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Facebook schools feds on data analytics, privacy

By Derek Abma      

‘Never before has there been more data, nor more advanced analytical techniques with which to analyze and interpret information.’

PCO deputy secretary Matthew Mendelsohn addresses attendees at a workshop at the NAC put on by Facebook to explore how the federal government can use data better. Photograph courtesy of Facebook
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Both the federal government and Facebook agree that the public sector could learn a thing or two from the private sector about how to use data to optimize operations.

The government participated in a workshop put on by social media giant Facebook in February about how the government could make better use of data at a time when so much of it exists, the results of which were summarized June 14, in a report from Facebook.

“The government of Canada has made a big point of making data and results and delivery a key priority for the government when it thinks about trying to understand whether or not what they’re doing is impactful for Canadians,” Kevin Chan, Facebook’s head of public policy for Canada, said in an interview this week.

“And we kind of noticed that there was a gap in the sense that the government has set this as an important priority, the public service has a lot of different people and different teams working on this, but not a lot of leveraging of the private sector.”

A key part of the report was an emphasis that government departments need to find the right partners in order to use data most effectively. Mr. Chan said Facebook is interested in being a partner, but added that this isn’t a money-making endeavour for the tech giant.

Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy, addresses a workshop the company hosted in Ottawa in February. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

“We are public policy people and very much see ourselves as doing public policy,” he said. “A lot of these datasets, a lot of the know-how, will come from the private sector, and so we do feel like we can contribute to try and crack this public policy issue.”

He said Facebook had already partnered with Elections Canada during the 2015 election to post reminders to vote on the news feeds of Canadians 18 or older, and provide links to Elections Canada’s website for people to find their polling stations.

The Facebook report suggested seeking out those who have an interest in the same information you are seeking. “The data you need may already exist, but have been collected by a different organization for an entirely different purpose,” the report said.

It used the example of Global Affairs Canada wanting information on how many Canadians travel to conflict zones around the world. It noted how Statistics Canada regularly collects data on Canadians travelling abroad. While the point of that data is not to look at travel to conflict zones, it could be used for that purpose by Global Affairs.

“Never before has there been more data, nor more advanced analytical techniques with which to analyze and interpret information,” said the report’s introduction.

Privy Council Office deputy secretary Matthew Mendelsohn, in a keynote address to the workshop captured by Facebook on video, said the federal government “wants to have as an internalized, regular process of using data and using evidence to inform decision-making in a way that we haven’t done in Canada before.”

He added that “there is no master plan in how we’re going to use data to inform decisions. … We are exploring, we are innovating, we are experimenting. We are doing that with partners like Facebook.”

The Feb. 23 workshop was the first its kind to be held outside of Facebook’s home base of Silicon Valley in California. The main departments participating at this event, held at the National Arts Centre, were Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; Global Affairs Canada; and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“The workshop provided some interesting examples of how to leverage Facebook as a means to disseminate prevention initiatives and messaging,” wrote Public Health Agency spokesperson Rebecca Gilman in an email. “For example, Facebook provided detailed information about how it tailored public-health prevention messages around Zika virus specific to the demographic of Facebook users in Brazil to increase the utility of the prevention messages. The presenters also demonstrated how mapping the use of the Facebook ‘safety check-in’ feature helped to understand which areas of Fort McMurray were most severely impacted by its recent wildfires.”

Stephanie Palma, a spokeswoman for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said in an email her department was interested in exploring ways of “measuring reconciliation for the purposes of the workshop and scoping possible uses of open data.”

The Facebook report said privacy concerns must be taken into account when attaining and using data. It suggested that the use of people’s information must provide “real benefits to people, community, and society” to be justifiable. It added that potential downsides to any collection and use of data must be identified and mitigated, that government should be transparent with the public on why any given research and data collection are being done, and that strict controls should be placed on protecting people’s privacy.

During his address to the workshop, Mr. Mendelsohn said Canada’s federal government had a “really good balance between openness and privacy” in legislation and policy, adding, “I do think that we are at a time now…that we can look at how we ensure that our privacy legislation and other legislation is modern and appropriate, and that it facilitates data sharing where appropriate and where people can consent to that. Because we don’t want to be in a position where we have fallen too far on one side of that, and prevent the ability to do the work that needs doing.”

The paper identified a major challenge for most government departments as “identifying the right people” to receive the “right message,” reaching them, and then assessing whether the message had its desired effect.

During workshop, Mr. Mendelsohn talked about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) preoccupation with effects of government policy on people, and how to measure it.

“One of the things that is striking is how frequently in policy conversations that the prime minister immediately goes to issues around, ‘What will the impact of this big thing we’re talking about [be] … and how will we know it’s having that impact?’”

The report also suggested that departments be simultaneously “precise and flexible” when it comes to defining their data needs.

“Rarely will you discover the ‘perfect’ dataset for your problem,” the report said. “Rather than getting stuck, think about how you can layer data from multiple sources to create a more complete picture.”

The report also recommended building the “infrastructure” to make data more accessible across government. This includes implementing technology that allows cross-departmental access to information.

Mr. Mendelsohn said the government is already in possession of an ample amount of data, but he described much of it as “a stranded asset that we need to use in better ways, to make it more accessible.”

Mr. Chan said the workshop showed that the government is not necessarily lacking data, but not using what it has to its full potential.

“What we heard, some of it was just being worried about how to think of this in new ways,” he said. “It’s not that there was a dearth of data. … Maybe a colleague in a different department might actually have the data that I’m looking for, and that I may not have to do it all on my own.”

dabma@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Read Facebook’s full report: Canada_Framework_061217_R8[2]

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