Open by default and modern, easy to use formats

Proposal

Make government data and information open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use.

Interim Policy Guidance

On May 5, 2016 the Interim Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act was issued to take quick action on revitalizing access to information.

The new Interim Directive enshrines the principle of "open by default."

It also directs all government institutions to ensure that whenever feasible, requestors will receive information in the format of their choice, including modern and easy to use formats.

Background

Open by default

"Open by default" is a broad principle that means publicly releasing government data and information that is of value to Canadians, with information being withheld only for necessary privacy, confidentiality and security reasons.

The Directive on Open Government supports this principle and directs government institutions to release many types of data and information in open and reusable formats.

The Access to Information Act is also based on "the open by default" principle. It enables Canadians to access government data and information that has not been publicly released, subject only to limited and specific exceptions, such as national security, privacy and solicitor-client privilege.

Modern and easy to use formats

Previously, government institutions have sometimes released information to requestors in searchable and reusable formats when requested and when there were no privacy, confidentiality or security concerns.  Requestors sometimes ask for the information in these formats so that they can electronically search, process and analyze the information.

But most often, information in response to an access to information request was released in paper format or in readable PDF format. This reflects both technological limitations and security considerations.

On the technology aspect, the software programs currently used by government institutions to process access to information requests rely on records being scanned into the software. The software then blacks out content on the scanned images to protect any information that has been withheld under the Act. The records are then given to the requestor in either PDF image or paper format.  These formats prevent the black-out from being reversed to prevent privacy, confidentiality or security breaches.

Another consideration is the cost of providing records in the format asked for by the requestor, which at times can be very high, for example when records need to be converted into a new format.

These processes and considerations are consistent with Section 4(2.1) and Section 25 of the Access to Information Act and Subsection 8.1(1) of the Access to Information Regulations.

To be able to release documents in easier-to-use formats in all cases while protecting private, confidential or secure information, new processing software would need to be developed and adopted across the Government of Canada.

With that in mind, the new Interim Directive directs all institutions to ensure that whenever feasible, requestors will receive information in the format of their choice, including modern and easy to use formats.

Related links

Comments

Jordon Tomblin - June 30, 2016

Public engagement with government institutions can have a tangible impact on shaping an “open by default” principle. Electronic publications of information that is of value to Canadians is of paramount importance in the Information Age, fostering transparency in the state and augmenting accountability to democratic mores of openness in order to ensure proper checks and balances are enshrined in law. To this degree, proposals for action to revitalize the Access to Information Act are timely and necessary.

One existing element to enhance public information access has been the development of the Open Information Portal’s repository, which allows interested parties to search the summaries of completed Access to Information (ATI) requests previously made to the Government of Canada. This permits acquisition of public records at no cost at the requester by searching through keywords, topics or fields of interest at an organizational level. Interest parties are able to observe the organization responsible for the disclosure, disposition level, year, month, number of pages and request summary. Beyond this, certain organizations allow for an informal request to be easily made through a hyperlink that proactively completes the required fields to obtain the documents in question (excluding of course the requestor’s address information).

An enhancement to this system would be to not only publish the summary of an ATI request but to also disclose the documents for each request online. This would in effect do several things: (1) reduce bureaucratic practices to increase efficiency around coordinating previously completed ATI requests; (2) reduce the environmental and financial costs associated with mailing documents solely to the requester; (3) enhance organizational transparency by moving away from contemporary practices whereby a “public record” is ironically solely sent to the requester him or herself; and (4) increase efficiency of the disclosure process by allowing ATI coordinators to focus efforts on formal requests for information received, rather than those that have already been completed in the past.

When it comes to the actual disclosure of records, an effort could be made to create PDF-searchable documents through optical character rendition (ORC) software, allowing users to search through troves of information based on identifiable keywords to permit indexing and to improve ease of access for the requester. At present, documents are not searchable and are sent as an image to the requester in electronic form despite the availability of said technologies in the market.

Through innovation and collaboration, creating an open by default culture and modern, easy to use formats is feasible. Lets make Canada an example to other nations and lead the way in public information access.

