Ontario Government Orders Data Open by Default

3 December 2015

The Canadian province of Ontario has issued an open data directive that is part of a larger government-run effort that could yield reforms concerning access to information and the standards for public consultations.

The new directive requires that all data be public, unless it is exempt for privacy, legal, confidentiality, security or commercially sensitive reasons.

It is an outgrowth of recommendations made in three areas – open data, open access and open dialogue – by a government-commissioned “Open Government Engagement Team” in a report, Open by Default. The goal is to make Ontario the most transparent government in Canada, said Daniel Lenihan, the head of the team and senior associate of Canada 2020.

Lenihan observed in an interview with FreedomInfo.org that the three streams “map to different communities.”

“These communities really need each other and need to be much more aligned,” he said. Noting that some governments have jumped to look good on transparency by issuing more data, Lenihan commented, “The open government movement is in danger of hitting a wall, because the data stuff has been relatively easy to do from a political point of view.”

“It’s riskier for government to creating good systems for structured public dialogue and consultation and to guarantee access to information,” he said.

Lenihan and Canadian Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault described a multi-faceted “vision” for Canadian transparency in a July National Newswatch article. Among other things, they observed:

Flooding public space with government data won’t ensure prosperity, accountability or evidence-based decision-making, unless the commitment to Open Data is matched by equally firm commitments to two other streams of Open Government: Open Information and Open Dialogue. And on these, much work has yet to be done.

Open Data Directive

The open data directive instructs ministries and provincial agencies to release data that they create, collect, and/or manage as open data, subject to exemptions.

Protected would be data exempt from publication under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 1990, the Personal Health Information Protection Act, 2004 and/or other statutes. The directive also says data “should not be disclosed for legal, security, confidentiality, privacy or commercial sensitivity reasons.” An Ontario official said the directive doesn’t override the requirements and exemptions of the FOI law.

Data released should be released in an open format, at no charge to the user and under the “Open Government Licence – Ontario,” the directive says, defining the terms in Appendix A. Open data, “to the fullest extent possible, is available in its original, unmodified form,” according to the directive.

“Government Data released as Open Data is accurate, timely, open access, interpretable coherent and primary as outlined in Appendix C: Data Quality Principles.”

The Treasury Board Secretariat will establish, coordinate and maintain a comprehensive government-wide data inventory. Ministries and agencies are given tasks, too. Among other things, they must identify any dataset which cannot be made accessible to the public and explain why not.

Another provision addresses contracts. One requirement is to publish “procurement contract data such as the winning bid for every contract awarded (e.g. vendor name, financial payment information), unless excluded. “Vendors shall agree that financial data of contracts are not considered commercially sensitive and may be released,” the directive also states.

The open data directive will take effect on April 1, 2016.

The province already has some 400 data sets available on its existing open data portal, but only 7 of the 25 most requested data sets are online so far. Included in the directive are provisions to make data updates timely.

Access Recommendations

On access to information, the Open by Default report says that within a year Ontario should:

– Reform the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by basing them on the principles of Open by Default and requiring the proactive publication of certain types of information.

– Reform the Freedom of Information process so that government systems can receive, process and respond to information requests online and in machine-readable formats.

– Publish Freedom of Information responses online as soon as they are released to the requestor(s).

– Waive claims to intellectual property for any product the government creates and ensure that it does not transfer intellectual property of information to a third party.

– Require ministries to pay for all costs associated with FOI requests when the ministry fails to meet required timelines for responding to the request and the information requested is held on IT systems that have been purchased in or after 2017.

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