Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for May, 2006

Travel maps of Britain… measured by time, not distance

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

The Mysociety team (they brought you theyworkforyou.com, the site that shows what your MP has been up to) has done another mashup, this time showing how long it takes to travel to various parts of the country by train or car, and generated maps with “isochrones” – lines of the same (travel) time – from them.

It’s fascinating stuff – London turns out to be organised (accidentally) along a NE-SW axis, “a result of good rail links to Surbiton and Twickenham”. There’s plenty more, in great detail. Of course, it doesn’t help on those “last mile” calculations: getting to a train station and getting to your actual destination on a journey are two different things.

Among the credits, you’ll find this:

This work was funded by the Department for Transport, who also made it possible for us to use Ordnance Survey maps and data through their licence; without this assistance we would have had to pay expensive fees to use the underlying mapping data or to produce maps with no landmarks, which would be almost incomprehensible…

Although the journey planning services and software we used were publicly accessibly, almost none of the other data is available unless you pay for it, or your work falls under an existing licencing agreement. So while we set out to demonstrate how easily we could make travel-time maps from public data, very little of this work could be cheaply reproduced or extended without assistance from a government department.

That’s unfortunate, because it means that innovative work by outsiders in this area can only go ahead if it’s explicitly sponsored by government. If all the data we’ve used had been available for free, somebody else might well have done what we’ve done years ago, with no cost to the taxpayer. We’d love it if others extend the work that we’ve done, but realistically there aren’t very many people in a position to do this cheaply.

It sounds to us very like a call to Free Our Data – then we could all benefit from this, rather than having to rely what the Mysociety people (trailblazers that they are) have been able to produce. Imagine if you could get data feeds for free for journeys between any two places in the UK.. it would make planning a commute a lot easier, for a start.

(This post also sent to the Guardian’s Technology blog.)

Government advisers are starting to listen. Next, ministers?

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

Today’s Guardian has an article – “One small step on a long-haul journey” – about the latest meeting of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI), which discovers that the concept of the Free Our Data campaign has trickled through.

There’s a long and interesting interview with Professor Richard Susskind, who chairs the panel, forming part of the piece. One interesting – and cautionary – observation he makes about what might happen in a post-free-data world:

the government needs to be confident that in making information more freely available we can still be confident of its quality. It is also important to beware of replacing public-sector near-monopolies with private-sector ones. “If major private-sector bodies exploit the free data, which the taxpayer has paid for in the first place, then charging citizens and profiting substantially looks like citizens are paying twice and possibly over the odds.”

The other main barriers? No minister is in overall charge of what happens to government information; and nobody wants to be the person who signs something which notionally makes taxes seem to go up (by, say, revoking trading fund status).

Our response to the first – about replacing private-sector monopolies with public-sector ones – is to compare it with the availability of the Linux operating system, and its many variants. You can roll your own Linux; the source code is out there. Or you can get a service package from one of dozens of companies. None dominates. All are making an OK living from offering support for something which is free. The Linux economy, actually, is very big: it drives websites and handheld objects and all sorts. More secure websites use Linux than use Windows. Why do you think that is?

As ever, critiques of – or supporting evidence for – our argument are welcome in the comments.

Get rid of Crown Copyright: Times article from September 2005

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

We’ve just come across the interesting yrtk.org (Your Right To Know) blog/site, which is principally about Freedom of Information, but also has an interesting article on it reprinted from the Times’s Law section, called “Why we must cut the costly Crown Copyright” from September 2005. (We hadn’t seen it when we came up with the campaign. But great minds…)

This points to a number of the same studies as our original piece: that nobody can quite tell you who owns the copyright in an address. Or how about this:

“While it may seem sensible to charge for these resources, a more detailed analysis shows quite the opposite. More than 50 per cent of national UK mapping data is actually sold back to government, which means the taxpayer effectively pays not once but dozens, if not hundreds, of times (through fees and/or council tax).”

Yes, we’ve heard that one too. It’s still true.

