'Open data': Why it's making waves across Canada

Open data has the potential to change the relationship between citizens and government, say advocates who are calling on governments to open vast troves of digital information to the public.

Advocates say opening up government data to 3rd-party analysis can change lives for the better

Open data advocates say vast social good can be achieved by opening government data up to the public for analysis. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

In Winnipeg, a map created using open census information sheds light on the distribution of income, ethnicity and language across the city. In Montreal, an app that draws on municipal data helps citizens avoid snow plows when parking their cars during winter. In Waterloo, Ontario, students used city data to create an app that maps every single tree the city owns.

"Open data" is already shaping Canadians' lives, and open data advocates — including academics, businesspeople and policymakers — say opening up government databases for members of the public to analyze is leading to positive social outcomes for Canadians.

Open data can encompass a diverse range of information, including geographical maps and meteorological data, traffic data, real estate listings, building permits, health data, lists of government lobbyists, business licences and survey responses. Social scientists, activists, non-profits, computer programmers, educators and businesses can all analyze that data for their own ends — if it's made available to them.

"This is data that's ultimately been paid for by taxpayers, one way or another," said Joe Greenwood, program director of MaRS Data Catalyst at Toronto's MaRS Discovery District, a non-profit innovation centre.

"The government is a custodian, but not the owner, and it needs to put it out to maximum use in society," said Greenwood.

Open data already a reality in Canada

Greenwood presented at the annual Canadian Open Data Summit, which just wrapped up in Saint John. The conference attracted 215 attendees with an interest in the topic — more than in previous years, said organizers.

Still, even Canadians who don't attend open data conferences probably use open data every day. The GPS function on smartphones relies on open government data, as does popular satellite mapping software like Google Maps.

In Halifax, open data was used to create an app that uses one's phone location to provide reminders to them about whether it's garbage or green bin pickup day.

If we want to do things well, we need to do evidence-based planning- Tracey Lauriault, winner, 2016 Canadian Open Data Leader of the Year Award

"Open data is all about breaking silos within communities, but then also across different stakeholders inside and outside government," said Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, which designs software and websites that use open data.

In layman's terms, Landry is saying that open data has the potential to change the relationship between citizens and governments for the better. It's not hard to see why that concept appeals to policymakers and computer programmers alike.

The governments of Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec all have open data websites from which data can be downloaded. New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant announced a new open data policy in his province on Thursday.

In a press release, the government of New Brunswick said it had launched the policy to "increase transparency; improve public trust and citizen engagement; enhance research, science and innovation; facilitate the creation of new businesses and services; and improve government services."

Cities and open data: 'Absolutely fantastic'

​Carleton University professor Tracey Lauriault won the inaugural Canadian Open Data Leader of the Year Award at this year's Canadian Open Data Summit, for being "a tireless advocate whose engagement efforts have grown the open data community in Canada," according to a press release.

Lauriault says more than 55 Canadian cities now have open data strategies, and they're working together to exchange knowledge, case studies and digital tools.

"There's a lot of collaboration going on across jurisdictions," Lauriault said. "I think it's absolutely fantastic."

This map of Winnipeg uses open data to display residents' distribution of income, language and ethnicity. (

​"If we want to do things well, we need to do evidence-based planning, evidence-based programming and evidence-based decision-making," said Lauriault. Open data, she said, acts as "an enabler for better programming and planning," and ultimately more efficient government, business, health care and education.

Open for business

It's not just civic activists and policymakers who are interested in open data. Commercial interests are also keen, both in terms of using government data for business purposes and in opening up their own data for profit.

"We need to look at using open data to build companies," said Kevin Tuer, managing director of the Open Data Exchange, which helps businesses use open data for their own purposes.

"Our premise is that the private sector is particularly good at innovating and creating products and creating economic value," said Tuer, who chaired a workshop at the Canadian Open Data Summit.

Cities can allow the private sector to create open data products, said Tuer, and can then buy those products to improve municipal services.

Even though the data in question is produced by public spending, Tuer argues that services and products created by the private sector using open data can still benefit the public. He cites the Weather Network as an example — even though it's owned by for-profit Pelmorex Media, the Weather Network harnesses vast amounts of government-generated meteorological data to produce its forecasts.

Not necessarily a panacea

Although some open data advocates tend to talk about their movement in purely glowing terms, open data isn't necessarily a panacea for social problems.

"Just because you have the raw data doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to see a complete picture," said Renee Sieber, an associate professor of geography at Montreal's McGill University who was part of a panel at the summit.

"If you don't have a category for a certain marginalized person in your dataset, that grouping of people disappears."

Additionally, said Sieber, governments have to realize that simply making data available isn't the same as making it accessible. Without helping citizens become data-literate to the point where they can analyze data, open data is only truly open to those with the special education required to use it.

"That's not the argument that the data shouldn't be open," said Sieber. "It's that it shouldn't stop at openness."

Sieber is adamant that she doesn't want her critiques to dissuade governments from opening their data to the public.

The laudable goal of open data, Sieber says, is ultimately "to create a more inclusive society, a more transparent society, a more accountable society."


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