Open Data – USA vs. Canada

open-data-300x224When it comes to Open Data in Canada and the United States, things appear to be similar. Both countries have several municipalities with Open Data portals: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and now New York City in the US, Vancouver and Nanaimo in Canada with Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa thinking about or initiating plans.

But the similarities end there. In particular there is a real, yawning gap at the federal level. America has but here in Canada there is no movement on the Open Data front. There are some open data sets, but nothing comprehensive, and nothing that follows is dedicated to following the three laws of open data. No in the works. Not even a discussion. Why is that?

As esoteric as it may sound, I believe the root of the issues lies in the country’s differing political philosophies. Let me explain.

It is important to remember that the United States was founded on the notion of popular sovereignty. As such its sovereignty lies with the people, or as Wikipedia nicely puts it:

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. With their Revolution, Americans substituted the sovereignty in the person of the English king, George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Henceforth, American revolutionaries by and large agreed and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. (italics are mine)

Thus data created by the US government is, quite literally, the people’s data. Yes, nothing legally prevents the US government from charging for information and data but the country’s organizing philosophy empowers citizens to stand up and say – this is our data, we’d like it please. In the United States the burden is on the government to explain why it is withholding that which the people own (a tradition that admittedly is hardly perfect as anyone alive from the years 2000-2008 will attest to).  But don’t underestimate the power of this norm. Its manifestations are everywhere, such as in the legal requirement that any document created by the United States government be published in the public domain (e.g. it cannot have any copyright restrictions placed on it) or in America’s vastly superior Freedom of Information laws.

This is very different notion of sovereignty than exists in Canada. This country never deviated from the European context described above. Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III’s descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared. This is the (radically different) context under which our government (both the political and public service), and its expectations around disclosure, have evolved. As an example, note that government documents in Canada are not public domain, they are published under a Crown Copyright that, while less restrictive than copyright, nonetheless constrains reuse (no satire allowed!) and is a constant reminder of the fact that Canadian citizens don’t own what their tax dollars create. The Queen does.

The second reason why open data has a harder time taking root in Canada is because of the structure of our government. In America, new projects are easier to kick start because the executive welds greater control over the public service. The Open Data initiative that started in Washington, D.C. spread quickly to the White House because its champion and mastermind, the District’s of Columbia’s CTO Vivek Kundra, was appointed Federal CIO by President Obama. Yes, Open Data tapped into an instinctual reflex to disclose that (I believe) is stronger down south than here, but it was executed because America’s executive branch is able to appoint officials much deeper into government (for those who care, in Canada Deputy Ministers are often appointed, but in the United States appointments go much deeper, down into the Assistant Deputy and even into the Director General level). Both systems have merits, and this is not a critic of Canada’s approach, simply an observation. However, it does mean that a new priority, like open data, can be acted upon quickly and decisively in the US. (For more on these difference I recommend reading John Ibbitson’s book Open & Shut).

These difference have several powerful implications for open data in Canada.

As a first principle, if Canadians care about open data we will need to begin fostering norms in our government, among ourselves, and in our politicians, that support the idea that what our government creates (especially in terms of research and data) is ours and that we should not only have unfettered access to it, but the right to analyze and repurpose it. The point here isn’t just that this is a right, but that open data enhances democracy, increases participation and civic engagement and strengthens our economy. Enhancing this norm is a significant national challenge, one that will take years to succeed. But instilling it into the culture of our public service, our civic discourse and our political process is essential. In the end, we have to ask ourselves – in a way our American counterparts aren’t likely to (but need to) – do we want an open country?

This means that secondly, Canadians are going to have to engage in a level of education of – particularly senior – public servants on open data that is much broader and more comprehensive than our American counterparts had to. In the US, an executive fiat and appointment has so far smoothed the implementation of open data solutions. That will likely not work here. We have many, many, many allies in the public service who believe in open data (and who understand it is integral to public service sector renewal). The key is to spread that knowledge and support upwards, to educate senior decision-makers, especially those at the DG, ADM and DM level to whom both the technology and concept is essentially foreign. It is critical that these decision-makers become comfortable with and understand the benefits of open data quickly. If not we are unlikely to keep pace with (or even follow) our American counterparts, something, I believe is essential for our government and economy.

Second, Canadians are going to have to mobilize to push for open data as a political issue. Even if senior public servants get comfortable with the idea, it is unlikely there will be action unless politicians understand that Canadians want both greater transparency and the opportunity to build new services and applications on government data.

