Inside Politics

Drug seizures and the case for open data

Normally, journalists don't like complaining about long it took them to get data, in large part because the internal battles for information hardly make for riveting or relevant stories. In short, they can be boring and self-indulgent.

But sometimes it's worth peeling back the curtain just a bit to make a point about open data.

Our stories about drugs seized at Canadian land-border crossings, ports, airports and mail centres were difficult ones to tell because it was difficult to get information about these seizures.

One might think the border services agency would welcome releasing data about the commodities it seizes every day from criminals who try to smuggle drugs guns, child pornography and other commodities into the country. It's not as if the agency keeps these seizures a secret. Far from it.

The agency routinely issues news releases publicizing its larger hauls. A million-dollar cocaine bust here, a million-dollar heroin bust there. So why would the agency be reluctant to release data that illustrates how it is doing? In fairness, perhaps it has more to do with the tendency of governments of all stripes to hoard meaningful information.

Historically, federal departments have been reluctant to release data, arguing that people, in effect, were not savvy enough to interpret the numbers. Departments such as Transport Canada and Health Canada have actually made these arguments and lost when myself and other journalists complained to the Information Commissioner.

Thanks in part to those victories, people can now visit Health Canada's web site to find out about side effects for certain drugs, or Transport Canada's web site to find out more information about incidents like planes skidding off runways, or certain models of cars that have been recalled.

So why can't people curious about a drug bust publicized by the border services agency go to a website and find out what kinds of commodities have been seized and how much they're worth? It's a good question, and one of the driving forces behind our drug-seizure stories.

Due in large part to the great work of mapping guru Adam Hooper, we have created an interactive map that allows people to find out what is being seized, where it came from and how much it's worth.

In researching this story, I was surprised the so-called date-rape drug, GHB was the number one drug in terms of street value that the agency was nabbing, thanks in large part to a $1.4 billion drug bust in Montreal in 2009. That led to research about the devastation this drug can cause unsuspecting young men and women who are drugged and sexually assaulted. Or into the increase of chemical precursors drug labs in hotspots such as Vancouver use to concoct club drugs such as Ecstasy and "special K" that can force governments to deal with social problems and crime.

Having access to drug-seizure information such as the data in the CSBA's database allows us to have meaningful conversations, not only about the drugs themselves, but about the ability of authorities like the border service's agency and the RCMP to keep up with drug smugglers, who, according to a 2010 internal agency briefing note I obtained through Access to Information, "are willing to absorb substantial financial attempts to elude the border."

After a five-year battle that included two separate complaints to the Information Commissioner, the border services agency agreed to release its data, which we used to create an interactive map and tell important stories.
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