MFIPPA: A How-to Guide for the City of Ottawa

Kevin O'Donnell
2016-07-15 10:16

Everyone has the right to ask for information from the city. Here's a quick guide to get you started.

First, just ask nicely. Staff genuinely want to do everything they can for you.

Sometimes the best tool for the job is simply to email the staff member you think is the right person and ask for the information you want (or ask them to forward you to the right person). Staff who are point-people on consultations are very helpful. It is literally their job to provide you with more information (up to a point).

In most cases that's it. In a few minutes, or usually by next day, I have received what I was hoping to get. But sometimes what I want isn't something they have easily at hand, etc, or some policy prevents them from giving it to you.

Next, just ask nicely while holding a piece of paper and five dollars.

When staff can't easily give you want you want is when you open up the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) toolbox. It's like Thor's Hammer but for civics, except everyone can wield it, so actually it's not like Thor's Hammer at all.

I bumped up against some limits recently when I asked the city's project team for the traffic speed surveys for Byron Avenue. I wanted to review all the numbers myself because, as Drake Fenton would say: Ottawa, man

Staff were very helpful (& responsive!) in letting me know where speed surveys had been done but there is a policy that prevents them from giving them to people for free.

From staffer member #1: Please note there is a $ 106.00 plus HST fee for each location.

From staff member #2: there is a charge for data requests which is something we’ve been directed to do by a 2016 City Council directive. 

I'm interseted in the Byron traffic calming project because I recently bought a house on Byron. I recently bought a house on Byron so I'm not interested in paying over $1000 for data the city has sitting around, and that's probably been circulated internally recently.

Sidebar: I haven't followed up on what this directive actually is. I have some patience for the city being responsible by giving staff guidance on how far backwards they should bend for people. People can be unreasonable. But the city has an Open Data policy. Why not just immediately publish speed reports to the opendata portal and be done with it? Staff can get it from there instead of by internal distribution. I have lots of thoughts on this. Another time. Back to the how-to.

PICKS UP THOR'S HAMMER

No, I'm not going to fork over a big chunk of money for some data. Time to use a different tool and go to the city's MFIPPA page, download a PDF, and fill out a description of the records I want:

Copies of all traffic speed reports for Byron avenue created as part of the “Byron Avenue traffic calming design” project: http://ottawa.ca/en/city-hall/public-consultations/byron-avenue-traffic-calming-design

On June 24th I walked that into City Hall and paid $5 to file the MFIPPA request at the main client centre. In and out in a few minutes (the lineups in the service centre are for Service Ontario. You'll never wait long at the city desks).

Within a few days you'll always get a letter in the mail (IN THE MAIL!) confirming receipt of your request.

Yesterday I got the full response in the mail: paper copies of all of the speed data reports.

Total cost: $5.

Total time: 3 weeks.

FIVE BUCKS!

So now you know it's pretty easy to get the data you want out of the city. Glen McGregor has written a great resource on getting data from government, which is definitely worth your time: The delicate art of negotiating for data.

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