Open Data in Government Where is it Headed?

We live in a world of data driven decisions. Governments, companies, investors and everyday citizens are striving to find ways to make use of the data they have, and find the data they need. The Open Government initiative of the Government of Canada is an important part of these efforts. Availability of quality, easily usable data is crucial.

As the preamble to the Canadian Open Government website states, “Governments around the world are taking advantage of digital technologies to advance transparency and make information more readily available to the public.” This is true, as evidenced by activities in the UK, US, EU and others.

Now, the government is in the process of developing a fourth plan for Open Government, which includes open data. Consultations are going on throughout the winter of 2017/18. This is an opportunity for Canadians to get involved in an important initiative.

Several basic objectives underpin the initiative:

-       “Canadians can easily access government data and information in open, standardized formats.”[1]

-       “Open by default is about providing easy and consistent access to government data and information in open, standardized, digital formats.”

-       “understanding how well the Government is doing as a whole, or in key areas of interest, is challenging because data is presented across multiple reports and information sources.”

The sources of information include Statistics Canada, other Government departments such as Finance, various business registries and companies themselves.

With regard to Statistics Canada, the commitments include: “Statistics Canada will increase access to high-quality statistical information in open formats, including releasing all 2016 Census data a full 10 months sooner than the 2011 Census. Steps will also be taken to ensure the data are well understood by Canadians.” The words “in open formats” are important.

Also, important is this additional stated objective: “Provide access to high-quality, open statistical data and information from Statistics Canada, free of charge, in machine-readable formats.” Again, the words “in machine-readable formats” is noteworthy. 

With regard to Finance, the plan states “Starting with Budget 2017, make all data from Budget charts and tables available in near real time to facilitate analysis by citizens and Parliamentarians.” Provision of data in near real time that is useful for analysis is a challenge, especially considering the data comes from diverse technological sources. Therefore the data format chosen needs to be platform independent.

There are business registries at all levels of government. Another commitment stated in the website is “The Government of Canada will provide searchable information on Canadian businesses that is held in business registries at the federal, provincial, and territorial level.”

It is worth noting that the largest registry in the UK, where some 3.5 million companies file their information, has been requiring inline XBRL since 2010.  The EU is bringing in sweeping requirements for 2020.

Inline XBRL is an international standard for presenting data that meets all the requirements for presentation of government data from Statistics Canada, Finance and other departments. It is now required by the Securities and Exchange Commission for larger companies so all the large companies in Canada will be required to file in XBRL on December 15, 2017. There are other forms of structured standardized data, but only XBRL has met the test of time for financial data and has achieved such a high level of acceptance around the world.

The government has said that they will “Develop a proof of concept and prototype of a digital solution for reducing burden in the areas of corporate search, registration, and reporting for Canadian businesses that is expandable to all registries across Canada in order to drive consistency in corporate data provided to the public by both federal and provincial governments.” XBRL is there for the taking. And its standardized, machine readable and platform independent. Seems like a clear case.

[1] All quotes in this article are from the Third Biennial Plan to the Open Government Partnership