Lawyers, too, are hit hard, as they pay substantial fees to access consolidated law or governmental reports. In the US, this is information that would be provided free or at little cost; federal law states any text produced by government is free from copyright and passes immediately into the public domain. Unoriginal compilations of fact — public or private — may not be owned, says Professor James Boyle of Duke Law School, who has studied copyright regimes in the US and Europe. Confounding expectation, Boyle says the US Government exercises “information socialism”, whereas the UK and Europe are out for maximum short-term profit at the expense of social welfare and long-term economic growth; even the EU Directive on the re-use of Public Sector Information, enacted in July 2005, presumes that government data be sold for profit.

A very interesting article, with some interesting links, and a comment from the CIE that seems worth reading too.

Companies House: who’s watching how it works the numbers?

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

This week the Guardian is looking at Companies House, and the peculiar justifications it uses to not tell us about how it determines data charges – and the worries that would-be competitors (to this organisation to which by law companies must report their accounts) have about its move into value-added services.

The article – Companies House holds all the cards – reveals gems like this:

The argument for allowing Companies House to charge for information is that this helps reduce the cost of the mandatory part of its business, company registration. But the way Companies House works out its costs and charges is far from transparent. The agency sent us a document, Principles of Cost Allocation, which admits that producing such figures “is not a trivial exercise because the information available is not readily available”.

The document does not list all the product areas – one is blanked out, on the grounds that it is exempt under section 38 of the Freedom of Information Act. This exempts disclosures on the grounds that it may endanger the physical or mental health or safety of an individual.

We’re wondering who the individual is..

The contents of a pricing review, published internally in June 2004, are even more mysterious. It comes with a sheet explaining that “some parts of the report have been redacted” as it is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. One reason given is that information “is of a sensitive nature and could prejudice the commercial interests of Companies House”.

Increasingly, what we’re finding in this campaign is that the question of the “commercial interests” of organisations that have statutory powers seems to override the commercial interests of just about anyone else who isn’t that organisation – including private companies and local government. This can’t be right.

Free access to science speeds its use; would the same happen with government data?

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Though we haven’t made much reference to the issue here (previously), there is a huge debate going on in the scientific world about paid vs open access to scientific publications, and particularly papers. In a press release at Eurekalert, a European scientific resource for journalists and the public (OK, often they’re the same), a new release finds that

Free access to science speeds its use: “A longitudinal bibliometric analysis of citations to papers published in the PNAS between June 8, 2004 and December 20, 2004 reveals that the open-access articles were more immediately recognized and cited by peers.”

Now, in some ways this isn’t surprising. Articles that are immediately available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world are more likely to be picked up and referenced than something which is either in print form only, or which can only be accessed through a paid-for website (or both). I know from my own experience that searching a site like PubMed can be very frustrating: you find lots of links to papers, but then run into the ground because the full text – which you want – is behind a paywall.

What relevance though does this have to the Free Our Data campaign? First, it’s certainly interesting that data which is freely available gets more widely used – even in a community as prolific about linking and referencing as science. That seems to us to bolster the argument in favour of making the data collected by government agencies available to citizens and businesses in the UK at no cost.

Secondly, we think the argument is more easily won in the Free Our Data case. Scientific publishers aren’t taxpayer-supported; the argument about where the revenue stream in a “free scientific publication” world is becomes complicated. Much simpler in the Freed Data world: the taxpayer supports the collection of the data; taxpayers then get to use the data, which creates more business, which generates more taxes, in a virtuous circle.

And we’re still waiting for the Treasury or someone to explain to use what the marginal social cost of raising funds actually means.

(Via EurekAlert! – Breaking News.)

“There’s no economic incentive to free data – until we produce one”

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

Today’s Guardian Technology has an article by SA Mathieson about OpenStreetMap’s work last weekend to try to map the Isle of Wight.

