Columns Archive

Canada Dragging Its Feet on Open Data Initiatives

Appeared in the Toronto Star on December 14, 2009 as Canada Dragging Its Feet on Open Data Initiatives

Earlier this year, I wrote about the budding momentum behind governments making their data more readily available to the public for reuse.  Open data initiatives have generated dozens of commercial and non-commercial websites that add value to the government data.  

Some make the data more understandable by using interactive maps to provide visuals about where activities are taking place (e.g. government stimulus spending).  Others make the data more accessible by offering services to customize or deliver government information (e.g. postal codes to allow public interest groups to launch advocacy campaigns).

The crucial aspect behind these initiatives is that the government makes the data available in open formats free from restrictive licences so companies and civil society groups can create innovative websites, tools, and online services.

Last week, the global open data movement received a big boost in three countries that is sure to leave Canadians wondering why their government has been so slow to move on this issue.

The U.S. issued its much-anticipated Open Government Directive, instructing every federal department and agency to take specific actions to open its operations to the public.  Rather than simply identifying principles, the directive issued strict timelines for action.  

For example, it requires agencies to publish "information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information."  Each agency is required to publish at least three datasets within 45 days and to establish an open government section on its website.

Not to be outdone, the Australian Government 2.0 Task Force issued its draft report on how to make government information more accessible and usable.  The task force's starting premise is that "public sector information is a national resource, and that releasing as much of it on as permissive terms as possible will maximize its economic and social value and reinforce a healthy democracy."

Consistent with that view, the Task Force recommends that public sector information should be free, based on open standards, easily discoverable, machine-readable, and freely reusable.  Since Australian government data is subject to crown copyright restrictions (much like Canada), the Task Force recommends releasing government data under a Creative Commons attribution licence.  

This means that the government will still maintain copyright, but it freely licences the work for re-use with no need for further permissions or compensation (only attribution is required).  This approach provides an efficient means of freeing up government works without the need for legislative change.

The British government also made new open government commitments.  Noting the success of recent initiatives – an online graffiti reporting site resulted in an 8 percent reduction in graffiti and a 30 percent reduction in complaints – it adopted new public data principles similarly based on the release of public datasets available for reuse at no charge.  It now promises to release more public data, including health, weather and traffic datasets, under open licences that enables free reuse, including commercial reuse.

These new initiatives herald a dramatic shift in the way governments use the Internet to make themselves more transparent and useful to their citizens.  They may also leave Canadians asking if their government is not prepared to lead, then why not at least follow?

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

Comments are closed.