Big Idea: Data – Open, Shared, Stewarded and Transparent

by Mike Moffatt & Hannah Rasmussen. Posted October 27, 2016


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In June, Canada 2020 launched The Innovation Project, an initiative devoted to studying Canada’s innovation agenda – the risks, the opportunities, and key factors involved in making Canada a more innovative nation.

As part of this project, we asked Mike Moffatt, Senior Associate at Canada 2020 and Director at the Lawrence Centre at Western University’s Ivey Business School and Hannah Rasmussen, Director at Projection North and Professor at Western University’s Brescia College, to consider how to foster innovative growth in Canada. 

Moffatt and the Canada 2020 team traveled to eight cities across Canada to hold roundtable discussions with key stakeholders representing sectors ripe for transformation. We are grateful for the thoughtful discussion and time these roundtable participants gave the effort. While the sectors themselves were very different, common themes emerged: talent and immigration, availability of venture capital and Canadians’ adversity to risk.

From their research and these roundtables, Moffatt and Rasmussen developed 10 Big Ideas for Canada. Canada 2020 will be releasing an idea a day on our website leading up to our 3rd Annual Canada 2020 Conference.

Each idea is thoughtful and detailed, and Canada 2020 hopes they will spur discussion and debate on the topic as we continue to explore innovation in Canada.   

Big Idea: Data – Open, Shared, Stewarded and Transparent

What is the Idea?

A common theme that emerged during the roundtables was the importance of access to both research data and government data. Data is a valuable resource for innovation, as long as it is available and easily accessible.

Part 1. Research Data
Canada has a good track record of funding research in the sciences, social sciences and health sciences through granting councils. However, this data is often not stored in a way that means it is protected and shareable among researchers. Without a robust data stewardship program, the data that has already been generated is at risk of being lost, recreated or under-utilized. By storing the data properly, in a comprehensive network of trusted digital data repositories, it will be available to be re-used in a variety of ways, not just by other researchers, but by innovators throughout Canada.

Recommendation: The federal Minister of Science should follow through on the first “top priority” given in her mandate letter from the prime minister: “Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.” (1)
Recommendation:Building on the work done by Research Data Canada and the Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Digital Data Management,(2) the Chief Science Officer should create a national program to manage the digital research data funded by the federal government.
Recommendation:Any group conducting research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council should be required to create a robust data-sharing plan and deposit their data to be shared promptly with others in an accessible, secure and curated repository.

Researchers will not be responsible for the storage of the data. Each university and institute will need to ensure that their researchers have access to a research data management (RDM) program, both the system and policies, to easily and properly store their data.

Recommendation: The Chief Science Officer should require that universities and institutes receiving funds from federal agencies create a research data management (RDM) program to ensure their researchers store their research data properly. This RDM program would include creating policies and procedures as well as the repository itself.

Universities and institutes may choose to create their own RDM program or use an RDM program already in use at their university or institute. Either way, the data in these programs should be easily accessible to others both inside and outside of the original university or institute.

Recommendation: The Chief Science Officer should work with research institutions and universities to create a comprehensive network of trusted digital data repositories that provide reliable, long-term access to all research data deemed to be of enduring value that researchers and innovators can easily access.

Universities and institutes will need to be held accountable to ensure that data is properly stored and accessible in these programs.

Recommendation: The Chief Science Officer should create a national agency that monitors, oversees and sanctions specific standards for use by Canadian researchers in storing their data.

Part 2. Municipal Data
Canadian cities produce and collect a wide variety of data on aspects of city life such as employment, transit, road accidents and living conditions that are used in their decision-making processes. However, most of this data is only used internally despite the fact that it could be used by innovators (municipal administration, businesses, universities, academies, research facilities and citizens) to create new services, products and businesses.

Recommendation:Building on the work of the Helsinki Region Info-share (HRI) Service in Helsinki, Finland, and Canadian cities like Oakville, Vancouver and Toronto, we recommend the creation of Open Data Cities (ODC) a pan-Canadian coordinating organization, which will act as a bridge between cities providing open data and individuals and organizations who wish to use this data.

The ODC will be responsible for:

  1. helping cities prioritize data releases
  2. helping cities ensure data is accessible for a variety of user needs
  3. collecting and giving user feedback to cities regarding the data and service
  4. ensuring quality control of all data released

The aim of the ODC is to make municipal statistical data open, timely, free to use and easily accessible to all.

Recommendation: The ODC should create a web portal that will allow users to search for data from all participating cities.
Recommendation: The ODC should work with municipalities to help them identify new data sets they can create and should work to connect separate data sets either within the municipality or with several municipalities together. This collaboration will include the creation of a taxonomy and the standardization and description of data and data-collection methods.
Recommendation: The ODC should host events to encourage developers, public servants and members of the public who have identified problems to work with the open data to solve municipal
challenges and create innovations.

