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Government open data announcement belies deeper problems

How accessible is the data that you pay for? The Canadian government just announced some changes to the way that it gives citizens access to public data. The minister in charge, Tony Clement, says that it will make things much easier for Canadians who want to use government data openly. But are we really as good at disseminating public data as we make out?

The Canadian government publishes 260,000 different datasets through its Open Data Pilot Project. The idea is to give Canadians access to data on everything from weather through to immigration. Then, they can use it to conduct social research, or even to build apps that can help to inform the public. Small businesses might want to build online or mobile applications to marry up reported public health incidents with a map of local restaurants, for example. 

Last week, Mr Clement said that he had tweaked the Government of Canada Open Licence Agreement to make it more egalitarian. This is the licence that tells people how they can use the public data provided by the government.

Now, people who want to build software applications using this data can use their software to identify individual companies within that data. They also don't have to worry about their rights to use data being taken away afterwards. If someone builds an app today using public data, they can use the data even after the licence period ends.

But the licence is still a little confusing. For one thing, it says that you have to acknowledge the Canadian government when using public data, but then says that you can't use its name or symbol.

Still, the rest of the licence looks very liberal. It gives people the right to use and adapt data, to sublicense it, and to profit from any products that you might create using it.

This brings it far more in line with other data licences, such as the one published by the UK government.

It seems as though the Canadian government is, by and large, making headway when it comes to opening up access to our public data. But on the other hand, Mr Clement's touting of these new licencing arrangements draws attention away from another issue that has embarrassed the government over the last year and a half: the death of the long-form census.

During summer 2010, the Canadian government decided to do away with this document. It had traditionally been an important part of the census, which is used to gather information about how Canada's citizens live. 

The long-form census was a detailed questionnaire that went out to a percentage of citizens, in addition to a short-form questionnaire. The idea behind the long-form census was to gather even more detailed information about a subset of Canadians. This sample would then be used in areas such as social research to make important decisions about all kinds of things, such as which areas to fund for social programs.

The government replaced the long form census with a National Household Survey, which was a voluntary document - Canadians need not fill it out. 

Number crunching statisticians were outraged, because by switching to a voluntary document, they could no longer count on specific subsets of society to fill out the questionnaire. This made it difficult to rely on the statistics that had been gathered to make social decisions. 

We spoke to Minister Clement today, who was defiant over the government's decision to introduce a voluntary survey and do away with the compulsory one. “There are more Canadians that filled out the national survey then had ever filled out the long-form census," he told us. “We are hearing that groups that were underrepresented under the long-form census are a lot more accessible now."

But Mr Clement is a politician, not a statistician. Number-crunchers who understand the science of using data are unhappy about the death of the long-form census. So much so that the previous chief statistician of Canada resigned when he learned that the long-form census was being cut. So while Canada is making lots of noise about introducing public data licencing policies that other governments have had for a while, we are failing in other areas. It seems that what Mr Clement giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets



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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.