(I’d also argue that another reason why Open Data has taken root in the US more quickly than here is the nature of its economy. As a country that thrives on services and high tech, open data is the basic ingredient that helps drive growth and innovation. Consequently, there is increasing corporate support for open data. Canada, in contrast, with its emphasis on natural resources, does not have a corporate culture that recognizes these benefits as readily.)

26 thoughts on “Open Data – USA vs. Canada

  1. azolnai

    Clear and concise report! I accessed WMS data from since well before, so am I missing something here? I was once a contractor to HM's Service, and there have been raging arguents between free US (USGS EROS) and cost-base UK (Ordnance Survey). Let me reframe your argument as former sandwiched between the later two (as many things CDN).PS: you do know what that acronym stands, for do you?

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  3. sarahschacht

    David,When I wanted to launch Knowledge As Power in 2006, I couldn't get anyone (besides friends) in the US to help me. They thought I was totally crazy to envision an online system that opened up legislative information to the public and made participating in the process much, much easier. It was individual Canadians who helped me get Knowledge As Power started. Why Canadians? Because I think they knew very well the potential for Americans to impact laws via advocacy or voting; they understood that we had an ability to personally make change. It was a power they felt they lacked and they gravitated towards KAP because they wanted to be a part of a political or policy impact. –It seemed odd to me, though, that Canadians didn't think, didn't even attempt, to do the same in their own country. I grew up within eyesight of Vancouver Island–what made me, and my attitude towards government, so very different from people who lived near me? Probably some of the historic reasons you cite. Also, because I'd spent almost my entire life watching or participating in US politics; I understand the capacity for individuals to impact their laws, other's lives, and elections. Canadians, on the other hand, seem to be passive bystanders in their parliamentary process, and give too much power to their political class and public servants. Canadians put too much emphasis on voting, not enough on shaping who they're voting for.Even the most politically connected, talented, and smart Canadians I know won't consider running for office, and seem to think that they're “not cut out” for elected office. If they were Americans, these folks would be in their 2nd terms already.I can't see Canadians making their government more transparent and open if Canadians continue to be observers of their government instead of owning it; run for office, get involved in parties, pressure your public servants, lobby to change laws, and train young Canadians on how to be powerful citizens. –All of this requires Canadians to change how they view themselves and their personal role in government. You're not that different from Americans, except that you haven't experienced personally your own capacity to make change in your government. If you want transparency, you'll need to develop Canadian's sense of ownership in their government.

  4. Kim Feraday

    While education might help, large bureaucracies tend to be resistant to change. A compelling event might be more helpful. In the United States, you might argue that the secrecy of the Bush administration helped to create the conditions that favour transparency. The eHealth disaster in Ontario might be one at the provincial level that creates the same conditions. It also points to the need to prioritize the types of data that are exposed and doing so in a standard way. In the eHealth case exposing financial information in XBRL format and making the entire procurement process transparent through web processes (ebXML for example) would go along way to ending the abuse of taxpayer money. Blowing a billion dollars in the midst of a terrible recession is not the way we want our governments run.

  5. Jacques Drolet

    Agree with your identification of this root. Yet we maintain “closed data” with great pleasure. There are other reasons and they are at the basis of the difficulties we are encountering to keep the “pace ” internationally.

