Teresa Scassa - Blog

Geospatial Data/Digital Cartography

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.


Friday, 01 February 2013 13:21

Update on Gun Permit Holder Information Map

Written by Teresa Scassa

In a recent blog post I wrote about the issues raised by the mapping of public information. The issue that prompted this blog post was the creation, by the Journal News of New York State, of a map featuring the names and addresses of all gun permit holders in two counties. The map prompted outrage although it merely represented data made available to the newspaper on an access to information request.

A recent development in the story highlights another issue both with open data and with the mapping of public information. The Journal News reports that a substantial amount of the posted information was inaccurate. Apparently this was attributable to the fact that one of the two counties at issue did not require permit renewals, and thus contained a significant amount of outdated information. In fact, the data for this county was only about 25% accurate. The other county required renewals every five years, which made the data more current, though not entirely up-to-date.

The open data movement promises significant social and economic benefits. Making government data freely available in appropriate formats for reuse is meant to increase government transparency and accountability, and to provide individuals and the private sector with raw data for research or innovation. Many already use such information to create useful apps, or to develop information maps that place government data in an interactive and accessible geographic context.

One of the challenges, however, is ensuring that the data sets provided by government are accurate, complete and fit for the purpose to which they are put. Not only must governments ensure that they are providing current data and appropriate updates, they must also include the meta data necessary for users to understand the scope and limitations of the data set.

Where the data includes personal information (including home addresses) it would seem that the onus should be even higher on governments to ensure that the information being provided is current, or that the limitations of the data set are clearly identified. Of course, there is also an onus on the party using the information to ensure that they understand the limits of the data set.


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