Emerging Tech

How Canada Plans to Fuel Its Economy With Data

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The Canadian government committed $3 million this month to funding a new Open Data Institute charged with finding, compiling and standardizing government and private sector data that companies, entrepreneurs and academics can use as the raw material for new products and services.

The investment, which was matched by an additional $3 million from the private and nonprofit sectors, comes amid a global push to release as much raw data as possible in machine-readable formats. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that opening up data in just seven sectors could add more than $3 trillion annually to the global economy.

Canada’s Open Data Institute is being managed by the Canadian Digital Media Network, a quasi-governmental organization that receives public and private funding and is focused on commercializing Canadian digital technology.

Nextgov spoke recently with CDMN’s managing director Kevin Tuer about his organization’s plans for the institute, what open data can do for Canadian businesses and citizens and open data’s international potential.

The interview below is edited for length and clarity.

You’re obviously in the very early stages now, but what are your plans for the Open Data Institute?

Like many other countries, Canada is sitting on a lot of data. There’s a lot of public data and publicly-funded data, but, for the most part, it’s not well known that that data’s available. In many cases, the data that is available may not be machine readable or easy to access and in the end there’s just barrier after barrier to actually creating economic benefit out of this data. What the Open Data Institute is proposing to do is to remove a number of those barriers and get this data into the hands of academic, of entrepreneurs and of business so they can capitalize on what I consider very much a natural resource.

A lot of our work will be creating awareness that the data is available and removing those barriers. We’ll be setting standards, developing tools to facilitate access to that data and providing resources to help users of the data access and use it in the most appropriate manner.

It will take a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge but it starts with access. We want to put this data in the hands of people who can make economic benefit out of it.

Where is most of that data now?

There’s lots of data out there but there are no standards around it. Some governments have websites that make this data available, but some of it is in PDF format and what do you do with that? You can read it and that’s about it.

We’ve found since the announcement that we got funding for this that there are a lot of initiatives going on out there but they’re all very siloed. Even where we’re sitting here in the Waterloo region of Canada, surrounding cities have already started coming to us saying ‘we’ve got data here and we want to get it out there.’

Part of what we see the Open Data Institute being is that go-to repository, that one stop shop for everything data. We’ll work through all those standards so it doesn’t matter if the data comes from Statistics Canada, from Environment Canada, from Health Canada, from wherever. The way you access it, the data format and the resources to help you access it will be the same. We also see the opportunity to expand beyond government data to private sector data as well.

What are some of the siloed initiatives you’ve looked at?

The province of Ontario has something like 180 data sets. I didn’t know they had 180 data sets. I was contacted by an equine association that’s interested in documenting trails for horseback riding that could also be used for hiking and snowmobiling. Recently I read an article about a Canadian gold company that has all this private sector data, terabytes worth of data, on geological surveys. The company opened that data up to the world and said ‘help us use this data to find where the gold reserves are and we’ll pay you a handsome fee.’ These are just some examples. So imagine if you could bring a concerted effort to this what kind of outcome you could create.

What kind of roadblocks are you facing?

As with any national effort, the big challenge is taking that leadership position and bringing champions on board so people can see this common vision and buy into it. That will be the single most difficult thing. I have no doubt that once the data is available in machine-readable format that companies and entrepreneurs and academics and student will do great things with it. But it’s going to take some time and effort to get there. We’ll discover the specific barriers once we start building the consortium from those living in the trenches of open data.

What are the go-to examples of economic benefit coming from open Canadian data at this point?

There’s weather data of course. That’s potentially lifesaving and valuable to Canada as a whole. There are also startups that are taking information from hospital trips and analyzing that data to project wait times in emergency rooms. With that information you may find that instead of going to your local hospital you’d stand a better chance of getting into an ER by driving an hour to a different hospital. There’s a company in town that was started based on that, and that’s a good example of a product that could benefit citizens as a whole.

What sectors do you expect Canadian open data to most benefit in the future?

We’ve looked at things like intelligent transportation systems, being able to map traffic flow and things of that sort. Anything that creates those sorts of efficiencies would obviously be interesting. The weather network seems to have done pretty well with Environment Canada data. But there are hundreds if not thousands of data sets out there that others will find new and interesting and value-added ways to use. From our perspective, this is uncharted territory. Our job is to make sure the landscape is as amenable to exploration as possible.

The U.S.’s open data repository Data.gov is managed from within government whereas Canada’s Open Data Institute is being managed by this public-private partnership. What’s the reasoning behind the Canadian approach?

This is hypothetical, so take it for what it’s worth. But the CDMN is a private-public funded organization. We’re funded by the government and also heavily funded through the private sector and I think the government sees our relationship with businesses and industry as being very enviable. I think they believe we can connect with that demographic easier and more effectively than they can alone. So having us lead this initiative from a market-driven perspective outside of government is very appealing to them.

We’ve already established a national network for commercialization and innovation to tap into resources from around the country. So we already have some experience and some knowledge about building national consensus. But it’s taken us five years to get to where we are today and we’re just starting to hit our stride. So it’s going to take some time, but we can leverage the knowledge we’ve already amassed and apply it to the Open Data Institute.

Do you see the potential for national governments to cooperate on an international open data repository or on open data standards?

There is an opportunity for that, I think. But there would have to be a clear value proposition for doing it. Within national borders you can reason that you’re opening this data up for the good of the country and to create economic benefit for the country. When you extend that internationally, to be honest, that value proposition isn’t as immediately obvious.

There’s a part of me that says there is a role for creating international standards. We’ve seen that happen in a lot of industries. The most obvious example is telecom. You can travel around the world and use your cellphone and there’s obviously a good value proposition for that. I’m sure there’s a value proposition out there for doing that for open data for international engagement but that’s yet to be seen. I think we need to be careful about understanding what that value proposition is but ready to act on it if it makes sense.

Do you see the Open Data Institute continuing after its current round of funding, which will last for three years? Will that mean more government and private sector funding or a different funding model?

For organizations like CDMN and the Open Data Institute, our greatest success is that we disappear. That would mean that we’ve enabled and catalyzed the industry sufficiently that these things happen on their own and we’re not needed as an intermediary anymore. I don't see that happening in three years for open data and I can’t speculate on how long it would take. But the idea is that we’re going to accelerate that pace and if we’re finding the kind of outcomes the government invested in us to do I can’t see them not continuing to fund us. There’s also a lot of value for the private sector in this, so we’ll be looking for a lot of private sector engagement as well.

Nextgov is profiling private-sector innovators who are building businesses off of open government data. Read their stories here.

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(Image via Andy.M/Shutterstock.com)

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