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A Catalogue of Freely Accessible Canadian Spatial Data Sources on the Web

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(The following is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the Winter 2003 Cartouche, the Canadian Cartographic Association’s newletter. Since then, a number of provinces have made their digital data freely available, most notably Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.)

For years, people who were looking for freely accessible Canadian data could only look enviously at their neighbours to the south and wonder why Canada could not follow the Americans lead in the free distribution of small scale base data. This is changing. With some provinces making some of their base data available and the federal government’s latest GeoBase offerings, Canadian, large scale data is becoming more accessible. It still has a ways to go to being as extensive and complete as the American data holdings available through USGS but it’s getting better.

This is meant to be a short listing of freely available Canadian base data. There are many thematic datasets out on the web - a quick look at the GeoConnections page would show that - but the focus of this article is base data, that is, road and transportation networks, drainage, elevation data, named points, and administrative boundaries. There are also many international datasets, usually at smaller scales, such as the Digital Chart of the World that include Canada but these are not included (with one exception). If I’ve missed other Canadian base data sources contact me.

Since the first draft of this article in 2003, the data holdings have filled out somewhat. The National Road Network is now available for all provinces and territories, the last being released this past spring. Digital elevation data is available for the entire country at a scale of 1:250,000 and for at least half of the country at 1:50,000. As well, GeoBase offers Landsat 7 imagery, provincial and territory boundaries at 1:100,000, and geographic names. Some of the data requires an email address but most of it can be downloaded freely over the Internet.

Geogratis is still one of the best sites to visit for Canada-wide, freely accessible data. Base data is available at 1:1,000,000 for the entire country but there is a host of other more thematic data freely available, including the Canada Land Inventory at 1:50,000 and 1:250,000, Landsat 7 data, electoral and census boundaries, and GTOPO30 digital elevation data. There are also a number of great national datasets at smaller scales of 1:2,000,000 to 1:75,000,000.

Looking for that NTS sheet you don’t have? Visit the Toporama site. Simplified raster versions of both 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 NTS sheets in geographic format are available for download and use as well as Landsat ortho-imagery.

Canada 3D
Two national digital elevation models available in ASCII grid format. One has a 300 arc-second resolution, the other has a 30 arc-second resolution. Both are in geographic format. Similar digital elevation data at 30 arc-seconds is available from GTOPO30.

Shuttle Radar Topography Mission
A few years ago one of the Space Shuttle’s missions was to map 90% of the earth’s land surface between 60°N and 60°S using radar technology. The result is 30 m digital elevation models available in 1° tiles. The format is hgt. The quickest and best way to view it is using a free program called 3Dem.

Yukon Department of Renewable Resources
Base data is available at 1:1,000,000 (Digital Chart of the World) and 1:2,000,000 (Atlas of Canada). Digital elevation data is available in 30 m and 90 m resolutions. Other data includes parks and protected areas, First Nations lands, and geology, most at a scale of 1:250,000.

British Columbia Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management
There are a number of data layers for BC available here, including park boundaries and a hillshade image. Scroll down to the bottom and there is a listing of districts. Select any of the districts to open up a listing of larger scale data. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any clear indication as to what is what. Some guesswork may be required. Data seems to be in e00 format.

Alberta Geological Survey
Geology datasets are available at a scale of 1:1,000,000 in shapefile format from the Alberta Geological Survey.

Manitoba Land Initiative
You’ll need to register to access the data which includes a collection of base datasets ranging from 1:20,000 to 1:2,000,000 as well as DEMs for the Red River Valley and southern Manitoba. There is also land use, soil classification, forest inventory and other data available. Requires registration (free).

Nova Scotia Natural Resources
A listing of Restricted and Limited Land Use areas, including parks, First Nations lands and other protected areas is available here. A tiled forest cover layer is also available; however, I couldn’t find any metadata to description what the various codes indicated. No indication of scale although I suspect it is 1:50,000.

Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island probably has the most complete collection of data for any province of territory on the web. Its data collection includes coastline, county boundaries, lots and townships, municipal boundaries, parks, school districts, forest cover, geology, roads, addressing, and electoral boundaries. Files are in shapefile format and require an name and email address to download. Metadata exists but, strangely, some of the layers have no inidication of scale. I suspect 1:10,000 or 1:50,000.

A good place to start your search for free data in the country. Most of the data listed here is thematic and very specialized but it’s worth a look.

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