Part 3. Transparency of Past Government Records
In Budget 2016, the federal government proposed creating “a simple, central website” where Canadians could submit data requests to any government institution or department.(3) While commendable, there is still a missing link. The mandate of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is to acquire and preserve governmental records of archival value and to make them available to the public. In theory, if a Canadian wanted past documents, he or she could submit a request to LAC.

However, in his 2014 report on LAC, the auditor general found that LAC was not “acquiring all the archival records it should from federal institutions, (4) and that the disposition authorities, “which tell federal institutions which records can be disposed of when no longer needed and which records must be transferred to Library and Archives Canada,” were both incomplete and out of date. Also, LAC had a backlog of 98,000 boxes of government archival records.

While LAC reports that this backlog has been eliminated, it is unclear what records were found and how to access them.
This lack of clarity means that it is possible that if a Canadian submitted a request on the proposed website, they may not get the items requested. If they did get them, they might not be given in a useful format, and they may not be provided promptly.

Recommendation: A dedicated and funded program in LAC to digitize all past government records of value should be created.
Recommendation: A system of accountability by which the progress of this program is audited quarterly should be created.

Who will be responsible for administering the idea?

For the research data proposals, we would recommend the newly created Chief Science Officer be responsible for the idea, given his or her responsibility to ensure “government science is fully available to the public.” The municipal data and transparency of data proposals should fall under the purview of the president of the Treasury Board, as the prime minister mandated he “expand open-data initiatives and make government data available digitally.” (5) It may be prudent, however, to create a board formed from the participating cities to oversee the operation and execution of the ODC.

What mechanisms for accountability or measurement can be put in place for the idea?

Universities and institutes will need to be held accountable to ensure that their research data is properly stored and accessible. For municipal data, we would recommend the ODC issue an annual report and measure how Canadian cities are doing regarding opening their data, using measurements of readiness, implementation and impact. Furthermore, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) would need to report regularly on their progress, including measurements of the readiness, implementation and impact of the data being digitized.

What failures is the idea trying to solve?

Regulatory Failure: We have data that is being collected and has value, but it is not being made available for use, which is preventing knowledge spillovers. By making data more easily available, researchers will have more timely and complete information to build into their research, creating an environment in which new products and processes may be developed more quickly and easily.
Inequality of Opportunity: By not releasing data and making it easily available, we are disproportionately benefiting firms and individuals that have the resources and ability to recreate this data or discover ways to access them. Our proposal levels the playing field to ensure equal opportunity to be innovative.

What are the potential benefits of the idea and what are the costs?

Benefits: Innovation will be encouraged by releasing research data to innovators as well as to other researchers. Opening up municipal data can help drive the creation of innovative businesses and services that deliver social and commercial value. By making government data open, we can better understand actions the government has taken in the past.

Costs and Risks: There is a risk that Canadian researchers may be resistant to sharing their data. We believe it is important to follow the lead of the United States and make data management and specifically data sharing a requirement of the Tri-Council research grants. There will be a financial cost to universities and colleges, but we believe these can be kept manageable. For the ODC proposal, the main risk is that a system will be built that cities will refuse to join. The financial costs are relatively modest, with the yearly budget for the Helsinki Region Info-share (HRI) Service in Helsinki, Finland, being less than $100,000.(6)
The main risk to our transparency proposal is setting a goal the government cannot meet. In 2014, the auditor general of Canada noted that LAC was behind schedule on retrieving government documents and had a growing backlog of approximately 98,000 boxes of records.(7) There is a potential that LAC will find this goal too onerous and may fall behind schedule again.

Will the idea increase economic inclusion and/or enhance autonomy? If so, how?

Economic Inclusion: By ensuring that research data is available to other researchers and innovators, we can ensure that economic opportunities are not limited because of a lack of data. The availability of this data will be particularly valuable to small businesses that do not have the resources to collect large amounts of data.

Autonomy: Better access to municipal data will give citizens and community groups the tools they need to understand the decisions of local governments better and influence those decisions through evidence-based proposals.

Footnotes
1 Office of the Prime Minister, Minister of Science Mandate Letter (2015).
2 Government of Canada, Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Digital Data Management (2016).
3 Government of Canada, Budget 2016 (2016).
4 Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2014 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada (2014).
5 Office of the Prime Minister of Canada, President of the Treasury Board of Canada Mandate Letter (2015).
6 Olli Sulopuisto, “How Helsinki Became the Most Successful Open-Data City in the World,” City Lab, April 29, 2014.
7 Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2014 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada (2014).