Ontario's Open Data Directive: Great Draft, Good Direction

I attended the GO Open Data conference Friday, the annual provincial open data conference which brings together hundreds of open data stakeholders for a day of talks, workshops, and planning.

Deputy Premier and President of the Treasury Board Deb Matthews kicked off the day with the morning keynote. To coincide with her speech, the provincial government unveiled it’s draft Open Data Directive and released 181 new data sets.

The Deputy Premier was behind schedule and I read the announcement prior to her keynote address to the conference. The release was issued to media at 9:30 a.m., the address originally scheduled for 9:15 a.m.Reaction to the Draft Directive

I can’t remember the last time I was “very happy” with a government initiative. This is my reaction to the draft directive for a couple of reasons.

The Good

First, and most important, that the government released the draft for public feedback using Google Docs – meaning feedback on the document is public and the government must respond to reasonable public input to the directive.

Second, the directive expresses its purpose as “requiring that government data be *open by default *except in limited and specific circumstances”, using a bold font-face to emphasis “open by default” – this key as it sets the expectation that open data will be a standard of the civil service.

(Aside: later in the afternoon, a staffer of a government agency didn’t sound too excited that his agency will have to release data under the directive. Note: I’m not naming the agency as there’s no need to shame this moment of honesty, and shaming serves no purpose in this instance)

Third, data will be released in open machine-readable formats at no cost to the user under an open license. I like open data that’s actually open.

Fourth, the plan to implement open data as part of procurement contracts. “The Government of Ontario will obtain the right to publish procurement contract data as open data, unless the data should be excluded from being made available as open data.”

Fifth, the directive sets the Ontario government on the path to API’s.

Sixth, the directive makes Deputy Ministers and Agency Heads responsible for “adhering to and promoting the principles and mandatory requirements in this directive and ensuring that ministry staff do the same”. This means the buck stops at the top.

The Needs Clarity

Back to the first good, as the feedback for the directive is in a public Google Document, I’ve been able to ask these questions and provide this feedback directly to the Ontario government. They’ve publicly acknowledged my feedback.

The directive applies to all Ontario government agencies which the province directly appoints the majority of members. This means that Police Services Boards will not fall under the directive as the Province appoints 50% Minus One, despite Police Services Boards being creatures of the province.

I suggested the province needs to include all the agencies that exist by venue of provincial creation and serve government functions.

The exceptions to “open by default” are reasonable. However, no process of appeal is provided in the directive and the decision to withhold data under an exception is left to the Ministry or agency holding the data.

I’ve seen governments repeatedly use the exceptions as loopholes to prevent the release of public information that the government doesn’t wish the public to be knowledgeable about.

I suggest the government make all exceptions reviewable by the Information and Privacy Commissioner – an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly. The Office of the IPC is already responsible for reviewing exceptions under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Summary

Don’t under estimate the symbolic importance of the Government posting a draft directive for public feedback using Google Docs.

This was a significant achievement by “Cabinet Office Digital” which is a small group of civil servants transitioning government into the internet age.

The draft directive is wide ranging, does not have any obvious trojan horses, and reflects the priorities of the open data community – not the priorities of the deep bureaucracy.

It looks like the provincial government is going digital, I’m looking forward to an increased speed of open data implementation and release.

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