CIO Briefing

Open Data is a '21st Century Natural Resource'

Flickr user worldeconomicforum

Member of Parliament Tony Clement has been at the forefront of the Canadian government's most important information technology reforms of the past few years.

He has helped in developing Canada’s action plan for the international Open Government Partnership, expanding the government’s open data site Data.gc.ca, making better use of social media in government, and drastically consolidating the government’s Web presence.

Nextgov is covering how the U.S. government faces many of these same challenges. We spoke with Clement during a visit to Washington this week about how things look from his side of the border. You can read the below Q&A from the interview, edited for length, or listen to the full interview here.

Nextgov: Tell us about the Canadian government’s work in open data. Where is that now and where do you see it heading?

Clement: Open government and open data are an international movement. The U.S. has been at the forefront of this as the co-founder with Brazil of the Open Government Partnership. Canada is a signatory to that along with several dozen other nations. This is a way we can engage citizens and a way we can push out more information, not only for public policy dialogue but also to create wealth and create economic activity.

So far on Data.gc.ca we have about 273,000 data sets. That certainly puts us in the world-leading category. What I’m doing now is a far-reaching consultation, both online and person-to-person, with the data community -- researchers and entrepreneurs and others who can give us the best advice on how to make that site more robust and more easy to use.

That’s important for citizen engagement. It also helps our entrepreneurs. They can create more mobile phone apps. I like to joke that Canadians always talk about the weather. We all have our weather apps on our smart phones. That data comes from Environment Canada. There’s also the example of your map apps that tell you the bus routes in whatever city you’re in in North America. That comes from open data from municipalities across the continent.

These are all applications that really weren’t around five or six years ago but are now part and parcel of how we make citizens’ lives better and easier. We want to see more of that. We think there's a whole field of applications that smart entrepreneurs can come up with and find a market for to create wealth and make citizens’ lives easier

Nextgov: What kinds of apps have been built with your data?

Clement: We’ve had success on some real time apps. Here are two examples: The Canadian Border Services Agency has an application based on open data that can give you real time wait times at the border for people who want to shop or do business in the United States. Another app that I think has a great audience is from Health Canada. Using their app you get up-to-date information on health and safety advisories, product advisories, food product safety advisories and those kinds of things. So we seem to be getting the reaction we want from various departments and agencies. We don't want to have stale data but usable and real time data.

We also track and publish on Data.gc.ca information on the most popular datasets. Right now the four most popular data sets are statistics on permanent resident applications, water quality indicators and border wait times, as well as on adverse reactions to health products. So it’s not just about having 273,000 data sets, it’s also about who uses them and how they are used. Those will be the metrics of success.

Nextgov: What role do you see Canada, the U.S. and other longstanding, relatively transparent governments playing the Open Government Partnership?

Clement: First of all, newcomers to open government can learn from trailblazing that occurred 20 or 30 years ago. In many instances, they can hopscotch and go to the online world whereas most of the early work we did in access to information was paper based.

It’s also important that we continue to develop what the world standards are. I don't mean that in the sense of strict rules. But in order to sign onto the OGP you’ve actually got to practice open government. I think we need to continue to be careful that there are some general standards.

Nextgov: Are you concerned that it’s tough to keep those standards in place?

Clement: [The OGP] has grown so rapidly. So far I don’t think we’ve had any major concerns, but it’s important for this body not to dilute its message: That open government is important for citizen engagement, for transparency and for accountability. We haven’t lost that, but that’s a monitoring function we have to continue to play.

Nextgov: What role do you see social media playing in the Canadian government and where would you like to see it go?

Clement: It’s about engaging citizenry, but it’s also another template for interaction within government. You’ve got all these stovepipes within government where public servants at different ends of the country or who have different public policy roles have difficulty interacting with each other. Social media gives them a chance for the sort of cross pollination that’s really important for dynamic and interactive government to occur.

When you add citizenry into that there’s a feedback mechanism that we can use for crowdsourcing. I give the example of the UK government, which had a motorway where there were a lot of accidents. The typical way that would have been solved was some bureaucrat in Whitehall would have got a policy option paper together for the minister of transport and they would have 'solved the problem.' 

What they did instead was they pushed all the statistical information out to the public, including those most affected by accidents in that region, and they crowdsourced solutions. All of that is possible when you give citizens the type of information that used to be stored away by government like your grandmother’s silverware. I call open data Canada’s 21st century natural resource.

The other thing I noticed, by the way, was public servants would grab their coffee at Tim Hortons or Starbucks, sit down at a table there, flip open their tablets or laptops and be totally engaged in social media. But at two minutes to nine they’d get to their office and all of that would be shut down. We were trying to attract young people to public services but we had this wall. It wasn’t shut down by policy but by a lack of policy. Without policy, no one knew where the red lines were, so you just stepped away from fear of crossing a line you didn’t even know existed.

Now we’ve created social media policy. We’ve said ‘here are the dos, here are the don’ts, here are the expectations. You’re a public servant, you’re a professional, so we expect professional conduct, blah blah blah.’ Now everyone knows the rules of the game so people can engage on social media without fear of reprisal.

Nextgov: Where is the Canadian government engaging on social media?

Clement: Most of it is on Facebook and Twitter at this juncture. There’s a proliferation of social media platforms, though, and I think we have to be nimble.

Nextgov: The U.S. government is starting to run analytics on social media to figure out how and whether it’s increasing efficiency or saving money. How has Canada tackled that?

Clement: We haven’t got to that stage yet so we’ll be interested to hear what the U.S. comes up with. We are going to be measuring traffic in some aspects of government like hits on websites, but we’re also conscious of privacy concerns so we’re not going to be doing all the analysis the private sector does.

Nextgov: Tell me about your website consolidation plan. What prompted it and what’s your goal?

Clement: The goal is to make it a lot easier for citizens to find the information they need from government and to process the services they need. [Now] we have 1,500 separate websites and in many cases they don’t have a common look and feel. It’s just incredibly difficult to search and find what you want or need from government. The idea is to collapse that into one common site with the best search engine imaginable to make it a lot easier for a citizen to find his or her information, to file forms or to do his or her tax return or whatever.

When we do that online it also saves government a lot of money. We’ve done some analytics on people going to the traditional wicket at their community government office versus online and the savings are 100-fold.

Nextgov: What are the major technology or data issues that cross the U.S.-Canada border?

Clement: We’re obviously interested in cloud-based models of storage for government information but it has to be made in Canada. Nobody, quite frankly, wants an overlay of the Patriot Act, so that storage can’t be done in the U.S.

The other side is we have this Beyond the Border initiative with the U.S. It’s a common action plan with the Obama administration to make sure our border security is enhanced but at the same time to make sure we don’t gum up our trade. We’re talking about $1.6 billion of trade across our border every day. So how do we make sure that is preserved and enhanced while at the same time dealing with legitimate security concerns? A lot of that is going to be online-based tracking and sharing of information.

(Image via Flickr user worldeconomicforum)

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// October 31
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