COVID-19: The challenges and opportunities for Canadian interoperability, open government, and privacy

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As we watch Canadian governments and their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, certain issues are coming to light that have repercussions on Canadian open government practices, namely: coordination and standardisation, communication of data, and privacy and openness principles. This is also Canada’s opportunity to assert leadership globally and to demonstrate the application of open government in support of its crisis response.

Coordination and standardisation

Coordination and standardisation of data has long been a challenge in Canada, particularly with its federated form of government and its multiple levels of jurisdiction. These issues are well known to the Canadian government - the Privy Council Office addressed them recently through its Data Strategy Roadmap for the Federal Public Service, which sets out recommendations on coordination and collaboration between federal agencies and other Canadian governments, as well as non-government sectors. One of the issues outlined is the intragovernmental sharing of data.

The open government community in Canada has been spurred to revisit key issues such as data availability. A brief look at health surveillance forms reveals different formatting across provinces (for example, see forms from BC Centre for Disease Control, Manitoba Public Health, HSS Northwest Territories, and the federal government). They appear to be designed for completion in analogue form, with similar questions framed with different field types.

Variations in requirements to report information (such as the person’s origin) or even formatting of fields (such as dates), bring into question certain data practices: What standards are being used and complied with at the provincial level to support data sharing? How accurate do records remain when they may need to be updated and corrected over time?

Other elements of the pandemic response, such as government inventories of medical stockpiles and how they are distributed, are also key data issues that require standards and documentation to improve data sharing (and thus coordination on resource allocation).

A central online repository that presents a single interface to data could help improve data accessibility. The Government of Canada provides a centralised public health website. However, the resources contained within can be difficult to navigate or search through, with the main page’s structure differing from subpages, and resources confined to static lists of links.

Standardising access (with regular updates) to disparate data sources, websites, and software, could significantly improve coordination of efforts and increase transparency on the availability of data and information resources. This can help governments with their decision making and coordination, especially when they know what their neighbours have implemented. The EU Digital Response to COVID-19, hosted on the EU’s joinup platform is a key example of this type of initiative. However, their implementation requires significant manual effort in integrating and sorting information provided by the public.

Further integration of Canadian national and provincial reporting practices: standardised COVID-19 reporting forms that utilise the same field definitions and are accompanied by document tracking will go a long way to helping governments combine data for analysis.

A review and improvement of reporting mechanisms could benefit government coordination efforts. Standardised mechanisms for reporting COVID-19 that are enforced nationwide would support government coordination, while standardised forms for organisations in the public/social and private sector to report on their inventories and capacity (e.g. production capacity, mask stockpiles, availability of shelter) would help provide a better picture of where resources are and where they are needed. Some of these mechanisms may exist already, such as Canadian government surveys of private sector firms.

Communicating the data

Making data open and accessible is but one part of the job. Explaining the data is another.

The Federal Government is providing some basic analysis of the pandemic in Canada, but gives little room to draw deeper insights. While it does provide analysis related to certain demographics, the federal government website does not break it down by province. This is perhaps a consequence of the differentiations in reporting mechanisms of each province. At the moment, a researcher would have to download and join up data from each province one-by-one, or go directly to individual health centres themselves, in order to develop a more detailed picture of what is happening across the country.

Sharing insights on data, collections methods, and revisions While this federal government epidemiological summary webpage is being updated daily, it is primarily the figures that are updated, not the analysis. A series of written analyses, rather than a single webpage or dashboard with charts, can help communicate the data more clearly to viewers. Dashboards with daily statistics are important, but can be difficult to keep track of when the situation is changing rapidly. Because of this, documentation on how the data or analysis has changed may also be useful.

Finally, understanding exactly how a statistic, map, or chart, came into being can set public expectations of the data and what we may conclude from them. While revealing data collection and processing methods can be a scary prospect (a side effect may be exposure of weaknesses in government data), it is really about building trust through transparency.

Upholding privacy and openness principles

Automated contact tracing via digital tools, such as mobile phones, is the new focal point of global discussions. While manual forms of contact tracing (i.e. surveys) have been practiced before for disease outbreaks such as the Ebola virus, a number of mobile-based solutions are now being developed and proposed for governments to adopt.

The effectiveness and viability of such solutions remains in question and integration into healthcare systems would present yet more coordination and interoperability issues. The Government of Singapore has already rolled out its national app and initiative, called TraceTogether (which incidentally is also being made open source). While the initiative is still in its early stage, such apps present privacy and security concerns that we have yet to fully comprehend. In Canada, a number of new contact tracing projects have started to emerge, while companies such as Google and Apple are developing their own contact tracing protocol for others to use. With such a rapid move towards smartphone-based contact tracing, we would do well to apply caution and consider legal and ethical concerns, while still pursuing greater coordination and interoperability around data. On the government side, a joint statement has been released by federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners with a reminder of key principles to consider. Outside government, OpenMedia, in collaboration with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, released a set of seven principles they urge governments to follow.

Appropriate technical requirements, proper data governance, and a recognition of privacy and open government needs, will be important as we navigate the changing data landscape resulting from the pandemic. As the debate in society around privacy evolves, we are confronted with new, or shifted, values that need to be accounted for in government use of surveillance technologies. Privacy, particularly when focused on hardware and software, is not always an accessible topic for the public - explanation of the context, the technologies, and processes, are needed to ensure that informed discussion can occur.

As civil servants adjust to working from home, some real questions also need to be asked about government data. We have already seen changes to some government data collection practices in the US, where the US Census Bureau has made changes to its data collection methods for the US 2020 Census. A functioning and reliable data infrastructure generating key data (e.g. demographic data, health sector reporting, spatial data) is essential to creating an accurate picture into the status of the pandemic and how the situation is progressing over time. Open data remains important in enabling the work of those both inside and outside government, from regional planners and city officials, to academic researchers and civil society.

COVID-19 is a collective problem; it requires cooperation between government and its stakeholders. The open government community around the world may see parallels to their own work in improving collaboration between civil society and government. Open government is most effective when based on good problem definition and the current pandemic requires a systematic open government approach to yield better outcomes in government coordination, collaboration, and communication. As has always been intended, the purpose of open government is to lay the ground for collaborative responses to challenges we face in the future.

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