Councillor calls for update to city's public information policy

The city should update its freedom of information policies to make it easier for people to access electronic data, says one city councillor. The issue was raised when a local cycling advocate encountered what he called an "obstructionist" policy after he requested safety data.

Coun. Andrew Knack says the city should aim to be as transparent as possible

Coun. Andrew Knack said the city is working toward making information more accessible, and the city's Freedom of Information policies should reflect that. (CBC)

The city should update its freedom of information policies to make it easier for people to access electronic data, says one city councillor.

The issue was raised when a local cycling advocate encountered what he called an "obstructionist" policy after he requested safety data.

Conrad Nobert paid $25 for a spreadsheet of all the locations where pedestrians and cyclists have been injured or killed in the city. He planned to map all the places where people might be vulnerable on the road.

Cycling advocate Conrad Nobert called the city's policy "obstructionist," after he asked for a spreadsheet of data and received a stack of printed documents instead. (Conrad Nobert/Supplied)
Instead, he got a 47-page stack of paper in the mail. The spreadsheet was printed with no grid lines, in a six-point font.

"She mailed me this virtually useless document," Nobert said.

He made the request using the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP),  which gives citizens the right to access public government information.

The FOIP co-ordinator who processed the request told Nobert she could either print the data on paper, or he could see it in person.

Instead of an electronic spreadsheet, the city delivered a 47-page stack of documents printed in six-point font without gridlines. (Matthew Dance/supplied)
"We do not provide disclosure of records electronically due to IT protocols," she wrote to Nobert in an email.

The city's policy is to create a PDF of the spreadsheet and print it off before sending it to the person who requested it.

"It can only be seen as obstructionism," Nobert said.

City clerk Alayne Sinclair said the policy is roughly a decade old and was designed to prevent the city from accidentally releasing private information.

She admitted the policy is outdated.

While the policy makes it nearly impossible for Nobert to use the data, it is up to the city to decide how it will release information.

"Is it reasonable?" said privacy lawyer Michel Drapeau. "No. Is it legal? Yes."

City strives for 'open data'

Coun. Andrew Knack said the city's FOIP policies should be brought in line with the times.

"It's 2015," he said. "If people are requesting that information and we're willing to provide it in paper form, why we wouldn't provide it in electronic form?"

The city clerk's office plans to acquire new software that will allow it to export public information and release it electronically without the risk of leaking private data.

Sinclair estimated the city won't have that software for six months to a year.

Meanwhile, Knack said the city is leading the country when it comes to proactively releasing information.  

The city releases some data electronically as part of its "open data" catalog, which makes select public information accessible.

"What I love about municipal politics is that we try to do everything, as much as possible, in open and transparent ways," he said.

Knack said the city's FOIP policies should be just as transparent, and now that Nobert has raised the issue he plans to look into it.

In the interim, volunteers have enlisted themselves to painstakingly type the data from Nobert's hard-copy documents into a spreadsheet, so he can do what he set out to do.

"That information should be available to all of us," he said.