Open Data Husbandry

In Canada, the legal community started reaping the benefits of open data not only before it became trendy, but even before governments started becoming familiar with the concept. Indeed, in mid-nineties, when our governments were still jealously protecting their information assets, the free access to law activities begun in Canada. Every crack in the otherwise watertight system of protection was exploited and opportunities were grabbed as they showed up. The Supreme Court is open to freely distribute its ruling: let’ start with that then. Justice Canada is ready to publish the laws for free: let’s go for it. At a time when engaged civil servants could promote policy change, a small group of lawyers at Justice Canada worked hard to convince the authorities and the minister to drop the illusory business of selling the statutes and to support the making of the Reproduction of Federal Law Order. Most of the governments in Canada have been reluctant participants in the opening up of official legal data. However, they loosened their grip on legal texts step by step, and gradually, it became normal for all producers of official legal information to share that wealth with citizenry through various initiatives.

Today, many federal, provincial and municipal governments have policies in favor of the implementation of open data programs in their departments. Open data access in not perfect, since not everything is available and not always in the right format, but we seem to be evolving towards a consensus that government data must become open data. This new reality constitutes a huge step towards transparency, but it may be even more important for its resulting social and economic benefits.

However, some observers remarked that the rich potential of the data is not always properly harvested. A researcher from Florence presented very mixed results for the open data initiative in their city noting that, by far, the most used data set was the one providing names given to new born infants (Smart Florence, Dr Giacomo Pailli, LVI 2013).

The results of a recent event held in Toronto to promote the use of open data illustrate the limits of what I would call the “magical approach”. The Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada concluded that “[e]veryone involved is thrilled to see the contestant’s creativity using open datasets from many departments and agencies” (Canada’s CIO Discusses the Success of CODE). However, despite the fact that nobody wants to hit hard on the programmers who tried in the course of 48 hours to produce something useful, the results appear hardly convincing to me (Winner’s Showcase). What should be critically evaluated is not the limited results of the “hackers” but the tendency of government CIOs to promote hackathons as major events or as a validation tool of the wisdom of making government data open. It is a sure fact that some of these collaborative programming efforts have or will produce useful ideas. However, it seems that the true value of having access to open data is not to design an app to know the opening hour of the municipal skating rinks in the allotted 48 hours, but to develop much more ambitious ventures which will generate real benefits. This sort of stuff does not show up in 48 hours. Taking stock of the open data potential is not well served by 48-hour sprints supported by food and cold drinks.

Jean de la Fontaine wrote in the 17th century The Husbandman and his Sons. In that fable, la Fontaine tells the story of a farmer who, on his deathbed, instructed his sons to dig in his lot to find a treasure. The poor fellows dug, probed and delved, letting no stone unturned and found nothing. They never discovered any treasure. Later on, the crop was incredible.

Wise was the father, ere he died, to show
That labour is the mine whence riches flow.

(Fables, Jean de La Fontaine, Book V, fables 9,)

Open data is our estate. We have to mine it. If we do, the results could be incredible.

— Daniel Poulin

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