An Addition to the Open Data Discussion

Today, I presented the outline of my Major Research Paper, which is the thesis-esque equivalent for my Masters of Public Administration degree at UWO. The significance for me is that it was the first opportunity I had been presented with to discuss Open Data with my peers, many of whom are municipal public servants (MPA @ UWO is a solely Local Government program). While the majority of the comments were in support of open data/open government, it opened my eyes to those in the municipal sector who have their doubts about the merits of releasing information to the public to the extent that open government calls for. As we consider the four walls inside of our classroom to be ‘Vegas,’ as in what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, I won’t publish any names, employers or fields of employment, just that they work in the local government sector.

One opponent of my open data/government drew on the experience of the Middlesex-London Health Units’ DineSafe rating system, and an incident where its data was ‘scraped’ and utilised by a commercial entity, which proceeded to re-code the inspection results. Their argument against releasing open data was based on their belief that this incident had counteracted the public education campaign the health unit had undertaken to inform citizens of the rating system, which was done at great expense to the health unit.

The second opponent was more concerned about the opportunity that could be gained by the type of citizen who tend to alter data in order to serve a desired purpose or agenda, and could wreak havoc should they have access to more information. They cited an example where a file several thousand pages in length had been released, and where sentences from the document had been altered to serve a specific agenda at a council meeting.

I have to acknowledge that these two comments were in the minority, and that the majority of my peers were incredibly supportive of the open data/government movement, not just for the simple ideas, but truly the principles of it. While I can sympathise with the former opposition over the latter, I don’t believe these two instances justify maintaining the status quo of information transmission between municipal governments and their citizens. While I certainly cannot lend any credence to a devious or malicious use of data, I don’t believe that one incident should prevent data from being released. For every negative incident, there will be fifty, or a hundred examples where data was utilised effectively to create public value. Furthermore, I disagree with the notion that a public sector official has the right to determine what is, and is not important information to release, other than those areas covered by MFIPPA and the Municipal Act. While the MLHU has done an excellent job compiling and release their DineSafe program, why should they hold a monopoly over the information? Was the data not collected using public funds? (the issue isn’t about ranting about the use of public money, but rather is a simple fact). What if the information was connected to Yelp or Urbanspoon, which would not only increase the public awareness of the existence of the program, and would ensure that the results of the program reach a wider audience. I suspect that the individual is not even aware of the existence of these applications. While public servants do strive to make informed decisions that are meant to create public value and serve the best interests of citizens, they are not oracles, and are therefore not in a position to withhold and shape the flow of information to the public based on the negative possibilities that are present when data is released.

The second source of opposition simply lends support to my belief that municipalities must develop enhanced records management applications, and embrace the principles of open government. If a citizen attempts to misrepresent a released document to fit a certain agenda, that does not automatically present a problem. If the resources are in place to easily identify a particular sentence in a document by having that document available in a text format or OCRed .pdf, municipal officials can easily rectify the issue. Open government not only serves to increase the availability of documents to the public, but it can be utilised to enhance the internal information structures of a municipality. By being prepared to counteract these instances with the correct information, municipalities will have served two purposes, 1. enhanced accountability, and 2. proven that there are competent officials serving the citizenry.  Furthermore, it is my belief that once the volume and clarity of information available to the public is improved, there will be fewer negative inquiries from the public, and the chances that they will be dealing with an informed citizenry will be greatly enhanced.

So here are two arguments against open data, I just wanted to share the experience in order to contribute to the discussion surrounding open data and open government. I certainly feel that there is some validity to them, but I don’t believe that they hold enough merit to counteract the positives aspects of releasing information.

The State of Affairs – Municipalities, Twitter and Citizen Engagement

As a student of public administration, I have spent the past six months studying the functions and responsibilities of municipal governments. I’ve tried to narrow down the issues that I believe are relevant, (mainly for personal interest, and a little bit for my 40-50pg major research paper), but I’ve found that the issues I believe are important tend to be those that are neglected. Let me clarify, they are not neglected because of ignorance (for the most part), but rather due to the constraints that are imposed on municipalities in Ontario.

Before I get too ahead of myself, I will define my priorities, not all at once, but as time allows.

Increasing Citizen Engagement

With abysmal municipal voter turnout rates, how can we (municipalities) better interact with citizens? As a 24-year old, my first reaction would be to look at how I spend the majority of my time, which is on my computer. I have the facebook, and I’ve embraced twitter and its ability to transmit information to the masses. But its about much more than transmitting information through twitter, it’s about the strategy behind it.

If a municipality adopts a policy encouraging the use of twitter, what will it share? Who will post material: a single operator or individual departments? Or will there be multiple accounts for municipal departments, who gets one, who doesn’t? Who will handle queries? If they share too much, the message is diluted, share too little, and people will not anticipate receiving it. An effective strategy is the key. Larger cities such as @torontocouncil and @edmontonclerk update their tweets as items are being debated in council and committee meetings, which is great for those who want to be involved. But does that translate into enticing the other 2/3s who can’t be bothered to pay attention. I’m not trying to discount the use of twitter, far from it, I believe that municipalities need to go further than tweets, to encompassing media strategies where streaming/downloadable video is available, but that is for another time.

So, back to the issue hand. If we define the issue surrounding the 2/3s who don’t bother to cast a ballot as one where they do not believe it is in their interest physically cast a ballot or fill a seat at a public meeting, then how do we reach them? I was inspired to write this post after watching Naheed Nenshi’s interview on The Agenda. Here is a politician who actually took the time to articulate policies – his vision of the community, and most importantly, acted upon his philosophy, which is “go to people where they live.” Wow. What a crazy idea. Mr. Nenshi went to the people; he didn’t try to deceive them with loaded statements and one-line catchphrases, and he actually won. He is appealing to those who use twitter, and he is appealing to those who don’t. He can speak to me, someone living in southwestern Ontario in an instant, and I can contact him with the likelihood that he will respond. It’s nearly revolutionary, but for those of us who believe that social media is the cure for the common malaise, I think we are kidding ourselves. We should explore the best ways to utilise the tools that are available, but we cannot forget that nearly 90 percent of westerns don’t use twitter, and probably 99 percent of that 90 are those who aren’t engaged in political matters. Perhaps my future, grey haired, sully self is coming out already.

I encourage comments, like I said above, I have a major research paper to write and I feel like I am stuck on a one-track mindset. Anything, praise, venom, gibberish (well, maybe not gibberish).