Breaking Through Canada's Data Wall
Disclaimer - I'm an American who is just dipping his toe in the waters of open data and transparency issues in Canada - I welcome input from those more informed :-)
After releasing our "Guide to Nonprofit Mapping" last week, we quickly got inquiries from countries outside the US seeking localized and translated versions (which is underway! :-). While exchanging emails with some colleagues in Canada, I started researching the availability of Canadian data sources. First, I tried to find the Canadian equivalent to the US federal government site Data.gov, a repository of publicly available data from executive branch agencies in the US government (the UK has a similar site, data.gov.uk). The closest thing I could find after some cursory searching was the website for Statistics Canada (StatCan) the official government body tasked as Canada's central statistical agency.
StatCan's website was very disappointing, especially after browsing through the attempts of the US and UK governments. The Canadian site is obviously not designed to be a user-friendly portal for easily finding and retrieving usable data, unlike its counterparts. As I browsed through various indicators and tables, virtually all of the actual data I encountered was either in PDF or HTML formats, neither of which is very helpful to those seeking easily-imported and -integrated public data sets. Even more dismaying was the fact that some data is only available for a fee.
From an American perspective, this was disheartening. "Unlocking innovation" is the motto of the UK's open data site; the US site reads "Discover. Participate. Enage." By comparison, my early research gave me the impression that the Canadian national government was almost going out of its way to adopt the opposite stance, locking data away from their citizens, not giving them full access to the tools they need to participate and engage. This of course isn't a blanket statement covering the entire country. One Canadian geography researcher I corresponded with, Peter Johnson, referred me to a project his department is working on at the provincial level, in Quebec, which he says tends to be more open with data policies than their national counterparts. That said, even Johnson says that he "would love for Canada to follow the data.gov approach."
I found an excellent article by David Eaves about the differences in open data policy and philosophy between the United States and Canada. "Philosophy" is definitely the correct choice of words - Eaves attributes the differences primarily to a difference in sovereignty:
It is important to remember that the United States was founded on the notion of popular sovereignty. As such its sovereignty lies with the people... Thus data created by the US government is, quite literally, the people's data. Yes, nothing legally prevents the US government from charging for information and data but the country's organizing philosophy empowers citizens to stand up and say - this is our data, we'd like it please.
Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III's descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government's data isn't your, mine, or "our" data. It's hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.
Eaves also cites several differences in political structure as secondary reasons, including the power of the US president among federal agencies in the executive branch, and the appointment of federal CIO Vivek Kundera. It's a great article and I highly recommend it. Commentators to the article listed several exceptions, government portals where data can be obtained easily and freely, but most agreed with the thesis that there is no central repository or push to create one.
I found that even such basic data as the Canadian electoral/postal code address table is considered proprietary. The US equivalent would be a table showing which ZIP codes correspond to which political districts: data which is freely available from multiple sources. In Canada, StatCan charges C$2500 for this information with annual updates priced at C$500. Currently, there are several organizations in Canada pressing for revisions to this policy as well as similar policies and practices.
Thanks to my research, I did uncover some (mostly geo-focused) resources; it appears that the Canadian government is beginning to open this data up although I'm eager to hear from Canadian colleagues for details. Here are some of the resources that do offer freely available Canadian data (please submit more using our contact page!):
- The GeoBase contains freely available topographic mapping data
- GeoGratis, provided by Natural Resources Canada, contains freely available topographic data, as well as some other data sets pertaining to natural resources, the environment, and population
- The GeoConnections Discovery Portal offers visitors access to a collection of datasets and metadata in a variety of formats, including raw datasets, KML, and shapefiles.
Even taken together, these resources don't approach the depth, breadth, or spirit of sharing represented by the Data.gov and Data.gov.uk sites. For instance, the public health category of the GeoConnections Discovery Portal has 18 resources, including some overlapped with environmental and some of, shall we say, narrow perspective: I imagine the database of every healthcare facility in the nation is very popular, but one of the eighteen resources is a list of sewage treatement plants in the province of Manitoba.
For those interested enough in this topic to read this far, I've saved the best for last. One awesome Canadian data resource I was already aware of when beginning this project is the website of VisibleGovernment.ca, a Canadian non-profit organization that "promotes online tools for government transparency." As far as I can tell, VisibleGovernment.ca is a Canadian analogue to the Sunlight Foundation and other open government and transparency organizations here in the U.S. They provide multiple tools and projects for promoting open data policy and practices, as well as some cool tools and visualizations based on open data. Among other projects, VisibleGovernment runs FixMyStreet.ca, the ever-present "report-a-pothole" aggregator. More impressive is their new OpenDataLinks site, with several examples of how organizations can use Canadian government data to engage with their communities and country, including a parliamentary voting record database and budget visualization tools. Although the OpenDataLinks site is presently dominated by Canadian applications, the site does accept links and apps from nations around the world.
I'm hoping to hear from Canadians and other geodata fans around the world this week - let us know what Canadian data resources that you find useful by submitting them at our feedback page.