether the Canadian government’s embrace of the innovation agenda of open data leaves minority language communities underserved and under-included in the development and use of open data. Although ultimately the evidence at this early stage is inconclusive, the questions are important ones to be asking, particularly as a new federal government takes charge of the open data agenda in Canada.


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.


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