The Globe and Mail recently published an article about Canada’s poor record on access to information requests, which reminded me of a question I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while now; what role do administrative or procedural barriers to freedom of information play in actually shaping the nature of that information?
In a world flooded with information, more information can actually prove to be detrimental to illuminating an issue or cause, or more importantly motivating people to action based on new information. We get overwhelmed by information, particularly out of context and out of relative perspective; which is why more and more emphasis is being placed on the presentation of information as a conduit for providing relevance and meaning to it.
At the same time democratic governments are increasingly being pushed to improve transparency and accountability. Access to information in democracies like Canada is nothing new, but expectations around reasonable provision of information are growing increasingly more demanding. And I’m not even talking about the provision of sensitive information a la Wikileaks.
What is changing the equation and consequently expectations, is our ability to take aggregate information, repackage it in creative ways and provide new perspective and new insight.
But what are the implications of shifting from a right to access information, to a right to open access to information? What I mean by this distinction is not the right to all information (as proponents of Wikileaks would advocate) but the right to freely access the information we already have a right to. Essentially with the increasing ability of technology to lower administrative barriers to information, do we have the right for such procedural barriers to be lowered? Does this potentially change the nature of the information that we would then have access to?
As a society we produce massive amounts of information, and so do governments. The “massive passive” gathering of that data has spurred ingenious uses of such information in the private sector. Governments, by maintaining administrative barriers to accessing information prevent us from realizing the unknown potential of such data.
A while ago, the New York Times posted a story about the “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” (PACER) system. PACER provides access to all court documents but it comes with a high administrative cost. The system is slow and charges an administrative fee per page accessed, and you need to know what records you want in the first place. The article highlights efforts by a group of open-government activists that used a free public trial to download an estimated 20% of all the records – 19,856,160 pages!
In Canada, during the 2011 National election La Presse mashed Google maps with publicly available information on personal donations to political parties to create an interactive map of where and how much people were donating to what parties.
In both cases this information is freely available to the public, but the way in which it is made available to the public changes the potential impact of that information. The question I’m curious about, and don’t really have an answer for, is whether there is an argument to be made for maintaining administrative barriers, precisely because open-government would change the nature of the information that is freely available? Potentially into something that might more legitimately be restricted by government.
What, for example are the privacy implications of people having “google like” capabilities to search court documents, as opposed to having to request access to specific pre-determined cases. On the other hand, what potential new information and insight could be generated by having access to such massive amounts of information on government decisions, processes and administration, or the aggregated acts of individuals – like being able to visually see patterns in how people are donating to political parties.
What the implications of differentiating between a right to access information, and a right to open-access to information is a difficult question to answer, because we can’t know how access to information will change the nature of that information, until after the fact.