Free Our Data: the blog

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

In print: Canada’s maps go free – but here’s more background: it’s not so simple

Today’s Guardian has Canada drops licences and adopts free model for map data, which makes pretty much all the same points (possibly fewer, due to the limits of print space) as this previous post.

Since writing it however I’ve also been contacted by Tracey Lauriault, of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. She points out a number of things about the ‘free mapping’ movement in Canada, which I’ll quote at length since they’re all worth absorbing.

The short form, though, is: Canada’s federal maps might be free, but the really useful data lie closer to the local level – and those are still charged for, quite substantially in some cases. Here’s what Tracey said by email, quoted with her permission (since sometimes people don’t want emails reprinted):

I applaud what NRCan has done with its national framework data. Do keep in mind that NRCan topo data that was just made available is out of date and NRCan almost closed the office – read – this Hill Times article (subscription required for full text). We suspect they are making these data public and free to avoid having to continue the provision of paper maps. Canada is a country of wilderness lovers and tons of outdoors enthusiasts (canoers, campers, trekkers, hunters), forests, tundra, mines etc. where people go to very remote areas and well just cannot navigate using a blackberry screen or in remote areas where there is no satellite overage. See how the population is distributed along the US-Canada border to understand how critical it is to have up to date topo maps in rural and remote areas – which is most of the country!

GeoBase ( is very innovative indeed with how it is distributing national scale framework data and Geogratis ( distributes old, out-of-date free data. Both are part of the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure. Both are going in the right direction; however, the good stuff we all want is not there. And both are setting the bar high for other Canadian organizations.

Also read the Maps for Canadians site by Heather McAdam the GIS specialist for the MADGIC (Maps Data and Government Information Centre) at Carleton University. [There is more than one MADGIC in Canada - CA] Heather ran an excellent one woman campaign and mobilized our behind-the-times mapping associations in Canada. .. She is the reason for the topo map announcement.

Canada is a huge country, with tons of geography and few people with three levels of government and division of powers – Federal, Provincial and Municipal. The feds have released the national framework maps, the shells of the national scale. The data to fill the shells such as health canada, statistics canada, environment canada etc. are by no means free or accessible or void of crown copyright. Also, to do any useful analysis at the local scale we need the provincial and municipal data sets which are harder to get – Manitoba being an exception. Other provinces sell the data at a very high price or with very restrictive use policies.

Canada positions itself as being in between UK and US with cost recovery but not extreme like the UK. Statistics canada is very close to the UK model.

The PR person for NRCan was very clever with their headline but this is not a huge breakthrough, just a nice press release, Geogratis and Geobase are far more interesting.

4 Responses to “In print: Canada’s maps go free – but here’s more background: it’s not so simple”

  1. Chris Fleming Says:

    “in remote areas where there is no satellite overage”

    As far as I know GPS satellites cover the whole world. In fact they tend to work better in rural area’s where there is less to get in the way :)

  2. serendipityoucity :: Free our Data The blog - Quoted :: April :: 2007 Says:

    [...] I am a big fan of the Free Our Data: the Blog by the Guardian in the UK. The Blog has been reporting Canadian initiatives 1 2 3 and I responded in an email to the Absolutely anyone can play and profit: Canada makes mapping data free for any use and well it got posted onto the Blog in the following article In print: Canada’s maps go free – but here’s more background: it’s not so simple.I talked to Michael from some weeks ago that one of the things i would like to do in 2007 is some journalistic writing on the topic of access to data in Canada.  At the moment there is no journalism or editorials at all on that topic in this country.  After reading the Free Our Data: The Blog since it started, being all happy to see all that CANCon there, teaching a cartography course on the topic and well talking about this stuff for years, i think i am ready to move into that direction and this would be way better if done with other folks! There are some fantastic people in this country working on that topic, some NGOs who really need data, some hacktivists who want to play with data and make tools, young startup companies whose progress is impeded or big companies who want a data monopoly on some public datasets, government monopolies on the production and communities who just wanna study their neighbourhoods or propose new stuff but currently cannot as the data is just too darned expensive or accompanied with too restrictive a use.  I think it would be awesome to have intelligent interviews with these people and to feature some of the great initiatives and problems in this country at all scales and to speak to people on tons of topics like Creative Commons licensing, the copyright of databases, issues related to page scraping, mashup data sharing, community dbases/portals, postal code and MP finding, and to have debates from all sides on data as a public good.  The CivicAccess List is so rich with both tool builders, data geeks and policy wonks and it would be great for some of that content at some point to be in the public sphere.Lets see what happens!  Comments » [...]

  3. Richard Gosnell Says:

    Another region that is putting free map graphic images online for free is Catalunya in NE Spain. AT the moment only maps at scale 1:25,000 can be downloaded, and only patchy coverage which might depend on a program of gradual regigging of the map data into digital form.

    The maps are in the “sid” format, and each map sheet is accompanied by a “sdw” file. Together they allow, using programs such as Lizardtech or Oziexplorer, the PC cursor to indicate accurate lat/lon or grid reference, and can be used with GPS receivers for satnav type operation while mobile.

    Catalunya also has larger and smaller scale topographic maps of the region, and Geological maps, but none of these can be downloaded complete, but can be zoomed in for closer inspection, and you could do a screen grab of the detailed area wanted.

    The url is:-

    Richard Gosnell

  4. Mark Beveridge » Links 2007-04-22 Says:

    [...] Canada makes map data free …”Rationale for charging has gone, says government”. But further investigation shows it’s only the higher level (federal) data that is. [...]

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