TORONTO — Government systems and programs should be designed from the ground up to allow information to be — by default — readily available and accessible to the public, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner said Thursday.
No longer is it good enough to force people to file freedom of information requests to get data they want, said Ann Cavoukian.
“I don’t want people to go hunting and digging up things,” Cavoukian told a session on open data.
“Data should be free, open and transparent.”
The panel session stressed the notion that information governments have belongs to the people, and therefore should be available to the public unless there are compelling reasons, such as privacy, to withhold it.
Ready access to information makes for more responsive, efficient and participatory government, they said.
Until fairly recently, however, citizens had to “pull” information from government databanks through formal access requests.
Cavoukian called the access process “so arduous,” saying it’s time to move forward by designing systems that allow governments to “push” data to the public.
The information should be machine readable and be free to use and re-use, she said.
As an example of how not to do things, Cavoukian cited an issue with the Landlord and Tenant Board, which had been releasing reports on request for free.
However, after implementing a new electronic case-management system, the board demanded more than $16,000 from an individual for the same reports.
“I could not believe this,” Cavoukian said. “Are you kidding me? On what planet do you do that?”
Her office issued an order that the board release the reports at no charge.
One positive example she gave was Toronto’s pushing out of data on transit routes that have led to development of a smartphone app that offers information in real time about the next bus or streetcar.
Other speakers noted the push for open data and open government is global, with the United Kingdom in the forefront and Canada lagging about two or three years behind. There’s also a movement internationally to make access to information a human right, the forum heard.
Provincially, British Columbia may be the furthest ahead, even having a minister responsible for open government.
While pressing for more openness, Cavoukian stressed that any personal information government collects has to be jealously guarded.
Other panel speakers included assistant commissioner Brian Beamish, Jury Konga of the eGovFutures Group and Samantha Liscio with the Ontario Public Service, Dave Wallace with the University of Waterloo and the City of Toronto’s Daphne Gaby Donaldson.