06/18/2013 03:14 EDT | Updated 08/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Federal open data portal revamp aims to encourage apps

The federal government has revamped its data portal in an effort to encourage the development of innovative apps that make use of the publicly accessible federal government data on topics ranging from housing to air quality.

"Open Data is Canada's new natural resource," said Treasury Board President Tony Clement in a statement, as the government officially relaunched its data.gc.ca portal Tuesday afternoon in Toronto.

"The possibilities for using this data are as infinite as our imaginations. I look forward to seeing what innovative and entrepreneurial Canadians are able to create with this newly accessible information."

In recent years, governments across Canada and around the world have been compiling their data and making it publicly accessible. Municipal open data has led to an explosion of apps by local developers and entrepreneurs that help people plan transit trips, keep track of the garbage and recycling schedules, and look up recreational activities close to home that fit with their schedule.

But at the federal level, most of the few dozen web and mobile apps featured on the portal since the federal government first launched its open data program as a pilot project in March 2011 — including one that delivers recalls and safety alerts to Canadians mobile phones and another that estimates the duty and taxes on goods imported for personal use — have been produced by federal government departments and agencies.

The new upgrades to the federal open data site include:

- Better search capabilities to make it easier to find and use the data.

- Interactive features such as the ability to rate and comment on datasets.

- A developers' corner, where users can access technical information to help them create apps.

- New datasets, including information in the areas of housing health and the environment.

- A new open government licence that provides for unrestricted commercial and non-commercial re-use of government information and data.

The same licence will also be adopted by the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

That will allow users to combine data from different levels of government "to create richer, more contextualized information and applications," a government news release said.

App-making contests this fall

In addition, the government plans to launch two app-making contests — a National Open Data Challenge and Appathonusing federal datasets — this fall. Similar contests have helped generate apps based on data from other levels of government.

The changes to the federal site are based on feedback during public consultations held in five cities across the country from March to May 2013, asking entrepreneurs, developers and other potentials users about what features and content would be key requirements for the portal.

A summary of the comments reported that "stakeholders almost universally agreed" that the data portal's search features needed "significant improvement." They also recommended providing more documentation and metadata so users know what the data means, geographically tagging data and organizing it in a way that made it possible to see longitudinal and long-term trends, and developing a strategy to connect and engage users.

G8 commits to 5 open data principles

The launch of the "next-generation" open data portal comes hours after G8 leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, committed to a set of common standards for publicly accessible data by adopting an open data charter of principles at their Lough Erne Summit in Northern Ireland.

According to a Government of Canada news release, the five principles commit G8 governments to:

- Publish their data openly by default.

- Release data that is high-quality, timely and well-described.

- Release as much data in as many open formats as possible, so they are useable by as many people as possible.

- Share expertise and be transparent about their data collection, standards and publishing process.

- Consult with users and provide unrestricted rights to reuse the data.

When Canada's open data program first launched in 2011, critics said the government's licensing rules made it too difficult to use the data. They also slammed a clause in the licence barring anyone from using that data in "any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada."

The latter clause was deleted within hours, and in November 2011, Clement announced new terms and conditions for using the data in an effort to make access easier, and to simplify the attribution requirements for the data. The previous attribution requirements had been criticized as cumbersome. At that time, Clement said no apps had yet been created using the data.