Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Archive for April, 2006

In the Guardian: who owns the NHS’s data?

Friday, April 28th, 2006

In Thursday’s Guardian, Michael Cross looks at the issue of the company set up by the NHS’s Health and Social Care Information Centre, a special health authority set up last year to act as a single source of official NHS data:

Few repositories of public sector information contain more political dynamite than those in NHS data sets. This week it was NHS staff numbers; next week it could be surgeons’ death rates. Earlier this year, the official custodian of the NHS’s data raised eyebrows by announcing a special relationship with a commercial firm. At least one competing business has questioned whether a level playing field is possible under the new arrangement.

Here’s why:

In January, however, ministers announced that the Health and Social Care Information Centre had struck a deal with one firm in this market, Dr Foster Ltd. The two set up a private company, Dr Foster Intelligence, to sell information derived from NHS data. The information centre invested £12m in the joint venture.

Free NHS data is useful – and some is available: such as local health statistics and illnesses relating to your GP (see, created by Dr Gavin Jamie, a Swindon GP (not MP – typo); read more at the Ideal Government blog. The question is, should a government organisation really be tying up with a private one in this way over data that ought to be available to all?

Delivery drivers can’t find you? Tell Navteq

Monday, April 24th, 2006

We’re grateful to Carl Bendelow of Appleby Business Centre for the following advice to people like Emlyn Williams:

A solution for anyone not appearing on the GPS systems is to go to and register yourself as a Point Of Interest (POI). Eventually you
will be added to the database used by most systems. We are urging small businesses in rural areas to do this to ensure that on the database rural areas do not appear as simply large tracts of uninhabited countryside.

“OS replies” article – updated to two columns

Monday, April 24th, 2006

In case anyone hasn’t yet read the Ordnance Survey’s reply to our original article that launched this campaign, it’s been updated so that you now see the original and the OS replies side-by-side, in a two-column format. Many thanks to Earle Martin for the CSS work and layout.

What’s revealing is of course that it shows what OS is replying to, and what it isn’t – though of course our argument is not with the OS, but with the Treasury which makes the rules on how public organisations that collect data cover their costs.

Read all about it: New Yorker article on MapQuest

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

For those with a little (well, quite a lot of) time, the New Yorker has a fantastic article about MapQuest, and how it collects its driving information. Worth reading – printed out, probably, or better still in the magazine itself.

It does relate in some ways to the comments we’ve been making on satnav systems, though it does show that a lot more goes into that than either local authorities or the Ordnance Survey provide.

Why making satellite navigation data expensive isn’t helpful

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

In today’s Guardian I’ve written about the experience of Emlyn Williams – who is perplexed by the fact that delivery drivers with satellite navigation systems can’t find his street, which dates back to the 1980s (when the house was built).

Why can’t they find it? Because although local councils create the address information, which they send to the Post Office, which sends it to the Ordnance Survey (which “puts it on the map”), satellite navigation companies can’t always afford the OS prices. And councils are barred from selling the location data to satnav companies – because they use OS products to record any changes. (We’ve got council minutes.)

Which means that in order to save some small sums for the taxpayer, by making OS revenue-neutral, taxpayers have to bear the extra congestion and pollution caused by drivers trying to find locations, while satnav systems’ prices are either kept artificially high, or are inadequate. The data’s all there, recorded by public bodies. Who are we “protecting” by charging so much for it?

Infoworld writes on Free Our Data campaign; know about address data?

Friday, April 14th, 2006

First a New Statesman competition nomination, and now Infoworld is writing about the campaign.

In an article published today, it looks at what we’re after.

Some interesting points:

There has been little response to the campaign from the government. A Cabinet Office spokesperson told IWR that the government welcomed the discussion, but was not reviewing its public sector information policy.

Sure, but it’s early days. We have not yet begun to fight. Also:

A campaign blog has generated a lively debate, including the revelation by civil servant Chris Hancox that British citizens pay repeatedly for the same OS data when applying for planning permission.

Hancox has revealed a complex web of payments whereby taxpayer funded local government bodies pay for OS map information as part of planning applications, with planning authorities paying again for similar OS map data. In all, eight different payments are made to the OS, according to Hancox.

We’ll be making the address issue our news story for next week. Any light anyone can throw on it (such as where you can get the raw data, as one is meant to be able to, as you can from the British Oceanographic Data Centre) is welcome; as is any experience of being blocked. (You can post anonymously, or email me.)

