Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for July, 2006

So what is Inspire, and why is the UK lobbying against it?

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

In this week’s Guardian Technology, Mike Cross gives an overview of Europe’s INSPIRE directive, and explains why the UK government in particular is lobbying hard against the zero-pricing rules in it.

…Dr Max Craglia of the European commission’s joint research centre in Ispra, Italy, [notes] there is a two-metre difference between Belgium and the Netherlands in the official height of low tide – essential data for flood prevention. The anomalies multiply when many national agencies and tiers of government are involved, as can be the case when protecting stretches of coastline from damage.

…Nearly everyone supports the idea. But making geographical data freely available would destroy the business model of agencies such as Ordnance Survey, which funds activities by making a “profit” on sales of maps and geographical data. The OS warns of the threat in its latest annual report, published on Tuesday.

…The UK is unusually committed to charging users for data rather than funding its dissemination from taxation. One expert places Britain at the extreme end of the spectrum, while its system of crown copyright is unique in Europe.

(The OS’s latest reports, by the way, show a surplus of £9.58m on revenues of £118,356m. The capital employed – which John Bourn of the NAO still disagrees with, since he thinks the OS should capitalise its National Geographic Database – is given as £64m (if I’m reading the right column – tangible plus intangible assets). That’s a ROCE of 14.9%. Even if you add in Bourn’s estimated £50m for the NGD value, you still get a ROCE of nearly 7.5%. One has to think that the OS isn’t struggling yet.)

Interview re FOD campaign on ‘Meme Therapy’

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

I was interviewed by the Meme Therapy blog (site? news organisation? whatever). Mostly it’s a recap of the thinking behind the campaign; read it here.

Comments are welcome, here, there, or on your own blog.

Guardian writeup of RSA debate

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Today’s Guardian Technology has a writeup of the RSA debate (which should be available in MP3 format here according to the Open Access blog – I haven’t checked yet, though).

If you couldn’t make it, well, we are hoping that we’ll have something along the same lines later this year, perhaps in the autumn. Assuming that we haven’t persuaded every minister in sight of the rightness of our cause by then :-)

Ed Parsons blogs his thoughts on the RSA debate

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

There’s a very interesting post on the blog of Ed Parsons (he’s the chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey) about his view of the debate on Monday evening. Worth reading in its entirety; this part in particular stuck out for me.

  • RSA debate – my thoughts..
    in all countries, the funding of geographic information is never high on any politicians agenda, look at the chronic underfunding of the USGS for example. This is not the case interestingly I would suggest for statistical information, which perhaps more directly is seen to drive policy ?

My question would be, how do we get government to realise that geographical information drives policy in a million tiny but essential ways?

(Seen at

OPSI finds against OS in row over AddressPoint licensing

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

[Update: if you’ve come here via the Guardian article on spam, then first, apologies; secondly, the location you actually want to go to is – and that will tell you what IP address you’re on. Again, sorry for the error, which was introduced during editing.]

We’ve seen the OPSI report into Intelligent Addressing’s complaint (148K PDF) about the lack of transparency in the AddressPoint licensing terms.

Essentially, Intelligent Addressing (hereafter IA) says that OS seems to have a different licencing regime internally than externally: that a company outside OS can’t get access to AddressPoint on anything more than one-year contracts, whereas OS can use AddressPoint indefinitely. That puts external organisations like IA, which wants to license AddressPoint in order to compile the National Land and Property Gazeteer (NLPG), at a disadvantage.

And OPSI agreed.

Para 35:

In addition, the Complainant alleges that the lack of transparency extends to the website in that it is not clear how the Framework
Agreement interacts with the specific use contracts. Furthermore, the
Complainant states that there are few published details about the
partner licensing options.

Para 37:

The PSIH states that the website contains significant openly accessible
information, but does not publish the licensing options as the majority of
partners have actively managed accounts, and the PSIH works closely
with them to discuss their tailored licensing solutions.

