Change Camp Ottawa: Open Data and Open Access


One of the things that Tracey Lauriault (, taught me at ChangeCamp Ottawa was the difference between transparency, open access, and open data. Transparency initiatives (as exemplified by the efforts of the Sunlight Foundation) are designed to reveal the workings of government, creating more accountability. Open Access initiatives are about making research documents (PDFs, Word documents, papers, archival material) freely available under Creative Commons or Open Publishing licenses. (This is the conversation about open access journals among academics).

Open data initiatives involve making more of the data that the government collect as part of the process of governing—public data—available to citizens without cost and with open licenses (e.g. GeoBase Unrestricted Use Licence Agreement). This last piece is crucial, because it is this information which enables evidence-based policy and informed citizen engagement. I asked Tracey Lauriault whether she thought it was even possible to consider the project of participatory ecological economics without open data, and she replied with an emphatic "no".

Although it was difficult to catch the names as Lauriault's session participants introduced themselves, I was struck by their diversity. In attendance were a senator and her assistants, three staffers from Michael Ignatieff's office, and one from Gerard Kennedy's office, City of Ottawa Officials, Federal Government Officials, a librarian, programmers, a private sector economist, folks from,,, and There were academics, policy wonks, and municipal officials. I suspect that this level of diversity and seriousness of purpose was characteristic of many of the sessions at ChangeCamp Ottawa.

One of the participants noted that Statistics Canada releases statistics daily, but you have to pay a lot for even one table. Others were interested in the underlying format of the data—in the potential for standards to help us make the most of the information. Another person expressed an interest in closing the gap between people who have the information, and the people who can do something about it.

Two responses, in particular, set the tone for the session:

  • One participant said: "I'm coming from the private sector—my first reaction is that it's outrageous that people would hold our data captive."

  • Another participant felt that a base question was institutional change, and noted that barriers to data access were not only copyright: "NRCan, when I worked there, have non-compete with private firms that also have geographic data."

Here are my edited notes for Tracey Lauriault's ChangeCamp session on Open Access. Participant interjections are indented.

Tracey Lauriault: We have stimulus data, public data, citizens interested in data, politicians, city officials, and people who are developing software and applications. Based on these responses, can I give you a bit of background on places that are doing good things for data access?

There's a place in NRCan (Natural Resources Canada) that has a program called GeoGratis (They've brought some datasets back that were almost lost). They have an unrestricted user license system, which is unbelievable. Crown Copyright remains, but unrestricted user license is what can be done within that framework (See Crown Copyright Act). Also, Geobase has street network files, and the shapes of a variety of boundaries at the scale of the nation from many federal government departments. (For debates on this topic refer to Digital Copyright Canada).

The Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) was formed because university and college students in Canada could not conduct research with Canadian data. So libraries put together a purchasing consortium. You can only use these if if you're a student, and if you're doing non-private sector research. This highlights the issue for the private sector.

The common denominator with programs like the DLI and StatsCan is that we are buying our public data to do public work, and to do evidence-based decision making at a community level.

In the US elections we saw a lot of demographic coverage because the data are free there. Data are considered public records. In Canada, for instance, there is a file called the postal code file. This was the file that would allow you to connect your postal code to your federal representatives. In Canada, that file is sold to you for $3700. We did not see much demographic analysis during our elections as a result of this. Digital Copyright Canada has some information about this.

NRCan has to buy data from StatsCan—the provincial and municipal governments have to buy data from StatsCan. We're all paying for it multiple times under a program called cost recovery.

Many public officials want to "control the messages", and say that it should be authorities, government scientists, and specialists who have access.

Now that I have given you some examples, I'd be interested in hearing from the city, and people in the private sector, about why they should have access to private data.

Reactions from session participants:

  • I have free access—what if I access it, and put it on my website?
  • Response from another participant: Not that I'm encouraging it, but for those who might take this approach, Legal Defence Fund might be an idea.
  • Second response from yet another participant: I'm just going to point out that civil disobedience is a way that information can be reproduced. There's a famous case where Carl Malamud reproduced patent applications. (See also discussion on the recent parliamentary proceedings exemption forced by Friends of Canadian Broadcasters).
  • A big issue in many cases is just the right to to know things. It took them years and years to get Health Canada to release information on drugs and reactions, but they still couldn't get information on locations.
  • There was a really interesting legal case, Great Lakes United, Mining Watch Canada and Ecojustice, that was just won to get Environment Canada to publish and make accessible data about contaminated mine sites in Canada. Environment Canada was slow to get corporations to comply, and they finally, with the help of Ecojustice (ala Sierra Legal Defense Fund), were able to get those data published. And if you think about it, we should know where those contaminated mine sites are.
  • A participant asked: Could we track how much data in the cost recovery have been paid for multiple times? And then ask why don't you save money by eliminating all those costs? Or should we take the case to the Canadian public—and say: "look, you're not even able to access data on your environmental information." Or should we take examples of cities that have done it and show those success stories (e.g. City of Toronto release) to other cities?

