Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography
Tuesday, 05 November 2013 16:05

Call to Action on Open Data

Written by Teresa Scassa

The Global Open Data Initiative, a civil-society led organization, is seeking feedback on its Citizen Call to Action on Open Data. Comments must be provided by November 8, 2013.

The Citizen Call to Action is part of a drive to engage citizens in the goals of the open data movement, notably in promoting transparent and accountable government through free access to a broad range of government data in reusable formats.

The Declaration around which the Call to Action is based calls for governments to take a number of steps considered crucial to fostering open data. The first is to make government data open by default. In other words, unless there is some reason to limit access to data, it should be made freely available, in reusable formats. The Declaration also calls on governments to engage users of data in the process of designing and implementing open data. Engagement can include involving users in identifying priority data sets and in designing initiatives meant to promote open data.

Implicit in the notion of open data is that the data be free: free of restrictions on reuse, free from restrictive or proprietary formats and free from cost. This is a broad concept of “free” data, and it is one that will require the development of common standards and formats within government, as well as co-operation and collaboration between different levels of government to ensure that data is as useful as possible once it is made available. The Declaration encourages governments to invest in capacity building both within government to ensure their own capability to generate and make available high quality, reusable data, but also within user communities. The Declaration also calls for steps to be taken to improve the quality of government data.

Finally the Declaration calls for accountability to be the core value of Open Data, requiring governments to release data that is crucial to keeping government accountable rather than to focus on data sets which are considered nonthreatening to vested political interests. The Declaration also calls for legal and political reforms to further the goals of transparency in government.

The federal government is calling for comments on its Year One progress on Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government. The government is seeking feedback on two main questions, namely: how it has done in meeting its commitments under the Action Plan; which commitments still require the most attention. They are also seeking more general feedback in the form of comments or suggestions regarding its Open Government initiative. The consultation opened on August 19, 2013 and will close on September 9, 2013.

Back in March I wrote about a decision of the Federal Court of Appeal in a dispute over rights in nautical charts and maps. At issue was whether the matter should be resolved on summary judgment or whether it should proceed to trial. The Court decided that it should go to trial. In reaching its decision in the case, the Court made a comment in passing on the wording of a federal government licence agreement that was relevant to the dispute. This comment, which is reproduced in my earlier report on the case, puzzled over the government’s claim in its licence to copyright in its data, given that it was entirely clear in law that there could be no copyright in data.

Leave to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada has just been denied by that Court. This means that the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal stands, and that the matter should now proceed to trial. The case raises some very interesting copyright issues and will be worth following.

With little fanfare, the Canadian government has released its much awaited, newly revised Open Government Licence. The previous version that had been available on its Open Data site was a beta version on which public comments were invited. The government has also published its Open Government Licence Consultation Report, which summarizes and discusses the comments received during the consultation process.

The revised version of the licence is an improvement over its predecessor. Gone is the claim to database rights which do not exist in Canada. (These rights do exist in the UK, the Open Government Licence of which was a template for the Canadian licence). The new licence also discards the UK term “personal data” and replaces it with “personal information”, and it gives this term the meaning ascribed under the federal Privacy Act. The language used in the licence has been further simplified, making it even more accessible.

It should be noted that Alberta’s new open government licence – released as part of the launch of its open government portal earlier this year – is very similar to V2.0 of the federal government licence. There are some minor formatting differences, and a few changes in wording, most of which can be explained by the different jurisdiction (for example, the definition of “personal information” refers to Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). The similarities between the two licences are no coincidence. Although the Alberta licence was made public prior to the release of the federal government’s V2.0, work has been going on behind the scenes to move towards some form of federal/provincial consensus on the wording of open government licences with a view to ensuring that there is legal interoperability between data sets released by different governments in Canada. The efforts to reduce barriers to interoperability (whether legal or technical) are important to the ability of Canadians to work with and to integrate different data sets in new and innovative ways. Thus not only is the COGL V2.0 to be welcomed, so are the signs that cooperation and coordination may lead to a greater legal interoperability of open government licences across Canada.

Monday, 08 April 2013 14:30

Google Mapathon Provokes Police Investigation

Written by Teresa Scassa

Years ago I visited what was then Czechoslovakia shortly after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I remember commenting to a local on the difficulty of navigating the city with the available map. He laughed and remarked that the mapping policy of the government had been that if you were supposed to be somewhere, you knew how to get there. If you didn’t know how to get there, you weren’t supposed to be there. According to him, the official state maps implemented this policy. It was an interesting lesson in mapping as a method of social control.

Last week, a story in the Times of India announced that police in India had launched an investigation of Google for a mapathon it organized. The mapathon essentially invited Indians to contribute geographic information to the Google Earth platform with a view to creating richer and better maps of India. The company offered a variety of prizes and incentives to encourage participation.

The official Indian mapping agency, the Survey of India filed the complaint with the police, apparently alleging that the mapathon was both illegal and a threat to national security.

The case is an interesting one. It is certainly true that many states that are vulnerable to terrorism, seek to control public information about certain locations, facilities and installations as a security measure. Certainly, given recent events, no one would argue that the Indian government’s concerns about terrorism are exaggerated. At the same time, in our digital, interactive world, ordinary citizens walk around with powerful computing, recording and communication devices in their purses and pockets. All manner of easily accessible apps and tools exist to create vast repositories of multimedia information about just about anything. In this context, it seems rather futile to resist participatory mapping projects on security grounds. After all, if ordinary citizens can gather and share sensitive geographical data using their mobile phones, so can terrorists. A major company like Google may well be receptive to genuine security concerns over particular data added to their collaborative maps, and might be persuaded to modify, blur or generalize certain entries.

Perhaps the bigger concern in this context is not so much security, as it is the shifting of control over mapmaking from a national mapping organization to a multinational corporation with its headquarters in another country. For countries with a history of oppressive colonization, this may seem like a threatening development. The Survey of India describes its mission in nationalistic terms: “Survey of India bears a special responsibility to ensure that the country's domain is explored and mapped suitably, provide base maps for expeditious and integrated development and ensure that all resources contribute with their full measure to the progress, prosperity and security of our country now and for generations to come.” Maps have always been powerful political and social tools, and there is nothing neutral about how many states have chosen to represent geographic information. The loss of control over one’s national maps to an outside entity may well be experienced as a loss of sovereignty.

But of course, sovereignty, in this context also involves the imposition of one story over alternative narratives. Digital technologies and a globalized society open the doors to competing accounts of our physical, social and political spaces – and such accounts are increasingly difficult to control. This conflict between Google and the Survey of India is almost certainly about more than national security, and the outcome of any police investigation may do little to tell us who the winners or losers will ultimately be.

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