The Federal government launched a new open data initiative in March 2011. One year in, the pilot project is growing and evolving. The government has also integrated the open data portal within a broader open government initiative. This initiative has three main components: open data, open information and open dialogue. The initiative is important, and it brings Canada into line with similar initiatives already underway in comparable democracies such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, to name just a few. Of course, the open government movement has taken hold elsewhere in Canada too. Notable initiatives are found at the provincial government level in B.C., and in major municipalities such as Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa.
The open data part of open government sees governments providing data sets to the public, free of cost and of most restrictions. The idea is stimulate innovation (allowing application developers, for example, to develop innovative ways to make use of the information); to improve services to the public (for example, applications involving public transit data have been hugely popular to transit system users); to allow researchers better access to data for analysis and study; and to improve government transparency. To be truly effective, data must be provided in usable (machine readable) formats; standardization of formats is important if different data sets are to be combined.
In a country such as Canada which still clings to Crown copyright, and where both Federal and Provincial crowns have asserted rights to their data (notwithstanding that copyright does not protect facts, only the original selection or arrangement of facts), the licensing of government data through open data initiatives is important. (See my own article on copyright in fact based works here; and an excellent piece by Elizabeth Judge on access to and use of public sector information here). The default position has been for the government to assert its rights. Open data requires a major cultural shift. This is clearly something that is still in process at the federal level in Canada. A look at the licence currently (as of March 16, 2012) available through the open government portal reveals a licence that in theory lets go of the data, but that does so wrapped in excessively legalistic formulations.
An important element of interoperability of data sets is the compatibility of the licences under which they are granted. There are real advantages to open government licences that evolve along very similar lines. The U.K. government developed an open government license that has the virtue of being accessible and user-friendly, and that clearly conveys the message that the data is there to be used as freely as possible. This licence has been used as a template for B.C.’s open data licence. The Canadian government portal is a work in process; let’s hope that a new version of the licence will soon be forthcoming.