Free the data!

When you have good information, you can make good decisions. The Government of Canada, though, thinks good information — information bought and paid for already by taxpayer funds — should be packaged up and sold back to Canadians at exhorbitant fees. By contrast, the United States government, recognizing that the information it collects in projects like its national census can help create wealth, boost productivity, and stimulate research, makes the same kind of data available dirt cheap.

In 2002, I wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail about this issue

… taking a look the some of the data sets published by the country’s biggest data collector and publisher,Statistics Canada. I argued that while lots of Statscan data are made available for free,a great deal of important data,particularly the finely detailed sets of numbers that describe Canadian life at the neighbourhood level,are made available only to those willing to pay a great deal.

Companies in Canada that collect, sell and market this kind of information say that if you want to get detailed figures on household income,dwelling types, education and other variables on a street-bystreet, across-the-country basis,you could pay Statscan more than $10,000 for the privilege.

By contrast, the same kind of data,with similar amounts of detail, for the United States can be purchased from the U.S.Census Bureau for as little as $100.

There is also a great disparity between Canada and the U.S. for the cost of digital versions of street maps.A Canadian set can cost as much as $25,000 while a U.S. set costs $2,000 (U.S.).

For several years now,the U.S.set of digital maps included every urban and rural road.With the current census, Canada is finally catching up in this regard. Until this year,the digital maps of Canada contained only the road networks in built-up urban areas. Digitized versions of maps can be combined with the raw neighbourhood data to help reporters get some powerful insights into their communities.

When you combine geographic location information with list of things like houses and people, you get what is called geospatial data. There is a growing hunger for good geospatial data by all sorts of businesses,non-profits and journalists. Geospatial data users are trying to push Canadian policymakers toward the idea that raw data about our country ought to be made available for as close as possible to free, and that such a policy would have immense benefits to the Canadian economy, as well as to journalists.

In the U.S., data collected by the public’s representatives — the government — about the public are viewed as the public’s good.The job of government, in the U.S. at least, is to get this information into the hands of the public with as little fuss as possible. Some studies say that, for every dollar invested in distributing geospatial,census-based data,users of that data generate $4 in growth,mostly by improved resource allocation.

I'd be please if anyone wants to update me on some of the figures I quoted back in 2002 (and I just make a few calls myself in between all this election speculation!). In the meantime, I urge all those interested in making data available for free that we already pay our government to collect and collate to visit a relatively new project:, “a group blog… which believes all levels of Canadian governments should make civic information and data accessible at no cost in open formats to their citizens. The data is collected using Canadian tax-payer funds, and we believe use of the data should not be restricted to those who can afford the exorbitant fees.”

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5 thoughts on “Free the data!”

  1. Thanks for the link to – I think it's a great idea. Check out for a great example of what can be done with data when's it free and available in suitable electronic formats. One of the first things that should be changed is Hansard.

  2. I'm pleased to call Alice — the guide behind the Pundits Guide — a friend. Her site is gold. Alice, though, is working off of Elections Canada data which, though sometimes hard to get at, is pretty much free. I just wish other govt agencies would take their lead (sigh)…

  3. BBS was one of the first folks to trip across the Guide when I first sent it out into cyberspace. He's been a real supporter, and has provided me with some good advice on occasion as well.
    David, I also appreciate your support and commentary as well, so thanks (again) for the plug. You do know that I use publicly available StatsCan data as well, right?
    I hope this data proves useful in the weeks ahead. It's going to be quite a ride, don't you think?

  4. Thanks Alice for the corrective — The key point, though, is you're proving just how valuable free data can be.

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