Even if the battle's far from won, the case for transparency in government is clear: of course we should know how our representatives are representing us, of course we should be able to see what's being done with our tax dollars. But, as information and data become increasingly synonymous, making information available isn't enough. To be useful, it has to be usable. It has to be freely available, in a flexible digital format. It has to be open.
Take the House of Commons transcripts that make up the bulk of this site. Parliament has transcripts since 1994 online, which is great. But they're available only as pre-formatted Web pages, which means that to get the data I had to construct a wobbly tower of rules—if it's a 14-pixel font, it's probably a person's name, as long as it's not within a table and it doesn't contain the words The, Some, One, or An, or Assistant—that took many days and more frustration to get right. And if Parliament starts to use a different font size, this site stops working.
Meanwhile, the House is kind enough to make vote information available in a simple, open format. I used that data on this site, where it's presented in a way that I find clearer than on Parliament's site. It took me an afternoon.
But this isn't about making things convenient for me. It's about the innovation that data can unlock—and the obstacles closed data puts in democracy's way. In 2003, the federal government declared that travel and hospitality expenses would be public. But then each department made its reports available in different places, and in different clunky, error-ridden, non-open formats.
Opening up data ain't all that hard. Once I had the House transcripts processed—that is, back into the kind of structured form in which it lives, hidden from the public, in Parliament's computers—opening the data took a couple of hours. But, despite the benefits, too often government just doesn't care. When transit agencies in Halifax and Toronto wouldn't make their schedule information open, brilliant programmers reverse-engineered the schedule data and built immensely useful trip-planning sites. The transit agencies' reaction? Continued indifference.
You can do great stuff with prosaic municipal data, and some cities, from Nanaimo to Toronto, are passing open data resolutions and starting to share information. Things are looking up. Communities are forming. But, unlike other countries, Canada doesn't yet have a federal open data plan or culture. We can do better.