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Canadian Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) and Open Data: An Overview

By Gordon Plunkett (Esri Canada) and Elaine Dawson (Government of British Columbia)

Canada has been at the forefront of geospatial technology development and use for many years. In particular, the GeoConnections program at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has a significant program to develop and promote a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) framework for Canada, which is a critically important, community-based initiative known as the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). This GeoConnections program, in combination with the need for all levels of government to be more effective and efficient, has led to the implementation of local, regional and national SDI websites throughout the country.

In addition, the Canadian federal government has been a leader in the implementation and promotion of open government policies and in particular open data policies. This was highlighted at the 2013 G8 meeting, when the world’s leading industrial countries, including Canada, adopted an Open Data Charter. The Government of Canada sees open data as a priority in order to increase transparency and accountability in government, as well as to spur national innovation and economic growth. Often a large proportion of the government data that is available on open data websites in Canada is geospatial.

At this point you might be asking yourself two questions. The first question is, what’s the difference between an open data website and an SDI website? The second is, what governments across Canada at any level have an open data website and/or an SDI website? Well, let’s see if we can articulate an answer these questions.

1. What’s the difference between an open data website and an SDI?

While open data websites and SDI’s have some common characteristics, they are generally distinct with a number of elements that differentiate them.

Open data websites generally have a catalog search capability and a capability to allow users to download a variety of different types and formats of open data files. These files may be geospatially related or they may be other types of data such as text based files. The data is under a permissive license such as the Open Government - Canada license that permits broad reuse including for commercial purposes.

SDI websites, on the other hand, generally handle only spatially referenced or geographic data. These sites provide access to a number of services such as catalog search and download capability, but they generally support downloading the same data in various formats, which is user selectable. Many SDI’s provide shared application and infrastructure services and access to a repository of integrated geospatial data that is accessible via web services, map viewers and analysis tools. The underlying premiss is to build once / use many times to save costs and support consistent making. There is particular emphasis on providing access to authoritative foundational geospatial data such as topography, roads, water, cadastre, land use, administrative boundary and address data. SDI’s also have a governance and policy framework as well as standards to ensure that data is managed and can be easily integrated.

So in summary, open data websites generally only provide data files, which can include both geospatial and non-geospatial data. SDI websites generally provide only geospatial data, but generally also provide geospatial applications and geospatial web services

2. What governments across Canada at any level have an open data website and/or an SDI?

This is a question that is often asked. The Data Working Group of the Canadian Geomatics Community Round Table (which morphed into GeoAlliance Canada) looked at this question and began work examining examples of open data and SDI websites across the country. The open and SDI websites information was refreshed in 2015 and GeoAlliance has made the location and some specifics of these SDIs available. Please feel free to browse the story map, click the links and try things out. If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at