The Lessons of Open Data and the Canadian Government

It’s been a little over a year since the Canadian government launched one of its first open data portals, and already it has changed how the public and the government interact. One of the most remarkable things about the shift from a very controlled method of information dissemination to a much broader spectrum has been how people communicate. Government employees, used to a traditional working day of 8:30 to 4:30pm, have discovered that communication can happen anytime and anywhere thanks to mediums such as Twitter or Facebook. Even better, this means that people can find what they are looking for when they need it, instead of waiting on an arbitrary time-table.

The flow of information has not been one-way, either. Government employees are discovering their voices for the first time. Supervisors, administrators, and programmers are eager to hear their thoughts on how the system can be improved or changed to better suit their needs. This is a fairly radical departure from a system where feedback was limited to structured meetings or otherwise encouraged only at set times. The notion of creating a system that actually works for everyone, based on real time data, is possible partly because of the rapid implementation speed of the technology itself and partially because of the freedom of information.

This is remarkable for several reasons. Open data was supposed to be a way for the public to interrelate with their government in a more proactive and efficient way. While the user interface is still undergoing design changes to better suit its users, the availability of information, and the potential it has unleashed, is having a dramatic effect on how citizens conceive of their communities and their roles within them. Government employees, meanwhile, are developing far closer and more meaningful relationships with their constituents than they were able to previously. In effect, the government is losing its reputation as a burdensome and ineffective monolith and becoming an agile and advanced player in people’s lives.

In order to remain effective, open data will have to continue to adapt to changing technological requirements and understand how best to accommodate the needs of its users. However, the enthusiasm and willingness of the players involved to do this is a very positive sign. In many cases, meeting a reduced budget is sometimes much easier than anyone expects if only they allow themselves to fully explore their options. Open data, and the corresponding feedback and improvement loop, is helping governments and citizens alike.

Christopher Smith. Canadian. CEO of opin.ca. We provide enterprise content management solutions for governments around the world.

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