Open data – where is Canada going?

Since 2008, Canada’s federal government has done much to respond to calls for Open Data components in its ‘Digital Government’ framework. Canada’s federal digital governance regime is widely studied by journalists, data scientists, and government evaluators around the world; and has provoked debates on data standards, quality, and utilization. The 3rd International Open Data Conference held in Ottawa in May 2015, played host to many of these debates, but struggled to reach consensus on universal standards for the deployment of Open Data. International organisations, such as the World Bank have developed ‘Tool Kits” and other measures to help governments understand what the idea truly entails, but no global consensus has emerged. Regimes remain contradictory, confused, and heterogeneous. Interoperability remains a distant dream. Blogger Hugh Stimson reminded participants at the conference that “open data standards are boring, tedious, slow-moving, necessary and powerful.” But by virtue of their arcane, technical nature, technocratic interests thus far dominate the federal government’s digital policy feedback, which often falls beyond the comprehension and democratic engagement of the average Canadian.
While the government’s efforts are commendable, they cannot yet be said to be a success. Few Canadians are as yet aware of the government’s open data portal and very few have begun to use it constructively. Department documents are difficult to access, analyse and compare, and very few of the apps highlighted on the website have actually been developed by the public. More work is needed to render datasets palatable and comprehensible to the average developer, in order to spur the innovation Open Data is intended to achieve. Uniform standards applicable to all departments and consistent, well-funded efforts to engage the public in its transparency and accountability efforts are needed if the government is to truly realize the value inherent in Open Data.

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*This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.