At last – free tide data, going back nearly 100 years

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

Thanks for the tipoff from someone Who Knew, one story in today’s Technology Guardian is about the fact that you can get tide data for free – and reuse it commercially, no muss, no fuss, and no copyright hassles.

The newspaper version reveals how tidal data can be got for free. It’s quite simple: you go to the British Oceanographic Data Centre, follow the links to “data”, register, and download as much data as you like. Then you’re free to make your own tidal harmonics. The Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory has some analysis software – not free, though plenty of their maps are – demonstrating that some people are interested.

And the numbers, oh yes.

The BODC told me that since making the data available for free (under a contract with Defra signed in 2002) there have been 1347 commercial downloads of data since October 31st 2002; 659 commercial downloads between 1st April 2005 and 31st March 2006 (that’s nearly a doubling in a single year); and downloads have been made by 176 different commercial organisations including the following categories: consultancies; engineering; insurance; surveyors; water companies; local port authorities.

And they’re all free to make commercial use of that data. The only restriction is that they don’t pass it off as their own.

I find that pretty inspiring, actually. That’s a lot of companies making good use of data generated by taxpayers’ cash. And more piling in all the time.

Ordnance Survey man finds UK map mashups: but are they truly British?

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Ed Parsons, the chief technology officer of the Ordnance Survey, picked up on a comment I’d left on his blog about the number (or lack of them) of UK-based companies generating mashups. (A mashup grabs two sets of data and creates something new from them; here’s a Guardian article explaining it at length.)

He points to this page at programmableweb which has “at least 22 mashups in the UK, and yes they all contain Ordnance Survey data licensed through partners.”

My response (which I’ve posted on his blog as a comment to his post) is that none of the APIs comes from UK-based companies, apart from the BBC. They’re all American – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Flickr (which is part of Yahoo), Feedburner.

Is it unreasonable to argue that we don’t have a homegrown map-API-offering company because we charge for access to that data, while it’s available for free in the US?

Wow, that’s dramatic!

Monday, April 10th, 2006

Only those who haven’t been here before (or who are reading it via RSS/web feeds) will not have noticed the difference. Many thanks to Rich Holman for putting together a good-looking version of this WordPress theme, rather than the Knife & Fork Productions version that was here. It’s great, isn’t it? Next, perhaps, the wiki..

Seeing red

Friday, April 7th, 2006

We came across this while wandering the web, and thought that (while it’s not core to the Free Our Data campaign) that it still carried some interesting implications…

Seeing red: “Having just looked at an old postage certificate I had got a couple of weeks ago and no longer needed, I was shocked to find that the Royal Mail asserts that:

Royal Mail, the Cruciform and the colour red are registered Trade Marks of Royal Mail Group plc.

The colour red? Like, any colour red? Or just the red that pillarboxes come in? Is that why Arsenal changed their strip this season? What about yellow or magenta – can I use them, even though they contain the colour red? What if I were colourblind and inadvertently used it? Would that be wrong?

You have to agree, it’s an interesting question. Is the red in question a specific Pantone combination, or some other sort of “red”.


Data pricing: more fuel for the fire

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

The following comments come from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, but has given permission for them to appear:

I applaud your ‘Free our Data’ campaign – it is lifting the roof on a debate we have had rumbling on in our industry for years.

How about the example of Electoral Ward boundaries. My understanding is that the Boundary Commission captures this boundary data at tax payers expense, passes it on to OS (who may do some validation checking), who then sell it back to the public sector and anyone else bundled into a commercial product.

There really needs to be a set of core underlying geographic datasets (addresses, postcodes, wards etc) that are so key to efficient government that they are made free (or nominal cost) for all – this could be done under the OS NIMSA agreement although there’s likely to be major problems with data derived from Royal Mail as a commercial body. I would like to see core OS raster mapping down 1:250k, 1:50k, 1:25k and StreetView included in this ‘national interest data bundle’ to act as a set of base mapping widely available on a cost recovery or even free basis.

Contrast the Government position on funding OS with that of funding the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – very different. In a thoroughly forward-thinking move, ONS got Central Government funding to make Census 2001 data free for the first time at its point of use – see for more. This is in stark contrast to the position that it is ‘politically unpalatable’ to fund free data distribution. This move has freed up the market for increased use of the data and more suppliers to come into the area and create added value data products – the only problem is that if you want to do anything spatial with it you need geographic boundary data much of which is OS owned. So you are back to the problem of needing data from different parts of government and inconsistencies in data distribution models.

