With the advent of new technologies that make document distribution on the Internet cheaper and easier than ever before, many governments are shifting to an “e-democracy” model of access to information. In addition to operating the traditional request-based system where a member of the public asks for a government document and receives a hard copy (or an electronic one), increasingly, governments are moving many of their documents and data online, where members of the public can search for material themselves.
This process is often referred to as “proactive disclosure.” It is one component of a larger initiative sometimes called “e-government,” “e-governance,” “e-participation,” or “open government,” whereby citizens are able not only to obtain electronic access to government documents and services, but also to interact with them and give feedback on matters ranging from individual service problems to statistics and policy.
Another term frequently used in this context is “Government 2.0,” which refers to the integration of new-generation digital media technologies into government structure and operations.
Many municipal and local governments, including some in Canada, have started rolling out “open data” web portals that provide raw government data to the public. The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia all made major announcements regarding the launch of open data and other proactive disclosure initiatives in December 2009. Some countries, such as Mexico, India, Finland and New Zealand have had proactive disclosure systems in place for some time.
This paper will provide examples of the proactive disclosure systems that are developing or already in place in Canada. A second paper in this series will look at the development of proactive disclosure systems in the United States and selected other countries.
2 Municipal Governments
In Canada, the city governments of Toronto and Mississauga in Ontario, Vancouver and Nanaimo in British Columbia, and Edmonton, Alberta, have introduced “beta” (test) versions of “open data” portals, where raw government data is made available in accessible format for members of the public to use as they wish. Other Canadian cities, such as Ottawa and Calgary, are also taking steps towards launching an open data model. Following the coming into force of a province-wide regulation in November 2009, Québec’s municipalities are migrating to proactive disclosure that will include not only data but also internal documents.
Toronto’s “OpenTO” initiative has resulted in the launch of an online catalogue with an A–Z directory of data sets that can be accessed by the public in different formats, depending on the data sought. For example, users can subscribe to real-time feeds of festivals and events in the city, or of by-law infraction reports against apartment buildings. They can look up the city’s transit improvement plans, find a place of worship close to them, or use a geocoder data service to validate addresses within the city or determine in which school zone they are located.
The City has also created a site called “DataTO” where users can request data sets to be posted for public use, report on existing databases of city information that exist outside the government site, and post comments on all requests. The site’s front page contains links to the “hottest” requests, the “most recent” requests, the “most commented” requests, and the “most contentious” requests.
Toronto’s neighbour, the City of Mississauga, launched “Mississauga Data” in March 2010, which it describes as a “publications and open data catalogue.” It does not appear to be limited to data alone, but also includes City documents of interest. The initial contents are mostly in PDF format, although there are some interactive contents such as mapping information. The site also features a section called “Publication News,” which announces new additions to the catalogue; users can subscribe to this section through RSS or Twitter.
Nanaimo has also structured its portal as an online data catalogue, where updated information is posted on topics ranging from building permit statistics to an inventory of public art in the city. Other items listed include upcoming committee and council meetings, surplus equipment for sale, and fire and rescue incident response reports. As with the other sites, the data is in different formats depending on the source. For example, building permit statistics are posted in HTML as documents that can be called up from a database at the click of a button, whereas fire and incident reports take the form of a data feed to which a member of the public can subscribe. There is also a property search query engine available online for public use.
Edmonton’s “Open Data Catalogue” currently has a more limited number of data sets online than do some of the other cities, but it does have census information, which is not yet available on the other portals. It also includes a section with technical information for developers who want to create their own applications to use the data and therefore appears to be encouraging “mashing up” of the data by the public. Edmonton’s site also has an open licensing agreement similar to Toronto’s and Vancouver’s.
Developments with open data are spreading to other Canadian cities as well. The City of Calgary voted in favour of a July 2009 motion to conduct a study on opening up its data, and tasked the City administration with presenting a report by December 2009. That deadline was extended to February 2010, and the City council passed a motion in March 2010 to launch an open data pilot project for Calgary. Ottawa city officials are thought to be working on a data dissemination policy that will include open data. They also attended the May 2009 Ottawa edition of ChangeCamp, a highly successful countrywide conference series on open government technologies hosted by a citizen’s group whose goal is to “re-imagine government and citizenship in the age of participation.”
Most of these initiatives are currently in the first stage of providing raw data sets to the public rather than the internal policy and other documents a full “open government” model would dictate, but there is scope for them to expand if their test sites are successful.
Some Canadian cities are also cooperating with independent volunteer and nongovernmental organizations which put applications that interact with government data up on the Web. This movement is well advanced in the United States, where various levels of government are sponsoring “mash-up” initiatives that encourage members of the public to create their own digital tools for aggregating and analyzing different types of government information available online. The government of Washington, DC, for example, created a series of contests for would-be developers entitled “Apps for Democracy” to get submissions from citizens on how its open data catalogue could best be used. The winners of the most recent contest developed an application that helped users download the City’s 311 information service by iPhone and analyze its data using Facebook.
The City of Edmonton has announced its own very similar “Apps4Edmonton” contest inviting the public to use its Open Data Catalogue to design digital applications for submission. The winners will be announced in September 2010.
Another Canadian example of this kind of initiative is “Fix My Street,” a project created by VisibleGovernment.ca, which allows citizens to provide fully accessible reports of problems such as potholes and faulty street lights to their city government through an e-portal using a digital map and postal codes to pinpoint the locations of trouble spots. The site subsequently posts whether the problems have been fixed based on users’ reports. So far, the municipal governments of Ottawa, Montréal (Outremont, Plateau-Mont-Royal, and Ville-Marie), Fredericton, and Charlottetown, Summerside, Stratford and Cornwall, PEI, respond to reports from the site, and it has been reported that Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax may also soon participate.
