Feds announce changes to open data licensing

Before this Wednesday, it was hard to tell just how “open” the Federal government’s open data project was. The idea behind it was to make the available sets of tax-payer funded data (260,000 of them, according to the government) available to the public, allowing it to be parsed for many useful tools.

Unfortunately, the stumbling block for open data is that it hinges on the licensing agreement attached to it. In Canada’s case, the federal government originally attached stringent clauses to the licensing that prevented users from reverse-engineering the data to identify companies who were part of that data, and had strict rules for citation of where the data came from.

For technology analyst David Eaves, who helped make Emitter.ca, a site that tracks 22,000 facilities, across the country, and identifies which are the worst polluters, this stipulation in particular was infuriating. “It kind of defeats the point. (My) pollution identification site was potentially in violation of the licence because we were identifying individual businesses because the data pointed to them very explicitly,” he said.

Treasury board president, Tony Clement, acknowledged this short-coming to the open data project in Canada and hoped that changes would push more and better use of it. “We’re liberalizing the approach on the terms and conditions of using the data sets to make it easier to access, more functional, easier to use,” Clement said.

Eaves said that while there were still some odd decisions regarding the licensing agreement, these amendments have made the open data project “definitely a lot better.”

He is still confused at some of the mixed messaging present in the amended agreement. While at one point, the agreement states that you must make it clear that the data was taken from the government of Canada, there is a further statement that makes it clear you can’t do just that. There is concern that if you just slap a government of Canada logo or watermark onto your site, it would lead readers to assume that whatever is on the page is actually endorsed by the government.

“These two stipulations are kind of at odds. It would be a whole lot easier if they just got rid of it, but they’re not going to,” he said.

Eaves finds it odder still that the federal government is so concerned with putting it’s stamp on the data in the first place. “They should not care so much that they want credit,” he said. It’s also a bit murky as to what constitutes credit.. “(It’s) unclear where you have to make this disclaimer. (For instance,) if you’re on a mobile phone app, space becomes a real premium issue, but this is not terribly onerous.”

It wasn’t all bad news, however. The licence was amended to protect projects created with data, should that data be made unavailable in the future. Previously, Eaves said, the agreement made it clear that any data that was made unavailable was not to be used going forward. Now, projects that are created at any point can continue to use that legacy data with indemnity. “Even if the licence ends, you can still use the data you originally got under this license,” he said.

And the number of participating arms of government has increased too. “What is good about this announcement is it shows that the number of ministries and agencies and institutions that are thinking about what data they need to make open is increasing,” Eaves said.

To read the full, amended license agreement, visit the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s Website.

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