TL: Following the money in the Federal Government bureaucracy is very hard. I have not seen one journalist that discusses it. I have not seen one newspaper that has looked at it.

  • One participant noted that the UK Guardian, and the NYT have beautiful examples of data being made available.

TL: The Guardian Data Blog is really interesting because the UK has the worst cost-recovery program in the world. Every Thursday the Guardian updates their data, and they have API's. ACTION I would encourage those of you with blogs to start to develop public discourse around this. Because there currently is no public discourse around this issue in Canada.

The responses focused on mechanisms by which governments could approach the issue:

  • I would like to see at least every new program to have some method of allowing data through one mechanism.
  • One person asked: How would the city consult with people interested in data?
  • Another participant responded: The Obama administration has instructed their people to create some kind of process to allow citizens to identify the data that they would like to see opened up first.

TL: That's transparency data, which is different from public data.

In Canada, census data are not free. Some federal or national scale map data are free. We have something at Geoconnections Discovery Portal. It disseminates geospatial data in open formats, and promotes open architecture. GeoConnections is the program that delivers GeoGratis and Geobase.

Ensuing dialogue:

  • Last year, the City of Ottawa ran a task force to make data easier to use—in an easier to use format—on the website. It's supposed to be simple. Right now, staff are working on that data dissemination policy. Right now, we don't know what the public wants.
  • Can I respond to that? In many ways you seem to be wanting to take it to the next step, like a cool slice and dice. You should just release the data.
  • We're doing just that. This is about getting over the hump of that we used to charge for this information. And understanding which information we can give away, and which we can't.
  • ACTION If you gave me a list of all the information you had, I could tell you what I wanted.
  • SUGGESTION Although it would be nice to have it presented in HTML, it would be very nice to have it consumable—whether through XML, RSS—something where you no longer have to scrape HTML.
  • You're wasting your time if you put the data up as HTML, or if you put the data up as PDFs, or as Word files. It wastes everybody's time. SUGGESTION Even if you go to a simple format, like a CSV—if you want to get a quick impact, that's the way to do it.
  • There's a report coming out about this whole thing. Eventually it will be voted on. There's no public consultation, but that report would be about access. ACTION You could follow-up with the city regarding this Data Dissemination Policy.
  • ACTION If you want action, email the info@, call the call centre, write a letter to the Minister—say we want the information available. Say it in a in a readable way. However, if you're going to say it in a non-readable way, be sure to put down CSV, XML, RSS. I work in web—and the only time I ever hear about this is with my friends. You actually have to ask the people with the information. Go through every door—email the webmaster, phone, email—use all the channels. Right now I would say that it's not on the radar at the federal level—not on the inside.
  • If finally you reach the right ears—and they hear—and ask: what is this "CSV" file?—you'll get a CSV file.

TL: ACTION ATIP requests cost five bucks. So put in an ATIP request for some data.

On one project, I was trying to find some information. Finally, I said I'm done with public officials. I called my MPP—finally I got sent to a registrar with data that nobody knew existed.

SUGGESTION Many many people say we should not allow the private sector to have access to this information. But we need the private sector to participate in this analysis. So that would be my standard response. If I am private sector, it helps me in what I want to do: R&D, creating jobs, being innovative. That would be my argument.


  • You have to create some noise if you're going to make any change. To influence that guy buried in an IT organization to do something differently, that's a very long path. There's a new CIO for the government of Canada, Corinne Charette. And if she's aware of what the CIO and CTO in the Obama administration are up to, she may be sensitized to some of these issues. But most of the people responsible for government websites aren't even aware that they're bad websites.
  • One participant asked: What would you say is the strongest argument against public data being made available?

TL: The user unrestricted licence was a response to Crown Copyright. We shouldn't be telling people what they should or should not be doing. The government has no place in the public databases the public uses to help guide the nation. We can rest assured that nefarious people will do what they do anyway.

Now, there were some mashups about swine flu that were misleading. And there are also privacy issues. So the response I give is: "if you do this as part of your job of governing—let us help you." Citizens are also scientists, geographers, and community minded people who are currently not being mobilized as they do not have data.

