The distinction between an advocate for Freedom of Information (FOI) and Open Data is an interesting narrative for me. After some reflection, I can compare it to two hockey fans discussing which team is better – the Bobby Orr era Bruins or today’s Bruins. At the risk of disrupting the nuance of hockey fanaticism, both parties are loyal to the same team, but from different perspectives. The same can be said of FOI and open data advocates.
FOI has been around longer than open data and arguably paved the way for the open data approach. The difference between them is arguably one of scale. Where FOI is often characterized as individual requests for information, open data is characterized as a digital platform where a catalogue of data can be accessed. A second difference is one of culture – FOI advocacy is often characterized as being driven by lawyers and journalists, but open data is been driven by the technology sector. Despite these difference, both FOI and open data align far more than they do differ.
FOI and Open Data can be included under the overarching concept of open government. Both are very complementary and contribute to a more transparent, accountable and arguably participatory model of government. Both are premised upon a similar principle of open by default. In a recent Globe and Mail article, FOI’s principle presumption “should be that any document made for a public, governmental purpose should be made public in the first place; that is, it should be posted on the Internet when it is created, and made available to citizens seeking the information – unless there is some valid, solid reason not to do so”.
When we look at the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Policy, the presumption is strikingly similar; “Setting the default to open means that government and parties acting on its behalf will make public information available proactively and that they’ll put that information within the reach of the public (online), with low to no barriers for its reuse and consumption….Setting the default to open is about living up to the potential of our information, about looking at comprehensive information management, and making determinations that fall in the public interest”.
FOI and open data advocates strongly rally around the proactive disclosure of government data and information. Information can be requested, but this should not be the accepted business practice as it necessitates existing knowledge of the information or data. Open data provides both the platform and protocols (e.g. publishing schedules) to facilitate automatic and routine disclosure of government information and data. Idealistically, both FOI and open data can be used as mutually beneficial feedback loops. In the event where the information is not published, an access to information request can potentially procure it. In doing so, an argument is created for publishing the requested information to the open data platform.
Open data advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of FOI advocates in terms of the constraints of legislation, the challenges of transparency and accountability as well as the delays to requests. Similarly, FOI advocates can learn from open data advocates as they leverage digital tools to increase the scale of accessing government information.
The emergences of civic tech movement, which blends a plethora of groups including public servants, citizens and neighbourhood groups, non-profits, FOI advocates, and programmers who attempt to solve problems through the introduction or improvement of government processes, services, and products.
To return to my original comparison of the bickering sports fans, Bobby Orr’s contributions to the Bruins and their success goes without question. That said, today’s Bruins’ are seeking to replicate the same level of success. The importance is not to see how the two teams differ, but to realize that both teams share the same ultimate goal. FOI advocates and open data enthusiasts need to converge around the same outcome. They need to focus on the same goal of a more accountable, accessible and transparent government.