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 Do keep in mind that NRCan topo data that was just made available is out of date and NRCan almost closed the office – read – this Hill Times article (subscription required for full text).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( is very innovative indeed with how it is distributing national scale framework data and Geogratis ( distributes old, out-of-date free data.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.

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