Views on Open Data Contrast During ICIC Sessions

6 October 2011

The sometimes discordant relationship between traditional advocates of freedom of information and the champions of open data was on display during several sessions Oct. 5 at the 7th International Conference of Information Commissioners in Ottawa, Canada.

One Canadian open data advocate called reforming FOI laws a low priority.

FOI traditionalists, while supported the release of more open data, warned that politicians are using open data portals to avoid legal reforms. 

Most speakers hoped the release of more government data would stimulate greater demand for information and possibly expand support for better access regimes.

Explaining his disinterest in legal repairs, “I just think FOIA is broken; the wait time makes it broken…,” said David Eaves, a Canadian open government advocate, who added that “efforts to repair it are at the margins” and government has little incentive for reform.

Vincent Kazmierski, an assistant professor of law at Carleton University, Canada, said open data activists “specifically distance themselves” from the RTI debate “in order not to get bogged down.”

This is unfortunate said Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch and director of GoodOrg.ca Consulting in Canada, who contended that the major Canadian political parties “are hiding behind” promises to release more data while resisting amendments to the FOI law. He said that “unfortunately the open data activists are not pushing” for legal reforms.

Conacher, however, also hoped the open data movement “will create desire… that people will say, `Oh I can get this,’ and then will start saying, `Why can’t I see this, why can’t I see that?’ ”

Andrew Puddephatt, director of Global Partners and Associates, London, contrasted the cultures and values of RTI and open data supporters, noting that later tend to be anarchic and don’t like laws, which he termed a “serious weakness for us,” and observing that the human rights community is not fully engaged with the value of open data.

Gary Dickson, the Saskatchewan information commissioner said those embracing open data campaigns are not familiar with access to information. The Canadian government recently announced a data portal but  the ministers have not be held to account for “why we have a 28-year-old access to information law,” he said.

Dickson also observed, “We’re presenting with the classic leverage opportunity” that RTI activists should not ignore.

Alexander Dix, Berlin Data Protection and Information Commissioner, commented that support for open data is “very trendy among politicians.” He called it “vital” to link this development with existing freedom of information systems. Dix said governments should release data in useable formats, but added, “At the same time we need individual rights that do not leave the decision of what to publish to the government.”

German Commissioner Urges Cooperation

Peter Shaar, federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information for Germany since 2006, said FOI advocates “should not hesitate to cooperate and incorporate” some of the approaches of the open data movement in their own thinking.

Commissioners “should evaluate where are the links and establish these links in a useful way,” he said.

Shaar praised open data efforts in Bremen and FragdenStaat.de, a new online service started by a civil society group that helps requesters.

Shaar also said that governments must provide the public with instruments to deal with government data.

Eaves Stressed Value of Government Data

Eaves said the universe of those thinking about access to information “is so much broader than the usual transparency geeks, and we need to think about who those actors are — a whole new group of citizens and developers.”

For governments, complying with disclosure mandates is not appealing, he said, but it becomes more attractive when presented as an efficiency tool, he said. Eaves stressed that the biggest user of government information is the government. As local governments newly disclose their purchase data, he noted, other jurisdictions avidly compare their own costs. “Data is going to be most important asset that governments have in the 21st Century,” he said.

Eaves listed three “laws of open data:”  

          If it can’t be spidered or indexed it doesn’t exist

          If it isn’t in open and machine readable formats, it can’t be used

          If the legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed it doesn’t empower.

Lauding the repurposing and use of government data, Eaves explained that disclosures about food safety records placed in restaurants windows not only created more business for well-ranked places, but  also reduced emergency room visits.

Eaves recommended that information commissioners collect tracking data about their own handling of requests. He also suggested creation a database of fulfilled requests.

Stressing the importance of providing data in machine-readable formats, he quipped, that providing pdfs is “beyond insulting.”  

However, he said government should not wait to put out data in formats that might not be immediately accessible to average citizens, noting that the necessary literacy skills are growing rapidly.

He lamented that in Canada “you can’ even submit a request online… it’s mind-blowing.”

Keep It Local

Puddephatt observed that there is “very little research into public use of information” and said people care most about information concerning their neighborhoods.

Online information about local crime has been very popular in the United Kingdom, he said, as has been a website about politicians, their voting records and expense reports (They Work for You); and another named “Fix my Street.”

Citizens want information in accessible and convenient ways, he said, stressing the value of mapping data.

Access laws are important, too, he said, and active civil society groups are necessary.

Open government data policy must allow people to “mash that data up in a way that suits them.” He lauded applications in Kenya allowing access to information via.

Berliners Vote for Transparency

Berlin Commissioner Dix described successful efforts to gain access to contract information about a public-private water utility, concluding, “It is possible to drum up popular support for more transparency.”

The Berlin water works were partly privatized in 1999 and the confidentiality of information about the contract was challenged successfully in constitutional court by a member of parliamentarian.  In addition, a grassroots movement, the “Berlin Water Roundtable” was formed to obtain access to documents about the public-private partnership and initiated a referendum in 2010 to have the documents published.

The government advanced statutory amendments to allow more disclosures, but the referendum was successful providing even stringer access requirements, he said.

Dix noted that in Germany a proposed e-government law should be integrated into the RTI law.

Making It Real

Canadian activist Conacher said access to information is viewed as an abstract issue.  “You have to make it real to the public” tailoring messages to different constituencies and use specific news as hooks to make points about access deficiencies.

He said motivating Canadian groups to push for open government reforms has been difficult. His organization has invited 900 civil society organizations to join open government reform campaigns, but never had more than 10 in a coalition. Organizing is also hurt by the lack of foundation funding on the issue, he said.

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