Hiding in plain sight

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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It’s not only about knowing the perfect place, that isolated small beach where you can kick back and spend a hot summer day.
You also have to know how to get there.

And that’s the conundrum about the ever-growing volume of information that’s online.

Because it’s out there. Somewhere.

But posting something online and saying that you’ve made it public are two different things; it’s a little bit like saying, “Well, there are copies in the library” without pointing out that the library doesn’t necessarily have a working indexing system.

Things are there all right, but finding them may be tough.

There are people, for example, who can winnow all sorts of information out of Statistics Canada. There are a few who are downright artists — for me, StatsCan and its myriad data tables can be a virtual rabbit-hole. Tons of information, little of it readily accessible. But that’s just my own particular problem.

More and more, you can find places where information is laid out — but only if you know the electronic Masonic handshake needed to open the gates.

The provincial government, for example, took the step of putting orders in council — decisions made by the provincial cabinet — online. To get there, you go to a website (http://www.exec-oic.gov.nl.ca/ public/oic/search), where you’re asked to load in the text of the order or the order date or the number. That information, of course, is only available to you if you already know it. You can search by keyword, but that is pretty hit or miss.

There is actually an end run around the dead end — if you use the search term “under,” just that one single word, you can actually get a list of all of the cabinet orders by title. But that’s only because cabinet orders always start with the words “Under the authority…” If you don’t know that, you’re out of luck. But it’s all online.

Then there’s the Public Utilities Board. It is well-meaning enough, posting all documentation, but finding anything is pretty much hide-and-no-seek.

If you want to find what Newfoundland Hydro had to say about a specific aspect of January’s power failures, you find yourself going through reams of numbered exhibits, each one of which has to be downloaded individually.

Try and decide where the important issues are when you’re faced with “PUB NLH 1, PUB NLH 2, PUB NLH 3, PUB NLH 4, PUB NLH 5, PUB NLH 6, PUB NLH 7, PUB NLH 8, PUB NLH 9, PUB NLH 10, PUB NLH 11, PUB NLH 12, PUB NLH 13 …”

And the exhibits can be legion: in Newfoundland Hydro’s 2013 general rate increase, there were 1,486 individual files for answers to written questions alone. Don’t get me wrong: the PUB is excellent about posting data — but it’s literally a sea of information, with no maps or compass to help you find your way.

Other organizations post materials online but don’t actually let you know when new material goes up — there’s an independent legal decision site where you can see when a discipline panel of the law society has decided on a lawyer’s case, but you have to keep going back to the site to see if it’s been updated.

There are also sites that work well: the province’s online restaurant inspection site is remarkably straightforward — click your way into an alphabetical list of restaurant names, click on the one you’re interested in, and presto, there it is.

But try finding specific documents in the province’s environmental assessment system and you’d better be prepared for a pretty lengthy slog. At the moment, there are 1,750 blocks of assessment documents — the list of projects since March 2000 — and they are listed chronologically, by title.

If you don’t happen to know that you’re looking for “Crown Five-Year Operating Plan FMD 7 (2013-2017),” you might have a hard time tracking down the fact that the provincial government wants to use the Swanger Cove forestry access road to harvest a large block of insect-damaged wood before the trees all die.

With larger environmental assessments, all the information is in place — finding it, inside large PDF files, can be more difficult.

It begs the question — are governments actually being two-faced about transparency when they add items to websites, but don’t give you routes to get to them?

In some cases, yes — in others, the answer’s probably a little

bit more straightforward — when you’re putting things up on the Internet, you’re often doing it because you’ve been told that you should. You’re not necessarily stopping to consider who will be looking for it and how they would go about finding it.

The bottom line in all this?

Simply posting information isn’t really the whole story when it comes to openness.

You actually have to be proactively trying to figure out the best way to get the information you have into the hands that need or want it.

Otherwise, it’s just hidden in plain sight.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Public Utilities Board, Year Operating Plan FMD 7

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