A few key points:

  • OS maps from the 1940s are now officially out of copyright, and there’s no copyright in the National Grid Reference. “Dr Humphrey Southall, reader in geography at the University of Portsmouth and director of the project, says that much of the series is still usable: “Most of the parish boundaries existed 100 years ago,” he says, and in many rural areas, the 1940s maps are still pretty accurate: “There are large areas of the country which are like that, but most people don’t live in them,” he notes.”
  • private companies deliberately put errors into their maps, so they can catch plagiarism. Ever been to Lye Close in Bristol? No, you haven’t, even though it’s marked on the A-Z company’s maps. Nobody has – it doesn’t exist. (I once went out with a woman who lived in a London road which wasn’t marked on the A-Z. That did make life quite complicated.)
  • Next weekend (May 13-14) OpenStreetMap will attempt to map the centre of Manchester, with the aim of producing a free-to-use map of venues for the city’s Futuresonic 2006 arts festival in July. “They can’t get it from OS without spending vast amounts of money,” says Coast.
  • The “Mapchester” event is getting space and support from Manchester Digital Development Agency, a public-sector organisation. “We very much endorse it,” says Dave Carter, its head. “We see it as a map version of open source. It might not work, but … we’re funded to promote innovative research and development, which is why we’re supporting this.”

Is it only me who finds it faintly ridiculous that a public sector organisation is endorsing a public movement to create open-source maps for the public’s use when there’s already a public sector organisation that creates very good maps – but which neither the other public sector organisation or the public wants to tangle with?

How long does it take a government to do an economics study?

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

In today’s Guardian Technology we’ve looked at the strange case of the recommendation made in the Treasury’s Spending Review of 2000 that it should investigate the effects of lower pricing – perhaps even zero pricing – of government data.

And what did the authors find?

“The evidence is that certainly not all demands for government information are price sensitive,” the document, on the economics of government information, notes. “The government produces and sells value-added as well as raw data for which consumers are prepared to pay a premium while in other areas such as mapping and meteorology the government does much more than meet its needs.” That is, some of the data generated is surplus to the running of government; it’s simply there to generate profits, to offset the running costs of various departments.

…But the authors then admit it’s unclear how government-generated data should be priced. After discussing pricing models, they note the suggestion “that demand would grow rapidly in response to lower prices … and as basic information is repackaged in innovative ways. The issue needs further empirical work.” That is, an economist should see whether cheaper data boosts the economy.

And has anyone carried out that empirical study? Six years on, no, they haven’t. The Treasury says this is because there has been so much disruption in the public information economy, caused by the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act last year.

But we discovered that there is, meanwhile, a new OECD study on government data pricing (660KB PDF) – readers’ comments are welcome.

And we’re still trying to figure out what “marginal social cost” (see previous post) actually means in the real world.

What does the phrase “marginal social cost” mean?

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

Not being trained in economics, I’ve been wrestling with a phrase that I found in this part of the Treasury’s 2000 Spending Review.

Specifically, it talks about the idea of making data generated by government agencies free, which of course has to be done by replacing the revenues they lose (because they no longer sell that data commercially) with money raised from taxpayers.

The relevant paragraph (5.7) says in part:

If it did so however the Government would need to fund the resulting public expenditure from taxation. But taxation also normally mis-allocates society’s assets. Taxation absorbs resources and changes behaviour. The marginal social cost of raising public funds is generally agreed to be around 20-30% of the value of the extra tax receipts.

Emphasis my own. (How wonderful, by the way, to see the Treasury – particularly Gordon Brown’s Treasury – arguing against taxation. This is not a political point, but irony doesn’t come any richer.)

First, could someone explain what that phrase about the marginal social cost actually means? I suspect it means that there’s an overhead of 20-30% in running a public body compared to a private one. But I can’t find a clear example or definition.

Secondly, that figure seems to come from Ruggieri’s 1999 paper, which in its outline says it’s for “The marginal cost of public funds in closed and small open economies”. Does the UK count for economic purposes as a closed or small open economy? Your input very welcome.