The road to open data

March 9, 2017

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Statistics Canada got its open data report card last week. And, it contains very good news.

Open Data Watch ranked Canada 8th among 173 national statistical offices.

This is the first year that the organization, based in Washington, D.C., has included Canada in its annual report. The goal of Open Data Watch is to ensure that data are accessible to all.

The ranking is not just about bragging rights—it is a sign that we are meeting international open data standards and principles. Through the ranking feedback, agencies can also learn ways to better meet the open data mandate.

Top 10

Bill Joyce, Director of the Dissemination Division at Statistics Canada, sees a top-10 ranking as confirmation that Statistics Canada remains a world leader in data accessibility. “It is certainly good news,” says Mr. Joyce. “It is a validation that we are among the world leaders when it comes to respecting the principles of open data.”

Sweden was at the top of the Open Data Watch rankings. After Sweden, the rankings were: Czech Republic, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Denmark, Estonia, Canada, the United States and Finland.

The score combines two components: coverage and openness.

Coverage measures the range of social and economic data made available by the national statistical office and whether those data are available for a low level of geography (i.e., by city or region).

The openness rating answers a host of questions: are the data free of cost? Is an unrestrictive licence applied? Are the data downloadable?

Improving openness

Over the past few years, Statistics Canada has taken several steps to make its data more available. Canada's high ranking reflects these efforts. In 2012, CANSIM—the agency's socioeconomic database—became free to use. The public can now access thousands of data tables, selecting the indicators that interest them and manipulating the data to see changes over time. At the same time the agency adopted an open licence and eliminated all royalty and licensing fees.

Statistics Canada is also a major contributor to building and maintaining the Open Government Portal. Close to 75% of the portal's total non-geospatial content comes from Statistics Canada.

New models

Eighth place is good, but there is always room to improve. So, the agency is using the ranking feedback to ponder ways to provide better service.

Making our data available to the public is not enough if they are hard to find. Open Data Watch noted that some data are not easy to locate on the Statistics Canada website. Fortunately, the agency is already taking steps to address this concern.

Statistics Canada is rebuilding its website as part of a project called the New Dissemination Model (NDM). The redesigned site will continue the drive to a more open, database-driven model that unifies Statistics Canada data, so users are able to find the information they need more easily. Explains Mr. Joyce: “One of the NDM goals is to bring the output together and make it well-organized and easy to find, so this will help users.”

A better user experience

A key precept at Open Data Watch is that although statistical offices may not have all the country's data housed in one spot, they should be prepared to help users find what they need.

In Canada, some users are looking for data that are collected by other government institutions, and not by Statistics Canada. For instance, the Canadian Centre for Health Information, and Environment and Climate Change Canada play an important role in providing critical data to Canadians on health and the environment.

Gabrielle Beaudoin, Director General of the Communications and Dissemination Branch at StatCan, says that improving the roadmap so users can easily find the data produced by other organizations is a key part of the agency's evolution.

“One of our priorities at Statistics Canada is to make as much of our data as possible available to Canadians. Opening up our data, and supporting other government departments in providing open access, puts this high-quality information in the hands of our country's researchers and citizens,” Ms. Beaudoin says.

Technology has helped ensure that citizens have access to data. In the future, computer-to-computer data sharing will expand these horizons, according to Mr. Joyce. APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) will make it easier than ever for users to seamlessly download, use and understand Statistics Canada data.

Using technology to keep things simple is an art, as well as a science. “It goes to show that if you do the basics right, then you can do a really good job,” says Mr. Joyce. “Many of the largest, most complex statistical organizations were further down the list in the rankings.”

For Statistics Canada's open data ranking, the focus is on moving in one direction: up.

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