‘Open Data’ means ditching partisan politics

A version of this post originally appeared in the Aug. 20, 2014 edition of Inside Queen’s Park, a bi-weekly newsletter for subscribers of QP Briefing.

Both Ottawa and the Ontario government talk a lot about open data and more transparent government, but there’s at least one area — refugee health services — where the two aren’t sharing simple information or even communicating.

That means duplication of bureaucracy and ultimately higher costs for taxpayers.

Two weeks ago, the federal Conservative government sent out an update on their Open Government 2.0. initiative, which included asking the public what kind of government information they want released.

And, under its own accountability act, the ruling provincial Liberals are polling the public asking what data they want the government to routinely make available.

While Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park are keen to share data with the public, they’re much more reluctant to communicate with each other.

While a lot of it is politics – the two governments represent different ends of the political divide and knock heads on everything from federal transfers to pension reform, jobs training, the economy, infrastructure spending and balanced budgets – some of it may be constitutional as Ottawa has a clearly defined position on its own jurisdiction.

The current federal-provincial information snafu is over the Ontario Temporary Health Program (OTHP).

The provincial Liberals started the program January 1, 2014 in response to cuts made to the interim federal health program two years ago, a program that had allowed landed refugees access to urgent care without incurring major health bills.

The Feds’ decision to scale back refugee health care (ostensibly to cut down on false refugee claimants) has been challenged by the federal courts as “cruel and unusual” and has drawn the ire of a number of provinces, especially Ontario.

The province has estimated that 48,900, or 55 per cent, of all refugee claimants in Canada live in Ontario, with the majority in the Greater Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas.

Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins revealed last month that the Feds have refused to sign a data-sharing agreement with the province regarding its refugee claimant database. Hoskins believes the OTHP may end up costing as much as $2 million by year’s end.

The federal court decision striking down the federal cuts has already gone into appeals, and could land in the Supreme Court before a final decision is reached. But, whether it falls on a provincial or federal ledger, the money ultimately comes from public coffers.

By refusing to share data with the provincial government, the federal health department is creating a duplication of efforts, likely adding to the province’s swollen $12.5 billion deficit.

Databases cost money. Back in 2012, headlines were made when an Ontario auditor general’s report revealed the provincial government scrapped a diabetes database they had already sunk $24.4 million into.

Though there are always exemptions to what a government will disclose (national security and personal privacy being two barriers) the refusal of the federal government to share data with its provincial counterparts appears to have more to do with spite than security.

To have a truly functional open government is to make the inner workings of bureaucracy as transparent as possible.

As a logical extension, open data should truly be ‘open’ – an agnostic tool that may only be used by a few, but is still available to all.

Segregating data along political lines is a costly move, not just for taxpayers, but also for the entire “Open Government 2.0” initiative.

Treasury Board president Tony Clement — who oversees Canada’s Open Government Portal — recently reminded Canadians they “can still get involved and inform us about ways to ensure the Action Plan on Open Government will benefit you and your family, and also lead to a more cost-effective, efficient and responsive government.”

Clement should stand firm on the third and the fourth principle of the G8 Open Data Charter Canada adopted in 2013 – commit the government to “release as much data in as many formats as possible” and “share expertise and be transparent about data collection, standards, and publishing processes.”

Sharing the federal refugee database with Ontario would be a great place to start.

Updated version of ‘Data Journalism in Canada: why we’re so far behind (And what we can do to catch up)’ available for download

I recently gave a presentation to members of the Information Resource Management Association of Canada (IRMAC) about the current state of Data Journalism in Canada. It was a great opportunity to talk about the issues data journalists face to people who both are genuinely passionate about data, and in a pretty good position to help journalists address these challenges. Below is a link to the PDF version of the presentation, updated with additional links and information. Please feel free to view, download and share it!

Data Journalism In Canada: Why we’re so far behind (and what we can do to catch up)

The most ridiculous quotes for freedom of information requests [IRE]

While working on my recent presentation for the Information Resource Management Association of Canada (IRMAC), I put forth a question to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR)’s listserv subscribers, asking for the most outrageous fees they’ve been quoted for FOI requests.* The thread got so many colourful responses that IRE’s Tony Schick turned it into a full blog post, which you can read here.

*To clarify, a Freedom of Information (or Access to Information) request is a formal request for documents held by governments and their other tax-payer funded subsidiaries. As of September 2012, 93 countries worldwide have nationally mandated Freedom of Information laws. Any citizen or corporation can make an FOI/ATI request, of which there is usually an initial nominal fee; in Canada, it’s $5. However, requesters, especially journalists, are quoted nonsensically processing high fees to complete their requests. Why? There are plenty of reasons, but none of them are good.

Kickstarter – MATTER

Kickstarter is one of the reasons I love the internet. In-depth investigative stories are one of the reasons I love journalism. Therefore, backing MATTER wasn’t a decision—it was an imperative. Check it out!

UPDATE: Matter’s first full-length investigative feature, Do No Harm, is now online – check it out here.