Newspapers Canada FOI audit shows disparity in government response

Illustration courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By Fred Vallance-Jones, Data Journalism Editor

Illustration courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By Fred Vallance-Jones, Data Journalism Editor

Open data has become one of the buzzwords of governments across Canada. Open data portals have popped up on federal, provincial and municipal government websites as officials embrace the idea that making the rich data holdings of governments more accessible will encourage greater accountability and transparency. They also say it will allow developers and entrepreneurs to create new value in the economy by creating mobile and other applications using the data.

That’s why when we set out to design the latest Newspapers Canada Freedom of Information Audit, we decided to make requests for data a centre piece of the study. The rationale was simple: open data has to be about more than just releasing carefully manicured data that has gone through layers of approval processes before being posted online, possibly with the most contentious elements removed. Governments have to be ready to release data that the public wants, through the freedom-of-information process.

The results were mixed at best.

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While there were some bright lights, particularly the B.C. government, which released all of the data requested, in full, we ran into a lot of barriers. Probably none was higher than that erected by the Privy Council Office (PCO), the prime minister’s department. It simply stated that it doesn’t release electronic data, period. 

It seemed an astonishing position, and one without any obvious basis in law, but when we pushed and tried to obtain a dataset of access-to-information requests, the PCO said we could either take paper or our request would be considered abandoned. I am not one to use words such as “arrogant” lightly, but I used it in the report because the response was exactly that.

Aside from such obvious stonewalling, barriers to the release of electronic data ranged from the usual claims of technical complexity to the imposition of high fees running into the thousands of dollars to ominous statements that releasing data would put the very security of government information at risk.

You can read about all of this in the report, available here.

Even as we faced these barriers, other government bodies were willing to release data, including a number that freely released data on municipal parking tickets and collisions on provincial highways.

And to me, that’s the rub. Sure, computer systems vary across the country, and there are subtle differences in the access provisions in different provinces and at the federal level. But if a government body in one part of the country can be open with a particular dataset, that’s a pretty good indication that others can be as well.

For an identical request for data on highway collisions to be free in B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, yet cost $2,200 in P.E.I., $995 in Quebec and $370 in Ontario speaks to the wide disparity in access to information faced by Canadians in different provinces. The denials often seem less based on what is possible than the particular whims of government bodies that would, perhaps, just rather not share their data with the public.

Fees in particular can become potent barriers to access because while governments don’t say no outright, they make it very difficult for all but the financially well off to afford the price of access. It’s a particular problem in Ontario, but some of the largest fees were elsewhere.

These fees and the experience I have had doing the audit for the past six years is why I believe, and the FOI Audit report contends, that fees should simply be eliminated. They release comparatively little money for governments, but can be enormous barriers for cash-strapped requesters. Simply eliminating access fees would have evened out some of the biggest disparities in access identified in this year’s audit, including for data.

Governments need to accept that if open data is to have meaning, it needs to be for real. It has to be open data, affordable open data, when the public wants it, not just when governments in their munificence decide to release data of their choice.

Fred Vallance-Jones is data journalism editor of J-Source, associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, in Halifax, and author of the Newspapers Canada Freedom of Information Audit.

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