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Elizabeth Denham is shown in 2005 when she was director of Alberta's Personal Information Privacy Act. (Mike Sturk/The Globe and Mail)
Elizabeth Denham is shown in 2005 when she was director of Alberta's Personal Information Privacy Act. (Mike Sturk/The Globe and Mail)

transparency

B.C.'s open-government websites called a good start, but more work needed Add to ...

The British Columbia government has launched two websites aimed at giving the public easier access to its information, prompting mildly positive reviews from transparency advocates.

The websites, launched Tuesday, are part of the province's "open-government" strategy, with the Premier promising a culture of accountability in which the program will expand over time.

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An open-data website includes nearly 2,500 databases, all available for downloading in digital formats that can be easily analyzed. They include everything from birth rates and cancer statistics to detailed budget figures.

The second website will feature freedom-of-information requests - documents such as audits and internal communications released to members of the public, journalists and political parties.

"We're spending people's money, we're making decisions on behalf of people who've entrusted us with their money and information, and I think we have an obligation to make sure that as much of that information is available to the public," Premier Christy Clark said Tuesday after the launch.

"This is very much a work in progress."

The websites are starting amid calls from within B.C. and across the country for governments to adopt more open policies. The federal government has announced its own open-data initiative.

Advocates say governments should voluntarily release as much information to the public as possible in formats that can be used with a widely available computer software.

All of the databases on B.C.'s open-data site were available before, sometimes buried deep in obscure government websites. The new site acts as a central clearing house to make them more accessible.

Stephanie Cadieux, the Minister of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government, said public servants have been told to look for more databases that can be added.

"Premier Christy Clark did issue a directive to government that open data and information needs to become the norm now, so that means that ministers are being asked to harness the new technologies and put information about their operations and their decisions online," Ms. Cadieux said in an interview.

The freedom-of-information site follows controversy surrounding BC Ferries, a former Crown corporation that was recently added to the province's freedom-of-information regime.

BC Ferries posted documents to its website at the same time they were sent to requesters, prompting journalists who submitted such requests to complain they should be able to see documents before they're released. The province's information commissioner recommended a delay before documents are released to the public.

Documents from freedom-of-information requests will appear on the new website between three and five days after they're sent to the original requester.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she was encouraged by what she saw.

"I'm very excited, I think this is a very promising milestone for open information and open data," Ms. Denham said.

Still, she cautioned that the Web launch should be seen only as a starting point.

Ms. Denham has called for the province to disclose records such as government contracts, cabinet ministers' calendars, internal audits and detailed travel expenses for politicians and their top bureaucrats.

The province still doesn't release routinely contracts, calendars or audits. The government recently started posting travel expenses, but they only include totals rather than a breakdown of how the money was spent.

"Those are records that are quite often requested by British Columbians, so I would like to see them proactively disclosed," she said. "That would prevent the need for citizens to go through fairly long and involved access-to-information requests."

Ms. Denham plans to review the province's performance when it comes to voluntarily releasing documents and ensuring freedom-of-information requests are filled with as few redactions as possible. She expects to report back next year.

Vincent Gogolek of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said he, too, was encouraged by the open-government websites, but he echoed Ms. Denham's call for more routine disclosure.

"It's more than cosmetic, this is not just pure fluff, but they still have work to do," Mr. Gogolek said.

"It's very easy to put out information that doesn't have any negative consequences for you. The hard part is putting the stuff out when it doesn't make you look so good, but that's part of transparency, that's part of accountability."

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