Statistics Canada is going to make more of its data available to the public without charge, a move that has been years in the making.

Updated Dec. 21

Statistics Canada is going to make more of its data available to the public without charge, though the exact shape of the new free-data policy has yet to emerge.

Over the last few years, there has been a gradual loosening of Statscan's grip on data products, moving from a time when almost anything beyond the daily press releases cost money, to today, when a vast array of electronic publications is downloadable at no cost, along with large swaths of data from the census, and census boundary maps down to the city level (maps for census tracts and dissemination area maps are not yet freely available for download).

Now, according to a Statscan media advisory, most "self-serve" Internet data products will be available at no cost.  Most of the standard tabulations from the 2006 census are already available free–data for dissemination areas is the main exception–so the most notable change for the public is going to be free access to the vast CANSIM database. CANSIM allows users to configure and download data tables on a seemingly endless range of subjects. Until now, those outside of the privileged circles of journalists and academic users have had to pull out the credit card to obtain CANSIM data.  Now, anyone will be able to make use of this vast storehouse of information on just about every aspect of our economic and social lives.

Statscan spokesperson Peter Frayne said in an email the agency is still "refining the list of products and data which will be available for free for self-serve on the Statistics Canada website" but there will no longer be a difference between what is available publicly and what is available via other portals such as the E-Stat service for academic users. Besides online display, the data will be available for download in spreadsheet and Beyond 20/20 viewer format.

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The agency has already made digital boundary files for the 2011 census and National Household Survey available down to the lowest levels of geography, dissemination areas and dissemination blocks, under a license that, other than requiring credit to statistics Canada, is largely free of restrictions. This suggests Statscan will also provide the data at these levels. DA data allows for visualization of socio-economic characteristics down to a sub-neighbourhood level. Only population and dwelling count data is released at the lowest level, the dissemination block,  but allowing access to the data at this level will permit sophisticated analysis of population trends.

All of this is a great thing. Our national statistical agency spends enormous sums of our money to collect information on us. Really, the results should have been free all along. For the longest time, officials were under pressure to generate revenue, and selling data seemed a good way to do that. But the potential for value-added products, and the simple availability of all of this data to help us understand ourselves better, has got to be worth many times the revenues Statistics Canada generated selling the information.

Statscan says it will still charge for information in hard copy, for custom tabulations and other products that are not served up online. That policy seems reasonable as such products require additional costs to produce.

The Statscan decision to make its data available to everyone at no cost is an important step and Statscan should be commended for finally taking it. The policy comes into effect in February.