What’s up with Open Data?

March 20, 2015 Gordon Plunkett

A few years back, a new era of government was announced with all levels of Canadian and international governments enthusiastically joining the open government data movement. Lately the open data community has not been making as much noise as it once did. Have the wheels fallen off the open data bandwagon or is this just on hiatus?

Open data is the term given to the concept that certain data should be freely available for anyone to use, reuse and republish as they see fit; without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. While the term has been around for some time, it garnered significant attention in part due to the signing of the Group of Eight (G8) Open Data Charter in 2013. This charter encouraged governments around the world to make their data open by default. Many governments already had existing open data policies nevertheless the G8 Charter encouraged governments to either start an open data program or to supplement the open data program they were already providing.

With Federal Minister and President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement as champion and spokesperson for open data in Canada, our country was quick out of the gate to embrace open data and the Open Data Charter. Minister Clement initiated an Advisory Panel on Open Government and subsequently invited Esri Canada President, Alex Miller to join to provide advice and guidance on Open Government activities. (*Note that the movement has since changed names from open data to open government, giving it a slightly broader policy mandate than merely data management.)

Governments across Canada responded quickly to the open data initiative with many federal, provincial and municipal government agencies transferring once inaccessible government data onto open data Web sites. While some of this open data contains general government information, some of it contains very useful geospatial data. For example, Natural Resources Canada made all of its national topographic map data available under the federal open government license. Statistics Canada quickly followed the lead by providing many statistical data files, tables and maps.

At the provincial level, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia have made some or all of their spatial data available under an open data license. Municipalities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax Regional Municipality and Ottawa followed suit.

So what’s the problem? There’s lots of open spatial data available with individuals and organizations alike making effective use of it. Esri Canada, for example, uses open data as a major source of basemap data for the Community Map of Canada. Governments are encouraging the reuse of their data by anyone willing to invest the time and effort to do so. Hackathons, conferences and Web sites are tools being used by governments to promote open government and open data.

Figure 1: Community Map of Canada.

The open data movement is far from dead; in fact, both the national and the international open data communities are going to descend on Ottawa in May 2015 with two major conferences being held the same week. The Canadian Open Data Summit is an annual Canadian event where the most pressing challenges facing the open data community are examined on a national scale. The 3rd International Open Data Conference is intended to strengthen coordination and broaden dialogue among open data initiatives across various levels of government, topics, regions and sectors. The goal of this international conference is to ensure that all citizens benefit from open data and to grow the community strategically and collaboratively.

So clearly the open data community is active, but is it growing? Are these activities and conferences simply preaching to the converted? While the number of open datasets continues to grow, the number of jurisdictions in Canada that support and provide open data does not seem to be growing as fast as previously thought.

So what can you do to help? Well for one thing, if your jurisdiction is not already open data friendly, you can get your own organization to join the open data movement. If your jurisdiction already provides open data, then congratulations! But wait - you still have more to do. You need to speak to an adjacent jurisdiction or a government that you are familiar with and introduce them to open data and encourage them to get informed and to join the open government data community. If you can get them to join in, it will help the open data movement across Canada and around the world.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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