Open Data 101


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From what open data is, to understanding how to use it, this guide is a quick reference for the key things you need to know about open data in Canada.


Do you know how much of your tax money is spent on government contracts? Interested in determining the fuel consumption of a car you want to purchase? Would you like to know how many permanent resident visa applications were received in each province?

These questions, and many more, can be answered by looking at open data made available on this site. Open data is a practice that makes machine-readable data freely available, easy to access, and most importantly, simple to reuse.

The Government of Canada believes in providing Canadians with access to its data and information. This can help empower stakeholders and citizens to make informed decisions, to build or grow their business, to better understand particular issues, and to hold the government to account.

What is open data?

Open data is defined as structured data that is machine-readable, freely shared, used and built on without restrictions.

The key things to remember about open data are:

  • Availability and access: the data must be available as a whole and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet. The data must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form.
  • Re-use and redistribution: the data must be provided under terms that permit re-use and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets.
  • Universal participation: everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute. There should be no discrimination against fields of endeavour or against persons or groups. For example, 'non-commercial' restrictions that would prevent 'commercial' use, or restrictions of use for certain purposes (e.g. only in education), are not allowed.

Benefits of Open Data

Support for innovation - Access to data supports innovation in the private sector by reducing duplication and promoting reuse of existing resources. The availability of data in machine-readable formats allows for creative mashups that can be used to analyze markets, predict trends and requirements, and direct businesses in their strategic investment decisions.

Leveraging public sector information to develop consumer and commercial products - Open and unrestricted access to scientific data for public interest purposes, particularly statistical, scientific, geographical, and environmental information, maximizes its use and value, and the reuse of existing data in commercial applications improves time-to-market for businesses.

Support for research - Access to federal research data supports evidence-based primary research in Canadian and international academic, public sector, and industry-based research communities. Access to collections of data, reports, publications, and artifacts held in federal institutions allows for the use of these collections by researchers.

Support informed decisions for consumers - Providing access to public sector service information to support informed decision-making; for example, real-time air travel statistics can help travelers to choose an airline and understand the factors that can lead to flight delays. Giving Canadians their say in decisions that affect them and the resulting potential for innovation and value (builds trust and credibility)

Proactive Disclosure – proactively providing data that is relevant to Canadians reduces the amount of access to information requests, e-mail campaigns and media inquiries. This greatly reduces the administrative cost and burden associated with responding to such inquiries. 

Increasing government accountability – Increased access to government data and information provides the public with greater insight into government activities, service delivery, and use of tax dollars. This helps to create accountability in government decision-making and fosters citizens’ trust.

Uses of open data in Canada

Check out the Open Data User Stories for examples of how civil society organizations, academics and the private sector are using the Government of Canada’s open data and visit the Open Government Apps Gallery.

If you're interested in the Government of Canada's most popular datasets, the top visits by province, which department was the last to upload new data, and more analytics, visit Open Government Analytics.

Not all data can be open data

Sometimes the Government of Canada is unable to release certain data as open data because of certain restrictions. Below are some of the most common reasons why Government of Canada information and data might not be opened:

Privacy: A dataset or information that contains personal information about an individual must not be released. Personal information, as defined by the Privacy Act includes, but is not limited to, information about race, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, and medical, criminal or employment history.

Security: Information or data that may pose security risks to the institution, to the government, or to vulnerable or targeted individuals or organizations must not be released. Data must conform to the requirements of the Policy on Government Security and its related instruments.

Confidentiality: Information or data that impairs the government’s ability to make some decisions cannot be released. Examples include court rulings or police investigations, Budget and policy decisions that may impact financial markets, negotiations such as collective bargaining or international trade agreements, and Cabinet confidences.

Legacy information or data: Sometimes there is a substantive cost to making the resource eligible for release (for example, digitizing the resource, formatting it, ensuring it’s accessible and in both official languages) and there may not be a huge demand from the public to justify the cost.

Legal and contractual limitations: A dataset may be subject to legal or contractual agreements that prevent it from being released. Agreements may include:

  • limitations in data sharing agreements and memoranda of understanding
  • third party data - government organizations that collect data for federal use, but where the federal organization may not have the rights to publish it on
  • commercial license - data purchased from third parties, which may have limited rights for distribution
  • vendor limitations – data that is delivered under a contract, which captures exclusions for extracting and manipulating data
  • non-disclosure agreements
  • solicitor-client privilege


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