Environmental, Health & Safety Open Data

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We are big fans of open data and government transparency. Open Data is the concept that government data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyrightpatents or other mechanisms of control (via Wikipedia). The Open Data movement asks governments to publish information on their activities – budgets, service schedules, trash pickup, pollution information, and a myriad of other data in a structured format (i.e. not PDFs) with a legal licence that allows software developers to build websites and mobile apps to make the data more useful to the average citizen.

The potential for open-data to help the environmental, health and safety compliance world is huge. We are only starting to see the potential of this information with sites such as Emitter.ca which maps data from the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), allowing Canadians to see air pollution levels near their home and workplace. One could easily imagine this information correlated with lung cancer rates and smog levels to better help citizens decide where to live, work and send their kids to school. For health and safety issues, work accident data with location, type of accident and employer name could be easily made available – allowing potential employees to easily assess the level of safety at a job site and incite companies to become even safer.

Despite efforts at the Canadian Federal level and 24 municipalities, free high quality data on environmental and safety issues is hard to come by. In 2010, we issued a report on environmental fines in Canada between 2000 and 2009. The data for that report was obtained from a variety of government websites and through access to information requests, it was painful, slow and probably missed some key elements. If all governments in Canada and abroad published their environmental fines and warnings in a structured manner, it would be much easier to identify the tricky parts of the law that need clarification and punish repeat offenders who do not respect environmental laws. We plan to update the report soon.

In a similar vein, Eco Justice Canada issued a report on the state of environmental enforcement in Canada. In the study, author William Amos clearly explains the lack of quality data regarding fines and warnings related to environmental legislation. The report states,Enforcement data under different federal environmental laws is hard to access because it is gathered using inconsistent methods. This unnecessarily complicates the comparison and analysis of enforcement data, diminishing the public’s ability to hold government accountable and to assess the risks to environmental and human health.

The report goes on to recommend an open data policy for environmental fines data, “[The Federal government should] Establish a comprehensive online database to provide full disclosure of compliance and enforcement of all federal environmental laws. Modelled upon the Enforcement and Compliance History Online data-base, created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it should be updated monthly, enable geographic and facility-based searching and data analysis, and contain multiple user-friendly file formats that better allow concerned citizens to monitor local enforcement issues.”

To enforce environmental protection in the 21st century, we need to use 21st century technology. That requires open data. Pro-actively publishing data in an open format allows non-profit organisations, such as Eco Justice, engaged citizens and other canadian organisations to monitor factories and plants in their neighbourhood for environmental and health and safety compliance. While the Federal government is moving slowly, a Canadian court ruled that Environment Canada has to publish much more pollution data than what it is currently issuing. Specifically, mining effluent pollution needs to be public and included in the standard NPRI reports. This is a major victory that will likely improve the lives of people in mining communities across the country. With governments around the world moving in this direction, proactive publication in open formats will only increase, Canadian companies should be prepared.

Monitoring your EHS obligations on an ongoing basis and in a rigorous manner will become more and more important as we move towards an open government with open data policies embedded throughout its departments. We look forward to seeing more governments publish health, safety and environmental performance online in formats that allow citizens to stay informed of their employers and their neighbourhood company’s efforts to continuously improve their EHS compliance.

To take action on this, contact your federal, provincial and municipal representatives using Represent and make a donation to Eco Justice. You can also suggest a data set for the government to publish (i.e. environmental fines, health and safety accidents, …) at the Federal Open Data portal.

Note : Jonathan volunteers at Montreal Ouvert and Quebec Ouvert and is a board member at Open North.