Phillip Smith

CivicAccess ramps up a new campaign

There's been lots of renewed discussion recently on two important questions for Canadian civil society:

  • Why are there so few Canadian online advocacy systems? (As defined by the ability to send e-mails and faxes to your MLA, MP, MPP, etc., based on your postal code)
  • Why is Canada's postal code and electoral district data stuck in draconian licensing / copyright schemes?

This came up a few months ago, when some Web of Change alumni asked the first question. I struggled with this just a little over a year ago while working on the Kleercut campaign (you can read a bit about it here). Basically, as ActionWorks (a hosted advocacy system that licensed the aforementioned data) was being purchased by AdvocacyOnline (who also licenses that data), we had to find another way to provide similar tools on the site (for less than the $9000 - 12,000/year licensing fee that AdvocacyOnline wanted for its tools).

Working with Mike Gifford we managed to replace that functionality in a Drupal module known as the Lobby Module -- it was the first "port" of his legacy advocacy tool that had been in use by several Canadian NGOs, as part of the Back-End content-management system. At the time, he and Russell McOrmond had developed some screen scraping tools that would essentially go out and get the correct MLA, MP, MPP information from a publicly-available information source.

This data is a critical piece of many projects that aim to connect Canadian citizens to their public representatives and their democracy. Looking at the numerous projects of this nature in the UK that have launched in the last few years -- such as WriteToThem.com, TheyWorkForYou.com -- and then looking toward the promising, but fewer projects here, like How'd They Vote?, you get the sense that access to public data is important. So why is it that Statistics Canada has a copyright on this data? And that Canada Post wants to license it to you at a high-cost and with restrictive terms?

Seems that this issue has caught steam again via the (relatively new) CivicAccess community. With the imminent launch of a public awareness and letter writing campaign, and discussion of what options are available for a civil society group like CivicAccess to re-create a database "compilation" of postal code and electoral district data (theoretically, these are "facts" and not covered under copyright -- access to this data is freely available in other countries like the US) that could be released under more citizen-friendly terms. CivicAccess clearly has citizens in mind and they've already discovered that Elections Canada and the Parliament of Canada Web sites can often have different MP results for the same postal code. As they point out, this is clearly a waste of money, and time, and potentially confusing to Canadians.

Let's hope that engaged citizens can take back some power and get our public data in order!

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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