CIDA announces Open Data portal: What it means to Canadians

For those who missed it, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced it is launching an open data portal.

This is exciting news. On Monday I was interviewed about the initiative by Embassy Magazine which published the resulting article (behind their paywall) here.

As (I hope) the interview conveys, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Minister’s announcement. I’m conservative in my reaction only because we don’t actually know what the Minister has announced. At the moment the CIDA open data page is, quite literally, a blank slate. I feel positive because pretty much anything that gets more information about Canada’s aid budget available online is a step in the right direction. I’m cautious however, because the text from the Minister’s speech leads me to believe that she is using the term “open data” to describe something that may, in fact, not be open data.

Donors and partner countries must be accountable to their citizens, absolutely, but both must also be accountable to each other.

Transparency underpins these accountabilities.

With this in mind, today I am pleased to announce the Open Data Portal on the CIDA website that will make our searchable database of roughly 3,000 projects quick and simple to access.

The Open Data portal will put our country strategies, evaluations, audits and annual statistical and results reports within easy reach.

One of the core elements of the definition of “open data” is that it be machine readable. I need to actually get the “data” (e.g an excel spreadsheet, or database I can download and/or access) so that I can play with it, mash it up, analyze it, etc… It isn’t clear that this is on offer. The minister’s announcements talks about a database that allows you to search, and quickly download, reports on the 3000 projects that CIDA funds or operates. A report however, is not data. It may cite data, it may (and hopefully does) even contain data in charts or tables, but if what we are getting is access to reports then this is not an open data portal.

What I hope is happening – and what I advocated for in an oped in the Toronto Star – is that the Minister is launching a true open data portal which will share actual data – not analysis – with Canadians. More importantly, I’m hope that this means that Canada will be joining the efforts of Publish What you Fund, as it pushes donor organizations to share their aid data in a single common structure, so that budgets, contributions, projects, timelines, geography and other information about aid can be compared across countries, agencies, and organizations.

Open data, and especially in a internationally recognized standardized format, matters because no one is going to read all 10,000 reports about all 3000 projects CIDA funds. However, if we had access to the data, in a structured manner, there are those at non-profits, in universities and colleges and in the media (among other places) that could map the projects, compare budgets and results more clearly, compare our efforts against those of other countries, and do their own analysis to say, find duplication and overlap. I don’t, for a second, believe that 99.9% of Canadians will use CIDA’s open data portal, but the .1% who do will be able to create products that can inform the rest of us, and allow us to better understand Canada’s role in the world. In other words, Open Data portal could be empowering and educating to a broad number of people. Access to 10,000 reports, while a good step, simply won’t be able to create a similar outcome on any scale. The difference is, quite frankly, dramatic.

So let’s wait and see. I’m excited that the Minister of International Cooperation is using the language of Open Data – it means that she and her staff understand it has currency. What I also hope is that they understand its meaning – so far we have no data on whether they do or do not, and I remain cautiously optimistic, they should, after all, realize the significance of the language they are using. Either way, they have set high expectations among those of us who think about, talk about and work in, this area. As a Canadian, I’m hoping those expectations get fulfilled.

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