Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography

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.


Back in March I wrote about a decision of the Federal Court of Appeal in a dispute over rights in nautical charts and maps. At issue was whether the matter should be resolved on summary judgment or whether it should proceed to trial. The Court decided that it should go to trial. In reaching its decision in the case, the Court made a comment in passing on the wording of a federal government licence agreement that was relevant to the dispute. This comment, which is reproduced in my earlier report on the case, puzzled over the government’s claim in its licence to copyright in its data, given that it was entirely clear in law that there could be no copyright in data.

Leave to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada has just been denied by that Court. This means that the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal stands, and that the matter should now proceed to trial. The case raises some very interesting copyright issues and will be worth following.


With little fanfare, the Canadian government has released its much awaited, newly revised Open Government Licence. The previous version that had been available on its Open Data site was a beta version on which public comments were invited. The government has also published its Open Government Licence Consultation Report, which summarizes and discusses the comments received during the consultation process.

The revised version of the licence is an improvement over its predecessor. Gone is the claim to database rights which do not exist in Canada. (These rights do exist in the UK, the Open Government Licence of which was a template for the Canadian licence). The new licence also discards the UK term “personal data” and replaces it with “personal information”, and it gives this term the meaning ascribed under the federal Privacy Act. The language used in the licence has been further simplified, making it even more accessible.

It should be noted that Alberta’s new open government licence – released as part of the launch of its open government portal earlier this year – is very similar to V2.0 of the federal government licence. There are some minor formatting differences, and a few changes in wording, most of which can be explained by the different jurisdiction (for example, the definition of “personal information” refers to Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). The similarities between the two licences are no coincidence. Although the Alberta licence was made public prior to the release of the federal government’s V2.0, work has been going on behind the scenes to move towards some form of federal/provincial consensus on the wording of open government licences with a view to ensuring that there is legal interoperability between data sets released by different governments in Canada. The efforts to reduce barriers to interoperability (whether legal or technical) are important to the ability of Canadians to work with and to integrate different data sets in new and innovative ways. Thus not only is the COGL V2.0 to be welcomed, so are the signs that cooperation and coordination may lead to a greater legal interoperability of open government licences across Canada.


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