What Could Open Data Programs Gain from Aligning with International Best Practices? Mapping open data practices in Canadian sub-national governments to the international Open Data Charter

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Research Goals

Across Canada, the release of open data by municipal and provincial governments is rapidly growing. Given this momentum, there is a need to assess the policies that guide open data provision and ensure their framework supports open and innovative data initiatives. An emerging set of principles, the International Open Data Charter (ODC), have been adopted by forty-one governments around the globe to guide the development and release of government open data. With the exception of the Province of Ontario, which identified adoption of the ODC as a high priority idea generated through their public consultation as a part of their sub-national Open Government Partnership commitments, there has been very limited conversation on adopting the ODC.

Established in 2011, Open North is Canada’s leading open data non-profit organization, committed to promoting government transparency and accountability, and public participation in democracy. In our role as Open Data Charter Stewards, and in collaboration with the research partnership, GeoThink, we are researching the potential benefits and challenges to Canadian provinces and municipalities adopting the ODC.

Four high-level questions guide this research:

  • What practices support the delivery of open data at the subnational level in Canadian governments?
  • How do these existing practices align with the international Open Data Charter?
  • What benefits are there for data providers to adopt the international Open Data Charter?
  • What challenges are there for data providers to adopt the international Open Data Charter?

To answer these questions, we evaluated the current state of open data policy instruments in four provinces and ten municipalities, and conducted interviews with open data managers from those jurisdictions to better understand the background and content of their existing open data policy instruments, the intended and actual outcomes of their open data provision, and future directions of their open data initiatives. Through these interviews, three key insights stood out:

  • Existing open data policy instruments in Canadian provinces and municipalities currently align with, to varying degrees, the principles of the international Open Data Charter.
  • Multiple barriers that were identified by interviewees as inhibiting the release, access and innovative use of open data could be addressed through the adoption of the Open Data Charter.
  • Despite awareness of the Open Data Charter and its potential benefits, Canadian provinces and municipalities expressed concerns about their ability to adopt the ODC.

Consult the full report (PDF)

Research Process

Jurisdiction Selection: All selected jurisdictions have launched their own open data portal or catalogue, and have a form of policy instrument that guides their management of open data. Open North had pre-existing relationships with the majority of jurisdictions selected.

- Municipalities: While there are over ninety municipalities in Canada that release open data, a small number of them have both an independent portal or catalogue and an open data policy instrument. The municipalities included in this study were selected to represent a range of geographical locations, and a range of population sizes - three small municipalities (population < 200,000), three medium municipalities (pop. between 200,000 and 500,000), and four large municipalities (pop. > 500,000).

  • Small: Greater Sudbury, Ontario; Grande Prairie, Alberta; Guelph, Ontario
  • Medium: Kitchener, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan; Surrey, British Columbia
  • Large: Ottawa, Ontario; Edmonton, Alberta; Montréal, Québec; Vancouver, British Columbia

- Provinces: There are currently eight provinces in Canada that publish open data to their own portal or catalogue, and of these, six have an open data policy tool. Four provinces - Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Ontario - were included in our study.

Interviewee Selection: The target interviewees for this study were open data ‘leads’, or managers. For jurisdictions without a clearly designated open data manager, existing contacts were used to direct us to the appropriate individual.

Mapping Current Practices to the ODC

This research uncovered common trends in the release, access, and innovative use of open data, and their alignment with ODC principles.

To what extent do current practices in Canadian provinces and municipalities align with the international Open Data Charter?

Principle One - Open By Default: Of the jurisdictions included in this study, seventy-five percent of provinces and fifty percent of municipalities have the principle of Open by Default incorporated in their policy. Policy instruments act as important leveraging tools for the release of open data, and the inclusion of Open by Default in policies strengthens the ability of open data managers to efficiently make data open. Jurisdictions that include Open by Default in their policy instrument have been able to minimize the bureaucratic red tape that inhibits or slows down the release of open data.

Principle Two - Timely and Comprehensive: Less than half of the jurisdictions included in this study have formal mechanisms included in their open data policy instrument that address the timeliness of data release. However, there are common informal practices that address this, including multiple strategies for prioritizing high value datasets that have been identified through citizen requests, the experience of other governments and/or by internal processes. The quality of released datasets is also more commonly controlled by mechanisms not included in their policy instrument, such as internal monitoring and providing direct channels for data users to report any concerns over data quality directly to the data custodian.

Principle Three - Accessible and Usable: All jurisdictions in this study already release their data to a central portal. In addition to this, sixty-five percent of the jurisdictions included in this study have adopted the Canadian Open Government License, or retrofitted this license for their province or municipality. This not only ensures that data is available freely under an open, less restrictive license, but goes beyond Charter criteria to standardize terms of use and ensure data users can expect common liberties and restrictions when accessing open data.

Principle Four - Comparable and Interoperable: All jurisdictions interviewed noted that the formats they release their open data in are influenced by common practices for open data release. While there are still cases of jurisdictions releasing data in proprietary and non-interoperable formats, there is still a commitment to moving towards open, machine-readable formats that will increase usability. Jurisdictions in this study commonly drew from format standards set by the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, and the G8 Open Data Charter.

