Federal government launches pilot open data portal

The Government of Canada has launched a one-stop shop for federal government datasets, which might inspire provinces to join the open data space. But the licence agreement may present obstacles for individuals, businesses and organizations.

The GC Open Data Portal, available at data.gc.ca, launched on Thursday as a 12-month pilot project. Stockwell Day, president of the Treasury Board of Canada and minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, announced the launch at a press conference in Vancouver.
The portal promises a catalogue of over 260,000 datasets from 10 federal departments. The government plans to increase the number of datasets and the number of participating departments over the 12-month pilot phase, according to a Treasury Board press release.
“The GC Open Data Portal is a catalogue of federal government datasets that are available for users, developers and data suppliers to find, evaluate, access, visualize and reuse federal government data,” states the online FAQ.
The catalogue can be searched with keywords or browsed by categories. The data is available free of charge to the public for commercial and non-commercial use, under certain licensing conditions.
Public policy entrepreneur and open government activist David Eaves, who participated in the press conference with Day, said he is “quite excited” about the launch of the portal. But the licence agreement in its current state suffers “from a few fatal flaws,” he said.
One of Eaves’ major concerns was clause 5.3, which stipulates that data cannot be used “in any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada.”
The clause could have potentially affected journalists as well as businesses, said Eaves. “It would suggest, as far as I can tell, that anybody who uses that data to be critical of the government would be violating the terms of use,” he said.
But less than 24 hours after the portal launched, the clause had been removed from the online version of the licence.
Section 3 includes another major licensing flaw, according to Eaves, by prohibiting the use of data for identifying individuals, businesses and organizations.
“That whole clause is unprecedented … it can’t be found anywhere on other open data portals and I think it pretty much renders a lot of the data useless,” he said.
Eaves’ other concerns are two clauses in Section 4, which stipulate attribution notices. (For a detailed description of Eaves’ licensing concerns, read his review of “What Works and What is Broken” on his blog at Eaves.ca.)
Positive aspects of the launch include the government’s “serious commitment” to increase the number of data sets and ministries involved, Eaves said. “What we should do is concentrate on the process this has created,” he said.
The government is also encouraging feedback from the public, noted Eaves. This provides an opportunity for developers, for example, to let the government know what data sets they want added to the catalogue, what formats are frustrating to work with and which datasets aren’t updated often enough.
Data.gc.ca’s open data catalogue is “reasonably useful” in its current state, according to Michael Mulley, a Montreal-based software engineer and the creator of OpenParliament.ca.
“The portal itself is somewhat underwhelming, but I’m all for government starting pilot projects. It’s a great start and we shouldn’t criticize things for not being complete and ideal from Day 1,” he said.
But like Eaves, Mulley finds the licence agreement “extremely problematic” in several ways.
The government’s ability to modify or revoke the licence at any time creates a “huge risk” for users, especially businesses that want to build on the data, he said. 
And the attribution requirements are “fairly large” said Mulley. “It is a real pain to have to put paragraphs … on the front page of everything you build,” he said
But the licensing issues, according to Mulley, can be easily fixed. “We just want the government to pick a reasonable standard licence,” he said.
“There are standard licences out there … Unfortunately, Canada wrote its own, which imposes all sorts of restrictions that make it really difficult to build things on top of their data,” said Mulley.
Robert Giggey, IT account manager for the City of Ottawa, is “very happy” to see the Open Data Portal happen. “Now that the feds are doing it, it gives more incentive for the provinces to get on board,” he said.
The federal portal might also provide provinces studying open data with a few lessons on licensing, said Giggey. This gives the provinces “another option to review,” aside from what the municipalities have used, he said.
A single licence adopted by all levels of Canadian government would make it “a lot easier for businesses to understand their roles and limitations” in using open data, said Giggey.
A standard licence would also help the governments, he said. “We want to make sure that there are no unnecessary barriers there, or barriers that are taking away from the potential benefits of open data,” he said.
But this would “take some time, if that could ever happen,” said Giggey. “The best-case scenario would be if not one, then a minimal number of different licenses,” he said.
“It will be interesting to see how the developers, the businesses, can work with this data,” said Giggey. “I think in the next few weeks we will see them turning through these datasets,” he said.
The 10 departments participating in the pilot phase include: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Environment Canada, Department of Finance Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Statistics Canada, Transport Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat.


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