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D for Data

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It’s always heartening when independent research confirms the reasonableness of one’s frequent desire to use one’s pile of FOI rejection letters to start a small bonfire in the parking lot and dance around it naked until someone calls 911.

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That’s what happened today with the release of Newspapers Canada’s tenth annual freedom of information audit. This year, the audit focused on data, the reams of information kept by government that are supposed to make it smarter and more efficient and that can help us hold them to account.

Researchers, led by University of King’s College journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones, fired off the same access to information requests for databases and documents to governments across Canada and then compared the results.

Manitoba and Winnipeg did crappy. Here are the highlights:

  • Manitoba earned a D grade because it was slow and stingy with information. For example, it was asked for briefing notes prepared in advance of a premiers' meeting and applied "a kitchen sink list of exemptions" in order to avoid releasing information.

    That sounds familiar. Often, my denial letters from the province are longer than the actual documents I asked for.

    Manitoba would also not release a full list of government employees or complete details about deputy ministerial travel.

  • The report condemned the aggravating trend among governments to print out entire databases rather than release them in electronic form, like an Excel spreadsheet. Or, governments turn a database into a PDF, which can’t be searched and sorted without a huge hassle that mires you in mistakes.

    Governments never want you to fiddle with data because that's how you might find out they suck, so they release long lists of information in a form that entirely thwarts all attempts to actually analyze it. That frequently happens here, but it’s no relief to know we’re not alone.

  • The report hinted at what I’ve long suspected – the Manitoba government’s database software is from the Atari age. Several requests that other provinces were able to fulfill were outright denied by the Manitoba government or came with hefty processing fees.

    Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation denied a request for data about bridge repair and inspections, saying it would need to print out the database and then take a black pen to it to censor the private stuff. What’s private about bridge maintenance is a mystery, but whatever.

    Same with Manitoba Justice, which I find the most obstinate department to deal with. It said it could not reasonably produce a database of inmate complaints. Doing so would mean manually going through the individual files of 2,400 inmates.

    I have often heard the province's database software is among the most outdated in Canada, so, even if a culture of openness prevailed (it doesn't), it would be thwarted by terrible technology.

  • Winnipeg was quick to respond but awful at actually releasing information. It got a D, too. The city said, for example, it would cost $300 for the details of travel costs to a national municipal leaders’ meeting. And, it would cost $40 for the parking ticket database they gave me for free a few years ago.

    The police did well in releasing overtime information. But then the city wanted to charge $26,000 - the cost of a very nice Toyota Corolla, noted the report - for property inspection orders.

    Even if someone had deep pockets, I know from past requests the city will not release the most important part of inspection orders - the address of the property at fault. Despite much arguing, Manitoba's ombudsman sides with the city on that, that releasing the address of a filthy or dangerous property is a privacy violation. That’s despite the fact that other cities, such as Saskatoon, Moncton and St. John's released the information in full.

Why does this matter?

This is not just a bunch of self-important reporters asking for data to be annoying. The information government keeps belongs to its citizens, and we have a right to see nearly all of it.

Openness makes government better and more efficient. It allows entrepreneurs to do cool stuff with data that government can’t even imagine. And it allows citizens to really see for themselves whether their elected officials are doing what they promised.

Openness is fundamental to a functioning democracy, and it’s eroding.

 

 

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first covering city hall and then the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter. Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school. She has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category.

She was a Southam journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 2012-13, where she studied indigenous issues, urban planning and political science. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and has served on several boards.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.

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