Is Alberta falling behind the open data movement?

Those of us within the Cybera office have been watching the open data developments happening across the Rockies with great interest. In July, the B.C. government launched an open data portal — the first provincial jurisdiction to do so in Canada.

On August 27th, the first-ever DataBC Hackathon was held, with developers encouraged to use government data to create useful, publicly-accessible apps. The resulting platforms included an app to find your way through B.C.'s wineries, one that allows you to report invasive species (vegetation and animals) in your area, and a system for helping homeless and displaced people find nearby, available shelters.

That same day, the Honourable Stephanie Cadieux, B.C. Minister of Labour, Citizens Service and Open Government, appeared on Gov 2 TV, an Internet broadcast from Alberta-based fusedlogic TV. She argued that open government is about "engaging with citizens in a different way…[it is] a new direction for us, but we feel it is the way of the future.

"There are a lot of creative and talented people outside of government. To tackle problems, we need to engage the minds of the smartest people to create innovative solutions."

For those of us in the high-tech sector, the campaign for opening up data is not new — this is at the heart of many of Cybera's cloud projects, and will form the main topic of discussion at our upcoming Summit. It is exciting for us to see governments and various members of the public become aware of the opportunities this creates. Open data gives people a new understanding of how the systems around us operate, and what areas may need improving. It allows developers to create information-based apps and programs that can make others' lives easier.

Alberta is not without its Open Government movements — the City of Edmonton has unveiled an Open Data Catalogue that is constantly being updated and extended. And in April 2011, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi piloted a Budget App to allow citizens to keep up-to-date, and even provide input on, the latest budget cycle.

But we have yet to see a provincial open data initiative in Alberta similar to what was launched in B.C., and there are no indications that such a system will be developed.

This is a big concern for Terence Gannon, one of the speakers at Cybera's upcoming Summit, and Founder and President of Intellog Inc, a Calgary-based developer of web-based search, data management and collaboration tools for petroleum producers. For more than four years, Gannon has been battling with the provincially-run Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) to make its index of Albertan oil and gas wells freely available. "There are records on approximately 400,000 wells in Alberta, all of which have unique characteristics," says Gannon. The ERCB's monthly General Well Data File provides this information; it comes with a mandatory fee of $66,491, and ongoing maintenance fees of about $1,000 per month (read more here).

"This is far too expensive for independent entrepreneurs who want to build applications based on this information," notes Gannon. "At the very least, there is a host of great Apps that are not getting developed because this information is not freely available." Gannon says he has asked the ERCB to release the General Well Data File to him, saying he would post it on Intellog's website as an open-source, searchable document that can be freely accessed by anyone. The ERCB declined his request, and his case now resides with Alberta's Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Commisioner. (You can see Gannon's documentation of his campaign here).

"It's disconcerting to see British Columbia launch an open data portal, while we have to fight the Alberta government to get access information which is rightfully ours in the first place," says Gannon.

While it's difficult to make any judgements based on this case alone, certainly the argument can be made, as the above examples have shown, that the public generally does benefit when government data should be freely available.

"I would encourage other provincial governments to look at [open data] and see what they can do," noted Cadieux. "There's tremendous opportunity to build on the expertise that's evolving. And ultimately, the old ways of doing business are not going to cut it going forward."

We look with interest to see how Gannon's case plays out, and to see what future there is —€” and hopefully there will be a future —€” for Alberta's own open data portal.