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Question 1: "What could be done to make it easier for you to find and use government data provided online?"
First, I want to recognize that a tremendous amount of work has been done to get the present website and number of data sets up online.
My advice on making data easier to engage Socrata to create the front end. Socrata has an enormous amount of experience in how to share government data effectively. Consider http://data.oregon.gov here is a site that is clean, easy to navigate and offers a number of ways to access and engage the governments data.
More specifically, what works includes:
Effective search: a simple search mechanism returns all results
Good filters: Because the data is categorized by type (Internal vs. external, charts, maps, calendars, etc...) it is much easier to filter. One thing not seen on Socrata that would be helpful would be the ability to sort by ministry.
Preview: Once I choose a data set I'm given a preview of what it looks like, this enables me to assess whether or not it is useful
Social: Here there is a ton on offer
I'm able to sort data sets by popularity - being able to see what others find interesting is, in of itself interesting.
Being able to easily share data sets via email, or twitter and facebook means I'm more likely to find something interesting because friends will tell me about it
Data sets can also be commented upon so I can see what others think of the data, if they think it is useful or not, and what for or not.
Finally, it would be nice if citizens could add meta data, to make it easier for others to do keyword searches. If the government was worried about the wrong meta data being added, one could always offer a search with crowd sourced meta data included or excluded
Tools: Finally, there are a large number of tools that make it easier to quickly play with and make use of the data, regardless of one's skills as a developer. This makes the data much more accessible to the general public.
Finding data is part of the problem, being able to USE the data is a much bigger issue.
Here the single most useful thing would be to offer API's into government data. My own personal hope is that one day there will be a large number of systems both within and outside of government that will integrate government data right into their applications. For example, as I blogged about here - http://eaves.ca/2011/02/18/sharing-critical-information-with-public-lessons-for-governments/ - product recall data would be fantastic to have as an API so that major retailers could simply query the API every time they scan inventory in a warehouse or at the point of sale, any product that appears on the list could then be automatically removed. Internally, Borders and Customs could also query the API when scanning exports to ensure that nothing exported is recalled.
Second, if companies and non-profits are going to invest in using open data, they need assurances that both they are legally allowed to use the data and that the data isn't going to suddenly disappear on them. This means, a robust license that is clear about reuse. The government would be wise to adopt the OGL or even improve on it. Better still helping establish a standardized open data license for Canada and ideally internationally could help reduce some legal uncertainty for more conservative actors.
More importantly, and missing from Socrata's sites, would be a way of identifying data sets on the security of their longevity. For example, data sets that are required by legislation - such as the NPRI - are the least likely to disappear, whereas data sets the the long form census which have no legal protection could be seen as at higher risk.- David Eaves