Phillip Smith

Help wanted: Canadian media organization to lead on open data.

"Freedom of information is often thought to be about "the Press." Open Data, however, is about citizens"

Here's the 30-second version of this post:

  • The Guardian UK played an important role in pushing the open data and transparency agenda;
  • They did this, in many parts, by simply being a meeting point for the open data & transparency conversation;
  • Ultimately, it was probably timing -- an election -- that helped most to put open data on the UK government's radar;
  • With elections coming in Canada, what can open-data advocates of all stripes -- individuals, grassroots groups, and media organizations -- do to push this critical issue into the spotlight?

Last Friday morning, Emily Bell spoke to a small group gathered at the Samara offices on Prince Arthur Avenue. Over breakfast, she explained why the Guardian UK has invested so much energy into being the meeting point for the open data conversation.

Specifically, she described how the Guardian partnered early on with the pioneering open data efforts of Tom Steinberg and his merry band of open-data hackers at MySociety, and also how the Guardian was quick to adopt the idea of organizing "hack days," which sought to bring outside ideas inside. Early efforts like these led, in part, to the Guardian being invited to Downing Street to meet with the likes of Tim Berners-Lee and to discuss the benefits of open data with the UK government. "You have to do it," Emily implored those gathered at Samara, and -- ultimately -- she proposed that "Wikileaks data would not have gone to the Guardian if not for their demonstrated skills in working with data."

It certainly left me asking, who will play the Guardian's role here in Canada? Who will be the lightening rod for the open data conversation?

Interestingly, most major Canadian news outlets already have at least one software developer working in the newsroom. More than that, David Skok shared that had recently taken part in the Random Hacks of Kindness event at the University of Toronto -- an event that aimed to bring together "developers, geeks and tech-savvy do-gooders around the world, working to develop software solutions that respond to the challenges facing humanity today." However, it still feels like the most tangible open data efforts in Canada are coming from citizens like David Eaves, Russell McOrmond, and groups like Civic Access.

Ryan Merkely -- currently, Mozilla Foundation's director of programs & strategy, previously an advisor to the City of Toronto -- highlighted that many of the open data initiatives in Canada are coming from the municipal level, either through official efforts like or, or through grassroots initiatives like Open Data Ottawa Hackfest and Montreal Ouvert. And, while there are challenges to getting provincial and federal data, that's not to say it doesn't happen -- one recent example is OpenFile's "Baby File" story, which asked the province of Ontario to hand over years of birth records. Where there's a will, there's a way, it would seem (at least if you're Patrick Cain).

Back to Emily Bell: asked about the launch of in 2010, she was quick to point out that elections present an opportunity for movement toward greater transparency. (However, it's becoming ever-more clear that you have to hold elected officials accountable, or they'll actually do the opposite of what they campaigned on.) Often an upcoming election is incentive for the incumbents to make a bold move to win support, or for the challengers to make commitments that the incumbent refuses to address, and -- let's face it -- open data is an inherently non-partisan issue. So this all begs the question: how does open data become an election issue in Canada?

Even though Emily believes that the jury is still out on, it's clearly a move in the right direction. It sounds like the big push for came before the 2010 general election, and it came from people like Tim Berners-Lee and Tom Steinberg, both individuals who have been campaigning for open data for more than a decade. In Steinberg's case, he's taken the pragmatic hacker approach of continuing to innovate and demonstrate what's possible -- standing on the virtual Speaker's Corner and shouting "Hey, look at what I can do with this open data!" So the next question for Canada is, who is our Steinberg or Berners-Lee, who is constantly banging the drum at the federal level for more open data, and more transparency?

The movement for open data in the UK appears strong and vibrant, and it's likely that the Guardian played an important role by investing resources, providing space, and convening ideas and people around the issue. According to Emily, the first step was simply to set-up what is now known as the Data Blog; It became a gathering point for the broader conversation, and made it possible for disparate voices to find each other. The Guardian has called Canada an "open data and journalism powerhouse," but Canada still lacks this simple piece of the puzzle -- one visionary media organization to pick up the flag and say "We care about open data. We're going to convene the conversation."

Some will say that it's not the media's place to play a role here. However, at the end of breakfast last Friday, Emily Bell pointed out, in her perfect British accent, "The public gives the media permission to act."

So, let's give Canadian media permission to act on open data.

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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.