Civic Data

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= The Open Government Data movement strives for Open Access to Civic Data



"Civic data are a public good, and more specifically, are "numerical quantities or other factual attributes generated by scientists, derived during the research process through observations, experiments, calculations and analysis". It is also "facts, ideas, or discrete pieces of information, especially when in the form originally collected and unanalyzed", and also, from the Report of the National Science Board, "numbers, images, video or audio streams, software and software versioning information, algorithms, equations, animations, or models/simulations". Distinctions are made between raw or level 0 data and derived, refined, synthesized or processed data. Raw data are normally unprocessed; examples include digital signals from a sensor or an instrument (e.g. unprocessed satellite image, thermometer), facts derived from a sample collected for an experiment (e.g. blood sample, ice core), and facts collected by human observation (e.g. mine tailings, census). Computations and data manipulations are related to research objectives and methodologies. Refined or processed data are raw data that have been manipulated, undergone computational modeling, been filtered through an algorithm, sorted into a table or rendered into a map. In these cases, access to the models is as important as access to the output results of those data.

In other words, civic data are the data created and maintained by public organizations and paid for by the public purse as part of the ongoing day-to-day activities of governing. Public data can include crime data at the neighbourhood scale, the number of traffic violations for certain streets, election results, census data, road networks, non-private health data, government expenditure data, school board catchment area boundaries, aggregated test results, environmentally sensitive or contaminated areas, or basic framework map data that include census areas, administrative boundaries, postal code areas and geo-referenced satellite images. Framework data are particularly important as these are the foundational data sets upon which other datasets can be organized. Civic data also includes those created as part of government funded research organizations such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) or any other outsourced publicly funded data and information creation activity." (


Why We Need Free Civic Data

"In a wider, less technical sense, "data" are what we use to make decisions, so they are a public good. To a lesser or greater degree, we use data sets to make decisions about how we as individuals should act, and how we as a society ought to do things. All the rules that govern our societies, from agricultural practices to cooking, to our law systems and social interactions, are the result of our interpretation of the interaction between different data sets over time.

Our ability to collect, analyze and interpret these data, and to make decisions based on them, is what gives humans our particular ability to solve societal problems such as food shortages, disease infestations, and resource depletion.

Democracy has a number of fundamental ideals, including free speech, free press, transparency of government, separation of powers, rule of law, public education, and free markets. All these principles are based in openness of information, or openness of data. In a sense, the (ideal) basis of democracy is to open up the decision-making process to everyone.

By opening data to more people, you get more interpretations, more proposals of different solutions, better decisions about the best solutions, and in the long run, more successfully-solved problems.

We have reached a time when the cost to share datasets is no longer cost prohibitive.The processing power available on a moderately powerful desktop computer can do an enormous amount with even large datasets, skilled designers have the ability to interpret, redesign, repackage, and display data in new and important ways, and the social web allows others to contribute to that process.

Transparency and accountability are essential elements of a functional participative democracy, and access to data and information is imperative. Transparency increases as quality data are widely and freely disseminated. Government and the private sector often miss important types of analyses, particularly local, cross boundary or jurisdictional research. For instance, it is cost-prohibitive and technically difficult for a community group to discover and access neighbourhood-scale data from different levels of government to conduct any kind of local community market or demographic analysis. An entrepreneur developing a business plan for a company to operate in four cities in two provinces would quickly discover restricted access to the basic data and information required to understand their niche, clients, and the competitors market.

The basic digital data and information upon which we depend to inform decisions are rarely accessible, rarely interoperable, rarely in open formats, and are often prohibitively expensive, except for those with deep pockets to pay. Further, regressive licensing regimes impede the sharing of data, or worse, there are no licensing regimes at all, which leaves citizens at the whim of the decisions of public servants. This is particularly true at the municipal and school board levels, where a lack of clear guidelines often means no access to data for fear of releasing the wrong thing. For Canadian citizens this means that much innovation and knowledge is being thwarted. Worse, we often are forced to pay exorbitant prices for data to study important issues such as poverty, homelessness, or to assess the cost to the health care system of poor air quality." (

Examples of Applications

  • UK: Fix My Street: "One example gets right to the nitty-gritty of municipal politics: potholes. Launched in February 2007, the UK project "is a site to help people report, view, or discuss local problems they've found to their local council by simply locating them on a map." The project targets such problems as potholes, broken streetlights, and graffiti. It has revolutionized municipal maintenance planning by putting the data collection into the hands of citizens and opening up the planning and decision-making process to many concerned citizens. Problem reports are there for all to see, providing municipal councils more incentive to fix the problems."


