Canadian Journal of Nursing Informatics


This article was written on 23 Sep 2016, and is filled under Volume 11 2016, Volume 11 No 3.

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Open Data

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Software Column

by Allen McLean, RN, MN, MSc, PhD(c)

Allen is currently a PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan in the Computational Epidemiology and Public Health Informatics Lab. His research interests include the development of computer modeling and simulation software for addressing health systems challenges, chronic diseases and health inequities at the population level, as well as machine learning techniques applied to large health datasets. Allen previously attended the University of Victoria earning an MN and MSc (Health Information Science) in a unique dual degree program for Nursing Informatics professionals. Allen has over 20 years experience in healthcare as an ultrasound technologist, clinical educator, team leader and community health RN.


Open DataThere are many challenging aspects to nursing research – and one of the more resource intensive can be data collection. Primary data collection may not be feasible in many situations, and secondary data may not exist or may be difficult to access. However, there is a movement – the open data initiative – that is proving to be extremely helpful to researchers from many disciplines. The open data movement encourages institutions to make available, and freely share their data with the public.

Broadly speaking, open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike. The data must be available as a whole, and either freely available or at a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet, in a convenient and modifiable form. The data must be provided under terms that permit re-use and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets. Everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute – there should be no discrimination against fields of endeavour or against persons or groups. And finally – and of particular importance to nursing research – a key point is that when opening up this type of data, the focus is on non-personal data – data which does not contain information about specific individuals.

Researchers are not the only ones who can benefit from the open data movement. Nurses interested in building apps based on open data may take advantage of the development kits and APIs (Application Programming Interface – a set of routine definitions, protocols, and tools for building software and applications) freely distributed with each open data source. Google is an excellent resource and their site is worth a closer look. The government of Canada also has an excellent site, with step-by-step guides through various datasets, APIs and programming languages as well as examples of apps built by federal departments and individuals.

In many ways, the rise of open data has paralleled the rise of the so-called big data phenomena, which greatly benefits nursing research in public health and epidemiology. So, who usually provides these open data datasets? Typically, various levels of government, educational institutions, health authorities, and some private companies are the key providers. You will find open data initiatives all over the world, in almost every country, opening the door for interesting cross-cultural research projects. In Canada, every large city has an open data initiative. Do you need data on public washrooms and drinking fountains in Vancouver? Interested in linking crime statistics, neighbourhoods and access to health services in Calgary? Maybe you want to compare birth rates in Montreal and Paris based on reported sick days? Curious about childhood obesity and access to recreational facilities in Ottawa? The data is all available and ready to be combined in any number of interesting ways – it is really only limited by our imaginations!


Google Public Data Explorer. (2016).

Open Data – Canada. (2016).

Open Data Handbook. (2016).

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