The Conservative government will allow unrestricted commercial use of its public databases in the hope of spurring private app developers to tackle the mountain of information collected by Ottawa.
From waiting times for immigration processing or border-crossing delays to satellite imagery of forest cover and other environmental information, there are opportunities to turn large sets of federal information into a format that Canadians would want to use – and may even pay for.
That's the thinking behind a federal announcement Tuesday led by Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is responsible for Ottawa's "open data" efforts. The minister will announce the new open-government licence and a relaunch of the federal open-data portal at a Toronto's XMG Studio Inc. – an app development firm. He'll be joined by Robert Herjavec, the celebrity software entrepreneur who has starred on the CBC's Dragons' Den and the show's U.S. version, Shark Tank.
The federal open-data portal was first launched as a pilot project in March, 2011, but Mr. Clement acknowledged in an interview that the original site did not lead to much interest from private-sector app developers. He expects an easier-to-use site and new, less-restrictive licensing rules will make the information more attractive.
British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have signed on to the same licence and there are efforts to bring more governments together.
"This is really responding to the feedback we were getting from the research community, entrepreneurs in our society, citizens from all walks of life who wanted access to the data in a much more usable format," he said.
Governments around the world are opening up their databases to the public for use by developers and researchers. Ottawa plans to follow the lead of other governments by hosting an app-developer competition for the best use of federal data.
"This could really take off from an entrepreneurial perspective," he said.
Several Canadian municipalities have released real-time GPS tracking of public transportation, allowing developers to create mobile apps so people can accurately time when their next bus will come.
Mark Laudon has been recognized in several municipal and international competitions for his app that uses government data to track rainfall in specific locations and shows how to capture rain to reduce municipal water consumption.
In an interview, Mr. Laudon said he had to use global data on rainfall for his apps, because he couldn't get his hands on Environment Canada data from the federal government.
He said Ottawa "certainly has a ways to go" on open data in comparison to cities like Edmonton and Vancouver, and the B.C. provincial government.
"Federally, it seems like it's quite difficult to find information," said Mr. Laudon, who works for the City of Surrey.
Though Mr. Clement says his government is committed to "transparency," it continues to face broad criticism that its actions prove the opposite. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said government departments continue to deny requests for detailed information on spending cuts. Further, Edmonton-St. Albert MP Brent Rathgeber recently quit the Conservative caucus after his own party blocked his proposal to have the salaries of senior public servants disclosed.
"The government's lack of support for my transparency bill is tantamount to a lack of support for transparency and open government generally," Mr. Rathgeber wrote in announcing his resignation.
Still, Mr. Clement insists the government is taking positive steps.
"When you look at our record, we really have opened up the Canadian government," he said, pointing to a new database that makes it easier to track government spending. "I think we're making progress."