Tech innovators and open data gurus joined Member of Parliament Tony Clement online Friday, to discuss how Ottawa can provide citizens with user-friendly data that might fuel innovation across the country.

The panel included access-to-information experts and app developers from Edmonton, Toronto and the U.S., all of whom joined Clement for the Google Hangout, a free online video chat program.

The government of Canada launched its Open Data website in March 2011 and has so far has posted online more than 273,000 datasets -- collections of raw, unrestricted information -- related to health, infrastructure and agriculture.

Clement, president of the Treasury Board, has been leading the charge to expand the Canadian site’s functions but he says the government is looking for feedback on how to expand it further. Making such data easily accessible would allow the public to become well-informed and ultimately contribute to public policy, he said.

And, as more businesses use government data to develop applications for mobile devices, Clement said the ‘Open Government’ initiative is intended to spur innovation and the economy.

“It’s important as citizens, but it’s also important to unlock the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “So when you get that data online, what it means is that data can be recycled and used for other beneficial purposes.”

Governments around the world are rapidly increasing the amount of publicly available data, Stephen Walker, senior director of the Information Management Directorate at Treasury Secretariat, said during the hour-long “Google Hangout” Friday. “We’ve worked with a couple of other countries to provide information on what we’ve done so far, the Americans have done quite a bit of that, as has the U.K.”

The ability to make services more accessible to the public via open data is also expanding regionally, said Ashley Casovan, strategic coordinator for the chief information officer at the city of Edmonton.

In addition to her own, she said other municipalities such as Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver in particular, have emerged as leaders in open data development.

“Data that we’re releasing at the local level is the most tangible and so it’s easiest for people to make garbage collection apps or apps that will give you alerts when fields are open or closed,” she said.

App developers and other startup companies are also trying to harness the benefits of open data.

Ray Sharma, president of mobile games studio XMG Studio, says developers have used government data to create a variety of different apps including monitoring air pollution levels, local water trends, even corporate government filings.

Even something as basic as an app that can provide a real-time bus schedule has the ability to change how society functions, Sharma says.

“Bus schedule app is a very simplistic app but it’s a great example of how you can affect productivity levels in our country,” Ray said.

One of the bigger challenges panellists discussed was how to leverage the data once it’s available, and help those with moderate technical skills access the info so they can understand what the government is doing, said Kevin Merritt, founder and CEO of Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company focused on government data access.

That’s why there’s a shift toward “consumer-style experiences” wrapped around data so “people can understand how the government is functioning and the decisions the government is making in a consumer-style way,” he said.

Another challenge is limitations around sensitive information. Addressing a question from a Twitter user about sharing health records data, Clement said privacy issues keep health records “ring-fenced” but he said it's may be possible to share and use specific data, such as health-care performances relating to the length of hospital wait times.

Other panellists included Edward Ocampo-Gooding, co-founder of Open Data Ottawa, and Albert Lai, a Toronto-based game developer.