What can we learn from Obama’s first days?
The BBC reported Wednesday that Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems co-founder, has been asked to prepare a paper for the Obama administration on how Open Source software can help government save money and be more secure. While saving money is great when governments are thinking of blasting through previous deficit records, governance and citizen engagement can benefit more from open information and free data from governments. In this regard, Obama’s early actions to make his administration open and transparent, and to have a general presumption in favour of providing rather than witholding government information, are more what Canada should be adopting.
Canadians need to build on earlier successes in improving government transparency and accountability by re-thinking government processes designed for a pre-Internet age so that citizens are enabled to do more.
Current government procedures for releasing information under FOI laws are much more like Bush than Obama. Requests from journalists and activist citizens are flagged for special time consuming treatment, and the political pros and cons of releasing stuff along with communications strategies are prepared for political staff who make final determinations on releasing stuff. When political rather than legal considerations dominate disclosure decisions, and illegal delays regularly prevent releases in time to help citizens participate in and evaluate upcoming government actions, it’s bad for all of us. Well, maybe there are some short term advantages to the party in power, but it’s bad for society and bad even for that party in the long term.
Even more important than projects related to improving freedom of information are those about liberating government data stores. It’s crazy that data that would help citizens communicate with their government representatives, like StatsCan tables correlating postal codes with ridings, cost thousands of dollars. Significant economic and social benefits could come from the innovations that would be sparked by shifting from cost recovery for data towards free data. Halting progress in small areas is being made on this – for example, developing and releasing wind maps for Canada that help identify good locations for wind power locations.
Openness. Transparency. Engagement. Innovation. All good things. All enabled if we free more government information, liberate government data, and create more tools with open source software.