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Government data site offers stats, but too little substance

British Columbia's government is on the leading edge of open data, but Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham called its open information practices the "weakest component" of Premier Christy Clark's 2011 openness edict.

"The goals of open information and open data are not just fundamentally important, they are also attainable," wrote Denham in her July 25 report, Evaluating the Government of B.C.'s Open Government Initiative. "I am convinced that the practical way forward is for government to make more records, both data and information, public by default."

Denham applauded the two-year-old open data initiative, but said the government doesn't publish enough "democracy data" on its DataBC website. Instead, the 3,000 machine-readable datasets are heavy on statistical and geographical data, ranging from birth rates to animal migration patterns.

"DataBC is largely about publishing datasets or services to provide basic information about the province or spur innovations rather than increasing government transparency and accountability," Denham wrote.

Denham's report said that the government amended the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act 18 months ago to require ministries to determine what information could be released without a Freedom of Information request. Since then, the government has not identified any such records.

"This is unacceptable," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA).

Denham recommended that the minister responsible, Andrew Wilkinson, direct ministries to proactively disclose quarterly lists of contracts worth $10,000 and up and also release performance and efficiency audits. Denham cited the federal government's new procurement website as "a precedent the B.C. government should follow."

Denham also recommended the proactive release of hospitality expenses and calendars of ministers, deputy ministers and senior executives.

"The only open information government is disclosing on its website to date is travel expenses of ministers and deputy ministers," she wrote. That expense information, however, is "quite limited" because it lacks details, such as dates and events. Alberta and the federal government do post hospitality expenses by event, she wrote.

"The public has a right to know not just how much government officials spend while on public business but also in relation to what particular event," said the report. "During our review of the Open Information website, it became clear that many of the FOI requests for officials' expense information were related to spending for an event, not just travel."

The government doesn't proactively release calendars, based on a B.C. Sheriff Services' threat assessment that feared wide knowledge of officials' scheduling patterns could pose a security risk. Denham suggested government could publish summaries of external meanings, including the names of the parties, subject matter and date, but not the precise time or place of meetings.

The report said there may still be FOI requests for detailed scheduling information.

"In other jurisdictions, general scheduling information for public officials is published on a regular basis," Denham wrote. "In the case of the United Kingdom, information is published in a new record on a quarterly basis. In the United States, government officials' calendars, including the President's, are published in a summary form on a daily basis."

Wilkinson did not indicate how many, if any, of Denham's 18 recommendations would be adopted, but he hinted to reporters at the legislature that some changes are coming.

"We're looking at rolling out an approach to open government that is actually going to be workable and durable, rather than doing things piecemeal," Wilkinson said. "We've got to sort out the privacy aspects of these issues, we've got to sort out the practical systems and data management issues and that takes time."

When she launched the openness initiative on July 19, 2011, Clark said: "Open government is about giving people access to the information that they need to participate and to help us find solutions to the issues that affect us all; after all, it's taxpayers money and it's taxpayer's information."

FIPA's Gogolek, however, said the government has failed to live up to Clark's openness promise.

"Taken as a whole, Commissioner Denham's report shows a government that is happy to release bland, brochure type information, but digs in its heels over anything else," Gogolek said.

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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