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Ontario Launches Open Data Portal, Catches Up to Rest of Canada
Source: o.canada.com
Source Date: Thursday, November 08, 2012
Focus: ICT for MDGs
Country: Canada
Created: Nov 19, 2012

The province of Ontario has launched an open data portal to publish raw data collected by the province in machine-readable formats the general public can access.

Ontario has long been criticized for not having an open data portal, instead publishing reports in PDF and in blocks of text on its website.

The portal has been long delayed, and highly anticipated. Ontario MPP Glen Murray posted to his Twitter account in 2011 that an open data project “is being built over the next few months.” The former minister of research and innovation is now running for Ontario’s Liberal leadership.

Open data is a term applied to statistics and data collected by governments that are easily downloaded and analyzed by programmers and the general public. Cities across Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Edmonton, have municipal data portals and the federal government launched one in 2011. Provincially, Quebec and British Columbia lead the way.

Open data allows journalists to look at government statistics without having to file Freedom of Information requests, and allows programmers to create smartphone apps and websites based on the data. Mobile apps like next-bus arrival times, restaurant reviews and many mapping applications rely on open data published by governments.

Ontario’s open data portal is clearly a first effort, only including 63 data sets at launch. Geographical data sets gathered by Northern Development and Mines, as well as environmental data sets collected by the Ministry of the Environment, figure prominently in the release. This includes listings of mineral distributions across the province, air quality monitoring data and groundwater statistics.

Tourism, Culture and Sport also figure prominently in the new portal, offering data on visitors to the province and what tourists do once they arrive.

Data on licensed meat plants and other agricultural facilities as well as geographical overlays of roads and transportation networks are also available.

The license to use the data is appropriately open, though. It allows anyone to combine, publish, profit from or otherwise use the data in almost any way they see fit. The only restrictions are that the data may not be used to contravene any laws — notably, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act — or to hurt other people.

Noted Canadian open data and open government expert David Eaves, however, noted several shortcomings in the license with this last portion, though. In a thorough blog post on the launch of the new site, Eaves points out that the clause “your use of the Datasets causes no harm to others” is deeply problematic.

“First, what is the definition of harm? If I use open data from the Ontario government to rate hospitals and the some hospitals are sub-standard am I “harming” the hospital? Its workers? The community? The Ministry of Health?” he writes, noting that the definition of harm is essentially handled by the government, which removes the ability of citizens to use the data to hold provincial bodies accountable.

Eaves notes that similarly problematic clause was removed from the federal open data site shortly after it launched, as well.

The move to open data is a significant move toward open government, and Ontario should be congratulated for making that move. But the real test is how often such data is updated, when new datasets are added to the site and how the license evolves to match the needs of citizens and government. This requires a significant shift in workflows within government departments and publishing habits. Each data set is currently listed with an “update frequency” that identifies how often the data will be refreshed. Some data sets, though, like “planned roadwork” have an update frequency listed vaguely as “other.”

Ontario’s open data portal is a solid first effort. There are holes, but there are opportunities a plenty to correct them.

(By William Wolfe-Wylie)
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