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Blog

Alberta's New Open Data Portal

Matthew Dance

A few weeks ago I was asked by the GOA to look at their new Open Data Portal and make some maps with the data. I did, and the maps can be found at my MapBox site. While I think that these are beautiful and interesting maps that tell a story, the important narrative is one of open. Open, in this context, implies a workflow that uses open source software to take freely available data and extract meaning from that data. In this instance, I used QGIS and TileMill, coupled with PostGIS and Open Street Map couple with Natural Earth as the base map layer. These maps are hosted by MapBox. All if it, for free or mostly free. I pay a small subscription to host my maps, but MapBox does have a free option. And these are not the only tools - Google Maps and ESRI also have a range or mapping tools for free.

This context of open includes the users; who are the open data users within this emerging ecosystem open tools?

(1) Government. Either those in the same government from other departments who just need some data to do their job, or other governments all together.  When we developed emitter.ca, I was told by an Environment Canada friend that it made there life easier because the data was more readily available and visible.

(2) Journalists. For instance @leslieyoung wrote about her difficulty accessing oil spill data from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development here.  If these data were available in an open portal, journalists could more easily access it for their stories.  We want this as the open data provides  transparency and accountability.

(3) Researchers and developers can use the open data as the 'base map' or core data sets upon which they place other data or code to extract greater utility.  For instance, heath indicators are a great open data set that can take on greater meaning when coupled with research based data such as smoking rates or ambient pollution. Perhaps a developer would build an app that could indicate where NOT to go based on these same health indicators (not that I am advocating this...).

In short, the Open Data Portal is meaningful only when it provides data that can make the data provider uncomfortable and accountable.  Financial records (GOA's are here), environmental performance (including, yes, oil spills), meaningful health indicators such as cancer rates or respiratory illness by a reasonable (and privacy protecting) geographic region. These are the squirm inducing data sets.

In this instance, with it's newly launched open data portal, the Government of Alberta has made a bold first step in committing to path of openness and transparency. But, by in large, the data presented in this first iteration are not challenging or likely to make the GOA squirm. Farmers market locations and schedules, eco zones, sensitive species. Nice and interesting, but not hard.  The hard data will relate to the oil sands and oil transportation network within Alberta. These data will document health outcomes by health region; will undercut the substantive pay wall that the ERCB has around the most valuable data (see here). So, a great first step, but only a first step.  The hard work is yet to come.

In the mean time, have a look at the portal, and please peruse the pretty maps I made, and let me know what you think.