A slow march to open data

There’s a refreshing wind blowing in the land over access to government data. Slowly, but surely, it seems governments are catching on to the idea that the vast storehouses of administrative and compliance data stored on their computer servers represent a large public resource, and at least some should be accessible to the public (who, after all, paid for it).

The most recent to sign on to the growing concept of “open data” is none other than our information-stingy federal government, which launched an open data portal at http://data.gc.ca/ just before the recent election, and has since promised to make beefing it up a priority. It’s too early to tell if this initiative is a PR move, or a serious commitment to making government information freely available. But viewed against the context of where we were a couple of decades ago, it represents a sea change in thinking.

When I started working with data in 1995, obtaining a simple dataset of projects under the federal Infrastructure Works program took months of struggle and an appeal to the information commissioner. So the idea that governments will put their energies into making data available, rather than making every effort to block access, is a refreshing development for those of us who have long pushed for openness in electronic information.

The federal portal is supposed to bring access to a variety of government datasets under one roof.  So far, most of the data available through the site is of a type that officials would likely see as harmless, a lot of natural resources data and information from statistics Canada, for example.  Some of the most journalistically, and publicly interesting datasets already made available elsewhere on the gc.ca site, by a variety of departments, are not yet linked on the portal. These include the CADORS aviation incident data from Transport Canada, the Health Canada adverse drug reaction data and the proactive disclosures of travel, hospitality, contract and grants and contribution data required to be made by all government departments and agencies.

But journalists can find some useful nuggets on the data potal. Greenhouse gas and pollutant emission data from Environment Canada and the registry of civil aircraft from transport Canada are available.  And with the recent destruction in Slave Lake, the forest fire data on the site could prove valuable to reporters digging more deeply into that story.
Of course, the federal site is far from the first of its kind. In fact, in some ways Ottawa is a reluctant late comer to the party. The U.S. government’s data.gov portal recently marked two years online. And in Canada it is municipalities that have been at the fore of the open data movement. Toronto’s data portal provides access to such things as restaurant inspections, a sample of calls to the 311 service and the voting record of city councillors.

Vancouver also has an impressive collection of data online at http://data.vancouver.ca/datacatalogue/index.htm. Edmonton has a limited range of data available at https://data.edmonton.ca/, while Ottawa has a range of mostly geographic data posted on its data portal.
Data are available on these sites in a variety of formats, including xml, delimited text, Excel and ESRI shapefile map format.

All of which is not to say that there won’t be any more data battles. I am pretty certain that a lot of datasets that government deems sensitive will probably not see the light of day this way, and certainly nothing that has even a whiff of being able to be connected to private or personal information. And ironically, even while inaugurating its new portal, federal departments continue to insist on responding to Access to Information requests for data by releasing nearly useless pdf image files, what I have described in the past as “pictures of data.”

But this is a step in the right direction and one that could, with proper nurturing and public pressure, eventually lead to genuine openness.