  • U.S.: Crime Reports: " is a US site built to help citizens get more information about the locations and frequencies of crime incidents in their cities. " Podcast [1]


Status Reports


"Civic Data Access in Canada

Access to civic data in Canada depends on how much money you have, to which organizations you are a member, and for what purpose you want to use the data.

If you are a university professor or tuition paying university student in Canada, access to data is quite good. This is largely the result of work done by the Data Liberation Initiative ( DLI) which is a data purchasing consortium. DLI consortium members pay an annual subscription fee that allows their faculty and students unlimited access to numerous Statistics Canada public use microdata files, databases and geographic files. If you are a student or teacher in Ontario, you may access data from the new Ontario Data Documentation, Extraction Service and Infrastructure Initiative ( ODESI) which will target Statistics Canada datasets, datafiles from Gallup Canada and other polling companies, public-domain files such as the Canadian National Election Surveys, and selected files from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). Both the DLI and ODESI provide access to a small subset of Canadian citizenry. Their license is very specific about who authorized users are, exclusivity, and how data products cannot be used such as "in the pursuit of any contractual or income-generating venture either privately, or under the auspices of the educational institution".

If you work for a government, access to data varies depending on which department and level of government you are in, the rationalization you have for acquiring that data, and the budget your department or section has. For instance, Environment Canada shares its data quite openly, as does Natural Resources Canada via the GeoConnections or the programs. In fact, has one of the most progressive data licensing programs so far seen in the Government of Canada. At the Canadian provincial or city scale, things start to get confusing as licenses differ, as do cost recovery and access policies. Land Information Ontario (LIO) has many data sets in their downloadable catalogue; however, this data is only available through a Government of Ontario Intranet or between and among members of the Ontario Geospatial Data Exchange (OGDE). Municipalities suffer from very restrictive or non-existent data sharing policies that are not uniform across departments.

As an example, the City of Ottawa has different categories of clients for its GIS data:

  • category A, internal municipal clients: no charge for data and rarely requires a license agreement
  • category B, external municipal clients: are charged a fee to reflect the staff resources consumed in the preparation of the data and sometimes require a license agreement
  • category C, external groups needing data for specific projects: are usually charged the same fee as category B clients and must also enter into a signed data license agreement naming a specific project or use
  • category D, external groups wishing to commercially market the data: category D clients are expected to pay a fair market rate for any data they want to commercialize

In addition, "for all requests it is expected that the client can demonstrate a legitimate use of the data. This provision ensures that staff resources are not unduly expended on frivolous requests.Additionally, the license must refer to a specific project or use as this helps the City track how the data is being used and by whom." There is no "citizen" category and the restrictions on how you can use, re-use, and represent data are quite restrictive. It would seem logical to have data discoverable and accessible via a data portal, meaning the City would not have to work so hard to micro manage the use of our public data.

Things get really confusing when different levels and departments of government repeatedly sell each other the same data sets with public money. Governments do not have intra-governmental data portals that centralize data acquisitions and share data assets amongst public servants. Duplication of effort and multiple layers of bureaucracy and accounting could be done away with by simply making all the data free to not only citizens but also their governments!

If you are from an NGO, data access is cost prohibitive, unless it is well funded. Many small NGOs pool their resources and develop data purchasing consortia such as the Canadian Council on Social Development Community Social Data Strategy; however, like the DLI, these entities remain closed and exclusive shops. Otherwise, community based research is just not done. Statistics Canada, however, allows a variety of companies to resell civic data and has also licensed a number of civic data value added distributors.

As a citizen, you have access to less than complete data sets from the Depository Service Program available to you in public libraries.These are suitable for high school projects, but not enough for democratic public participation, and there are no downloadable maps. What we really need is a concerted lobby in Canada that will free public data. is about liberating public data from public institutions and finding new ways to make data accessible and useful. Individual members are doing incredible things; however, as a collective we have not tackled any big projects. We provide a mailing list with over 150 members across the country that exchange information on issues, innovations, projects and ideas.

The authors of this paper also co-author, a inspired blog, to fill a Canadian information void on this topic. Its readership has been increasing and we are seeing traffic coming from key players in the open access movement, the open data and open source communities, along with members from library and archives associations. Ultimately, is firing up the conversation on access to public data in Canada and we hope to discover and support the creation of innovative open public data projects." (