We can only hope recent changes at ONS to become a more neutral ‘arms length’ organisation will not mean a more commercial attitude is taken to data dissemination. There is no suggestion this will happen…yet.

How you get round legal issues of fair trading is not clear – right now there are few suppliers of large scale topographic map data for the UK with the exception to some extent of companies like Navtech and TeleAtlas although their focus has traditionally been on roads for navigational purposes. It would be very interesting to understand their take on this debate.

Let’s hope your campaign gets heard at the heart of government. It would all be much clearer if

  1. organisations that were wholly funded by government could only supply their data for free or on a cost recovery basis to anyone under relatively standard HMSO terms
  2. or

  3. organisations that were semi-funded by government and captured data using these public funds had to release it under the same HMSO terms – otherwise organisations would be free to sell it commercially
  4. If there are Trading Funds that want to go it alone (OS may be a candidate) then privatise them, keeping a chunk of shares under public ownership to reflect the intellectual property invested to date. At least this creates a level playing field. There are starting to be sufficient competitors in the market to give existing OS customers some realistic alternatives.

On a related point it would be great to get an independent accountant to assess the proportional value of the current OS intellectual property that results from long-term public investment compared with the proportion attributable to their own more recent self-funded investment. No doubt there is no simple calculation to do this but they do have methods. Of course the answer would be hotly debated but it might be a start to addressing the whole issue of “what’s ours” and “what’s theirs”.

Interesting – though I’ve also discovered in the past few days that NERC does make some of its data available for free. (I’ll do a separate post later, but it’s been pointed out that organisations like NERC are placed in a difficult position when they have to buy in commercial data to generate the datasets they use.)

What does everyone think? From the discussions here, one would imagine that people think the OS should veer more towards privatisation – which, to be honest, is not the aim of the campaign at all. (As we said in the original article launching the campaign, we think the UK should have a strong mapping agency: “if you view [the UK] instead as belonging to its taxpayers, and meriting rigorous mapping for their benefit, there are no “uneconomic areas” – only places that people haven’t started to use yet”.)

In today’s Guardian: what the new OPSI rules mean (and don’t mean)

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

The Office of Public Sector Information has updated (upgraded?) its rules on Click-Use licencing, saying that all government organisations that are not trading funds (ie local government too) should consider opening their source data for free.

Sounds good – but there is a catch: local government is under orders to generate as much revenue as possible. Do the two aims conflict? In Public services now have legal means to open up, Michael Cross examines the latest move as part of the Free Our Data campaign.

Want a wiki? We have got a wiki..

Thursday, April 6th, 2006

For those who hadn’t guessed (or didn’t care), there is a wiki on this site, which is still very much in its experimental stage – which is why it doesn’t appear in the navigation bar.

However if you want to find it and experiment with it, you’ll find it at It’s open to anyone (within reason; there are anti-spam measures, but you don’t have to register). There will certainly be tweaks needed to make it (a) sensible (b) helpful. But like any wiki, it’s an evolving thing. Let me know with a comment on this post if, for example, you create a page but cannot then edit it.

Locus trade association responds to Free Our Data

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

The trade association Locus has sent us a response to the campaign (which is only a month old). We’ve put it in an article: Locus responds.

Basically, they’re in favour – while recognising that having more data available at low or zero cost would mean more competition. But there would be benefits:

  1. end-consumers through new products and services at competitive prices
  2. the public sector through established and secure markets for their data, which are constantly innovating new ways of putting that data to use
  3. the wider UK knowledge economy

Seems like a good start to us. What are your comments?

Free Our Data nominated for New Statesman award

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

Here’s a nice surprise: the Free Our Data campaign has been nominated for a New Statesman New Media Awards prize under the “Advocacy” category (well, let’s be honest: we were never going to win “best-designed”).

The category so far includes Fathers Direct, net-guide and Your Local We’ll be hanging out the bunting.. er, putting up a GIF showing that we’re nominated in no time.

In the meantime, I’m still working on adding forums; and there is a wiki though it’s pretty awful and hasn’t been properly integrated into the site at all. (A bit of reflection will suggest where you can find it; please bear in mind that it’s like a house where someone has moved in and not unpacked. That said, please have a play.)

If anyone does know a web designer who wants to spruce up an NMA-nominated site, just tell them to get in touch..