by David Gingras
There was an article recently about a Nova Scotia school board deciding to release school level data. The decision was hailed as courageous and for anyone interested in government data it certainly is a move in the right direction.
Indeed, the article could be reread replacing the words “school board” with any other government unit, be it a hospital authority or a government department or any municipality and the story would remain equally relevant.
While the idea of open data is not new, unfortunately it is not as encouraged or as practised as it should be at this end of the country.
The article mentions the fear of ranking schools as a primary concern.
People use comparison in making many decisions in their lives. The issue should not be a fear of ranking, whether it is schools or anything else, the fear should be in ranking these based on emotion rather than evidence. For example, disliking the Toronto Maple Leafs just because you were born in Montreal is an emotional response and not reasonable, especially when there are so many statistical reasons for preferring another team over the Leafs.
Another way that sharing data is deemed risky is when that data shares a bit too much, as in an individual’s personal and private information. Even if that were to be the case, there are ways to hide individual identities to make data sharing safe. Moreover, this is only a risk if that information is even being collected.
There is also a concern regarding a perceived lack of technological infrastructure. In this instance, Service New Brunswick (SNB) already makes property information available publicly. Anyone in New Brunswick can determine the assessed value of their neighbour’s property. The technology and service provider already exist to share municipal data and information with New Brunswickers. In fact, SNB was once considered a leader as a shared services provider, especially in those relating to e-governance.
The level of risk is more than manageable. The technological foundation to build upon is also already there. The most likely reason why open data at the municipal level is lacking is that indicator collection is simply not a priority for the provincial government nor with municipalities.
Apart from providing citizens with information that would allow them to keep their municipality in check, there really isn’t anything in it for the provincial government. They already collect all the municipal information they may need in the form of property assessments and, as mentioned earlier, they share it with everyone and anyone. That being said, how Local Service Districts are managed is often mysterious.
Why do municipalities not consider this a priority? The simple answer is they don’t see the value in collecting the data — it really has little to do with the perceived risks outweighing any potential benefits because they would have to collect the data before making it public was even a risk.
This is not to say that no indicators are being collected; however the sense that measuring performance or even recognizing meaningful indicators is important is not well-established in most New Brunswick municipalities.
Even if you ignore the idea that collecting and sharing information on municipal indicators is essential to having an informed electorate and a competent council, the benefits of measuring performance cannot be overestimated. Performance measures are used to understand and spot trends, to identify best practises, and to compare with other municipalities to ensure we are getting what we pay for.
These benefits are increasingly difficult to achieve if only a few communities are participating or if co-ordination is lacking in what and how the measures are collected. That is why SNB would play a pivotal role as not only the collector of the data but as the organization responsible for providing access to it as well.
The analysis of the data would be done by a host of other organizations, including media and private citizens.
For example, many websites, using municipal data, are dedicated to showing where various crimes are being committed. In Washington, a website called Stumble Safely not only provides details on the crimes, but highlights them in relation to nearby drinking establishments.
Other examples include crime rates in relation to real estate listings.
In these cases, there can be value added to the public release of data.
Not only can citizens access what is pertinent to them but others can use the data to create information that is easier to digest.
The article mentioned at the beginning was written by an Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) researcher. AIMS is notable for their report cards on high schools and municipalities. One of the criticisms of their municipal report card is the lack of indicator data available. If the data were available, the value of the municipal report card to the public would increase.
When transparency wins so do New Brunswickers. It is to our benefit that municipalities measure their performance and furthermore that they provide us with the data on the services we pay for.
David Gingras is a Metro Moncton resident and holds a National Advanced Certificate in Local Authority Administration (NACLAA).