Dalal Hanna - June 15, 2016

I believe that all government generated data should be open access. As a scientist and environmental researcher, I currently have to spend considerable amounts of time asking government officials for data, waiting for them to reply, asking again etc. Unfortunately, sometimes, after all this work, I don't even end up being granted access to what I'm looking for. Both researchers and government, and the general public could save considerable time if data was immediately open access and formatted in more modern user friendly ways. I hope to see our government make efforts toward implementing this policy and appreciate this public inquiry!

Kathleen Martin - May 25, 2016

When all government spending and information is transparent by default, then half the battle on access to information will be won. Please consider including an open and transparent account of MP and Senate spending online. I see an Expenditure's by Member Report is included on an MP's information page via parl.gc.ca, but it is obvious that the House of Commons (HOC) does not have enough personnel to manage the upload of data in order to provide transparency. For example, do you expect me to believe that my MP Catherine McKenna has employees working in her Hill Office and Constituency Office and they are all sharing exactly $12,270.02 ? That is what it states in her Expenditure's by Member Report, and McKenna is not the only MP who has an unrealistic number in the column of her report called Employee Salaries. Please provide accurate and realistic numbers that reflect the truth, and ensure if an initiative such as this exists that you have the necessary personnel to maintain current and accurate figures. Otherwise this attempt at being transparent becomes a mute point. Thank you, Kathleen Martin

Patricia Wilson - May 05, 2016

Consider whether Open Government can be extended to include government contracts. This would involve proactively redacting the contracts for information that would be withheld under section 20 ATIA and making the redacted versions available. If requesters still want information that is redacted, they would be required to use the formal ATIA request process, with opportunities to third parties to make representations regarding disclosure of the redacted portions. This would eliminate a great number of formal requests and significantly reduce the cost to government and third parties of processing those requests.

James McKinney - May 03, 2016

Currently, the government publishes summaries of requests [1] that meet the "Criteria for posting summaries of completed access to information requests", outlined in Appendix E of the Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act [2]. An individual can make an informal request for the ATI records that were previously released in response to a completed request.

In my and Bernard Rudny's piece in Policy Options [3], we explain that the government should "proactively disclose the responses to nonpersonal access to information (ATI) requests. Every year, the federal government responds to more than 60,000 ATI requests and discloses more than 5 million pages. But these records are valuable not only to the requester; others could also benefit from the information they contain.

"In Britain, WhatDoTheyKnow.com publishes responses to these kinds of requests online. The average document is viewed by 20 people, and some are viewed by up to 80,000 people. In Canada, on the other hand, anyone who wants to see a record disclosed under ATI must re-request it manually.

"This is a simple change to make. These records are ready to be released to the public, since they have already been reviewed for privacy and security concerns. In fact, it’s already a standard practice for the provincial governments of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the United States under the Release to One, Release to All policy."

In short, the government should proactively release the ATI records that are associated to the summaries it posts, instead of requiring an informal request.

However, these disclosures don't need to be, and indeed should not be, simultaneous with the release of the records to the requester. Elizabeth Denham, Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, thoroughly addressed this issue in an investigation report in 2011. See in particular the two sections with the heading "Timing of posting" [4].

These disclosures should be exempt from the Official Languages Act, except if the records already exist in both languages, or if the government institution considers it to be in the public interest to translate the records. These exceptions are consistent with section 12(2) of the Access to Information Act.

1. http://open.canada.ca/en/search/ati
2. http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?section=text&id=18310#appE
3. http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/march-2016/whats-needed-to-deli…
4. https://www.oipc.bc.ca/investigation-reports/1243

Patricia - May 07, 2016

I am pleased that ATIP Act is being looked at, currently only the metadata (summaries) are available which is not useful as the metadata rarely shows anything meaningful to the user. If government is already responding to ATIP request the full request should be published on the Portal.

I disagree with James McKinney regarding Official Languages Act. Since Canada is a bilingual country, information should be provided in both official languages. I have employees that only speak French, these employees will not be able to understand the ATIP documents that are provided in English.

Another concern is providing the information in formats that are accessible to all disabilities. I was provided PDF's from an ATIP request, and my employee who is visually impaired was not able to use this document. After filing a compliant I received an accessible PDF format, that she was able to use after 6 months when the project was over, which by the time we received was useless.

All these concerns should be taken in account to ensure that all users can access the documents published on the Portal.