‘Our data is a public good’

‘Our data is a public good’


What is the mandate of Natural Resources Canada’s Mapping Information Branch? What kind of data and value added services does it provide?“Our data is used by various government departments to build analytical models that help canadians make better decisions”

Prashant Shukle
Prashant Shukle
Director General, Mapping Information Branch,
Earth Sciences Sector
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan)

What is the mandate of Natural Resources Canada’s Mapping Information Branch? What kind of data and value added services does it provide?
The Mapping Information Branch of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) was created in 2008 by bringing together two organisations that were previously quite distinct. The first was the Data Management and Dissemination Branch, whose role was to collect, manage and disseminate data and information of Earth Sciences Sector of NRCan. The second was the Mapping Services Branch which started out as an outcrop of the Geological Survey of Canada.

In the late 1800s, Canada’s first director of the Geological Survey, Sir William Logan, argued before the Parliament over the need for topographic maps. Over the years, the responsibility of topographic mapping moved from the Geological Survey to eventually become part of the Mapping Services Branch, which provides topographic mapping to the country in both digital and paper formats.

As a combined branch, we produce not just topographic maps but also thematic maps like the Atlas of Canada. We manage the data of NRCan’s Earth Sciences Sector. We develop procedures and national approaches to geographic naming in Canada. We collaborate with the provinces and territories on joint mapping initiatives. We also provide open geodata and information through our GeoConnections programme, which is significantly involved in the development of the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure.

Demand for high accuracy geographic data, and in real time, is increasing manifold. What NRCan’s initiatives provide this kind of data?
Yes, it is true that the demand for high accuracy data is increasing. This is mostly from dedicated users of geospatial data and information as well as the mass market which is becoming increasingly aware of the importance and relevance of locationbased information. Canada is the second largest country in the world in terms of area, but has a population of only about 34 million. We are working on a strategy to develop a national mapping approach that brings together the provinces, territories, private sector, municipal governments and voluntary sector to respond to the increasing demand for digital maps and other forms of geodata.

We are witnessing varying degrees of restrictions on data in different countries, with Canada and the U.S. on the liberal side of the equation. What in your view is a permissible limit to opening up of data?
I would like to start by putting this in context. We use the term ‘open data’ very broadly in the geospatial industry. We need to be more precise about the term. We are talking about ‘open geodata’ or ‘open location-based data’. This is best seen on a map or on the digital rendering of a map, in digits and data associated with a reference point on Earth. In my view, our commitment to open geodata is not new. NRCan has been making location-based information publicly available for well over 100 years. The only difference is that in the first 80 years of our existence, we operated in a fee-based environment, where we sold maps and other data products. In the early days of digital data, we sold digital datasets. With the advent and increased use of the Internet, we realised the need to review our business model. We decided that moving towards open geodata is in public interest. In 2007, we implemented a no-fee access policy, where one could access and use NRCan data by addressing issues of licensing and copyright and by signing an agreement. This led to a sudden increase in demand for information. In fiscal year 2007-08, we had approximately one million geodata downloads. In 2010-11, the downloads have already reached 12 million. We are fairly confident that this trend will grow and that the decision we made many years ago, in a studious way, was the right one.

One view is that data is a public good and should be available for free. How do you perceive this?
It is true that we distribute free data. However, our department receives appropriations from the Parliament to administer programmes. We have a responsibility towards Canadian citizens to utilise these monies in a responsible, transparent and accountable manner. From this perspective, data is not exactly free because parliamentary appropriations come from citizens in the form of tax dollars.

The data we produce is fundamental to the understanding of the country. It is used by various government departments to build analytical models that help Canadians make better decisions. The fact that we build this data and multiple users add value to it, implies that our data is a public good. One of the things we need to enhance is measuring the value of open data to the national economy. Health care organisations use our data to map flu outbreaks and the private sector uses our data to create value- added products and services in the market. There is an economic value associated with the use of the data. We are working towards this end through the new GeoConnections programme.

Canada is one of the few early countries to recognise the relevance and significance of spatial data infrastructure (SDI) in an information society. How is Canadian SDI evolving? What are the challenges and issues pertaining to sharing of data at this point in time?
Canada’s SDI journey has been positive. The creation of SDI in Canada was visionary for its time and place. The GeoConnections programme seeks to build the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). The first phase of GeoConnections, from 1999 to 2004, focussed on establishing the foundation of CGDI. The second phase, from 2005 to 2010, helped build capacity within communities to populate the geospatial data infrastructure. We are now in the third phase and are focussing on the policy and legal framework of our GDI. We would like to bring together a variety of different players in a national geospatial context to distribute and disseminate our geospatial data in a no-fee access environment through some sort of federated architecture mechanism. We are now contemplating SDI in a web environment. Our engineers are already working on it and it is our biggest challenge because of how we try to integrate our business with new ideas like cloud computing and distributed infrastructure.

A rapidly evolving geocommunity presents a unique set of challenges. We need to draw our attention to emerging citizen-based issues such as privacy. While our data is generalised and we are able to address privacy concerns, we know that once other forms of data are integrated, the Government of Canada will need to address citizen concerns effectively. We also need to think about liability in a web-based economy, because the number of people using location information is growing exponentially. The potential issues around liability are steeped in the more traditional relationship between producers and consumers of information. The web is changing what is accepted as fact and what is not and where we draw lines of responsibility.

NRCan has extended help to other countries in developing their own SDIs. What are your recent initiatives in this direction?
We have done a fair bit of work with other countries who have been interested in our model and who have adapted and improved on it. I would argue that India and Brazil have taken the GeoConnections model, improved on it and done an exceptional job. We have worked in partnership with other countries in understanding best practices in the mapping world. However, our way of doing things is also changing. We would like to focus on developing new policies and approaches to ensure that our tools, technology and data are interoperable. We are eager to ensure that Canadian expertise remains at the forefront of our global partners’ minds and make sure our expertise enables the international community. We are working with countries like India, Brazil and Chile to advance what I think are shared approaches and interests in the geospatial industry and domain.