Bryan Smith has a simple illustration of the fact that there's still room for new data in a world that's already covered in Google Maps: You can ask Google for directions to a downtown tower, and still spend 10 minutes driving in circles around the block, trying to find exactly where the entrance is to the parking garage.
That kind of precision data lies in city databases, whose geographic information systems (GIS) records keep track of the urban environment down to the curb. But even as governments are working to get their public data out of vaults and onto the Internet, making it useable and useful is a challenge. On one hand, end-users don't know the lay of the land for Open Data sources, and on the other, governments don't know how developers want to use data. This is where Mr. Smith's startup, ThinkData, wants to step in.
"There's a natural disconnect between governments and end users. We sit in the middle and bridge the two," says Mr. Smith.
ThinkData collects and cleans up government datasets, which in their raw state can arrive in any number of conflicting formats. The service parses each one, and hosts a clean copy on its servers, which clients can access. When the original data source is updated, ThinkData's clean copy updates too. The company is also on the cusp of releasing a search engine for Open Data sources called Namara, which clients can use to search across thousands of datasets from multiple levels of government.
In the meantime, the 12-person firm is working one-on-one with clients in different sectors, from oil and gas to property development. A former policy adviser to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Mr. Smith was awed by the potential of Open Data during his time in government: Governments were dumping all kinds of data into the open, ranging from crime statistics to restaurant safety ratings to zoning laws.
On a larger scale, governments have data about animal and bird migratory patterns, and about the locations of exploration projects, roads, and ports – all information that, overlaid onto a map, could help guide resource-development companies, especially as they try to meet regulatory burdens.
But Mr. Smith also saw the roadblocks that were keeping companies from taking full advantage of them, like inconsistent data formats and scattered sources.
"A business would have to scale a data team to find this stuff and connect to it. It's a massive process with a bunch of barriers that keep companies from dealing with the actual data itself," he says.
ThinkData rests on the Open Data movement, a progressive (and increasingly prevalent) line of thought that encourages governments to open their storehouses of data for public consumption, even if its not immediately clear what the public might do with it. Open Data encourages the private and nonprofit sectors to find ways to use public data that would otherwise have languished.
The classic example is apps that tell transit riders when the next bus is coming, tapping into open data feeds from municipal transit agencies. Mr. Smith likens data to a natural resource – a source of raw potential that requires the right tools to make it useful.
"It don't think government should be the ones to make these tools," says Smith. "If we relied on the old-school way of government it would be a five-year project that cost $5-million, and it probably wouldn't be used nearly as well."