The PSI Regulations also state that “Where conditions are imposed they
shall not unnecessarily restrict (a) the way in which a document can be re
-used or (b) competition� (Regulation (12) (1)). It appears to OPSI that the
terms of the licence unnecessarily restrict the way in which AddressPoint
can be re-used and unnecessarily restrict competition since such terms
are unnecessarily prescriptive. Some conditions imposed by the PSIH
restrict the way in which AddressPoint can be used and this restricts
competition between the Complainant and the PSIH since it immediately
puts the Complainant’s products which use AddressPoint at a
disadvantage to those of the PSIH. One such condition relates to time, as
the PSIH can grant licences with a longer term to end-users than others
such as the Complainant, who is limited to twelve month end-user
licences as licensees want more security in the length of time they are
able to use the information. This means that the Complainant is at an unfair disadvantage. Another example is cost as the Complainant has
to pay a higher licence fee for the use of AddressPoint. OPSI does not
consider that such restrictions are necessary.

You can read the full complaint and response. But here’s OS’s response, hot off the press:

“On the OPSI report, as Carol Tullo [head of OPSI] was saying last night [at the RSA/Free Our Data debate], it was only published last Thursday and so we still need to discuss it with OPSI in the context of the points we are already exploring from the reverification process you reported on in March.

That said, we do have a number of concerns around matters of fact and law in the report and are considering the options open to us including our right of appeal to the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI). The report purports to make wide-ranging recommendations regarding our licensing policy on the basis of a narrow investigation of a single, and atypical, set of circumstances.

Please be aware also that although they have a right to make a complaint to OPSI, Intelligent Addressing are not a licensee of Ordnance Survey information; they are a contractor to Local Government Information House, who are the licensee. We believe that OPSI’s interpretation of some of the concepts, terminology and clauses within Public Sector Information regulations could make it difficult for us to properly differentiate between the terms and conditions used for products and services licensed directly to end users for their internal business operations, from those applying to partners who generate commercial revenue by exploiting the data in their own products and services (often by adding value to our data); for example, a direct utility customer using the data to manage multi-million pound assets of pipes and cables would have to be licensed in a similar way to a small publisher using the data to produce consumer products retailing at a few pounds.

OPSI also appear to ignore the fact that third party data plays an increasingly important role in the content of our products and services, bringing added value and benefit to users. Royal Mail has a significant IPR interest in the products involved in the complaint. OPSI’s reading of relevant PSI regulation clauses could result in us having to implement pricing and licensing terms and conditions that would undermine the commercial interests of these third parties. This could in turn discourage them from offering their data into collaborative products and inhibit our ability to produce marketable data or to generate adequate revenue for reinvestment.

Our adoption of specific use contracts followed wide consultation with licensed partners from whom it gained broadly-based support. It enables pricing of data to be varied according to end-user perceptions of value for clearly identifiable areas of use. With this mechanism in place it guarantees that competing partners licensing products into the same market have paid similar licensing costs to us. The model assists in creating competitive markets among partners providing similar products and services and also enables users with specific needs to acquire their information at appropriate prices. Introducing a “one size fits all� approach may also be anti-competitive where others have already entered high cost/high value markets, and it may unreasonably inhibit more from doing so.

We are committed to honouring our full obligations as a Trading Fund with delegated authority to protect and exploit Crown Copyright and in so doing we are required to operate on a commercial agenda. We are proud to be accredited under the Information Fair Trader Scheme and are working with OPSI to ensure our licence terms and conditions remain open, transparent and fair.”

RSA/Free Our Data debate draws big crowd

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

Encouragingly, scores of people braved the summer heat – and the lack of air conditioning in the main hall – to come to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London for the RSA/Free Our Data debate on public sector information and copyright.

There is a webcast (21MB MP3) and a transcript (220K PDF). In the meantime, if you have any comments lingering from the event, please add them here. You don’t have to register or give a full name to comment.

In today’s Guardian: who will address the postcode mess?

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

In today’s Technology Guardian, Michael Cross examines the Royal Mail’s postcode address file – such a valuable item, if it could only be used well.

Royal Mail

is coy about how much the Postcode Address File costs to maintain and how much it receives from licensing, or even whether it runs at a profit.

Licensing arrangements for the Postcode Address File are only one part of the addressing imbroglio. Even if the Royal Mail were to give the database away to all comers, addressing would still be messy.

For a start, the postcode file has big gaps. According to Barr, it holds only 60% of buildings in England – the Royal Mail is not interested in structures such as churches, which do not receive mail. Because of the purpose for which they were set up, postcodes may bear little relevance to reality – the initial component, the “post town”, relates to the nearest sorting office rather than the nearest town.

