By Michael Robinson
As both the Canadian and International Open Data Summits drew to a close last week, a single reality became clear: in this era of information abundance, journalists should now be keeping spreadsheets, not just notes.
I had flown to Ottawa as one of nine Canadian post-secondary students sponsored by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation's RECODE initiative to participate in the conference.
The summit’s theme, “Enabling The Data Revolution,” attracted just over 1,100 global data experts and leaders from various sectors, including government, academia and the private sector. From panel discussions to learning labs, these data enthusiasts were intent on critically questioning what the future holds for open data communities.
Open data refers to data that can be easily obtained, used, shared and redistributed. Ensuring it is released in electronic, machine-readable formats that users can work with and analyze is a key component of its definition (think more comma-separated values and less portable document files).
Currently, over 50 municipalities have already adopted the “open” initiative by establishing data portals and policies across the country, according to Jean-Noé Landry, strategic initiatives director at Open North. The Montreal-based non-profit specializes in open data standards, legislative data monitoring and open data portal implementation.
"Right now, we are at the end of the beginning of the open data movement in Canada," Landry said. "There has clearly been a widespread public and political commitment towards adopting this new approach to e-governance."
Politics aside, any journalist who has dabbled in computer-assisted reporting knows open government data portals can be a treasure trove of untold story ideas.
For example, the City of Edmonton's chief analytics officer, Stephane Contre, showed conference-goers a hotspot-mapping exercise that cross-layered the locations of public light posts and incidents of crime in the city. The resulting visualization displayed urban areas that could benefit from additional police patrolling.
But while support for technology-fuelled transparency increases, tensions shared between governments and the fourth estate over what information should be made public, and what should remain classified, still remain.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who made brief appearances at the beginning and end of the conference, described open data's value as "an untapped, yet priceless commodity that can lead to increased innovation, job creation and economic expansion."
The Conservative MP did not expand, however, on his belief that some types of federal data cannot be released in electronic format format because users may alter it to spread falsehoods.
"What you don't want is to create a file that can be in some way manipulated and altered, and thereby creating a situation of false information," he told the Canadian Press last December.
Clement's comments have caused some to question the very value and motivation behind open data itself.
"Journalists are an interesting audience, because they are trained to be sensitive to and skeptical around power," said David Hume, executive director for citizen engagement at B.C.’s Ministry of Citizen Services. Since 2011, Hume has been at the helm of the province's open-government revolution.
"In the early days of open government, there were a lot of questions as to whether or not 'open data' was a real thing," he said. "But over time, we've been winning journalists over. Already, we've seen a lot of our data used by news organizations like Global as well as the Vancouver Sun.
"The quality of today's data-driven journalism has elevated public debates to higher levels of scrutiny and in a way, has also encouraged citizens to want to engage more in decision-making oversight over public institutions,” said Landry.
So far, some governments are listening. Last month, Ontario became the first province to post a draft Open Data Directive where the public was invited to post feedback. The move is a follow-up to 2014's data inventory launch, where the public voted for the top 25 data sets to be posted online. Since then, six have been released.
Open data alone, however, is not an end in itself. After all, what good is openly available data if no one knows how to use it? It's akin to playing baseball without a bat.
Increasing data literacy rates is one such way to close this divide.
"If you look at more advanced data ecosystems like the U.K. or U.S., data literacy is seen as a very important component," Landry said. "Right now, we want to develop just that in Canada by investing in courses and resources that enable citizens to empower themselves by using public information."
As the days went by, I learned more about APIs, source codes, unique database registries, and newsroom software stacks. I exchanged story ideas with data connoisseurs, who explained how mobile devices and wearable technologies (such as the Apple Watch, or smart wristbands) will pave a new way for the everyday citizen to contribute to news organizations.
Yet, the newsgathering profession was not spared from all criticism.
Huffington Post senior technology and society editor Alex Howard suggested that news organizations don't practice what they preach when it comes to open data.
"Journalists are asking NGOs and governments to open data up, but they aren't sharing it themselves," Howard said. "Yes, scoops are important but even the New York Times posted their raw data after one of their main stories had been published."
Indeed, the Times did publicly release a raw dataset they obtained exclusively from the Pentagon last year. A GitHub posting followed the publication of a data-driven piece that investigated the selling of American military surplus gear to local law enforcement agencies.
The summits reinforced that government data portals are a 21st century journalist's paradise. Not only does raw data enhance public accountability reporting at the local, provincial and national levels, but spreadsheets could also be applied to any type of journalism. When the conference concluded on May 29, it was clear the open data community celebrated data-driven journalism, leading some number crunchers to express a desire to work alongside their word-smithing counterparts.
Michael Robinson is a 2015 graduate of the joint University of Ottawa and Algonquin College journalism program. He is an incoming summer intern reporter at the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter @maj_robinson.
Illustration photo by Grant Frederisken, via Flickr.