Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Private Citizens, Open Data?

20/01/2017


The business of government can be described as threefold; governance, infrastructure and serving citizens. The connective tissue between these operational areas is information – any government has to be in the business of collecting, retaining and safeguarding it.

With an increased appetite to use data and a growing recognition of data’s intrinsic value comes some interesting questions about who should have access to these vast stores of information.

A Historically Upside Down Model

Why do governments collect data? Presumably to derive citizen benefit. Governments have a massive foundation of information, containing over a century of records and hard data on everything from Aboriginal relations to zoning. Sensitive, private information obtained long ago, prior to any clear repurposing policy or consent agreement, has been willingly handed over for decades. Most incredibly, submitting data to governments often has a fee attached to it to offset the required ‘overhead’ (from staffing and filing cabinets to digital database solutions). Much of this has been discussed in depth and presented in reports such as Enabling the Data Revolution, published by the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa.

Conversely, there are companies that now specialize in the ability to acquire and combine data, selling the resulting value-added information to corporations at a higher price. Unlike the government that requires you to pay to submit data, this commercially-sourced information is often collected by offering some sort of benefit to the average citizen.

Private Citizens, Public Data?

The reality is, governments are sitting on electronic treasure chests. But are they genuinely aware of this? Are they transitioning organizational requirements accordingly? Is the information management strategy, plan and long-term intent clearly articulated by government and clearly understood and accepted by the general public?

When the concept of open data was initially introduced, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the government would allow this data they’ve collected to be easily used, shared and added to. The rationales for doing so are endless; public duty, transparency obligations and of course, the potential for altruistic (or enterprising) citizens to potentially realize untapped benefits contained within raw data.

Provided private and sensitive information stays protected, there’s been a historical motion toward making these data sets widely available, especially if the government isn’t really planning to do anything with the information. On the one hand, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? Of course public data should be available publically so all may benefit! If someone is able to take public data and turn that into how I can shave minutes off my morning commute or what to watch out for health-wise based on a century of historic markers and trends, please go for it!

But if government-held data becomes public, it won’t be limited to just individual citizens. Imagine if modern, data-driven conglomerates like Google and Apple had access to all publicly held data sets. What would come of it if they did? Given commercial interest in collecting and analyzing data, should there be a cost associated with it? Could the ‘overhead’ currently paid for by citizens be covered by providing commercial access? Given the lack of explicit historical consent agreements, is it ethical for the government to potentially resell this information?

That’s the crux of the current conversation on open data: It’s something of an all or nothing game. On a local scale, the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner released an investigative report in 2013, evaluating the Government of B.C.’s Open Data Initiative which explores many aspects and actions of that time in B.C. toward open data.

With the relatively brief amount of time that has transpired since the concept of open data arrived, the advantage of hindsight is telling. Governments and public organizations may have actually done themselves an enormous favour by gradually directing attention and resources toward responding to open data pressures over the past decade or more.

To see what is happening currently with Open Data in B.C., check out:

Data B.C. – Province of B.C.

Open Data B.C. – B.C. Citizens

If you find this topic of interest, please join me in what I hope will be a spirited discussion around open data. Over the next few weeks I will elaborate on these thoughts around open data leading up to the B.C. Privacy and Security conference in Victoria this February. I look forward to the open dialogue.

Contact Ron Lees, MBA, Public Sector Consulting Services, at 778.265.8878 or ron.lees@mnp.ca.