Feds open up access to government data

The federal government is easing restrictions on taxpayer-funded data it makes public as part of its "open government" initiative, and is ordering departments and agencies to post summaries of access releases online by Jan. 1.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement announces new 'open government' efforts on Twitter

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, seen here Monday in the House of Commons, announced Wednesday that the federal government is easing restrictions on the use of the taxpayer-funded data it makes available to the public. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The federal government is easing restrictions on the use of the taxpayer-funded data it makes available to the public.

Since the March launch of the open data program, there had been criticism that licensing rules made it too difficult for anyone to do anything useful with the reams of information posted online.

For example, similar data projects run by municipal governments have led to citizens building programs that include applications mapping restaurants according to food inspection reports.

But the data being shared by the feds had prohibited the information being reverse-engineered to identify businesses so consumer-friendly apps with that kind of detail couldn't be built.

The open data portal collates 260,000 federal government data sets covering everything from immigration statistics to mapping co-ordinates.

Access to Information changes

Treasury Board President Tony Clement announced Wednesday that by January 1, 2012 all departments and agencies subject to the Access to Information Act will post summaries of completed access to information requests on their websites.

Summaries would need to be posted within 30 calendar days after the end of the month during which the information was released.

Thirty-four institutions now make summaries of completed access to information requests available on their websites.

(The CBC posts not only summaries but also actual documents released under the Act.)

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Treasury Board President Tony Clement says he's not heard yet of anyone doing anything creative with the federal government data made available to date.

"We're liberalizing the approach on the terms and conditions of using the data sets to make it easier to access, more functional, easier to use and that will hope and we're quite convinced actually will make it easier for innovation to occur," he said in an interview about the new rules.

The government is also simplifying attribution requirements for the data.

A key issue among open data enthusiasts is that when products are built using multiple data sources, the attributions can pile up and crowd out the actual information seen on the screen in what's known as the NASCAR effect, as its akin to the proliferation of ads on race cars.

The original open data license had also required that the data not be used in "any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada" but after an immediate outcry, that clause was deleted within hours of the license agreement being posted online.

The government also announced that by January 2012 it will be mandatory for agencies subject to the Access to Information Act to post summaries online of the information they release under the Act.

Almost two dozen agencies already do so.

The access to information system though is collapsing under the weight of demand and the lengthy review process agencies undertake before they release information in response to requests.

"An open government initiative and a commitment to transparency must include a willingness to improve the efficiency of our access to information regime," Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault recently told a Senate committee.

"In this area, much work remains to be done."

The data portal is part of the overall open government strategy which has been moving slowly ahead since its March launch.

Clement, one of the loudest champions of bringing the government into the web 2.0 world, said in a recent interview that he hopes to push the initiative ahead faster.

"I think the principle of open government is to when you give more data out, when you make it more readily available in formats that are easily understandable and can be used for different purposes, it creates whole avenues of opportunities for consumer products as well as a better dialogue between government and the citizenry," he said.

Another element of the open government strategy is a desire to use the web to engage more directly with Canadians but a briefing note prepared for Clement after he became Treasury Board President in May suggested there are a number of challenges.

"Most web platforms in use across the government do not support a real-time, two-way online dialogue," the note said.

The briefing note also says the government is working on formal guidelines for social media use by government departments.

Currently dozens of government agencies are using Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs and other web 2.0 tools for public outreach but how those tools are used is up to each individual department.

"The guidance is aligned with existing policies and legislation and is designed to help departments guide public servants in making good choices that mitigate risks while maximizing benefit of Web 2.0 tools and services," the note said.

with files from Kady O'Malley