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Mapping the local geospatial data collaboration landscape

What kinds of geospatial data collaborations are needed to support essential services and planning in Canadian communities?

Have you wondered how neighbouring municipalities or jurisdictions coordinate work or communicate during an emergency?

No doubt there are different models for partnership and collaboration among Canadian municipalities. Noteworthy are York Region’s award winning York Info Partnership (Ontario), Alberta Municipal Data Sharing Partnership (Alberta), and Integrated Cadastral Information Society (British Columbia).

There is still so much to learn and better understand, giving birth to The Geospatial Data Collaboration Initiative – a research partnership between Esri Canada and Open North. This research project will explore success conditions, capacity issues, and governance challenges associated with sharing, pooling, or exchanging road network data between Canadian municipalities.

I’m excited to be part of the Esri Canada team involved with this project and have asked Steven Coutts, research analyst at Open North and the project lead for the Geospatial Data Collaboration Initiative to join me in writing this blog.

Me: Steve, can you tell us more about why collaboration between municipalities is so important?

Steve: More and more organizations — including local governments — recognize the value of sharing, pooling, and exchanging data in building a more complete understanding of shared challenges and implementing solutions. Geospatial data is especially valuable as it serves as a foundation upon which other geo-located data sources can be mapped, making it a powerful collective intelligence tool at a regional scale.

But we know that collaboration is not always an easy undertaking for local governments; it requires significant levels of cooperation, coordination, leadership, and resource-sharing.

Moreover, the situation on the ground within different local governments can vary considerably. Every place has its own history, context, relationships with other governments, capacity issues, motivations and external pressures with which it must contend. These factors shape what data collaboration (or lack thereof) may look like in a given community. And this variation means a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing and sustaining collaboration simply won’t work.

Despite these challenges, we know that we need local governments to engage in collaboration around geospatial data. In response to specific policy drivers, such as the CRTC's NG9-1-1 mandate, data collaborations are needed to create high-quality, up-to-date geospatial datasets at a regional scale in order to support critical shared services. And more broadly, as Canadian cities grow, planning and service delivery – along with the geospatial data necessary to make them happen – increasingly need to span jurisdictional boundaries.

Both road network and municipal address point datasets, which require regular updates at the local government level as development occurs, are essential for shared services and planning functions that extend beyond municipal borders.

Take the examples of road networks and address points. By their very nature, road networks cut across jurisdictional boundaries which means there is an obvious case for neighbouring communities to align their road network data. But since road type classification schemes and data models often vary between local governments, a degree of standardization is required in order to make this data usable beyond municipal boundaries. Address point data is an important complementary dataset to the road network for routing activities for essential services (whose service areas often cover several jurisdictions).

Both of these datasets are updated by local governments as development occurs in order to satisfy a variety of local administrative and planning functions. By 2025, when NG9-1-1 is slated to be fully implemented – geospatial data will play a central role in directing emergency responders where they’re needed when every minute counts.

While NG9-1-1, a government-driven mandate, is encouraging many neighboring municipalities to collaborate on road network and address point data, there are also other opportunities to be realized through collaboration. A collaborative mindset (along with a commitment to standardization and interoperability) can help neighbouring local governments to address challenges they face and realize common goals.

Screenshot of two maps demonstrating intersections with an overlay of information.
Screenshot of two maps demonstrating intersections with an overlay of information.

Me: How does the Open North team plan to gather information about what municipalities are doing?

Steve: Through a joint research project between Esri Canada and Open North – the Geospatial Data Collaboration Initiative – we hope to get a better picture of the landscape of geospatial data collaboration between local governments, and moreover, what can we learn from observing existing collaborations.

Through our research, we’re setting out to understand the most important determinants of local government – municipalities, regional municipalities, districts, counties, etc. – participation in geospatial data collaborations. This includes looking at existing collaborations, including the YorkInfo Partnership and the NB 911 Bureau, as well as surfacing less well-known instances of collaboration.

For every collaboration we find, we’re asking ourselves several questions, including:

  • What external influences are shaping these collaborations?
  • What variables appear to influence the capacity of local governments to participate?
  • How are collaborations implemented or developed between local governments in response to data collaboration needs (e.g., what kinds of mechanisms make them work?)
  • What kinds of outcomes have participating local governments experienced?

Me: What are the next steps for this research project?

Steve: To kick off our research, we’ve selected an initial sample of Canadian local government staff who work with geospatial data to receive an online pre-screening survey. The purpose of this survey is to collect basic benchmarking data about how geospatial data is created, maintained and shared within (and among) different communities.

From this survey, we hope to identify instances of data collaboration that merit further exploration and interview municipal staff involved in these collaborations to better understand and document them.

By gaining a better understanding of the landscape of geospatial data collaboration between local governments, we hope to be able to identify best practices and collaboration modes and mobilize this knowledge across Canadian communities and beyond.

Me: Can other municipal staff participate in this research, even if they didn’t receive the survey?

Steve: Absolutely. If you work with geospatial data at the local government level (municipal or regional) and you are interested in participating in our research project, please contact steve[at]

This blog is co-authored by Esri Canada’s Alia Kotb and Open North’s Steve Coutts. The French version can be viewed here.