  6. traceyplauriault

    David;There are lots of open data available at the Federal Level you just have to know what you are looking for. Natural Resources Canada, GeoConnections programs also known as the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure, the equivalent to the FGDC in the US has a very amazing open data policy that we need to be bragging about. Please look at Geobase ( for framework data (e.g. canadian road network data, Electoral boundaries, political boundaries, etc.), Geogratis ( for a number of other datasets (e.g. Topographic Maps, Canada Land Inventory, etc.) and the Discovery portal ( with is very similar to For the first two refer to the Unrestricted User Licenses (…) which are the best crown copyright work around I have yet to see anywhere in Canada. The Discovery Portal is a location where many government, non government and private sector organizations register their datasets. Portals are not the end all and be all, but they are analogous to a large well catalogued library of data. In geomatics and many of the sciences portals are used. In the portal you will find data from Environment Canada etc. GeoConnections also develops is infrastructure using open architectures, open specifications and standards and adhere to the open geospatial consortium interoperability standards and has been using open source geomatics for over a decade (…). The Atlas of Canada ( was the first national Atlas to use open source web mapping technologies. GeoConnections also developed a second version of their data dissemination guidelines (…) which I urge you to read and promote since there is much sound knowledge in that report that can be translated to any government data initiative at any scale in Canada.Elections Canada also has quite a bit of free data ) but not the Canada Post Postal Code Look up file. Digital Copyright Canada has written extensively about that one ( The Elections Canada Federal Electoral District File is over at Geobase. Where things get terrible is Statistics Canada where our census and survey data are resold to us at exorbitant prices. Cost recovery is practised with a vengeance, where it, a government institution behaves like a data monopoly. We can thank the Tories in 1986 for cancelling the Census until the private sector protested. The Tories then said if you want the data so badly you can pay for it, then slashed StatCan's budget by 100 000 000 turning the institution to a marketing and sales machine in order to recoup those costs. This is where democracy is most tested, since only the state and wealthy organizations have access to these data, then it is only their point of view we get to hear. Further, StatCan sells those same data to all levels of government and its own federal departments, so who knows how many times tax payers pay for those data. The costs are way to high for citizens and not for profit groups making their ability to generate evidence based information making nearly impossible (i.e. poverty, homelessness, population health). In terms of the private sector, this restrictive cost and regressive licensing regime stifles business innovation, particularly for small to medium sized businesses. Also, it is hard to develop a business plan and understand a niche if you do not have access to the data to do so.Environment Canada's record is spotty, they have quite a bit of data, and quite a bit is shared, however, they were recently taken to court for not releasing mining pollutant data (…). We forget how powerful the voice of industry is here in Canada. Also, the weather data is from Environment Canada and they seem to like to sell it to news agencies.Citizenship and Immigration, Health Canada, HRSDC, Heritage and Industry Canada are not coordinated at all regarding access to public data. I recently tried to get city scale personal and business bankruptcy data, and I was told that if I had all the postal codes for each city then I could possible get those data. I was dumbfounded that during a recession, these data are not even used at the City scale by the Feds., particularly since Cities are a big driver of the Economy. It is the same when you are trying to get any data about Canada Student Loans and student debt data. The Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) is a huge cost recovery shop, and of course so is StatCan when it comes to Health data, to the point that if you actually wanted to move forward on a population health project for the nation, well, you cannot afford it. That is a big stumbling block for our nation and for health prevention. Vital statistics for instance are provincial and territorial data, and these are also cost recovery shops.Canada and the US are the same when it comes to provincial and territorial (PT) data and city data. There are no uniform access and discovery policies, these are ad hoc at best if they exist at all. They are terribly internally disorganised and in the case of PTs they seem further away from citizens while being the closest in terms of program delivery. Manitoba has made its geomatics information free ( But that does not mean all their data are free.I would say that we are very similar to the US in many respects, but alas, differ in that we have a Westminster system that has citizens as subjects to the crown as does the UK of course, New Zealand and Australia who all have crown copyright issues. We do not have a “we the people” type of system. We do have an awful lot of free data, and some great organizations like the Data Liberation Initiative ( who at least got Canadian universities access to Census data, we have awesome data librarians in most universities, we have a great geospatial data infrastructure pushing the boundaries, but we also have a disconnect from the open data people and geomaticist and scientists, since they do not know what each other is up to. It would be great to bridge that and discuss these issues and you may want to register to the list, look at the archives as many of the issues have been discussed there or rss the blog for updates on many things data. There are many other great data access initiatives, but alas, I do need to get on with the day.

  7. David Eaves

    Azolnai – you aren't missing anything… there have been datasets that some ministries have been willing to share (far to few, but NRCan is the notable exception). My point isn't that there are no open data sets (there are some) but that open data is not on anyone's agenda. There is no talk of it. There is no effort to push for more open data and no internal coordinated effort to create a single repository.

  8. David Eaves

    Jim – yeah, I'm very excited to see what will happen around data sharing in the UK, I suspect that this will have a larger impact on our public service than what happens in the US.

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  11. Doug Robinson

    I always wondered why my Canadian cousins were using our charts when sailing and not their own.. NOAA makes them available in two formats for download free but the Canadian charts are only available from commercial sources. Her Majesty ought to change this in the name of safety if not other reasons. It would be unfortunate that Prince Phillip would only be able to sail on the American side of the lake to be safe.

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  19. kiramatalishah

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  20. kiramatalishah

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