Next week, the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table (CGCRT) will convene in Ottawa to work out how to achieve a vision for the year 2020 as defined in the Pan-Canadian Geomatics Strategy. I’ll be representing Open North, a non-profit with a mandate to create online tools to educate and empower citizens to participate actively in Canadian democracy. We’re particularly interested in the “Data Sources” dimension of the Strategy, which identifies issues, strategic objectives, and possible actions with respect to geospatial data access. Open geospatial data is fundamental to the success of our tools. For example, one ongoing project has had us assembling all federal, provincial, and municipal electoral boundaries across the country. The experience has highlighted the need for more consistent access to key datasets at all levels of government.
These boundaries were used to develop Represent, a free web service to help Canadian citizens connect with their political representatives. It answers a simple question – “Who represents me?” – by returning authoritative, accurate information about a location’s elected officials (including MPs, MLAs, MPPs, MNAs and MHAs, as well as over 11,000 mayors and councillors) and electoral district boundaries at all three levels of government. This service was developed to help advocacy groups – groups that empower citizens by amplifying their voices – by reducing the technical challenges they face accessing and making use of geospatial data under the current network of spatial data infrastructures (SDIs). When we began, we thought that answering “who represents me?” at all levels of government for any Canadian location would be a simple query given the broad, pervasive support for open data principles.
Unfortunately, however, the development of this tool has highlighted the discrepancy between words (from the G8 Open Data Charter: “We will work to increase open data literacy and encourage people, such as developers of applications and civil society organizations that work in the field of open data promotion, to unlock the value of open data”) and actions. While federal and provincial electoral boundaries were accessible, ward boundaries for the over 750 municipalities in which they exist were another story. Ultimately, these datasets – which we believe are fundamental to our democracy – were in many cases not accessible, not free to use, not free to redistribute, and, in some cases (366 municipalities of the 755 that we know are subdivided), simply unavailable. Of the 755, only 45 had proactively published this data online.
We have done the legwork to create a valuable resource for Canadians, and citizens are responding. Many of Canada’s largest nonprofits and unions depend on Represent for their campaigns. Users include the David Suzuki Foundation, Leadnow.ca, the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace, and many more. However, in order to complete the picture, we believe that electoral boundaries should be designated by the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table (CGCRT) as a core geospatial dataset, and opening them up under a standard license should be a key actionable item resulting from the meeting of the CGCRT in June 2014.
Municipal electoral boundaries, including all wards (or districts, divisions, quartiers, etc), meet a key social need; every citizen has the right to understand the spatial framework of our democracy. Furthermore, releasing these data would be symbolic of a commitment to open data principles and government transparency. This would not only benefit Open North and Represent; they could be used to support an engaged citizenry in a variety of applications.
Our findings throughout this process indicate that a national SDI strategy is warranted and would help streamline this arduous task. Rather than petitioning municipality by municipality and hoping for a sympathetic ear and a positive outcome, electoral boundaries should be open by default, and easily accessible for every jurisdiction. We look forward to the streamlined, proactive geomatics sector of 2020; in the meantime, releasing this one key dataset – an eminently achievable task, with a high probability of success, given that these data already exist in a geospatial format – is an important short-term initiative that would contribute to the long-term vision of Team Canada.