How open is Ottawa's new 'open data' website?

Treasury Board President Tony Clement is touting the federal government's revamped data portal as a "new natural resource." But that online window for previously published data arrives at the same time the government faces controversy over just how open it really is.

Revamped data portal provides easier access for some information

A revamped portal was launched Tuesday. (Government of Canada)

Maybe you need some demographic information before you start a small business. Or maybe you have to finish a high school project on Canadian immigration trends. Or perhaps you want to make a map showing pollution across the country.

Any of those projects could get a little bit easier after Tuesday's launch of the federal government's revamped portal.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement touted the revamped site, calling it Canada's "new natural resource." But that new window into federal data tables, statistics and other information available online is getting mixed early reviews and arrives at the same time as the government faces controversy over just how open it actually is.

Tracey Lauriault, a post-doctoral fellow at the geomatics and cartographic research centre at Carleton University in Ottawa and co-author of a blog on Canadian data issues, says the federal government "has not been too bad" when it comes to open data.

This revamped portal comes three years after the government launched its first site, which was designed to create a more searchable way to find data that had already been released.

Lauriault welcomes the revamp, particularly the new licencing provisions that gives users greater freedom around how they use, reuse or resell the information.

"The new portal is a good thing," she says. "It'll make things easier for people to find data on a number of issues related to Canadians and the government administration."

But Lauriault, who also co-founded, a national group advocating for access to public data, stops short of considering the revamped portal a sign of overall increased openness from the federal government.

More access

"It's very, very difficult for people like myself to fully consider this being a much more open government," she says. "It means more access to data, yes. But does it mean open government? I'm not so sure.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, a 'new natural resource.' (Canadian Press)

"Not if you're muzzling science, not if you're cancelling the census, not if you're practically closing and undermining your archive, not if you're turning off monitoring stations, not if you're not disclosing data related to projects like pipelines."

David Eaves, a Vancouver-based public policy expert, moderated five roundtables hosted by the federal government ahead of the portal relaunch. He says it's nice to see the government taking the issue of open data seriously and that it's "continuing to try to find ways to share certain types of information more with the public."

"I think they have a strong agenda that's around Canadian businesses and organizations to be more efficient and more effective, and so I think they're kind of focused on that."

Still, he says "the record speaks for itself" when it comes to problems the government has around sharing information. And while he welcomes the revamped portal, he doesn't think it should relieve the government from the pressure it faces in other areas.

Open data is hardly a new concept, in Canada or around the world.

Tuesday’s announcement, in fact, came the same day leaders of the G8 nations, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, committed to a set of common standards for publicly accessible data.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Martin Tisné, director of policy at Omidyar Network in the U.K., the philanthropic investment firm established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, said that the data charter would be a "historic move and a genuine breakthrough for the growing movement to open up government and private sector data."

But he, too, had some caveats, noting that the charter is only a first step if countries and citizens are to reap any benefits.

'Real champions'

"First, of course, we need to see governments meet not just the letter but also the spirit of the charter," Tisné wrote. "Opening up data should cut across all G8 priorities, including tax, transparency on extractive industries, aid and land deals.

"Information that is released as open data and is fully searchable will enable governments and civil society to crack down on tax evasion," he argued.

In Canada, Lauriault says, the "real champions" of sharing data have been cities and municipalities. Places such as Nanaimo, Edmonton and Toronto have led the way.

"Now we have 37 cities across the country that have opened up their data access. And they've done a much more concerted effort I think at a … grassroots municipal level at making the administration generally more open."

While the data available through the revamped federal portal covers everything from permanent residency to woodland caribou habitat, Lauriault says there are other areas that aren't up for such easy access.

"What we haven't seen at the federal government yet are really solid data sets related to government transparency, government accountability."

Also lacking, she says, is an inventory of government data and administrative data from agencies such as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Nor does the information that is available allow for consistent cross-country comparisons among neighbourhoods, wards or smaller georgraphic areas.

"Are they releasing more information? Yes," says Lauriault. "Is the information organized in such a way we can do national analysis and compare them? No."

Still, she sees potential for Canadians to tap into the portal for everything from information for a student project on immigration to demographics that could help a small business get off the ground.

Long-term potential

In the longer term, Lauriault also sees potential for more "evidence-based" decision-making on public policy issues, particularly if organizations such as social planning councils take advantage of the portal.

"It's one thing to share the data, but citizens will really benefit if the government actually listens to evidence-based decision-making based on research and outcomes based on the use of those government data. That's what we hope to see in the long term."

Eaves sees a similar potential down the road.

"My hope is that longer term it will have a bigger impact on Canadians although they may not actually visit the data portal themselves but they will use something or benefit from a policy that made use of data that was available on the portal."