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Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains announces the Digital Charter Implementation Act in Ottawa on Nov. 17, 2020.

The Canadian Press

Out of crises can come clarity. But as Canada charts its economic path through and beyond the global pandemic, our vision remains foggy on how to harness our greatest untapped asset: data.

Data and intellectual property are now the world’s most valuable resources. The current market cap of the five largest Big Tech firms is more than US$5-trillion, while the top 20 global oil companies have a combined value of approximately US$1-trillion. Control over data, rather than physical assets, is the future source of national prosperity and power.

You still wouldn’t know it here in Canada, however. When it comes to data and how to use it, despite recent announcements, we continue to build back blind.

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On Tuesday, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced the Digital Charter Implementation Act, which will introduce new laws increasing the protection of Canadians' personal information. This is an important first step, but for Canada to truly thrive in our new global economy, the protection of privacy needs to be quickly accompanied by a strategy to harness data in a way that drives our national interests and helps build our local economies.

We need a Digital New Deal.

What does that mean? It means recognizing that our country’s economic and societal goals will not be met without a framework that lets us use data effectively, for the public good.

This fall, the federal government announced its intention to invest heavily in physical infrastructure and the pursuit of climate targets. But climate mitigation requires a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Right now, our cities and our clean-tech companies cannot access public and private data that would help them design and target effective interventions. Google knows where our worst congestion is happening, but our governments don’t.

Similarly, Ottawa gave the Canada Infrastructure Bank a renewed mandate and $10-billion to invest in building retrofits, agriculture and housing efforts. Building retrofits involve the use of smart sensors to measure their effectiveness. Who will own and benefit from the data produced in that work, funded by Canadian public investment? How will we craft effective national policy without access to the insights that should guide our hand?

To set ourselves ahead in the path to recovery, Canada should follow on Tuesday’s privacy announcement by stating its intention to become the first country in the world to fully harness the private-market dynamics of data, the same ones that currently enable Google, Facebook and others to dominate the market.

A Digital New Deal would create a strategy, systems and governance that ensure the value of data accrues within Canada, levelling the playing field for Canadian companies and ending the data monopolies that are driving wealth out of our country.

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The Digital New Deal would introduce Canadian data protocols so that data generated from public infrastructure investments can be shared and accessed effectively, for the public interest. Protocols are simply the way that digital systems talk to each other, and when applied to traffic lights or building retrofits across Canada, for example, they would allow us to understand what is happening in our cities and effectively target the interventions necessary to move the needle on GHG reduction.

With real data governance, Canadian municipalities, innovators and problem solvers would no longer be working in isolation, without common guideposts or clear, shared goals.

The government knows this. Its announcement Tuesday alluded to the promise of data, stating that “greater data sharing and access between the public and private sectors can help to solve some of our most important challenges.”

But they must also know that work won’t happen without a clear directive, and actual mechanisms.

We must introduce the policies and procedures for national data infrastructure, as part of a Digital New Deal, so we can build back better, guided by clear insight and the firm ambition to be a country that uses technology to its advantage, and doesn’t just let it use us.

Andy Best is the CEO of the Civic Digital Network, a non-profit organization working to create national data infrastructure.

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