As Ed Parsons (chief technology officer of Ordnance Survey) noted on this blog, the flaws mean that there are three databases in operation – the RM PAF, the OS’s address layer, and the National Land and Property Gazetteer (I think that’s right on the latter).

And why?

This chaos arises directly from the UK government’s policy of encouraging state-owned bodies, which are usually monopolies in their fields, to treat information as an asset to be exploited commercially. Free Our Data argues that this resource should be funded by taxation and made available for free to all takers, to stimulate a vibrant knowledge economy.

Some heads really need to be knocked together, we think.

Will the Post Office and Ordnance Survey ever agree about house names?

Monday, July 10th, 2006

Part of the reason the previous post was late arriving was because I moved house last week. It went successfully, but here’s an annoyance. In the last house, we changed the name (we didn’t like the old one) – notifying the local council, which accepted the name and put it into its records. Clearly, the council notified the Post Office, which accepted the name… except that it changed the ending of the name, which was “House”, to “Cottage”.

Now, in no way was our house a cottage. It was a two-storey semi-detached early 1900s building. Clearly, the misnaming was one of those intentional errors that any database compiler puts in so that it can spot people stealing its data (for there’s no copyright in facts, but there is copyright in fiction, so if you add some false data to a database…)

And now our new home has a name, which differs from the Post Office’s name, which differs too from the OS’s name.

I can understand that they want to have proprietary ownership of their data, but really, this is ridiculous. The upshot is that when we call people to tell them our new address, if they’re an organisation using the Postcode Address File (PAF), they only want the first line of the address and the postcode. But when you tell them the property name and the postcode, there’s a pause while they try to figure out whether you’re right or they’re right.

It’s an annoyance, though it’s indicative too of the absurd lengths that the organisations have to go to in order to “protect” their precious data. At the cost of creating hassle for the rest of us..

Who owns patient records? The patient, the GP, the health service or its contractors?

Monday, July 10th, 2006

(Apologies for the delay in posting this; I’ve been moving house – on which more in another post.)

The Guardian looks at the vexed question of Who owns patient records? Vexed, because it’s not clear quite who owns the information (and hence access to the information) on those records. Rather as with banks, it looks as though while health organisations agree that you own the data about you, they’re going to charge you to access it, because it’s on their “property”.

In the days when records were on paper… a rule of thumb was that the secretary of state for health owns the paper; the GP the ink; and the patient the information. In the computer era, he says, the picture can be confused by ownership of equipment.

Dr Richard Fitton, a GP who routinely allows patients to see their electronic records, says the government should state outright that patients own their data. “If you pay me through taxes to produce a record I think that philosophically these records belong to you. If you want me to publish them on the web, or give you a complete copy, that’s fine.” Fitton dismisses as rubbish the idea that patients should be spared clinical details. “If you’re dying of cancer, you want to see everything.”

The piece has already drawn some letters, parts of which I’ll reproduce here:

The concept of who ‘owns’ electronic records isn’t a useful one. It’s more useful to consider who has a legitimate right to have access to them. Health data are created when the system providing care interacts with the recipient of that care – and both then have rights with respect to the data.

If I get my car serviced by a garage then both I and the garage need to have access to the record of the event. How would the garage owners be expected to react if I told them I wasn’t going to let them use the record on their computer?

If you are going to use the NHS you need to accept that it has to use your information to run the system (with appropriate systems to ensure the maximum privacy obtainable of course). To pretend otherwise is ingenuous.
Dr Rod Muir, Consultant in Public Health, Information Services Division (ISD), NHS National Services Scotland, Edinburgh

And another:

I think your article is wrong, at least semantically. Under the “access to medical records act”, GP’s can charge a maximum fee of £50 for a *copy* of a patient’s medical records. I don’t think GP’s can charge a fee a patient to read their records. They can charge a fee for interpretation of medical information.

What patients don’t realize is that when ticking a box for consent for access to their medical records when making an accident injuries claim for example, they are allowing their “agent” to have a copy of their *whole* medical records, not just the events around the accident. I have had to contact a number of patients to clarify this matter with them and most are quite shocked that *everything* is usually asked for. I have had to check with patients regarding child protection issues, sexually transmitted diseases, etc which are of course unrelated to road traffic accidents.
Dr David J Plews, GP Medical Adviser Rotherham PCT

Thanks to both for their input. There’s also been some blog action in response; see these Technorati links for blogs which mention the piece.