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Reaching out about Open Government

Some speaking engagements should come with a weather alert! Last month, I was scheduled to speak about privacy and open data at Selkirk College’s annual Global Information Systems (GIS) conference in Castlegar, B.C. But as I was driving to the Vancouver airport, I learned that my short flight had been cancelled due to fog.

Reaching out to British Columbians about privacy issues and access to information is a big part of my mandate as Acting Information and Privacy Commissioner, so opportunities like this one are important to me. I was really looking forward to connecting with the audience of about 100 students, faculty, local and regional government staff, and GIS practitioners. Thankfully, through a video connection between my office and the conference floor, I was able to appear live, if not in person, before them. There were a few minor technical glitches, of course. But I delivered my remarks as planned, with a great deal of engagement from the audience.

I was invited to speak to this group because Selkirk College has been awarded a three-year federal grant to explore open data and open government in rural B.C. The organizers asked me to share my views about open data, including where datasets should be published, and what data should be considered sensitive and private.

I started my speech by outlining some of the many benefits of open government. For instance, when governments proactively share data, people are better informed about their government and communities and can identify priorities, help solve problems, and participate in decision making. Governments benefit, too. Allowing access to data with few restrictions promotes entrepreneurship and scientific discovery, which helps the economy.  

To demonstrate a commitment to open government, my office has recommended that records be made public by default. The data provided should be structured, machine readable, freely shared, and modifiable.

Any exception to releasing records should be limited and specific. One of these exceptions is, of course, privacy. Public bodies need to assess whether a dataset that they plan to publish includes personal information. If it does, then they should first check B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (“FIPPA”) and see if there’s a provision for the data to be disclosed. In most cases, this is pretty unlikely.

But certain personal information can be disclosed, such as the remuneration of an officer, employee, or member of a public body. And there’s a healthy appetite for this information – the province’s salary information dataset is within the top 30 downloaded out of the over 3,600 available.

The purpose and values of open government relate directly to access to information legislation, so I was particularly pleased to address this audience… even if the weather kept us physically apart.  

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