Vote Smarter: 3 Open Data Tools for a More Open Democracy

Jenny Mutton

Our country’s current administration is not known for being open and transparent. So when making a voting decision in the federal election on October 19th, how can we arm ourselves with the information that we will need to make a smart choice?

Politicians shouldn’t be enigmas. Their voting records and political speeches shouldn’t be buried in some corner of a dusty government website. These are people who have such a fetish for openness that they’ve decided to make popularity contests their job. Their professional success hinges on us, the citizens, being able to judge them; after a few concentrated weeks of judging we tick off a ballot that is essentially a “Do you like me? Check yes or no” love letter from elementary school. But many of us stop paying attention to politics after elections. And due to the opaque nature of political data in Canada, from both official party and government sources, it is difficult to access and understand what our MPs are doing when their accomplishments aren’t being trumpeted on the campaign trail. Fortunately, the open data movement has come to the rescue, with several online tools that aim to disseminate the information we need to know before we give a party and a candidate our vote. I’m a big proponent of three such tools: openparliament.ca, votes.mp, and webarchives.ca.

openparliament

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I have a deep love for www.openparliament.ca. It is a well-designed, easy-to-use, free tool that puts all the hard-to-navigate data of the Parliament of Canada website into a searchable format. You can enter your riding, an MP, a phrase, or a bill into the search bar and see mentions of that phrase, the voting history of a bill, transcripts of House proceedings, and much more. This election, many candidates have had embarrassing social media posts dredged up. But it’s not only racist Facebook posts and sexist Tweets that we should be offended by—those are informal communication tools; the politicians are silly for posting their bigoted private views on a public forum, yes, but at least they weren’t doing it in an official capacity. Now, they wouldn’t be as silly as to utter dumb things in Parliament, where all their words are meticulously and publicly recorded, would they?

Would they ever! I spend a lot of time entering dirty words into the openparliament search bar for fun. How else would I have known that in 1999, Reform MP (now Conservative) Jason Kenney called some other politicians “a bunch of assholes” in a House debate? Or that in 2009 NDP MP Alex Atamenenko once threatened to fight a Conservative MP during a committee meeting, saying,

“You’re full of crap! If you want to come and talk to me outside, let’s do it!”

Openparliament makes it easy to know if our elected officials are behaving like CPAC soap opera stars while they are supposedly acting in our best interests. Online tools like this one promote an open form of democracy that can help separate thoughtful, well-spoken MPs who speak for their consituents from those who just toe the party line and generate soundbites.

votes.mp

Say I wanted to know if my local MP had voted for Bill C-51. I have to visit the Parliament of Canada website, which looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since the dawn of the internet. To find the information I need, it takes me 10 clicks, across 10 different webpages. All in all, even with computer savvy and the handy Ctrl-F function, it can take you ages to find out how your MP voted on a single bill—and now imagine how impossible it is to figure out their overall voting record.

That’s why I use votes.mp, a website created using openparliament.ca data by brothers Braden and Shay Neufeld. All you have to do is type in your riding, postal code, or MP’s name, and there it is: every bill they’ve ever voted on, the ones they didn’t vote on, and whether or not each bill was made law. There’s even a drop down menu that shows how the final vote was split across party lines, and it links to full information on the bill at either openparliament.ca or the Parliament website.

Now you can see how your MP votes on everything from Private Members’ Bills to omnibus budget bills. And all the party leaders’ voting records are totally open to scrutiny, which is perfect for election-time nit-picking. One can see the sparse and spotty voting records of our 3 main party’s leaders. The long strings of absenteeism is perhaps excusable for the Prime Minister, who is often away on Prime Minister-y business, but less excusable for the other two men vying to lead us. Should we elect a politician like Justin Trudeau, who has voted for less than half of the bills put forward in the last 4 sessions of Parliament (I counted just 59 votes out of 122 total bills)? He should try to emulate Elizabeth May–another party leader, but one who can manage those duties while also voting on 85% of bills in the House.

webarchives.ca

Another tool that is especially useful during the election is web archives. They preserve and make searchable all the political pages that have been scrubbed from the internet for being outdated or no longer in line with party doctrine. webarchives.ca is one such site, which allows you to search keywords and filter by political parties to see how political sentiments, party literature, and platforms have evolved over the last ten years. (Full disclosure: the creator of this site is my brother, the infinitely talented Ian Milligan, but that only goes to show that nerding out over Canadian politics runs in the family). The beauty of archived web pages is that by sifting through them, one can turn back time and reveal the hypocrisies of politics: the promised reneged on, the issues forgotten about immediately after the election, and even the evolution of language as certain phrases and terms go in and out of vogue over time.

I’ll cite an example, because it is a great illustration of how web archives can uncover policies that parties probably wish had stayed buried, unarchived, in the Internet garbage bin. Search “aboriginal” as a keyword and you’ll see a clear downward trend in the frequency of the term used by the Conservative party. Some years paid only the slimmest of lip service to the aboriginal population of Canada, which is alarming enough, but the real kicker is 2005: there you can find archived press releases condemning the then-governing Liberal party’s response to missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The Conservatives accuse the Liberals of not making the issue a “national priority,” and then call for immediate action. Concluding the presser is a quote of bitter irony:

“A Conservative government would provide the urgent leadership needed and bring forth a national action plan to address this terrible situation.”

Half a year later, a Conservative government would be elected. A decade later, the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women is still considered ‘not high on the radar’ for the Harper government, and I’ll bet they aren’t too happy to have their hypocrisy archived and accessible to all Canadians.

As these examples have proved, open data engenders open democracy. This is a positive movement for a country without a long-form census, where official data is often muzzled or suppressed, and where government lags private innovation when it comes to presenting data in usable formats.  I hope these 3 tools will be useful to you in the election, and that they can keep us from electing any more tools into office.

 

Jenny Mutton is a Master of Public Policy candidate at University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She is the co-editor of the Public Policy and Governance Review, and enjoys political satire and economic policy. 

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