This organization, and others like it, also provides digital tools compiling existing government data online. For example, VisibleGovernment.ca is currently developing an “Expense Visualizer” to aggregate the information provided on federal government websites pursuant to the Treasury Board’s Directive on Travel and Hospitality Expenses. This tool will allow the public to call up and compare these numbers in one place rather than having to search for them on individual government department websites.
3 Provincial Governments
Most levels of government in Canada are in the midst of migrating many of their service offerings to online portals and making them interactive, but with the exception of Québec and British Columbia, they have not yet turned their attention to proactive disclosure of documents and information.
In Québec, a new regulation, the Règlement sur la diffusion de l’information et sur la protection des renseignements personnels, came into effect in November 2009, requiring 15 categories of government information to be proactively disclosed to the public through the Québec government’s websites. These categories include internal organization charts, documents of public interest which are being disclosed in response to an access request, and studies, research and statistical reports of public interest. The application of this regulation is very broad, since it covers any “public body” regulated under the province’s access legislation, including not only Québec’s provincial government, but also all of Québec’s municipalities, school boards, and health and social service institutions.
Québec’s initiative was one of the first anywhere in Canada, since the requirement for proactive disclosure was originally adopted in 2006 as part of a package of reforms to the province’s access legislation. However, a period of three years appears to have been granted for implementation before the resulting regulation came into force. The Québec government published an anticipatory guide to the regulation in 2008 to assist public bodies with the transition to the new requirements. Another legislative review of Québec’s access regime is due in 2011, at which time proactive disclosure could be expanded, depending on the results of the review.
British Columbia has been looking at proactive disclosure as part of a wider project on integrating new technologies into the public service workplace. It has established a “Future of Work Initiative” with a special advisor, David Hume, who has been making public presentations on the full e-democracy model. This model allows citizens to participate actively in the policy-making process by providing them with raw data and policy documents and allowing them to use interactive tools to craft policy, in cases where policy development is outsourced to affected citizens and communities.
As an apparent example of this approach, the British Columbia government has announced an “Apps for Climate Action” contest. It is making available data sets from a “Climate Change Data Catalogue” it has posted online that amalgamates public data on climate change from various sources, including municipal and provincial governments, and it is inviting Canadian software developers to develop applications for “mashing up” the data in the service of possible policy solutions. The URL of the site on which the catalogue is found – http://data.gov.bc.ca – suggests that the British Columbia government may be preparing to make additional types of data sets available to the public as well.
Although no other major provincial initiatives appear to have been announced so far, information and privacy commissioners and other regulators at the provincial level are beginning to encourage the study of proactive disclosure, with a particular focus on the municipal example. The Office of the Chief Information and Privacy Officer of Ontario is co-hosting a conference entitled “Managing Information in the Public Sector: Shaping the New Information Space” in April 2010 with the City of Toronto and several other groups. The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta hosted a seminar on routine disclosure as part of the October 2009 Right to Know week, which included a presentation by the City of Edmonton on its open data model.
4 Federal Government
The federal government currently has a limited number of categories of information which must be proactively disclosed under Treasury Board policies, and which are usually posted under a link entitled “Proactive Disclosure” on the websites of every federal government department. In addition to the travel and hospitality expenses that the VisibleGovernment.ca project is aggregating for its Expense Visualizer, federal government departments are required to provide information on contracts over $10,000, position reclassifications since 2004, and grants and contributions over $25,000 since 2005. Any cases of “founded wrongdoing” at departments or agencies, such as breaches of the law or misuse of public funds, must also be posted publicly as well under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act.
While the Treasury Board has put into place a new directive requiring more structured management of digital records within the federal government, and indicated that this could be used to lay the groundwork for a full proactive disclosure model if desired, the government has not currently made a decision to expand this type of disclosure at the federal level.
However, there is some open data work occurring in individual federal departments. The department of Natural Resources Canada is partnering with provincial, territorial and municipal governments on some open data projects, in particular three web portals that provide raw data on Canadian road networks, electoral boundaries, topographic maps and other topics of interest to geographical researchers: Geobase, Geogratis and the GeoConnections Discovery Portal.
Geobase and Geogratis are governed by special licence agreements which grant the user a “non-exclusive, fully paid, royalty-free right and licence to exercise all Intellectual Property Rights in the Data.” This licence requires acknowledgement of the government source but includes the right to “use, incorporate, sublicense (with further right of sublicensing), modify, improve, further develop, and distribute the Data; and to manufacture and / or distribute Derivative Products derived from or for use with the Data.” The GeoConnections initiative has put together an extensive “Guide to Best Practices” examining the various models for disseminating government-controlled open data and licensing its use by the public, including a set of licence agreement templates for each distribution model. The guide includes a detailed explanation of the federal legal and policy context and how Crown copyright is addressed in such licensing arrangements.
The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has been encouraging exploration of a full proactive disclosure model for the federal government and recently recommended in appearances before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics that it be studied. It also sponsored a September 2009 conference for Parliamentarians entitled “Transparency in the Digital Era,” which highlighted the open data initiatives of governments at the municipal level in Canada.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics announced in April 2010 that it will commence a study on proactive disclosure.
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]