Part 1: The Citizen Lab tackles transparency with DIY Transparency Report Tool
CIRA is embarking on the fifth year of its Community Investment Program. Canadian not-for-profits, charities and researchers doing good things through and for the internet can apply for a CIRA grant during the application period, which launches in January. To celebrate the program’s success, we are sharing stories of past recipients who have inspired us.
In 2015, CIRA provided a Community Investment Program grant to the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs to support its DIY Transparency Report Tool. Businesses can use the tool to develop transparency reports, so they can communicate with their customers about how they are collecting, retaining and disclosing their data to government agencies. Given the growing level of understanding and concern among Canadians about digital privacy, this project is an example of building a better online Canada.
We sat down with two-time CIRA grant recipient Christopher Parsons from the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs to learn more about the impact of the Community Investment Program in developing this tool.
How did you hear about CIRA and the Community Investment Program?
I heard about the Community Investment Program from a few different places. First, there was talk of the Community Investment Program and the grant in the internet privacy community. Second, a few good friends and colleagues suggested that I look into the opportunity further since our project would be a great fit and the application period was about to open.
How important was CIRA’s grant for your project’s success?
CIRA’s grant was instrumental for our project’s success. It helped us apply our research results and build the necessary components to make this open-source transparency tool functional for small and medium-sized businesses. We used our funds to hire a developer and create the first round of the tool.
Had it not been for the Community Investment Program, we would not have been able to design and develop the tool so that businesses could easily access the information and appreciate why it was important to develop and release transparency reports, as well as how to make them.
What were some of the highlights of your project?
At the Citizen Lab, we noticed there was a lot of talk around transparency reporting but the available advice tended to be fragmented, difficult to access, or was focused on dealing with U.S. companies and law enforcement. We saw a gap in the Canadian market and decided that we needed to develop a service piece for academics and businesses who are interested in developing these sorts of holistic reports.
What were some of the challenges?
No project ever goes off without a hitch, so we faced our fair share of challenges. Developing the actual tool was deceptively easy, especially since we were trying to build something that had yet to exist. The real challenge in the development was making sure that it could deploy on any device or operating system.
In retrospect, another challenge was a result of travel costs and limited time. Before releasing the tool, we were restrained in how much consultation we could do and how much feedback we could incorporate into the content and design. We only recognized this as a challenge once we sat down with our users to see the value of their input.
How does your project contribute to a better online Canada?
The DIY Transparency Report Tool is a slow burn piece. We are creating awareness among academics and businesses about not only why this is important, but also how they can actively participate in transparency reporting. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) has been calling for greater corporate transparency for many years, and this tool will help businesses respond to that call.
The best part? The tool also includes a policy guide, grounded in Canadian law, for small and medium-sized businesses and non-profit organizations involved in personal information. Some of the topics covered include the business rationale for these sorts of reports, and why it’s important to build the reports early instead of waiting for a crisis to arrive.
You can read more about the details of the DIY Transparency Report Tool in this press release.
What advice would you give organizations considering applying for a grant?
If I could give one piece of advice to future applicants, it would be to have a defined project that can be completed in nine months. Unexpected changes will come up, so plan accordingly. It helps to define your output ahead of time to measure yourself against and determine the exact questions you want to answer. At the end of the day, widely scoped aspirational projects are harder to complete in a fixed period of time.
About CIRA's Community Investment Program
CIRA is building a better online Canada through the Community Investment Program by funding innovative projects led by charities, not-for-profits and academic institutions that are making the internet better for all Canadians. CIRA is best known for our role managing the .CA domain on behalf of all Canadians. While this remains our primary mandate, as a member-based not-for-profit ourselves, we have a much broader goal to strengthen Canada's internet. The Community Investment Program is one of our most valuable contributions toward this goal and funds projects in digital literacy, online services, research and infrastructure. Every .CA domain name registered or renewed contributes to this program. To date, CIRA has supported 102 projects with over $4.2 million in contributions. The application period for funding opens in mid-January 2018. Visit cira.ca/cip to learn more.