Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Crucial Elements Missing in Toronto's Open Data Initiative

The City of Toronto has followed the lead of Vancouver, and some cities in the U.S. and released a portion of their data for free to the public. The announcement was made at Toronto's Innovations Showcase by Mayor David Miller. While many would argue the offerings are slim; and it is true that for someone who uses GIS data on a daily basis, this is somewhat of a wanting list for my purposes. But, at the very least it is a very good start toward the process of liberating data, and crucial to much GIS work at the University of Toronto and elsewhere.  At the very least, the city must be commended for their huge effort. For a list of datasets now available restriction free, see

The problem as I see it is not the initial list of datasets offered or the City of Toronto will to liberate data, instead it is the lack of involvement by the GIS and academic community in the process. Hackers and developers were and are plenty making their voices heard, but they are not looking for the same things we are in the academic and GIS communities. They are looking to build applications and cool things to map. What we need in the GIS and academic community is of course quite different. We want to know how do dataset work against and with one another, and we want to know how the geography these have in common factors in. We do not want to just know about the "where?", but want to know "why", and "what are the factors?", and we want to test out theories. In other words, we want data for analysis.

While there is nothing wrong with building apps and mapping out cool things, what is wrong with this picture is that the City of Toronto will most likely develop a view that demand for their data is from the developer sector only.  Already, many of the datasets offered are at what I like to call the "lowest-common denominator" level. Two cases in point; when I put a post in to their new request system at for high-resolution orthophotography, someone replied to me that there is already a Web Mapping Service (WMS) of their latest air photos. As we all know a WMS is fine for a backdrop, but pretty much useless for GIS analysis.  A second example is the TTC data. The TTC holds their bus and subway routes in GIS formats. Data that they have kindly provided the University of Toronto Libraries for free for a number of years. But what is available on is only a spit out from GIS data into text files. Yes, text files!  Anyone wanting to do GIS on them has to then rebuild them as GIS files.

Over the years I have requested and received (in exchange for money and a signed license agreement, and sometimes not) many other datasets for the University of Toronto community from different City of Toronto departments. What we have received has always been high-quality GIS data. But now what should I expect from the city when I request data?  Will I have to just be happy with the data that's online?  Will I have to keep battling for data that governments deem already liberated such as the data on the City of Toronto's zoning web application; or their land use data in PDF format from their online Official Plan? Both great to have as reference, but useless for analysis.

The City of Toronto is not the only government that will think the "lowest-common denominator" method of data delivery is good enough if our voices are not heard. In a recent meeting with the Government of Ontario's main GIS unit, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), a senior manager basically told the group of librarians assembled that WMS was a large part of the way they would like to distribute their data to its users.

So, GIS users and academics, make your voices heard if you want to be part of the process of liberating data in Canada. Unless they know we want not just data for data's sake, but data for specific GIS applications and analysis, we are still going to have to battle governments to provide us with proper access.

Governments are in a good mood right now as witnessed by the Toronto and Vancouver announcements, and of course the Canadian Federal Government's two free data delivery web pages and  It is the time to strike while the iron is hot. If you're a GIS professional or academic who feels they need better data access, let your voice be heard by submitting comments and suggestions at, by email via or join the group discussion list from the same page. If Toronto ends up understanding what is needed and acts on it, other governments may do the same. Do not think the City of Toronto did not have a close look at what Vancouver did or that Vancouver did not look at other open data initiatives in the U.S. before delivering their data for free on the web.

Marcel Fortin
Geographic Information Systems and Map Librarian
University of Toronto

PS - see also this article in the Globe and Mail

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