Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for September, 2006

Is France going to move to free geographic data?

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

In today’s Guardian Technology, the Free Our Data campaign looks at the example of France’s IGN – where 70% of its budget is paid by the government. That’s not producing the results that might be hoped for, says a damning report – and it recommends moving towards a model where the data is available for free online.

Far from encouraging the use of geographical data, the report says, the institute has discouraged the RGE’s take-up by setting high prices, despite a 70% government subsidy. The mechanism for setting charges is complex and secretive, relying on the “good sense” of administrators. Their incentive, is to get as much income as possible in the short term, which encourages squeezing more money from captive customers. Altogether, the inspectors find “a lack of rigour” in the institute’s commercial policies.

“This situation is responsible for the low level of sales and the feeble development of the geographical information sector in France, compared with other European countries,” they comment.

One problem is that government allows the institute to wear two hats, that of publisher and author. The report says that government has abandoned matters of geographical information strategy to the institute “allowing it to set policy according to its own vision and interests”.

Read France maps out the path to liberate its data for the rest of the story.

A million streets, four million holes in them: why not coordinate it?

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

In today’s Guardian Technology, Roadworks database is caught in a jam looks at the problems in putting together a database of where pipes and other near-ground objects are- which would be useful to utilities planning digs.

Is the roadblock secrecy? No. In the end it comes down to the problem of developing standards, and of organisations wrangling over intellectual property that they believe resides in knowing the location of those pipes. Put like that, does it make sense?

Even so, the problem of the NSAI (National Spatial Address Infrastructure) are key in causing the difficulties here.

Will revealing the exact location of mobile phone masts generate business?

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

The Information Commissioner is forcing Ofcom to release data about where radio masts used for mobile phones are located. If it happens, it could be an interesting test of whether free data does indeed generate businesses (even though this comes from businesses, not government.) Read more at Guardian Technology’s How can I find out where the nearest mobile phone base station is?

Times article echoes Free Our Data campaign

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

The Times has printed an article by Gervase Markham of the Mozilla Foundation (which develops the Firefox browser, Thunderbird mail reader and a Sunbird calendar program) that makes exactly the points of the Free Our Data campaign.

He writes:

[a] double-charging scheme has been in place for years for government-collected data, such as maps, weather and hydrographics (rivers, tides and floods). After all, if our taxes paid for the collection, one would have thought that meant that we could have access to it. Right?

Until 1999, the Ordnance Survey, the British Government’s mapping arm, was funded by the taxpayer to make detailed maps of the entire country. These days, they sell limited-use licences to this national asset on a “cost recovery” basis. So, having paid my taxes, when I buy an OS map to go walking in the Lakes, I have the privilege of paying again.

Maps underpin many useful services we take advantage of today. From travel directions to house prices, much of the information we care about has a geospatial element. The effect of restrictions on mapping data availability are easily demonstrated.

The OS has, naturally, risen to its defence in the comments. But it’s nice to see commenters pointing out the existence of this campaign, and wondering which MP one should prod to get action. (My own comment pointing to this blog and the existence of the Guardian campaign doesn’t seem to have got past the moderator – newspapers can be so territorial; it’s as if rivals never have any ideas).

Certainly, the question of which governmental levers one should pull is uppermost in our minds right now, with Parliament about to come back. Who do you think we should try to interview to get the campaign more visible within government?

Has the National Archives got the right model for digitising old data?

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Today’s Guardian Technology looks at the National Archives, and in particular the model it uses for digitising old data from past censuses. The contracts are let by tender to commercial organisations, which want to sell them on genealogy sites (ancestry is a huge online business). In return, they get exclusivity for a limited time.

The upshot: a thriving private sector, and a public sector which gets the work done for it yet also fulfils the challenge of making data available to the public. But it still costs..

The story is at National Archives squares the data circle. Your comments welcome.

Update: there was an important correction to this article, which appears on the link. Briefly, it was wrong to suggest that freedom of information might be suspended in favour of commercial digitisation. This was an editing error, and the suggestion was not in Michael Cross’s original article. (Following the links inside the article shows that NA did not suggest any such thing. We were wrong, and now it’s been corrected.)