The Real News Story about the Relaunch of data.gc.ca

As many of my open data friends know, yesterday the government launched its new open data portal to great fanfare. While there is much to talk about there – something I will dive into tomorrow – that was not the only thing that happened yesterday.

Indeed, I did a lot of media yesterday between flights and only after it was over to I notice that virtually all the questions focused on the relaunch of data.gc.ca. Yet, it is increasingly clear that, for me, the much, much bigger story that the portal relaunch was the Prime Minister announcing that Canada would adopt the Open Data Charter.

In other words, Canada just announced that it is moving towards making all government data open by default. Moreover, it even made commitments to make specific “high value” data sets open in the next couple of years.

As an aside, I don’t think the Prime Minister’s office has ever mentioned open data – as far as I can remember, so that was interesting in of itself. But what is still more interesting is what the Prime Minister committed Canada to. The open data charter commits the government to make data open by default as well as four other principles including:

  • Quality and Quantity
  • Useable by All
  • Releasing Data for Improved Governance
  • Releasing Data for Innovation

In some ways Canada has effectively agreed to implement the equivalent to Presidential Executive Order on Open Data the White House announced last month (and that I analyzed in this blog post). Indeed, the charter is more aggressive than the executive order since it goes on to layout the need to open up not just future data, but also current “high value” data sets. Included among these are data sets the Open Knowledge Foundation has been seeking to get opened via its open data census, as well as some data sets I and many others have argued should be made open, such as the company/business register. Other suggested high value data sets include data on crime, school performance, energy and environment pollution levels, energy consumption, government contracts, national budgets, health prescription data and many, many others. Also included on the list… postcodes – something we are presently struggling with here in Canada.

But the charter wasn’t all the government committed to. The final G8 communique contained many interesting tidbits that again, highlighted commitments to open up data and adhere to international data schemas.

Among these were:

  • Corporate Registry Data: There was a very interesting section on “Transparency of companies and legal arrangements” which is essentially on sharing data about who owns companies. As an advisory board member to OpenCorporates, this was music to my ears. However, the federal government already does this, the much, much bigger problem is with the provinces, like BC and Quebec that make it difficult or expensive to access this data.
  • Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative: A commitment that “Canada will launch consultations with stakeholders across Canada with a view to developing an equivalent mandatory reporting regime for extractive companies within the next two years.” This is something I fought to get included into our OGP commitment two years ago but failed to succeed at. Again, I’m thrilled to see this appear in the communique and look forward to the government’s action.
  • International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and Busan Common Standard on Aid Transparency,: A commitment to make aid data more transparent and downloadable by 2015. Indeed, with all the G8 countries agreed to taking this step it may be possible to get greater transparency around who is spending what money, where on aid. This could help identify duplication as well as in assessments around effectiveness. Given how precious aid dollars are, this is a very welcome development. (h/t Michael Roberts of Acclar.org)

So lots of commitments, some on the more vague side (the open data charter) but some very explicit and precise. And that is the real story of yesterday, not that the country has a new open data portal, but that a lot more data is likely going to get put into that portal over then next 2-5 years. And a tsunami of data could end up in it over the next 10-25 years. Indeed, so much data, that I suspect a portal will no longer be a logical way to share it all.

And therein lies the deeper business and government story in all this. As I mentioned in my analysis of the White House Executive Order that made open data default, the big change here is in procurement. If implemented, this could have a dramatic impact on vendors and suppliers of equipement and computers that collect and store data for the government. Many vendors try to find ways to make their data difficult to export and share so as to lock the government in to their solution. Again, if (and this is a big if) the charter is implemented it will hopefully require a lot of companies to rethink what they offer to government. This is a potentially huge story as it could disrupt incumbents and lead to either big reductions in the costs of procurement (if done right) or big increases and the establishment of the same, or new, impossible to work with incumbents (if done incorrectly).

There is potentially a tremendous amount at stake in how the government handles the procurement side of all this, because whether it realizes it or not, it may have just completely shaken up the IT industry that serves it.

Postscript: One thing I found interesting about the G8 communique was how many times commitments about open data and open data sets occurred in section that had nothing to do with open data. Will be interesting if that is a trend that continues at the next G8 meeting. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised is a specific open data section disappears and instead these references just become part of various issue related commitments.


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Profile Photo Mark Hammer

One wonders how much this new commitment to open data is an attempt to compensate for the number of analysts laid off in the race up to Election 2015. In other words, “We don’t have enough people to make any sense of this data so we’ll let YOU folks do it, and while we’re at it, we’ll make it look noble”.

Admittedly, a very jaundiced interpretation, but the fact of a diminishing analytic capacity across departments is very real. The EC group is one of the most frequently surplused groups (especially relative to their population) in the layoffs since Budget 2012. My own department wants to make the data we’ve been acquiring for years available on a portal. The underlying motivation, however, is that we lack the analytic capacity, and are losing ever more, to actually work with the data and generate reports that can provide insights to those who are interested in that type of data/information.

Like I say, a very jaundiced view. Certainly a big chunk of the data to be offered up is stuff that no federal department would ever analyze in the manner that external stakeholders would, and those stakeholders would be wise to simply work with the data themselves rather than hold their breath and wait for reports. But neither is it all like that and unrelated to my own misgivings.

Honestly David, there are times when I think I’m watching somebody looking over their Quicken spreadsheet, muttering “Well, the kids don’t actually NEED shoes or fresh vegetables, and if I roll to a stop instead of getting new brake drums, so we could save a few bucks there”.

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