Fred Vallance-JonesJournalists have been asking for electronic records from Canadian governments for at least 15 years. There have been a few encouraging developments, writes Fred Vallance-Jones, but a recent FOI audit showed we have a long way to go.

By
Fred Vallance-Jones

The media were the big winners in the recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision on electronic data.

But having the right to access data and actually getting it continue to be two different battles.

As reported on J-Source, the court overturned an earlier Divisional Court ruling that denied The Toronto Star access to a Toronto Police database. The earlier decision said the police didn’t have to comply with a Star request to write routine to replace the identities of individuals with anonymous numbers. The appeals court overturned that noting that it would provide “government institutions with the ability to evade the public’s right of access to information…”

The trouble is, the Star may still have to pay a large fee to actually get the data. And as was discovered by the recent Canadian Newspaper Association freedom of information audit, the price of obtaining records in electronic form can be high indeed (in the interests of full disclosure, I ran the audit for the CNA).

Several municipalities asked for upwards of $1,000 to release an electronic file of payments to vendors for goods and services. Apparently some governments are still buying computer systems that require hours or days of programming and/or run time to extract raw data.

Even worse was the refusal by institutions at all three levels of government to release electronic information at all. It wasn’t done with great fanfare. Instead, the request that data be released electronically was either politely declined or ignored altogether.

The City of Corner Brook released information on payments as a pdf file, a format that makes data impossible to sort, filter or otherwise analyze electronically. A number of provincial governments responded to our request for an electronic list of highways contracts by releasing paper records.

Things were worst at the federal level where not a single department or agency complied with our request for electronic data on Access to Information requests. We either got paper records, or pdf image files, which are totally static.

The really discouraging thing about all this is that so little has changed in the almost 15 years I have been obtaining data from governments in Canada. In the case of the complete blackout we faced getting the federal access to information records, we have taken a significant backward step.

There is no good reason why it should be so difficult to obtain records in electronic form. Database systems are designed to store, analyze and extract data and yet officials are still quick to fall back on tired arguments that a data request is somehow unusual or onerous.

Data requests should actually be easier to process. All of the records are located in one place and removing any exempt information should involve nothing more than specifying that one or more fields not be included in the data export. No laborious blacking out or whiting out of exempt information, as with paper records, is required.

Yet requests for records in electronic form are still more likely to produce large fee estimates, take longer to process or be refused altogether, the CNA audit found.

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Why?

There probably isn’t one single reason, but one can speculate.

Perhaps some of the computer systems being used really are so poorly designed that getting data out of them is a multi-day chore.

Or maybe officials who process applications for access know little about data and database systems. So when an estimate arrives from the IT department that it will take a week to process a request for data, an access officer may just pass it on without question.

And maybe, just maybe, officials are suspicious or afraid of what requesters will do with raw data once they get it.

None of these is a particularly good excuse.

It should no longer come as a surprise that journalists and others might want to obtain public records in electronic form. There should be a presumption that the records will be requested, and officials should ensure they are kept in a way that makes release to the public straightforward.

There is also little excuse for having access officers for whom a request for electronic records seems to be written in Greek. Officials should require that front-line access coordinators be computer literate.

And in those cases where officials obstruct release because of fears of what journalists will do with the data, they should focus their efforts on improving program delivery so there are no embarrassing surprises, rather than on trying to prevent legitimate inquiry.

It is time for governments clear across Canada to move into the 21st century, and allow the public access to electronic records in electronic format. We live in a world of terabyte-sized hard drives, instant text messaging and Facebook.

It’s time for access to electronic records to catch up. Otherwise, the right of access recently underscored by the court of appeal exists on paper only.