In the Network: Media Co-op Dominion   Locals: HalifaxMontrealTorontoVancouver

Support the VMC, donate today!

Dominion Stories

Group notifications

This group offers an RSS feed. Or subscribe to these personalized, sitewide feeds:
Advertisement

Websites for Democracy

How two individuals are using social media to improve government transparency

by Esther Hsieh Dominion Stories

Software developer Michael Mulley used his spare time to create his website "openparliament.ca"//courtesy Michael Mulley
Software developer Michael Mulley used his spare time to create his website "openparliament.ca"//courtesy Michael Mulley
Public Policy Entreprenuer David Eaves launched his website "datadotgc.ca" on April 15, 2010//courtesy David Eaves
Public Policy Entreprenuer David Eaves launched his website "datadotgc.ca" on April 15, 2010//courtesy David Eaves

Also posted by ehsieh:

In solitude, 26 year old Michael Mulley types away deep in concentration at his computer – and this after he has already worked a full day programming at his paying job. And while he’s not spending his spare time standing on Parliament Hill waving a sign chanting for government transparency, Mulley's after-hours contribution to Canadian democracy is a significant one.

Mulley, who lives in Montreal, is an example of a growing group of the Canadian populace who are using social media for democratic advocacy. On April 13, Mulley launched openparliament.ca, a website that organizes parliamentary transcripts in a user friendly way and more importantly with a search engine. Openparliament.ca enables the user to search parliamentary debates by categories such as MP, bill, subject and key word. So now with just a click of your mouse you can find out things like how your MP voted on a specific bill, read every word that was spoken in the House since 1994 on Afghanistan or get a quick summary of what was discussed during the latest parliamentary session. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the internet or even the Parliament of Canada’s website to find this information will immediately understand the value of Mulley’s work.

Despite the fact that Mulley clocked about a month worth of volunteer time to create his website, he doesn’t view himself as an activist. The idea for openparliament.ca came from his daily routine. He was just trying to keep tabs on what his MP was doing, and while the information was out there, it was difficult to find. “I thought it should be easy, and that it would be fun to try and make it easy,” says Mulley.

Mulley's not the only community member who thinks public access to government information should be easier. Vancouver-based David Eaves launched a searchable website on April 15, datadotgc.ca, which compiles government data available on the internet and organizes it according to Ministry. From the website the user can access things like a glacier map of Canada or a spreadsheet of green house gas emission broken down by province and territory. But perhaps more importantly, Eaves’s website has highlighted the absence of publically available government information. From the homepage users can see that of the 23 Ministries in Canada, only seven have links to web documents – and only the Ministry of Natural Resources has more than 10. The website is also set up so that any user can add a link to a published government dataset, and despite this, the majority of Ministries including National Defense, Citizenship and Immigration, and the Department of Justice have no contributing documents.

Eaves, who is a Public Policy Entrepreneur and fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queens University, is a champion for open government and definitely sees this lack of transparency as a problem in need of a solution. He has a strong vision for the power that lies in the information contained in government databases and how it can be used to benefit society and engage the populace.

“The Canadian government is depriving itself of its most effective tool to improve services and find efficiencies: data. In the age where information abounds and the technology exists for easy access, the government should analyze the data that is often literally at its fingertips, as well as share it with anyone, as is being done in the UK or US,” says Eaves.

Across the pond on January 19, 2010, based on the recommendations from the Power of Information Taskforce, the UK government (not a private citizen, like in Canada) launched their website data.gov.uk which allows users to easily search through vast amounts of government data by subject like, healthcare, education, and transportation.

Looking to our southern neighbour, on his first day as President of the Unites States one of the many things that Obama did was to sign the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government intended to promote three principles: transparency, participation and collaboration. The directive, which was sent out to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, clearly set out guidelines to achieve the overall mission to increase government accountability, promote informed participation by the public, and create economic opportunity. It also included a deadline for each department to create a webpage for open data publication with a minimum of three new “high-value” datasets in a sharable computer format.

But the Obama administration can’t take all the credit for the USA being far ahead of Canada on the road to open government. The US commitment to government transparency dates back to its constitution. A modern example of this fundamental cultural difference is a comparison of C-SPAN and CPAC. Since 2007, C-SPAN considers video coverage of the floor proceedings of the U.S. House and Senate to be in the public domain, which means anyone can copy and re-use it, as we can see from the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. In contrast Canadian parliamentary proceedings broadcast on CPAC, which remains under crown copyright.

And while the fact that Rick Mercer has a tougher job than John Stewart is not likely to be the demise of Canadian democracy, the fact that Canada has no protocol equivalent to Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency or a Power of Information Taskforce like the UK, is cause for concern. Currently in Canada, it’s up to each department or ministry at each level of government to decide what they post and how they post it. Aside from the obvious problem of subjectivity, the fact that the publication formats are not standard makes it very time consuming to organize the data.

Mulley agrees that standardizing the format of government data would be a huge help for organizing the information. Deciphering the Hansard (the parliament transcripts) in its current HTML format was very time consuming for Mulley. If the Hansard was published in a “machine readable” language (a computer language like XML that makes it easy to share data) his work would have been much less labour intensive.

On this note Eaves has made some progress. Through some discussion, the government IT staff has given Eaves a verbal commitment that they will start releasing federal documents in machine readable languages by the end of the year. While this is an important breakthrough, Eaves still feels like the Canadian government is sitting on a lottery ticket it’s not cashing in.

Eaves explains with an analogy between K-Mart of Wal-mart.

“While both are for-profit retail stores selling consumer goods, they have totally different philosophies. K-mart follows the traditional approach of focusing on good service and good products, while Wal-mart focuses on analyzing the wealth of data its stores create to determine new consumer trends and needs as well as find efficiencies. It is this emphasis on knowing itself and its consumers that has made Wal-mart so effective, and helps explains why K-mart does not innovate.”

David compares this to various governments around the world. “The US and the UK are leading the charge, but I don't think anyone is there yet. Here in Canada we are deep in the K-Mart box.”

While the suits on Parliament Hill are mulling over if they want to move out of the K-Mart box, interested community members like Mulley and Eaves are filling the gap and setting an example for the Canadian government of what they should be doing and how easy it is to do.

Eaves says his goal is to shut down his website because that would mean that the Canadian government is doing its job.

Catch the news as it breaks: follow the VMC on Twitter.
Join the Vancouver Media Co-op today. Click here to learn about the benefits of membership.

Comments

 Great piece!

 Great piece!

User login

Advertisement