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Blog

4 Things the Government of Alberta Could Do To Advance Open Data

Matthew Dance

Recently, the Government of Alberta posted for the position of Chief Officer, Digital Innovation Office. The opening paragraph of that job posting reads:

The Government of Alberta is embarking on transforming the work of government to deliver simpler, efficient, and better services for the citizens of Alberta in the digital age. A dedicated office, led by the Chief Officer, will be established to drive digital innovation across government. The Digital Innovation Office will be composed of a small team of progressive thinkers, innovative technologists and creative disrupters who provide a government-wide lens on the problems at hand and a society-wide lens on the solutions available. 
 

The full posting can be found here.

This is a big and important position that, if filled by the right person and with the appropriate support from within the GoA, has the potential to change how the GoA manages data and engages with citizens.

In the mean time, though, I have 4 suggestions on how the GoA can embark "...on transforming the work of government to deliver simpler, efficient, and better services for the citizens of Alberta in the digital age." These suggestions build upon the existing infrastructure and deep knowledge within the GoA's open data / open government teas.

1. Create an open data portal that only hosts open data.

I will be the first to admit that I can, occasionally, be a little too focused on process and names. I like to call things what they are. As such, it seems that if a government is hosting an open data portal, that portal should contain exclusively open data, because it's an open data portal. The GoA open data portal currently hosts both open data and PDF reports (PDF is not an open format as it can't be used or manipulated that way a CSV file can). When I posed the question to the Government of Alberta Open Data Team (@OpenGovAB) via Twitter, they did clarify that:

we are one of the few #opengov portals that posts #govpubs as well as #opendata. bit.ly/2Ho4Z9e is found under the Publications section, not the Open Data section. We do distinguish between the two.

There is a great deal of ambiguity between the 'open' section of the portal and the 'publications' section of the portal. Specifically, the URL prefix of 'open.alberta.ca' that signifies that I have navigated to the open portion of the website is also the prefix to the publications section of the portal. The fact that the publications section reads 'open.alberta.ca/publications' implies to me that these are open publications; publications posted in a machine readable or some other open platform.

But they are PDF's.

Hosted on an open data portal.

The solution is to simply change the URL for the publications section to 'publications.alberta.ca'.

Problem solved.

2. Aggregate all of the Government of Alberta's open data products onto open.alberta.ca

Off the top of my head I can point to four locations where the GoA hosts data available to the public (and there may be many more):

  1. Historical air quality is hosted at 'airdata.alberta.ca' and cannot be found with a search at the GoA open data portal and 'airdata.alberta.ca' does not use open data standards to access the dataset. In fact, you must access the data via drop down menus (the most frustrating way to access data, even more frustrating than a PDF). 
  2. Many spatial datasets are hosted at AltaLis, which states that they are working  towards becoming a "‘One Stop Shop’ for data in Alberta." There seems to be a conflict here. Is AltaLis the Government of Alberta's open data portal, or is 'open.alberta.ca'?
  3. The Oil Sands Monitoring Portal (OSIP) which provides "... the public with information about the impact of the oil sands on Alberta's land, water, air, climate, and biodiversity." The OSIP is difficult to use and contains many different types of data, and has yet another type of data interface design.
  4. Finally, The GoA Open Data Portal.

The problem with this arrangement is threefold:

  1. There are three different UX/UI interfaces that mediate the access to these three different sites.
  2. There are three different data license agreements applied to these three sets of data.
  3. There are two different costs to these data - a large number of the AltaLis datasets are for sale, even though they are collected for the province (i.e. paid for by tax payers).
  4. The GoA places closed data in the form of PDFs on the open data portal when there are clearly other 'open' datasets that are available in other section of the GoA website. These datasets (like the oil sands monitoring data and the historic air quality data) should be searchable via the open data portal.

This makes the GoA open data confusing and ambitious. Where do you look for a specific dataset? Will it cost money to use? Under which license can I use it?

The solution is to standardize everything, and then get out of the way.

Standardize the internal process for releasing data.

Standardize the license agreement.

Standardize the cost as free.

Standardize the UI.

Standardize the location of open data on the open data portal, and only host open data at that site. 

3. Post more open data

Finally, the GoA should post more data to the open data portal. I wrote an OpEd in the Edmonton Journal on why the GoA should post the traffic collision dataset to the open data portal. The arguments that I made in that article can be generalized. As the GoA acknowledges, open data drives innovation. It doesn't matter if you are an entrepreneur or simply an engaged citizen with an idea or passion, open data provides a venue to explore ideas that can change how cities or provinces work. It was open data that laid the foundation of Edmonton's minimum bike grid. These Planning students are using open data to explore Edmonton's neighbourhoods. The possibilities are only limited by the data posted by our governments.

So, stop limiting the data.

Conclusion

While it's clear that the Government of Alberta is interested in becoming a leader in digital information and services, it's unfortunate that they feel a need to create an entire Digital Innovation Office to do this. The GoA is missing the most basic open data steps of creating machine readable data that are easy to find and exist within a permissive legal framework.

Unfortunately, this lack of attention leads me to believe that Alberta will remain a digital provincial backwater until the time when the GoA takes their open data platform seriously.