When, if ever, should we know what the City of Ottawa has produced in response to a access to information (ATIP) request? Immediately is one answer. Never is the current practice.
The City of Ottawa should shift to something in between, to a sweet spot where ATIP responses are released as opendata, automatically, after some delay. This would increase the public's access to public information while retaining the media's legitimate desire for short term secrecy.
In that vein, OttWatch is now publishing the list of ATIP requests that are made to the City of Ottawa. The first batch from January to June 2013 is now online. The database contains only request summaries - not the responses. But armed with the MFIPPA number it should be easy and inexpensive to request a copy of the original response.
OttWatch posesses the ATIP request list for July and August as well, but for the moment that data will be embargoed.
What impact does this new information have on the public? Ottawa has a flourishing community of civic activists who volunteer their time in advancement of their cause. It is clear individuals are already using ATIP requests to further their goals. In March an individual filed A-2013-00196, requesting a copy of all FOI responses in 2012. Someone else is interested in flouride.
Why the data was valuable to these individuals can never be known, but it is clear that the general public can also benefit from this data now that it has been created. OttWatch will leverage the completed 2012 ATIP request to augment this very database. Lots of people have concerns about flouride in our drinking water - but not all of them would have the agency to extract information from the city.
Proactive release of ATIP responses benefits the general public by lowering barriers to participation. Some members of the public have the agency to compose, file, and pay for ATIP requests. The resulting data is likely shared within their community but can go no further. Another member of the public, advocating on the same issue, for understandable reasons may find the ATIP process too burdensome. They are now prevented from fully participating in their community, which is against their and the general public's interest.
Releasing all ATIP responses to the public would enable more people to participate, to everyone's benefit.
Journalists leverage ATIP requests to obtain information from the city that they otherwise can't get. Without a doubt its in the public's interest to support investigative journalism. If ATIP responses are published freely to everyone, does any negative impact on the media negate any other benefits to the general public? That question is why OttWatch will embargo the ATIP database for a period of time. Your thoughts on this will shape how long that time will be.
David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen, touched on incentives, competition and the need for secrecy while summarizing a different kind of oversharing problem:
short-term secrecy is essential to competition among reporters, which is what drives us to find out things that your government would rather you didn’t know.
An obvious objection to releasing ATIP responses to the public, for free, is the original requestor paid for it to be created. The cost can be low. OttWatch paid only $10 for the January to August ATIP list but abandoned an earlier $450 request.
The media don't have infinite budgets to extract data from the city. Would knowing their ATIP response would be shared freely with their competitors influence their decision to file one in the first place? What if there was some delay, creating enough short term secrecy?
Conversely, the public may benefit from journalists having access to their competitors ATIP responses, eventually. In February a journalist asked for information about Ottawa's film studio endeavor. On May 5th two more requests were filed. It's possible this was one reporter filing requests at different times from different angles. Or multiple reporters were all chasing the same story.
Duplication of effort is expected in a competitive market. But at some point that duplication, due to ATIP responses remaining hidden forever, harms the public interest instead of serving it. As a whole, would journalists be able to develop stories more effectively if they could benefit from freely available ATIP responses?
This isn't limited to only their competitors requests. Might requests from the public lead to stories?
One example is A-2013-00010, filed by the government itself, for bike crash data on NCC pathways since 2005. Is there a story waiting to be told inside that data? Why did someone want traffic camera video for Terry Fox and Hazeldean for a one hour period on April 24th? Is there a story in there? Same for Campeau and March on Dec 11, 2012.
Should we set aside the media's interests when it comes to ATIP policies? David Eaves, an open-government activist and newly appointed member of Ontario's task force on Open Government, would say yes.
In "Why Journalists Should Support Putting Access to Information Requests Online Immediately" Eaves challenges the notion that access requests are primarily a tool the media uses to pry open government business, an opinion people share with him often. Instead he returns to the original purpose of access legislation:
Access to information laws were not created to give specific journalists scoops – they were designed to maximize the public’s capacity to access government information. Protecting a media company’s business model is not the role of access laws. It isn’t even in the spirit of the law.
It is in the public's interest to have ATIP responses made available so the full benefits of that data can be realized. Eaves' arguments for why the release should be immediate are compelling. The media have defensible reasons against immediate release.
Should Ottawa release ATIP data immediately, after some delay, or continue the current practice?
Look for July's MFIPPA data to be released on OttWatch in December, August's in January 2014, and so on.