Teresa Scassa - Blog

Monday, 23 September 2019 06:39

Second Ontario Data Strategy Paper Hints at Plans to Share More Citizen Data

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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The second discussion paper in Ontario’s lightning-quick consultation on a new data strategy for the province was released on September 20, 2019. Comments are due by October 9, 2019. If you blink, you will miss the consultation. But if you read the discussion paper, it will make you blink – in puzzlement. Although it is clear from its title that Ontario wants to “create economic benefits” through data, the discussion paper is coy, relying mainly on broad generalities with occasional hints at which might actually be in the works.

Governments around the world are clearly struggling to position their countries/regions to compete in a burgeoning data economy. Canada is (until the election period cooled things off) in the middle of developing its own digital and data strategy. Ontario launched its data strategy consultation in February 2019. The AI industry (in which Canada and Ontario both aspire to compete) is thirsty for data, and governments are contemplating the use of AI to improve governance and to automate decision-making. It is not surprising, therefore, that this document tackles the important issue of how to support the data economy in Ontario.

The document identifies a number of challenges faced by Ontario. These include skill and knowledge deficits in existing industries and businesses; the high cost of importing new technologies, limited digital infrastructure outside urban core areas, and international competition for highly qualified talent for the data economy. The consultation paper makes clear that the data strategy will need to address technology transfer, training/education, recruitment, and support for small businesses. Beyond this, a key theme of the document is enhancing access to data for businesses.

It is with respect to data that the consultation paper becomes troublingly murky. It begins its consideration of data issues with a discussion of open government data. Ontario has had an open data portal for a number of years and has been steadily developing it. A new law, pushed through in the omnibus budget bill that followed the Ford government’s election is the first in Canada to entrench open government data in law. The consultation document seems to suggest that the government will put more resources into open data. This is good. However, the extent of the open data ambitions gives pause. The consultation document notes, “it is important for governments to ensure that the right level of detailed data is released while protecting government security and personal privacy.” Keep in mind that up until now, the approach to open data has been to simply not release as open data datasets that contain personal information. This includes data sets that could lead to the reidentification of individuals when combined with other available data. The consultation paper states “Ontario’s government holds vast amounts of data that can help businesses develop new products and services that make Ontarian’s lives easier, while ensuring that their privacy is protected.” These references to open data and privacy protection are indications that the government is contemplating that it will make personal data in some form or another available for sharing. Alarmingly, businesses may be invited to drive decision-making around what data should be shared. The document states, “New collaboration with businesses can help us determine which data assets have the greatest potential to drive growth.” An out-of-the-blue example provided in the consultation paper is even more disturbing. At a point where the document discusses classic categories of important open data such as geospatial reference and weather data, it suddenly states “Given that Ontario has a wealth of data in digital health assets, clinical and administrative health data can also be considered a high-value dataset that may present various opportunities for Ontario.”

If personal data is on the table (and the extent to which this is the case should be a matter of serious public consultation and not lightning-round Q & A), then governance becomes all the more important. The consultation paper acknowledges the importance of governance – of a sort. It suggests new guidelines (the choice of words here is interesting – as guidelines are not laws and are usually non-binding) to help govern how data is shared. The language of standards, guidance and best practices is used. Words such as law, regulation and enforcement are not. While “soft law” instruments can have a role to play in a rapidly changing technological environment, Canadians should be justifiably wary of a self-regulating private sector – particularly where there is so much financially at stake for participating companies. It should also be wary of norms and standards developed by ‘stakeholder’ groups that only marginally represent civil society, consumer and privacy interests.

If there is one thing that governments in Canada should have learned from the Sidewalk Toronto adventure, it is that governments and the private sector require social licence to collect and share a populations’ personal data. What this consultation does instead is say to the public, “the data we collect about you will be very valuable to businesses and it is in the broader public interest that we share it with them. Don’t worry, we’re thinking about how to do it right.” That is an illustration of paternalism, not consultation or engagement. It is certainly not how you gain social licence.

The Ontario government’s first Consultation Paper, which I discuss here was about “promoting trust and confidence”, and it ostensibly dealt with privacy, security and related issues. However, the type of data sharing that is strongly hinted at in the second discussion paper is not discussed in that first paper and the consultation questions in that document do not address it either.

There is a great deal of non-personal government data that can be valuable for businesses and that might be used to drive innovation. There is already knowledge and experience around open data in Ontario, and building upon this is a fine objective. Sharing of personal and human behavioural data may also be acceptable in some circumstances and under some conditions. There are experiments in Canada and in other countries with frameworks for doing this that are worth studying. But this consultation document seems to reflect a desire to put all government data up for grabs, without social licence, with only the vaguest plans for protection, and with a clear inclination towards norms and standards developed outside the usual democratic processes. Yes, there is a need to move quickly – and to be “agile” in response to technological change. But speed is not the only value. There is a difference between a graceful dive and a resounding belly flop – both are fast, only one is agile.

 

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