The State of Open Data Licenses in Canada and where to go from here

(for readers less interested in Open Data – I promise something different tomorrow)

In February I wrote how 2011 would be the year of the license for Canada’s open data community. This has indeed been the case. For public servants and politicians overseeing the various open data projects happening in Canada and around the world, here is an outline of where we are, and what I hope will happen next. For citizens I hope this will serve as a primer and help explain why this matters. For non-canadians, I hope this can help you strategize how to deal with the different levels of government in your own country.

This is important stuff, and will be important to ensure success in the next open data challenge: aligning different jurisdictions around common standards.

Why Licenses Matter

Licenses matter because they determine how you are able to use government data – a public assets. As I outlined in the three laws of open data, data is only open if it can be found, be played with and be shared. The license deals with the last of these. If you are able to take government data, find some flaw or use it to improve a service, it means nothing if you are not able to share what you create with others. The more freedom you have in doing this, the better.

What we want from the license regime (and for your government)

There are a couple of interests one is trying to balance in creating a license regime. You want:

  • Open: there should maximum freedom for reuse (see above, and this blog post)
  • Secure: it offers governments appropriate protections for privacy and security
  • Simplicity: to keep down legal costs low, and make it easier for everyone to understand
  • Standardized: so my work is accessible across jurisdictions
  • Stable: so I know that the government won’t change the rules on me

At the moment, two licenses in Canada meet these tests. The Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL) used by Surrey, Langley, Winnipeg (for its transit data) and the BC government open data portal license (Which is a copy of the UK Open Government license).

Presently a bunch of licenses do not. This includes the Government of Canada Open Data Licence Agreement for Unrestricted Use of Canada’s Data (couldn’t they choose a better name? But for a real critique of why, read this blog post). It also includes the variants of the license created by Vancouver and now used by Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton (among others). Full disclosure, I was peripherally involved in the creation of this license – it was necessary at the time.

Both these licenses are not standardized, have restrictions in them not found in the UK/BC Open Government License and the PDDL and are anything buy simple. Nor are they stable. At any time the government can revoke them. In other words, many developers and companies interested in open data dislike them immensely.

Where do we go from here?

At the moment their are a range of licenses available in Canada – this undermines the ability of developers to create software that uses open data across multiple jurisdictions.

First, the launch of BC’s open data portal and its use of the UK Open Government License has reset the debate in this country. The Federal government, which has an awkward, onerous and unloved license should stop trying to create a new license that simply adds complexity and confusion to software developers. (I detail the voluminous problems with the Federal license here).

Instead the Feds should adopt the UK Open Government Licence and push for it to be a standard, both for the provinces and federal government agencies, as well as for other common wealth countries. It’s refusal to adopt the UK license is deeply puzzling. It has offered no explanation about why it can’t, indeed, it would be interesting to hear what the Federal Government believes it knows that the UK government (which has been doing this for much longer) and the BC government doesn’t know.

What I predict will happen is that more and more provinces will adopt the UK license and increasingly the Feds will look isolated and ridiculous. Barring some explanation, this silliness should end.

At the municipal level, things are more complicated. If you look at the open data portals of Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa (sometimes referred to as the G4) you’ll notice each has a similar paragraph:

The Cities of Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto have recently joined forces to collaborate on an “Open Data Framework”. The project aims to enhance current open data initiatives in the areas of data standards and terms of use agreements. Please contact us for further information.

This paragraph has been sitting on these sites for well over a year now (approach almost two years) but in terms of data standards and common terms of use the work, to date, the G4 has produced nothing tangible for end users. (Full disclosure, I have sat in on some of these meetings). The G4 cities, which were leaders, are now languishing with a license that actually puts them in the middle, not the front of the pack. They remain ahead of the bulk of Canadian cities that have no open data, but, in terms of license, behind the aforementioned cities of Surrey, Langley, Winnipeg (for its transit data).

These second generation open data cities either had fewer resources or drew the right lessons and have leap-frogged the G4 cities by adopting the PDDL – something they did because it essentially outsourced the management of the license to a competent third party. It maximized the effectiveness of their data, while limiting their costs all while giving them the same level of protection.

The UK and BC versions of the Open Government License could work for the cities, but the PDDL is a better license. Also, it is well managed. If the cities were to adopt the OGL it wouldn’t be the end of the world but it also isn’t necessary. It probably makes more sense for them to simply follow the new leaders in the space and adopt the PDDL as this will less restrictive and easier to adopt.

Thus, speaking personally, the ideal situation in Canada would be that:

  • the Federal and Provincial Governments to adopt the UK/BC Open Government License. I’d love to live in a world where the adopted the PDDL, but my conversations with them lead me to believe this simply is not likely in the near to mid term. I think 99% of software developers out there will agree that the Open Government License is an acceptable substitute. and
  • the municipalities push to adopt the PDDL. Already several municipalities have done this and the world has not ended. The bar has been set.

The worse outcome would be:

  • the G4 municipalities invent some new license. The last thing the world needs is another open data license to confuse users and increase legal costs.
  • the federal government continues along the path of evolving its own license. It’s license was born broken and is unnecessary.

Sadly, I see little evidence for optimism at the federal level. However, I’m optimistic about the cities and provinces. The fact that most new open data portals at the municipal level have adopted the PDDL suggests that many in these governments “get it”. I also thing the launch of will spur other provinces to be intelligent about their license choice.

Email & Share:

Suggest to Techmeme via Twitter

Original post

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply