Digital Strategy in Vancouver: Plenty of room for improvement

digital strategy city hallWhat is the current status of the digital strategy at the City of Vancouver? It’s important to consider a number of components: the website, open data, council records, FOI, transparency and the availability of information.

At a Council Committee meeting on April 29, 2015, the City’s Chief Digital Officer Jessie Adcock provided an annual Digital Strategy Update (presentation here, video clip here). Adcock is currently busy running federally as a candidate for the Liberals in Port Moody-Coquitlam.

While Adcock painted a rosy picture of digital access in Vancouver to Council, there is still much work to be done. The City’s website underwent a $3.2 million update in August of 2012. We noted a number of shortcomings at the time (here and here). Many of the issues identified 3 years ago still have yet to be fixed. The changeover of the main City of Vancouver website was done under the watch of Laurie Best, Adcock’s predecessor. Laurie Best was let go by the City later in 2012 without any explanation (she received a $71,464 severance package).

Many of the old links to the vancouver.ca website were simply broken during the changeover in 2012. The old ‘vancouver.ca’ website was moved to ‘former.vancouver.ca‘ and there was no attempt made to automatically map previously working links to the site. Furthermore, new Council documents continue to be published under the ‘former.vancouver.ca’ website in 2015. During the website changeover, City staff have effectively hidden all documents under the ‘former.vancouver.ca’ from web search engines. The robots.txt file will ‘disallow’ the indexing of Council documents by Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines. This is a deliberate move by the City to cut off information access. It would take less than a minute to open up the Council documents to web searches, with a simple fix. All staff need to do is to remove the “robots.txt” file.

Hastings Park VoteCity Council records votes during meetings, however, this information is not available online in an easily accessible form. While Councillor Carr put forward a motion in February of 2014 (Improving Transparency and Public Access to Council Voting Records), the motion was effectively buried via an amendment (put off indefinitely for further study by staff). Hence voting records of individual members of City Council are still not available online in an accessible form. The only way to find a record of a single vote is to first locate the minutes of the appropriate Council meeting. Then one must go through the minutes and deduce which members of Council were in chambers to vote in favour of a motion (as affirmative votes are not directly recorded; it’s a lot of work). Why does the City not release all the tabulated votes in an electronic form such as a spreadsheet?

While the BC government posts the results of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests online, the City of Vancouver does not follow this lead. Vancouver’s Freedom of Information department was given an “F” grade for speed of response by the Newspapers Canada’s 2014 national FOI audit. There have been a number of strategies by the FOI department to deny release of information: no response (deemed refusal), high processing fees, or the redaction all or most of the requested records. It is possible to make a FOI request in a digital form; however, it’s important to improve the speed of the response and the quality of the information that is released. While it is possible to appeal a FOI via the provincial Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OPIC), there are currently 4 month waits for an officer to be assigned to a case. Appeals can take between 6 months and a year, and the City of Vancouver has a reputation of fighting OPIC every step along the way. The other issue with FOI is that City staff can deny the existence of a record, without any penalty.  We’ve run across this problem on a few occasions (the “non-existent” records turned up at a later date). Surely part of the City’s digital strategy should start with fixing the broken Freedom of Information system.

The agendas for upcoming Council meetings are rarely posted one week prior to the meeting. Links to documents are sometimes only posted after the Council meeting has taken place. This same issue occurs with advisory panels. Agendas for the UDP, VPCP and ATPC rarely appear in time. Reports for the Development Permit Board are sometimes only released one business day prior to the meeting, even in cases when a report was finalized 5 weeks before the meeting. The online reports can contain fuzzy graphics and illegible text. The deliberate denial of timely access to information is a clear failure of the City’s digital strategy. Access to information should not be politicized.

The City’s VanMap application has been around for many years. A few months ago, the default view of the City removed the outlines of the 22 neighbourhoods in Vancouver. While the VanMap application has 2013 air photo imagery (Orthophotos 2013 under aerial photography), this same information is not available on the Open Data portal. The latest aerial photos are over 4 years old, from 2011. The release of information on the Open Data portal has slowed to a trickle since the retirement of former GIS Manager Jonathan Mark. There’s lots of data that is simply not shared with the public, such as the 3D building model of the city. The City’s view cone height calculator is not available to the public. Perhaps one positive step forward in VanMap has been the incorporation of the 1912 Goad’s Atlas in a geo-referenced format (a project spearheaded by the Archives). The Archives also worked on converting all Council meeting minutes after 1970 into a digital form (a good first step, but this data is needed for Park Board and for Council minutes prior to 1970).

Some records never make it online. There are Development Application signs posted on Renfrew (at 1st and 22nd Avenues), however, neither of these are online. Important decisions are often not explained. For example, City Council went in camera on January 31, 2012 and apparently one of the results was the immediate dismissal of the Director of Planning (details were published the day before in the Globe and Mail). However, no such decision is recorded on the released decisions for this meeting. The City spent $211,828 on a severance package, yet has not provided any information about the termination of the former Director of Planning. Was there indeed an in-camera meeting to discuss this item, and was the Vancouver Charter really followed? We’ll never know.

The calendar of civic events should contain notices of all City Council meetings, Public Hearings, Advisory Panel meetings, Open Houses and so on, rather than focus on other events that are not related to the civic government (see our civic affairs calendar here). There are issues related to surveys and the “Talk Vancouver” system (see Talk Vancouver: ‘power to the people’ or a political ploy? BobMackin.ca). Many additional details of the City’s budget and of the procurement process could be made available online.

There’s much more that can be done to improve the City’s digital strategy. Is there a political will to provide substantially improved access to the City’s digital records?

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” (George Orwell, 1984)

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