Open Data Interview: Dr. Brent Hall

Open Data Wordcloud
Open Data Interview: Part Five
Brent HallDr. Brent Hall

Director, Education and Research –
Esri Canada

Toronto, ON

We spoke with Dr. Brent Hall about Open Data at Esri Canada. Below is a summary of our interview (answers given are abridged unless quoted).

Please provide a brief background regarding your interest and experience in open data.

A: I have been in the GIS business for a long time, since the infancy of the technology back to 1986-87, so I have a deeper background than most. In the early days, Statistics Canada was still governed by the Official Secrets Act for access to its address-matched Area Master File or Single Line Street Network. Since that time of extreme security, the availability of data for GIS applications has been a main constraint of innovation. It's a longstanding need I've been interested in from the beginning. The movement for Open Access is a more recent phenomenon of the last 5-10 years, addressing the specific criteria that now help us to define and understand better what is Open and what isn't and why.

All data that can be made open without constraint should be open in my opinion. This helps to generate the reciprocal improvement of datasets by end users and providers, increasing timeliness and accuracy. Data collected through crowdsourcing should be reciprocally available to end users (produsers) in appropriate formats, facilitating continuous validation and updates, like with Open Street Map, to help foster innovation in data use. In this relationship, data ownership questions are irrelevant. It's outrageous to see some municipalities still charging for access to public data that could benefit the public good greatly were they made available. In the cost vs. access analysis, it's logical that a larger number of produsers can apply data with greater benefit. "Who pays for the acquisition of data is a burden people need to get over. It doesn't matter who pays for it. It improves everyone's position."

I have utilized open data a lot throughout my working life – mainly through government portals, latterly for research and lab resources that we develop within my group at Esri Canada. In the past these portals were purely ftp sites, which were not well documented. The movement toward open access has improved metadata quality and other standards. Confidence in open data is growing. In regard to the rural aspect, I'm a strong advocate for open data in government decision-making, especially at the local, consultative level.

Q: What level of interest or feedback have you received in your work regarding open data?

A: Since much of the work I do now is directed to Esri software users within the education sector, the feedback on our use of open data resources is limited. There are often privacy concerns surrounding data access, depending on the nature of the data and who collected it, and these limitations have to be respected. However, whenever the opportunity presents itself I encourage data liberation as freely available to provide good quality spatial and other data help to advance knowledge.

Q: Do you collaborate with any agency or company on open data policy or practice? Would you participate in a Rural Open Data Network to share best practices and develop standards?

A: I am a member of CAC/ISO/TC211 - Geographic information/Geomatics and collaborate on geographic data standards through this association. I also am collaborating currently with Open North and many universities and colleges across Canada on projects that make use of open data. Within Esri Canada we collaborate with local, provincial and federal government on open data use.

Currently my group is working on a funded project with Selkirk College focused on open data for rural communities in southern BC. It is highly important and rewarding for me to help small, rural communities with limited resources publish and promote use of their data resources, by providing web programming assistance, GIS expertise, instruction, whatever is necessary, and creating the mechanisms to make it easy.

Q: How do you reconcile the perceived disconnect between the open data ethic and Esri as a commercial entity?

A: Esri Canada is an open data company in my view. The Community Map of Canada for example, is a freely available, open topographic basemap that has been in development from since before I joined the company. It involves participation of many organizations and levels of government which contribute authoritative data to it. The cynical view that there's a predatory motive, i.e. to sell software, behind Esri's support of open data bothers me. I think it shows a lack of knowledge about the company and what it is all about. Clearly it is a business – that's why the company exists – but the operating philosophy is to benefit society. Commercial interests and the intent to do good don't have to be oppositional. They can share common goals in my view.

Q: Within your area of expertise, what challenges and opportunities do you perceive in the further development of open data? ­

A: The movement has to be collaborative to survive. The challenge is to get past silos and see that data needs are not so unique. The opportunity here is to generate more public-private (for-profit and non-profit) and academic partnerships across sectors to realize the goals of openness in data collection and use.