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How to apply for information

This morning I was at Toronto City Hall looking for old drawings of a building that I’m now working on. While I was there, I also ran into John Tory, and so I was given the opportunity to congratulate him in person on his recent mayoral win. But that’s irrelevant to this discussion.

What I instead want to talk about is access to information.

We are living in a world that produces an unprecedented amount of data and information. Back in 2010, Eric Schmidt – the former CEO of Google – quite famously stated that we were creating as much information in the span of 2 days as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. And that was 4 years ago. So I can only imagine what the numbers look like today. The internet is basically a giant data generating machine.

But a lot of that information isn’t all that useful and much of the really useful information that’s out there isn’t yet digitally accessible in the ways that we have now become accustomed to. For example, for me to access old drawings and documents for a building in Toronto, I had to do the following…

First, I had to file what’s called an Application for Routine Disclosure. It was a 2-page form that I was able to submit to the city over email. The fee for this application was $66.60. Once the city confirmed receipt of this application, they then went looking in their archives for any drawings and documents that might exist.

After about a week, I called them up and they informed me that drawings had been found and I could now setup an appointment between the hours of 8:30am and 11:30am, Monday to Friday. I went in the next day and the lady – who was very helpful I must say – presented me with a stack of microfiche sheets (I think that’s what they’re called).

I then took these sheets and walked over to a machine (shown below) where I could inspect the drawings. Everything about the machine had to be reversed. In order to get the drawings to show up properly, I had to put the microfiche sheets in upside down and mirrored left-to-right. 


As I looked through the sheets, I was then instructed to demarcate – with a post-it note – which drawings I wanted a copy of. At the end of it all, the lady filled out another form that would be sent to a printing shop who would then convert these microfiche drawings into PDF files for me. I think that will end up costing a few hundred dollars when it’s all said and done.

However, at this point, I also learned that this procedure applied only to drawings, and not to any of the other documents that I was able to find on the microfiche sheets. For non-drawing documents, I actually had to file what’s called a Freedom of Information application at a separate counter upstairs. So I did that. I applied to free the information. It was only $5, but the turnaround time for that is 30 days.

Now, I realize that we’re talking about old drawings and documents. Some of them were from the 1940s. But I’m a big believer in the value of open information. And so today was a good reminder to me that, even though we now have a tremendous amount of useful information at our fingertips, there’s still lots of valuable information that’s really difficult to get.

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