The US government has just opened up huge swathes of data to the public. Canada is doing the opposite.
President Obama signed an executive order today announcing an Open Data Policy. This directs government agencies to publish newly-generated data in open, machine-readable formats. This means that programmers can take them and mash them up into their own applications, visualising the data, and analysing it in useful ways.
The US government went further. it is producing some of these data analysis tools itself, and making them open source, so that developers can tinker with those, too. That initiative is called Project Open Data. It is refreshing its Data.gov site over the next few months, with more tools to visualise public data.
The government is even open sourcing its own Open Data Policy. It published the policy on github, which is a site typically used by software developers to work together on program source code. Github has been used to collaborate on documents, too, and now the US government is getting on board. Now, people can 'fork' the policy document itself, creating new versions with suggested changes. How open the government will be to actually including those changes remains to be seen, but in principle, it's a great idea.
It's all very encouraging. But up here in Canada, the contrast couldn't be more stark. Statistics Canada, long lauded as one of the leading statistical agencies in the world, has released its latest survey data. This is the first version of the survey that doesn't include the mandatory long-form data that was so important to statisticians.
Until 2010, the Canadian Census (which collects data on the population) consisted of two parts: a short form, that everyone had to fill in, and a longer, more detailed form that was sent to a subset of the population. That longer form was mandatory, too.
Then, in 2010, Prime Minster Harper replaced the mandatory long form with a voluntary one, called the National Household Survey. This sent statisticians into a spin, because they argued that a voluntary form wouldn't give them the same amount of data as a mandatory form. Canada's chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned over the issue three years ago, saying that the voluntary form couldn't replace the mandatory one.
In the latest census, only 68% of people responded to the voluntary form, compared to over 95% of people who filled out the mandatory form. Statisticians have argued that the people not responding to the form are most likely the poor, new immigrants, and aboriginal groups. It is those groups that social policy makers need to know the most about, so that they can be helped.
But blindfolding Statistics Canada isn't the only way in which Mr Harper has reduced visibility into Canadian data. His government has also outlined new regulations that muzzle Canadian librarians and researchers, preventing them from speaking to the public under a 'duty of loyalty' clause. Library associations are far from happy.
But Mr Harper's muzzling of scientific researchers and their data appears to be systematic, and the Federal Information Commissioner has been asked to investigate.
I'm worried that Canada is locking down our access to government data (or indeed, simply not collecting it at all). Are you?
Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets