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Baby Names and Hunting Rules...Is Canada's Latest Open Government Push Doing Enough?

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Thursday, October 31 2013

A screenshot of Ontario's new open data website

Canada’s latest push for open data is happening in Ontario with a new Open Government initiative launched this week. It is part of the Ontario government’s efforts to increase public access to its data. Billed as, “a commitment to the people of Ontario to engage, collaborate and innovate,” the new website promoting the initiative pledges to unlock “the power of data in a digital age and partners with people to spark a new generation of ideas through easier access to information, more voices at the decision-making table and new economic opportunities powered by public information.” But does it go far enough?

Embattled Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne touts the benefits of the government’s plan on the site, saying, “Our Open Government initiative will help create the transparent, accessible government the people of Ontario deserve. This is part of our vision for One Ontario, where every voice counts.”

Wynne’s political opponents were quick to dismiss the new website as a cheap gimmick designed to distract attention from the scandal Wynne’s government currently faces involving the cancellation of two gas-plant contracts worth 1-billion-dollar-plus. “How dare they talk about open access to government information when they spent years covering up the gas plant scandal?” asked Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak before the press. Adding farce to the controversy, the October 21 launch was also notable for an unfortunately prominent spelling mistake that garnered headlines of its own.

Canada’s federal government has been pushing for more government transparency in recent years, unveiling a formal action plan in 2012. Ontario’s project is the latest in a string of Open-Data initiatives happening across the country.

Spearheading the project are the members of the Open Government “Expert Team” assembled by Wynne to hold a series of public consultations to get a better idea of what Ontarians want in terms of open data, and how best to give it to them. The team is impressive, including policy expert Donald G. Lenihan, former Liberal Party of Canada Director of Communications Leslie Church, and XMG Studio Inc. gaming guru Ray Sharma.

In an email statement to techPresident, Lenihan explained that the team will "lend our experience and expertise to identifying open government opportunities," but that their efforts will also hinge upon feedback from Ontarians "to help us identify what is important to them, how they want to engage with government, how often and on what issues." Lenihan explained, "The key to Open Government is engagement. Engaging with key stakeholders both within and outside of government; understanding open government initiatives that are already occurring in the different municipalities; identifying and sharing innovative practices and developments as a result of open government. All of this will help inform the plan that we submit to the (provincial) government in early 2014.”

David Eaves, a senior editor for techPresident is also one of the "Expert Team” members.

Eaves and his fellow committee members will spend the coming months talking to Ontarians across the province, holding a series of hearing and roundtable discussions, before compiling their recommendations into a report.

Eaves says they want to make information easily accessible to as wide a group of people as possible, including youth and seniors. “Every time someone visits a website and has a frustrating experience, that is a moment of engagement that has gone badly so why don’t we think of it in those ways?” says Eaves.

Part of the new initiative involves a website, www.onatrio.ca/open that makes government info available to the general public. So, how does the site stack up to the provincial government’s hype? Website visitors can get a lot of answers to FAQs, like what you can and can’t do during hunting and fishing season, how to contact their local representatives, and lists of popular baby names for boys and girls.

Ellie Marshall is the Communications Manager for Open North, a Canadian non-profit group dedicated to increasing citizen access to government information. While she says the website is a “useful first step,” she argues it needs to be more “robust.”

After reviewing the site, Marshall gave techPresident her feedback via e-mail, starting with the small number of available data sets. “Two hundred and thirty-six data sets is a start, but when you realize that Ontario’s top sets are baby names, clearly this isn’t data that’s going to be put to work in the economy,” she says. “We need data about spending, procurement, elections, redistricting, healthcare etc., etc. Sets that will stimulate the open-data movement are ones that effect everyday activities. Real change will come from real hard-hitting data.”

Marshall also saw limited use for the average citizen surfing the site. “I don’t see the average citizen using (or even knowing about this site),” she says. “That’s why open government tools like access to information portals, petition platforms (like the White House petitions in the states) are the next level of true open government progress. We need to engage citizens around issues that matter to them in their everyday life … not release the number of trees in a forest and wonder why there isn’t an app being made around it.”

Eaves argues the website is only a small piece of what the whole initiative is about. “That’s the least interesting thing to me,” he says. “A tiny, tiny number of people that are going to touch that website,” he says. “I’m more interested in a whole bunch of Ontarians who are hitting a whole bunch of websites every day – how do we engage them? How do we learn more about what our citizens are telling us in an online space? Eaves had no comment on accusations that Wynne’s government had transparency issues or that the project was an attempt to deflect negative criticism from the gas-plant scandal.

Perhaps only time will tell how the new initiative plays out. Eaves sees potential in the project. “There’s a balance around privacy that I want to recognize and that we want to safeguard, but there’s also an opportunity to treat those things as learning opportunities,” he says.

For Marshall, the government will need to prove it is willing to back up its words with work. “If the province wants a new generation to utilize this data, there should be some inspiration,” she says. “It’s so difficult to actually get government leaders and bureaucrats on board - because it’s about them putting in a little more time and effort to open the doors for everyone else - not something they’re all willing to do.”

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