Free Our Data: the blog

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

Why is the government trying to corner the market for travel-direction sites?

In today’s Guardian we ask why it is that Transport Direct is using lots of data from local and central government (paid for by local and central taxes) to provide a service that has bugs – and is entering the market after a number of private ones.

In Time to tell this travel site where to go, Michael Cross investigates Transport Direct, which has had three million users this calendar year and uniquely offers point-to-point directions.

In an age when it is not seen as appropriate for the public sector to run power stations or railways, why is it running nationalised industries in what should be the most dynamic sector of all, the web-based knowledge economy? The question lies at the heart of our campaign, which argues that government’s role should be to collect and administer high-quality raw data, but make it freely available to everyone to create innovative services.

Transport isn’t the first area where the government has come late into such offerings:

Since its conception nearly a decade ago, “e-government” has been exempt from conventional political wisdom about competition, monopoly and state aid. The consequences are not only theoretical. In 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom, a London startup company called iMPower had the idea of launching a service to sell fishing licences on the web. It was supposed to usher in a new age of “intermediaries” providing electronic routes to public services. In theory, this was supported by government policy – but another government policy required the Environment Agency to launch its own fishing licence service on the web. The private-sector offering was unable to compete.

[Transport Direct’s chief executive Nick] Ilsley says that research by the department before Transport Direct’s launch showed the private sector wasn’t interested in providing a one-stop all-purpose site. However the site was launched in a market already populated by the private sector, albeit with less sophisticated offerings. Their operators argue that these are more in tune with public needs.

Our question: why not just make the feeds available for anyone to make use of, and build sites which could compete with each other, which would benefit taxpayers by generating revenues, rather than costing them for a function that sits on top of essential government?

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