Map of the Week: Military recruiting, redux
|COLIN PERKEL/CANADIAN PRESS|
This week's map looks at regular force military recruiting in Ontario, using data from 2007.
As with several recent maps, this is an exercise in re-presenting data with better tools than were available when the original map was first produced.
The map shows two strong patterns:
The FOI request in this case raised an emerging issue with how the federal government handles requests for electronic information. In this case, I filed a request asking for an electronic file showing the first three characters of the postal codes of 2007 recruits, with the reserves and regular force in distinct records.
This took some time to appear, and the reason became clear when DND released a CD-ROM with several .pdf files containing scanned lists containing the postal code information for each individual recruit - 203 pages for the regular force and 153 for the reserves. The tables in these lists, which are images, can't be saved as tables in Windows. The only way of getting a total for any given FSA is to print out the .pdf and count them manually. For Ontario, this meant going through 77 pages of printouts with 37 records per page, counting up totals for 500-odd FSAs. Bear in mind that this started life as an electronic record. I'd produce a military recruiting map for the whole country if I could make time for the manual counting process involved.
I wrote this off as a quirk of military culture until I dealt recently with another federal department which released postal code-based data by mailing a 40-page printout of all 1600-odd FSAs in the country, forcing me to manually enter the values related to them in Excel. (I'm taking a break after reaching the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.)
The issue here is that data reduced to paper form loses much of its usefulness. The effect is to take power away from the recipient of the data (and by extension in this case from you as a citizen) and conserve it in a government institution as much as possible. Unless the user is bloody-minded enough to re-enter it manually, which of course is only possible at a certain scale.
Halifax-based journalism professor Fred Vallance-Jones blogged about this issue recently:
In late 2007, the Treasury Board Secretariat, which oversees access to information in the federal government, advised departments to "cease responding to ATIP requests in electronic format until they are certain that any potential risks (of inadvertently releasing severed information) have been addressed."
This doesn't have to be a concern. If there is a fear about information being hidden in a file - and there are certainly examples of hidden data being extracted from censored files - then all the agency has to do is save the releasable information as a text file, where there is no place for data to hide.
Ontario ministries, by contrast, will usually release a spreadsheet on CD-ROM - this is an issue with the federal government specifically.