Highlight: Canadian and Caribbean parliamentarians discuss open data

April 14, 2016

On April 27 and 28, the International Development Research Centre co-hosted a two-day meeting on open data and open parliaments with the Canada Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. This inaugural meeting of the Canada-Caribbean Twinning Initiative brought together parliamentarians from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and Canada, as well as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. Clerks from the Ontario and Alberta Legislative Assemblies also attended.

The association is spearheading the idea of twinning Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures with their Caribbean counterparts to promote the sharing of good governance and parliamentary practices.

Improving people's lives through open data

Open data emerged as the ideal theme for this first meeting because it offers so many solutions to challenges faced by governments, communities, and individuals around the world. Data that is freely available, in a format that allows it to be re-used and redistributed, can spur business growth and catalyze innovations in health, education, agriculture, and other sectors.

“We’re delighted to bring together experts, who are looking at how open data can improve people’s lives, and decision-makers, who can make those improvements a reality,” said IDRC President Jean Lebel in his opening remarks. “This is what IDRC is all about: Not only do we invest in solutions, but we make sure that they reach people in the developing world who need them most.”

Sharing examples

Maurice McNaughton, director of the Centre for Excellence for IT-enabled Innovation at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, presented examples of open data projects in the Caribbean. Government data on 180,000 farms is now open and has led to the development of several applications, thanks to the Caribbean Open Institute, an IDRC-supported network promoting the knowledge economy in the region. The applications, including an interactive map, provide business intelligence to farmers, Ministry of Agriculture staff who advise farmers, and bankers assessing loans to farmers, explained McNaughton, a founder of the Institute.

Participants from the Caribbean included Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Minister of Public Administration in Trinidad and Tobago; Julian Robinson, Minister of State in Jamaica’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, John Boyce, Minister of Health in Barbados, and Dr. Jerome Walcott from the Senate of Barbados. They shared examples of open data initiatives in areas such as agriculture, tourism, education, and health. Canadian provincial parliamentarians also mentioned open data in government procurement, infrastructure, and natural resources, including water quality.

Experts and parliamentarians alike stressed that a cultural shift was required, not only among parliamentarians, but public servants as well. As government data is often perceived as the property of the departments that produce it, officials who are used to protecting the data must become its publishers.

Toward open parliaments

Open parliaments were also on the agenda in a session moderated by Senator David Smith, in the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament Buildings. Increased information about legislative activities and greater opportunities for dialogue between citizens and their parliaments hold the promise of improving governance worldwide by making it more transparent, accountable, and effective. Senator Raynell Andreychuk and MP Randy Hoback joined the group to discuss citizen expectations, technologies enabling broad participation, and the need to create new forms of debate. Senators Smith and Andreychuk are members of the Canadian Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Randy Hoback is the Chair of the Canadian Section of ParlAmericas.

Looking to the future

The meeting was organized by the Institute on Governance, a non-profit institution with 20 years of experience in advancing understanding and practice of good governance in Canada. The parliamentarians expressed a strong interest in pursuing a twinning program between Canadian provinces and Caribbean nations and in exchanging further on the subject of open data.

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