Open and closed

Pam Frampton
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“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
—Anne Frank

When you’re looking for better ways of doing things, it never hurts to see what your neighbours are up to.

Last year, when Halifax was considering ways of making more information available to the public, the regional municipality launched a pilot project — an open data catalogue that presents information in friendly formats citizens can use.

There are several sets of data, including one on bus stops, where people can find out which locations are wheelchair accessible and which ones offer shelter from the elements.

The data on crime is particularly interesting. You can click on red dots on a map to find out what sorts of crime are happening, where.

Learning there’s been a recent rash of vehicle break-ins in your neighbourhood, for example, might prompt you not to leave valuables in your car.

It’s news you can use.

The Halifax pilot project is expected to become permanent in June, and it was driven, in part, by  increased requests for information.

“The public was looking for … what day is garbage day, where is criminal activity occurring, when is recycling day, zoning information, park and dog park locations,” said Donna Davis, the municipality’s chief information officer.

“All of these databases were … not created for the public, but we made it available for their use. …  There’s not much point in putting it out there in a format that’s not user-friendly.”

Halifax also held an apps contest, with top honours going to an application that notifies subscribers via email or messaging about parking bans, power outages, weather warnings, traffic information, school closures and such.

Halifax is one of many cities, provinces and countries embracing the trend towards “open data.”

After all, governments should give the public greater access to information that’s created and compiled with their tax dollars.

The Halifax model is an innovative one that the City of St. John’s could get ideas from.

To recap: open data’s a good thing.

Apples and oranges

And then there’s “open government,” a concept some administrations seem to be finding a little more difficult to grasp.

Our provincial government rolled out an “open government initiative” in March, describing open government as one “guided by the principles of transparency, accountability, participation and collaboration.”

So far, there’s only been a  demonstrated commitment to the latter two ideas.

Sure, the province has created a portal with searchable data on health, demographics, justice and transportation, and it posts online some government-commissioned reports, the results of access requests and MHA expenses. As well it should.

But in this province, officials are still issuing unattributed, emailed statements on behalf of cabinet ministers who are all too often unavailable for media interviews. And cabinet ministers all too often refuse to give direct answers to questions in the House, making a mockery of the people’s legislature.

As far as municipal government goes, our capital city does post data on snowclearing, garbage collection, public transit and the like. But when it comes to being truly accountable, there’s a new emphasis on message control in St. John’s that has actually diminished journalists’ access — and therefore public access — to key city officials.

So let’s not confuse open data with open government.

As an insightful essay on that topic in the Feb. 28, 2012 issue of UCLA Law Review explains, there can be a great divide between the two.

In a piece titled “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government,’” Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson write: “… more mundane and practical gov­ernment information, from bus schedules to restaurant health inspection data (is) being provided in friendlier formats.

“Such data can be used to improve qual­ity of life and enhance public service delivery, but may have little impact on political accountability. …

“A government can provide open data on politically neutral topics even as it remains deeply opaque and unaccountable.”

So, while it’s helpful for governments to offer online data that citizens can use, it’s no substitute for being transparent and accountable about policy and spending decisions.

How much is being paid out to whom for all the work done so far on Muskrat Falls, for example?

Why do both the City of St. John’s and the province often eschew their own professional staff to hire consultants?

Is it that we honestly don’t have the expertise in-house or is commissioning all those reports from outside firms just another form of government largesse?

Are there different rules for companies that are friends of the government when it comes to landing or cancelling contracts?

This is the sort of transparent and accountable information from an “open government” that I’d like to see.

As South African painter and writer Breyten Breytenbach once observed, the workings of government can be carried out in the shadows, even as it hides “in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency. …”

Or, to paraphrase Anne Frank, information can be illuminating, but it can also point to what is not being said or divulged.

Organizations: UCLA

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