Principle Five - For Improved Governance and Citizen Engagement: The majority of jurisdictions included in our study noted an increase in interactions between data users and the government in response to the release of open data. There are numerous cross-jurisdictional, cross-sector working groups and partnerships that foster open data ecosystems. For example, the Ontario Public Sector Open Data group coordinates between the Federal Government, the Province of Ontario, and municipalities in the province to move to common metadata standards and centralized catalogue access. The province of Alberta is working towards collecting data from all private and public data owners in a geographical location in order to gain a better understanding of the collective impact of resource extraction and allow for better-informed land management.

Principle Six - For Inclusive Development and Innovation: At both provincial and municipal levels, there are numerous examples of Canadian governments fostering innovative approaches to open data use. Of the jurisdictions included in this study, six either run or support a form of civic accelerator designed to empower developers and special interest groups to create solutions to civic problems that are of concern to both government and citizens.

What are the common barriers that inhibit the release, access and innovative use of open data in Canadian provinces and municipalities, and what role could the International Open Data Charter play in minimizing them?

Internal Resistance to Opening Data: Regardless of depth of experience in publishing data, all provinces and municipalities included in our study encounter some degree of resistance to releasing open data. This hesitation can be a product of numerous factors - departments may have budget items dependant on the sale of data, be overly cautious of privacy concerns, or hesitant to invite scrutiny of their operations. Adopting the ODC has the potential to accelerate shift in mindset required to foster a culture of openness through the creation of a strong open data mandate, and increasing the ability for open data managers to use their policy tool to leverage for the release of open data.

Lack of Data Inventory: With all government processes being systematically captured in some way, both provincial and municipal governments have vast data holdings. Multiple respondents noted a lack of data holdings inventory as a barrier to identifying high priority datasets and approaching data owners for their release. This also inhibits data users from being able to request datasets. In the ODC, the principle of Timeliness and Comprehensiveness requires the creation, maintenance, and sharing of comprehensive lists of data holdings. This would not only help identify priority datasets internally, but allows for citizens to be more informed on what datasets their government has.

Usability by Widespread Population: The act of publishing data to a central portal or catalogue can allow data users to access data, but is a small component of what makes data usable. Fifty-percent of jurisdictions in this study noted that jargon-filled description or highly technical formats could be inhibiting non-developers from being able to use open data. Under the Charter, Canadian provinces and municipalities would be committing to furthering the capacity for effective open data use by promoting awareness and education around open data, as well as ensuring data is released with links to relevant documentation and visualizations to increase discoverability and usability

What is the current perception of the International Open Data Charter in Canadian provinces and municipalities?

While the International Open Data Charter is not currently adopted by any Canadian governments, the lack of visible traction does not mean there is a lack of awareness of the ODC amongst open data managers in the provinces and municipalities included in this study. Of the fourteen respondents interviewed, three stated there had been at least internal discussion around adopting the Charter, seven stated their government was fairly familiar with the ODC, and only four jurisdictions stated they were unaware of the Charter prior to our request to participate in this study. Amongst the respondents that considered themselves familiar with the Charter, there was widespread support of Charter principles and a recognition of the potential benefits to adopting the Charter.

However despite the existing awareness of the Open Data Charter, alignment with Charter principles and the potential for the ODC to reduce barriers that inhibit open data programs, the jurisdictions included in our study all expressed some degree of hesitation in adopting the ODC. The three most common concerns are:

  • Resources Required to Adopt: With no examples of domestic governments adopting the Charter to follow, the jurisdictions interviewed are unclear of what resources are required to adopt the ODC. Many of the jurisdictions interviewed stated they are not confident they would have the human and budgetary resources required to approach adopting the Charter.
  • Capacity for Long-Term Commitment: Jurisdictions with sufficient ability to adopt the ODC expressed concern over their ability to comply with commitments made as a part of the Charter over the long term. Governments do not want to commit to the ODC if they are not absolutely sure that they can uphold it.
  • Potential International Scrutiny: A common concern expressed by jurisdictions is a discomfort of the potential for their open data program to be opened to scrutiny at an international stage.

The concerns identified through this study do have the potential to be addressed. Working with the Open Data Charter and connecting with governments that have adopted the Charter can clarify the resources and commitments required to adopt the Charter, and generate strategies for the process.

Continuing the Conversation

The Open Data Charter continues to gain momentum around the world, and its stewards are committed to expanding the network of governments that have adopted the Charter, and increasing endorsements from civil society, business, and other non-state organizations. Governments that are interested in learning more about the ODC can visit their website, as well as access their online resource centre.

Open North will be publishing the full report detailing the findings of this study with our Winter Newsletter in early 2017. To continue the discussion around the potential role of the International Open Data Charter in Canada, Open North’s executive director, Jean-Noé Landry, will be bringing key findings of the study at the Open Government Summit in Paris, taking place December 6-9, 2016. Open North will also continue to promote the ODC in Canada as Charter stewards, and through our Open Cities Strategies. For more information on these, or other, Open North initiatives, please visit our website or contact us at info@opennorth.ca.

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