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The Top 5 Most Popular Canadian GIS Vector Data Sets

We’re talking GIS vector data, it’s a subset of the geospatial data that NRCan’s Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation collects and stores – CanVec data to be exact.

As a geomatics manager and GIS specialist, I’ve been using the vector data sets provided by NRCan since I wrote my first AML. As a young GIS student, I stared at my first ArcInfo command prompt in dismay 15 years ago with data just like this.  Oh those good times at COGS.

Over the years since then, I’ve wondered “what are the most popular data sets GIS geeks like me are downloading on GeoGratis and GeoBase?” So I recently asked the team at NRCan who look after the data we all use so much “what are the most popular datasets data being downloaded these days?”  That opened up a new can of worms – you can’t ask simple questions like that and expect a clear answer.  They came back and asked me what I meant… “From what source?” they asked.

If you have been a regular consumer of Canadian geospatial data, you’ve probably noticed the GeoBase data portal was closed down in 2017, as was the search and discover function on GeoGratis. This was done as part of the federal government’s work to fold multiple data access points (portals) into fewer locations online. We can now find all of the GIS data we might desire from our favorite federal departments in a single location: the Open Canada data portal. In fact, we can even visualize the data before we download it when we use the Open Maps portal!

So I see now that with so many access points to data, my question really didn’t have a simple answer. I’ve changed it to “what are the most popular data theme downloads for CanVec data on the new Open Maps website?” The folks at CCMEO say this question is much easier to answer! Here we go…

CanVec Data for You and Me:

If you are familiar with National Topographic Map Sheets (NTS), like the very popular 1:50,000 series illustrated below, then you are familiar with the data I’m talking about and you just don’t know its “official name”.

CanVec data is the data that you see visualized in those maps. The roads, the water and the trees, and yes, everything else.  If you downloaded all of the CanVec data for a particular area, you could recreate an NTS sheet if you symbolized it just right. In fact, CanVec contains more than 60 topographical features organized into 8 themes: Transport Features, Administrative Features, Hydro Features, Land Features, Man-Made Features, Elevation Features, Resource Management Features and Toponymic Features.

NTS Map Sheets Look Like This:

National Topographic System Map. Whistler, BC, 50K

National Topographic System Map. Whistler, BC, 50K

Without further ado, in “Exciting Countdown Style”, here they are: the top 5 most popular data CanVec themes as reported by CCMEO (GeoBase Division):

Number 5 – CanVec Land 50K
Rounding out the bottom of the top 5 is the CanVec Land theme.  No, I’m not talking about the geology.  CanVec doesn’t have that. The land theme has the layers for shorelines, woods and islands. Your maps wouldn’t be very helpful without the shores on them wouldn’t they?

Number 4 – CanVec Transport 50K
As I go through this Top 5 list, I’m not finding too many surprises. When I was working on renewable energy projects in Ontario the CanVec data was one of my go to data sets.  I was using the Transport data like the roads in this theme to do a lot of mapping. The CanVec transport theme was a source of roads when I had no other.  This package of data also contains things like railways, trails and bridges.  It also plays host to many features like marinas and ferry routes.   I can’t think of many projects that don’t include a least a few of these layers as part of the analysis or even the key map.  That makes the CanVec Transport theme a must have for many GIS professionals.

Number 3 – CanVec Admin 50K
Again, this one is so obvious it barely needs explanation. These are all the imaginary lines humans create to separate geographic regions.  So stuff like municipal boundaries, provincial boundaries, and you guessed it, even the national boundaries.

Number 2 – CanVec Elevation 50K
This one seems obvious too.  CanVec Elevation is all about vector elevation data. In it, you will find contours, elevation points and bathymetry. Back in the day, I used this data set a lot to create DEM’s. It’s very coarse because a lot of it was derived from air photos acquired from the 1940’s to the 1990’s. Elevation data is so important that NRCan, through CCMEO, is investing tons of time and money into a new high-resolution DEM for Canada.

Number 1 – CanVec Hydro 50K
The other data sets weren’t much of a surprise, but the fact that this one is standing at the top of the data has been a surprise to me. The water data sets narrowly defeat the Elevation Data as the most popular in Canada. After thinking about it a bit more, it makes sense that GIS technicians are using the water theme most of all. We can surmise that water is important as it has limits and many competing uses making it important and useful. As well when has the absence or presence of streams, rivers, or lakes not been a major factor in most things we do, from mapping to analysis?  For these reasons the CanVec Hydro theme is not surprisingly king.

So, there you have it. Those are the top five most popular vector data themes users are downloading from the Open Government Data Portal these days.

The statistics I really wanted at the start of my exploration were for the individual layers that I’ve been mentioning. Layers like the roads and streams, etc.  To do that though, NRCan would have pull apart these CanVec themes down to the individual layers and let us download them individually. In future it would be nice to see some stats on the new Open Data portal to get a better picture of what Canadian’s are using.

In the coming weeks and months, I will follow up with articles on other data products the CCMEO provides so stay tuned. All the CanVec technical documentation can be found here!  http://ftp.maps.canada.ca/pub/nrcan_rncan/vector/canvec/doc/info.html#

One comment on "The Top 5 Most Popular Canadian GIS Vector Data Sets"

  1. Avatar Mark Dumka says:

    Hello, I see that CanVec Hydro 50K is the most popular dataset on this list. I am also not surprised, but I do have a question. Do users prefer the CanVec Hydro 50K to the National Hydro Network, originally developed under the GeoBase program? If so, why? I was under the impression that NHN is superior is some ways…

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