Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Absolutely anyone can play and profit: Canada makes mapping data free for any use

Canada has, as the geographers have probably noticed, made its mapping data free for download from the Geogratis site. You’ll need a fast connection and GIS tools to do anything useful with the data – but such tools are available for free all over the web.

I held back on posting because I wanted to get confirmation directly from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) – the ministry which looks after mapping inter alia responsibilities for the country’s natural resources, of which there are a lot – that this freedom extended to commercial enterprises wanting to build businesses around the data. (That isn’t clear from the announcement, nor from following the links around it: might commercial companies be restricted in their commercial reuse of the data?)

But I’ve spoken to Ann Martin, who is director of the digital dissemination division at NRCan, and she confirms: yes, the data can be sold on without any royalties being due.

That’s a change from the situation that used to prevail, where NRCan would license the data to users and resellers; there was also a royalty structure which meant resellers had to pay some of their earnings back to NRCan.

Such a royalty structure is still in place in the UK: for instance, if you want to reuse a map from the London A-Z Map Company, about one-third of the charge is a royalty payable to Ordnance Survey. (OS knows about the Canadian move but has no comment on it.)

Ms Martin told me that the previous licensing system was complex: “it almost cost more to administer than it brought in,” she said.

However Canada’s charging system for maps was very different from that used by UK’s OS. Canada charged on a “cost of distribution” basis – that is, based on how much it cost to get the data to the customer, not a cost-plus recovery system like that used by OS where the charge is based on how much it costs to run the entire OS.

That means NRCan brought in much less from selling its mapping – about C$400,000 (around £171,000), according to Martin. That’s a long way short of the OS’s £100 million – though as we’ve seen before, roughly half of that comes from within the public sector, meaning half of OS’s costs are funded indirectly by taxpayers.

So, the difficult questions about this initiative:

  • how much is it expected to generate in new private-sector business, and hence taxes?
    Ms Martin doesn’t know – she says no formal study was carried out beforehand. But there has been interest from companies which had not previously shown any interest in the sector, apparently because of the licensing complexity.

  • How will the quality of Canada’s mapping be assured without any income stream?
    There isn’t an independent regulator; NRCan has an ongoing commitment to its mapping.
  • How much does it cost to collect the map data at present?
    Ms Martin doesn’t know. (The figures might be available somewhere, but she didn’t know where they would be.)
  • Will the Canadian government be strict in implementing its copyright over the maps and satellite data?
    Not particularly; users will be asked to acknowledge the original ownership of the data, and not distort or alter it.
  • There are key differences from the UK: Canada is much, much bigger, and its federal maps aren’t anywhere near as detailed as OS’s. The Geovisualisation blog has a very interesting take on this:

    I doubt Canada will ever be in a position to afford the highest resolution topographic data that will be needed in future applications. The country is too large. Thus, one strategy is to stimulate the private sector to build on the coarser resolution data. Consequently, Canada’s step to free-up topographic data is a step to ‘bridge’ needs against resouces.

    For, as Maps for Canadians notes,

    Canada’s maps are seriously out-of-date. In spite of daily landscape changes due to city growth and environment changes, Canada’s maps are on average, 27 years old. Canadians are concerned about security, safety and environmental health issues. Yet how can Government ensure critical services in these areas, if Canada lacks accurate and up-to-date maps?

    We’ve always recognised that free data is a two-edged sword; what you need is the right place for the mapping department to stand in so that everyone will benefit from the data being freely available. After the mess of the Rural Payments Agency, where mapping was key (though form-filling and processing also mattered), should Ordnance Survey be viewed as part of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

    Oh, and by the way: we’ve only just noticed this presentation (Powerpoint; or Googleised HTML) by Nancy Brodie, of the Canadian Treasury, from last year in which she notes the existence of the Free Our Data campaign. OK, so it worked for them. Could we have a few of the Canadian campaigners here too?

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