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On Our Radar – Open data movement: Canada know thyself

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

Anyone remotely involved in higher education is well aware of Massive Open Online Courses, otherwise known as MOOCs, which offer free education in the public domain. MOOCs are offered on a variety of subjects ranging from Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (Coursera) to The Challenges of Global Poverty (edX). Now, before you dismiss this as another blog about MOOCs –of which there are many –I assure you my references to MOOCs are brief and for comparative purposes only.

One of the central ideas behind open data is essentially the same as the idea behind MOOCs, to provide free access to knowledge. More specifically, open data provides the public with unrestricted access to data, including the ability to use and manipulate it in any way they see fit. It is hoped that by providing free public access to data, citizens will be able to make more informed decisions –be it at the individual, municipal, provincial or national level.

While open data is still in its infancy, there is international support for, and participation in, an open data movement. Presumably there are a range of ways in which open data can be hosted. Many governments use, or plan to start using the Open Government Platform (OGPL). The OGPL came about through collaboration between the United States Government and the Government of India and is an open source platform that serves as a data management tool for governments, a data portal for citizens and a means of initiating informed community discussions.

Some notable federal government participants in the open data movement include the United States, India, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada. My inclusion of the Government of Canada may be slightly premature as we have yet to see the launch of the Government of Canada’s open data site –slated for Spring 2013. However many provinces, cities and organizations already provide open data, such as Statistics Canada’s Canadian socioeconomic database (CANSIM), Data BC, and Quebec Open government data.

There are huge variations in the type and utility of data provided. For example, when you go to the Ontario Open Data website and look for data, the first dataset the user is presented with is “Ontario top baby names (female).” Now, while I did quickly scan to see how many female babies were named Lindsay, I would argue that data like these are not really contributing to the development or sustainment of engaged and informed citizens, but rather are more for personal amusement. Perhaps we need to step up our game.

As for how, given that I work in the higher education sector and we rely heavily on Statistics Canada data, I will focus the bulk of my energy here, although the central message applies to all data collectors.

  • Step 1: Collect data! It’s well-known that Statistics Canada underwent some major cuts, both to their staff and surveys. These cuts, while perhaps fiscally prudent, were not the best move for advancing our knowledge of our society or for allowing/promoting informed decision making.
  • Step 2: Share data! While I can confidently say that this is not something in which all data collectors excel, it has improved. Regarding higher education data, we have too many hoarders and not enough sharers. While my intention is not to point fingers, there are numerous institutions and organizations across Canada that collect data, analyze it internally, and write reports, and more often than not, never allow outsiders to see or work with the data. If you’re among those who think data hoarding is defendable, I’ll remind you  that public money is often used to fund (at least partially) these institutions and organizations.

For an example of data collection without sharing, there’s the Postsecondary Student Information System (PSIS), run by Statistics Canada and populated with administrative data. All Canadian colleges and universities are asked to submit their data to Statistics Canada for the purposes of populating PSIS but not all do. The repercussions are obvious; the amount of research that can be conducted is extremely limited. If you have read HEQCO’s recent report, The Productivity of the Ontario Public Postsecondary System or its Performance Indicators: A Report on where we are and where we are going, you know that data gaps are a central theme.

All in all, we’ve got an uphill data battle ahead in the Canadian higher education sector.  Research at all levels is hindered by the loss of data due to budget cuts, the lack of collection and the lack of sharing. It is imperative that data collection improve if we want to remain informed about Canada and the challenges the country faces. Data sharing is essential. The open data movement may be the catalyst for organizations and institutions to recognize that data hoarding belongs in the past and that data sharing is the future.

Lindsay DeClou, Research Analyst

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