Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty
Credits: TONY SPEARS/QMI AGENCY)
A little more than a week ago, when the province released the annual "sunshine list" of public sector employee salaries, it did so in the silliest it could imagine.
The list included more than 70,000 records. To most people, that's a simple spreadsheet posted to a website. But Ontario bureaucrats decided to post that information as raw text spread across 60 different web pages.
That's a 6. Followed by a 0. And they called it transparent.
Few Ontarians have the technical skills to scrape that data off the web and sort it according to their needs. Publishing data in this way amounts to a purposeful attempt to hide information from Ontarians, while still technically obeying the letter of the law.
The culture of secrecy that leads to this kind of data release is a bad sign.
Ontario is in dire need of an open data site and someone to make sure it's managed properly.
Open data is a relatively new but also straightforward concept: All the information that governments collect should be made available to its citizens in a free, machine-readable format and in accordance with the appropriate privacy laws. Business licenses, inspection reports, environmental readings, tax evaluations and, yes, even salary charts, would all fall under this massive umbrella.
More than 17 municipalities in Canada are leading the charge on open data, from big cities like Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, to smaller cities like Medicine Hat, Prince George, Langley and even Niagara Falls. Even the federal government is embracing the open data movement, posting thousands of datasets and removing the paywall for data produced by Statistics Canada.
Now even the provinces are getting on board. British Columbia is leading the charge, followed closely by Quebec. Newfoundland and Labrador is making headway, too.
Ontario, though? Trudging, begrudgingly, in the right direction.
Glen Murray, Ontario's former minister of research and innovation, posted to his Twitter account almost a year ago that an open data project "is being built over the next few months."
Last week, a spokesperson for the Government of Ontario told me that "the Ministry of Government Services is currently exploring the benefits of launching an open data initiative."
"The Premier has said that the importance of access to government information cannot be overstated."
Those are nice words, but the culture surrounding data sharing is almost more important than the existence of a dedicated policy or website, and that's what Ontario sorely lacks.
A few months ago, Trish Garner -- the City of Toronto's web manager and the woman running the open data show there -- said that a real open data strategy had to include a shift in the entire way governments perceive the data they produce, moving from an archival mentality to a publishing mentality.
"We advocate for city divisions, agencies, boards and commissions to build the release of machine readable data into their processes and databases," she said. Publishing and transparency is built directly into the workflows.
Under Garner's watch, Toronto has moved leaps and bounds in this direction in the past year as more and more data sets are updated in near-real time and available through a central portal.
Meanwhile, the provincial bureaucrats still think it's appropriate to divide a single dataset across 60 web pages and call it "published."
Citizens paid for this data to be produced, they deserve to see it. More than an open data strategy, Ontario's bureaucrats need to remember who they work for.