Teresa Scassa - Blog

Sunday, 02 May 2021 10:36

Ontario's New Digital and Data Strategy

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Ontario launched its Digital and Data Strategy on April 30, 2021, in a the document, titled Building a Digital Ontario. The Strategy – based on a consultation process announced late in 2019 – is built around four main themes. These are “equipped to succeed”, “safe and secure”, “connected” and “supported”.

It is important to note that the digital and data strategy is for the Ontario government. That is, it is predominantly about how government services are delivered to the public and about how government data can be made more readily and usefully available to fuel the data economy. Related objectives are to ensure that Ontarians have sufficient connectivity and digital literacy to benefit from digital government services and that there is a sufficiently skilled workforce to support the digital agenda. That said, there are places where the focus of the strategy is blurred. For example, the discussion of privacy and security shifts between public and private sector privacy issues; similarly, it is unclear whether the discussion of AI governance is about public or private sector uses and of AI, or both. What is most particularly off-base is that the cybersecurity elements of the strategy focus on individuals do not address the need for the government to tackle its own cybersecurity issues – particularly in relation to critical digital and data infrastructures in the province. There is a reference to an existing portal with cybersecurity resources for public sector organizations, so presumably that has been checked off the list, though it hardly seems sufficient.

Do we need better digital services from government? Should there be better public sector data sharing infrastructures to support research and innovation while at the same time stringently protecting privacy? Do we need to take cybersecurity more seriously? The answer is clearly yes. Yet in spite of the laudable objectives of the strategy, it remains unsatisfying. I have three main concerns. First, there seems to be more marketing than strategy with much of what is in this document. Too many of the themes/initiatives have a repackaged feel to them – these are things already underway that are being reverse-engineered into a strategy. Second, the document seems to ignore key actors and sectors – it has the feel of a plan hatched in one part of government with minimal communication with other departments, agencies and partners. Third, much of the strategy is simply vague. It is a bit like saying that the strategy is to do important things. Hard to argue with such a goal, but it is not a strategy – more of an aspiration.

My first concern relates to the fact that so much of what is described in the strategy is work already completed or underway. Each section of the strategy document describes progress already made on existing initiatives, such as the existing, Open Data Catalogue, the Cybersecurity Ontario Learning Portal and the Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence. In some cases, the document announces new initiatives that are imminent – for example the launch of a Digital and Data Fellows Innovation Program in summer of 2021, beta principles for responsible AI in spring of 2021, and a new Digital ID for 2021. To be fair, there are a few newish initiatives – for example, the mysterious Data Authority and the development of digital and data standards. But overall, the document is more of an inventory of existing projects framed as a strategy. It feels like marketing.

My second concern is that the document seems to be a catalogue of Ontario Digital Services projects rather than a strategy for the province as a whole. We hear that we need to build a skilled work force, but apart a reference to already launched enhancement of STEM learning in elementary schools, there is nothing about funding for education or research in STEM fields, whether in high school, college or university. There is a program to “bring the best of Ontario’s tech sector into government, to help design Ontario's digital future”, but there’s nothing about funding for internships for students in government or industry. The pandemic has raised awareness of massive challenges in the province around health data; that these are not addressed as part of an overall data strategy suggests that the strategy is developed within a still-siloed government framework. The main ‘promises’ in this document are those within the purview of Digital Services.

The most disconnected part of the strategy is that dealing with privacy. Privacy is one of the pillars of the strategy, and as part of that pillar the document announces a new “Know Your Rights” portal “to help Ontarians learn how to better protect their personal data and stay safe online”. Ontario already has an Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner that provides a wealth of information of this kind. Unless and until Ontario has its own private sector data protection law (a matter on which the “strategy”, incidentally, is completely silent), information on private sector data protection is also found on the website of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. It is frankly hard to see how creating a new portal is going to advance the interests of Ontarians – rather than waste their money. It would have made more sense to enhance the budget and mandate of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner than to create a portal ultimately destined to provide links to information already available on the OIPC website. This promise highlights that this is not really an Ontario strategy; rather it is a compilation of ODS projects.

My third concern is with the vagueness of the strategy overall. One of the few new pieces – the Data Authority – is described in the most general of terms. We are told it will be “responsible for building modern data infrastructure to support economic and social growth at scale, while ensuring that data is private, secure, anonymous and cannot identify people individually.” But what is meant by “data infrastructure” in this instance? What is the role of the “authority”? Is it a regulator? A data repository? A computing facility? A combination of the above? One wonders if it is actually going to be a build-out or rebranding of the Ontario Health Data Platform which was pulled together to facilitate data sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, it is important to note that many of the initiatives, whether already underway or not, are designed to address important challenges in the digital and data economy. The problem lies with calling this a strategy. It is much more like a to-do list. It starts with a few things conveniently crossed off. It includes a number of things that need finishing, and a few that need starting. In contrast, a strategy involves thinking about where we need to be within a targeted period of time (5 years? 10 years?) and then lays out what we need to do, and to put in place, in order to get there. In the covering memo to this document, Minister of Finance and Treasury Board President Bethlenfalvy sets a high bar for the strategy, stating: “I like to say that we are moving Ontario from the digital stone age to a global trailblazer”. Dampening the hyperbole on either side of that metaphor, we are not in the digital stone age, but those expecting to blaze trails should not be surprised to discover discarded Timmy’s cups along the way.

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