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Displaying items by tag: data strategy
Thursday, 07 February 2019 08:09

Ontario Launches Data Strategy Consultation

On February 5, 2019 the Ontario Government launched a Data Strategy Consultation. This comes after a year of public debate and discussion about data governance issues raised by the proposed Quayside smart cities development in Toronto. It also comes at a time when the data-thirsty artificial intelligence industry in Canada is booming – and hoping very much to be able to continue to compete at the international level. Add to the mix the view that greater data sharing between government departments and agencies could make government ‘smarter’, more efficient, and more user-friendly. The context might be summed up in these terms: the public is increasingly concerned about the massive and widespread collection of data by governments and the private sector; at the same time, both governments and the private sector want easier access to more and better data.

Consultation is a good thing – particularly with as much at stake as there is here. This consultation began with a press release that links to a short text about the data strategy, and then a link to a survey which allows the public to provide feedback in the form of answers to specific questions. The survey is open until March 7, 2019. It seems that the government will then create a “Minister’s Task Force on Data” and that this body will be charged with developing a draft data strategy that will be opened for further consultation. The overall timeline seems remarkably short, with the process targeted to wrap up by Fall 2019.

The press release telegraphs the government’s views on what the outcome of this process must address. It notes that 55% of Canada’s Big data vendors are located in Ontario, and that government plans “to make life easier for Ontarians by delivering simpler, faster and better digital services.” The goal is clearly to develop a data strategy that harnesses the power of data for use in both the private and public sectors.

If the Quayside project has taught anyone anything, it is that people do care about their data in the hands of both public and private sector actors. The press release acknowledges this by referencing the need for “ensuring that data privacy and protection is paramount, and that data will be kept safe and secure.” Yet perhaps the Ontario government has not been listening to all of the discussions around Quayside. While the press release and the introduction to the survey talk about privacy and security, neither document addresses the broader concerns that have been raised in the context of Quayside, nor those that are raised in relation to artificial intelligence more generally. There are concerns about bias and discrimination, transparency in algorithmic decision-making, profiling, targeting, and behavioural modification. Seamless sharing of data within government also raises concerns about mass surveillance. There is also a need to consider innovative solutions to data governance and the role the government might play in fostering or supporting these.

There is no doubt that the issues underlying this consultation are important ones. It is clear that the government intends to take steps to facilitate intra-governmental sharing of data as well as greater sharing of data between government and the private sector. It is also clear that much of that data will ultimately be about Ontarians. How this will happen, and what rights and values must be protected, are fundamental questions.

As is the case at the provincial and federal level across the country, the laws which govern data in Ontario were written for a different era. Not only are access to information and protection of privacy laws out of date, data-driven practices increasingly impact areas such as consumer protection, competition, credit reporting, and human rights. An effective data strategy might need to reach out across these different areas of law and policy.

Privacy and security – the issues singled out in the government’s documents – are important, but privacy must mean more than the narrow view of protecting identifiable individuals from identity theft. We need robust safeguards against undue surveillance, assurances that our data will not be used to profile or target us or our communities in ways that create or reinforce exclusion or disadvantage; we need to know how privacy and autonomy will be weighed in the balance against the stimulation of the economy and the encouragement of innovation. We also need to consider whether there are uses to which our data should simply not be put. Should some data be required to be stored in Canada, and if so in what circumstances? These and a host of other questions need to be part of the data strategy consultation. Perhaps a broader question might be why we are talking only about a data strategy and not a digital strategy. The approach of the government seems to focus on the narrow question of data as both an input and output – but not on the host of other questions around the digital technologies fueled by data. Such questions might include how governments should go about procuring digital technologies, the place of open source in government, the role and implication of technology standards – to name just a few.

With all of these important issues at stake, it is hard not to be disappointed by the form and substance of at least this initial phase of the government's consultation. It is difficult to say what value will be derived from the survey which is the vehicle for initial input. Some of the questions are frankly vapid. Consider question 2:

2. I’m interested in exploring the role of data in:

creating economic benefits

increasing public trust and confidence

better, smarter government

other

There is no box in which to write in what the “other” might be. And questions 9 to 11 provide sterling examples of leading questions:

9. Currently, the provincial government is unable to share information among ministries requiring individuals and businesses to submit the same information each time they interact with different parts of government. Do you agree that the government should be able to securely share data among ministries?

Yes

No

I’m not sure

10. Do you believe that allowing government to securely share data among ministries will streamline and improve interactions between citizens and government?

Yes

No

I’m not sure

11. If government made more of its own data available to businesses, this data could help those firms launch new services, products, and jobs for the people of Ontario. For example, government transport data could be used by startups and larger companies to help people find quicker routes home from work. Would you be in favour of the government responsibly sharing more of its own data with businesses, to help them create new jobs, products and services for Ontarians?

Yes

No

I’m not sure

In fairness, there are a few places in the survey where respondents can enter their own answers, including questions about what issues should be put to the task force and what skills and experience members should have. Those interested in data strategy should be sure to provide their input – both now and in the later phases to come.

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