To recap: ACTIONS

  • You want action? Letters to MP's and respond to the @info's on government websites.
  • Going to your MP's and MPPs and requesting data.
  • Public media can help—using your own media to create some public discourse around this.
  • Get some journalists who are willing to talk about it: science journalists. We can do that. We have very few science journalists.
  • There's also taking advantage of the private sector. The economic development that you can spur from the private sector adds value.
  • Data Civil Disobediences
  • Submit ATIP request for Data
  • Publish cool projects using public data
  • Work with City of Ottawa officials on the Data Dissemination Policy
  • Join
  • Ask the City to publish a list of its data holdings
  • Contact CIOs
  • Download free data from Geogratis or Geobase or the Geoconnections Access Portal and thank them!

TL: One of the things I'm doing as part of my Ph.D. is talking to 40 public officials to find out how these measures will change the work they have to do. It's not going to be an insignificant change. It's not going to be easy, and it's important to know how that culture can change. We need to be patient with public officials.

  • Another lever in the federal public service that we can work on internally is going to the CIO's at the federal level. Those kind of people have opened things up in a lot of ways—there's the GCpedia. I think it's also important to empower the individual federal folks to do this. Part of this is enabling their CIO's to support them.
  • A participant asked: Is there a list of data that has been released?

TL: is trying to bring data to citizens. Bring your questions to us there. We're really trying to scour for good projects, good court cases, and good examples.

Regarding abolishing Crown Copyright: Remember in Australia when they wanted to move to a republic? This did not fare well as it remains embedded culturally in the commonwealth system. Take a look at that. Part of that legacy here is the Crown Copyright. These are very deeply entrenched, and they take a long time to change. I could take 30 years just on that. But Michael Geist and Russell McOrmand are experts on that topic. And neither of them are talking about abolishing copyright. But shifting it.

In Canada we have this strange relationship as citizens. We remain subjects of the Crown. The distance between the citizens and the govenment is very far. They manage the subjects, and they do that very well. But it's going to take some time for that cultural shift. These multiple incremental shifts can be very helpful.

Photo credit: Ming Wu


For those interested in reading about the first ChangeCamp in Toronto, here's Jason Diceman's WorldChanging Canada article about that:

New Interfaces on Government

Posted by: Mark Tovey on May 23, 2009 12:07 PM

Hey Mark, the url should be (past tense)

Posted by: Ilia Lobsanov on May 25, 2009 6:46 AM

Just posted a News and Tools entry pointing to the just-passed open data initiative at the City of Vancouver:

Vancouver opening data

Posted by: Mark Tovey on May 25, 2009 7:05 AM

I remember you, Mark Tovey of WorldChanging. You're still interested in fascinating ideas & writing compelling stuff.

Posted by: Lisa on May 27, 2009 5:44 PM

I am very very sympathetic to the idea of open data, and think it could bring about a huge change in the way government is performed in Canada.

However, reading this entry, I am somewhat dismayed that no one has mentioned, challenged or discussed the deliberate policy choice, introduced, i believe, in the '80s, that justifies the need to pay for data:
the governance principle of "user pays" - where taxpayers are saved the full cost of data collection analysis and storage by having the users pay for it -- the private sector should be very familiar with this model -- how do we justify the tax increases needed to make the data freely available? and

A second key point, in my mind, is the reality that knowledge is, or generates power, and that even fairly mundane knowledge can be very political, and have governance/economic consequences that those in the civil society sector don't anticipate. Much environmental data is held by provinces, who, for various reasons, are less likely to want to have their performance compared to their neighbours.

So my point would be that it will take some serious re-thinking of the power relations, and political realities related to the work of information management as we move forward on this project.

Posted by: S. Henry Lee on June 24, 2009 6:34 AM

You are correct!

Cost recovery is embraced widely, and in the case of Statistics Canada deeply. That means we need to work toward better funding for our Statistical Agency and economically measure the actual cost of - cost recovery. Absolutely much cultural change is required. But alas, many have been doing this thinking. A couple of important reports come to mind:

a) Geoconnections Version 2 of The Dissemination of Government Geographic Data in Canada - Guide to Best Practices -

b) NRCan Unrestricted Use Licence Agreement -

c) Bibliography: The Socioeconomic Effects of Public Sector Information -

d) Harnessing the Power of Digital Data for Science and Society -

e) Today, hot off the press from Kenya - Kenya boosts access to govt data:

There seems to be some change in the air, and some of it is blowing north to us.


Posted by: Tracey on June 24, 2009 7:23 AM

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