Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for October, 2006

Ordnance Survey in the dock again with OPSI

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

This week in the Guardian we’re following the travails of the Ordnance Survey again. This time there has been a formal complaint about the terms it imposes for data about boundaries created in the Census:

The complaint concerns data delineating “output areas” from the 2001 census, the most recent national headcount. These areas are the smallest units in which data from the census is released; to protect anonymity, each covers about 125 households. By working at this scale, businesses can extract a huge amount of socioeconomic data to help them to decide where to open new outlets and even what products they should stock.

As with many other kinds of data, the most convenient way to display output areas is on a map. This is where the problem lies. The boundaries delineating output areas rely on data provided by Ordnance Survey, which as a trading fund generating returns from sales, treats intellectual property as a commercial asset. Anyone may view the boundaries online, but businesses wanting to include them in a product must negotiate licensing terms.

And you can probably guess where licensing of data ends up: with complicated terms and conditions that seem to involve chasing the Crown Copyright virus to the ends of the earth. Thus the Target Marketing Consultancy has made a formal complaint to the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) under the Information Fair Trader Scheme, to which OS subscribes.

The OS previously fell foul of an OPSI decision over land gazetteer data: OPSI found against it. OS was meant to release data – but we’ve not heard anything about the OS appeal against the decision (which it said it would consider). Anyone else know more?

Legal victory: statute database will be available to all for free

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

This week’s Guardian Technology reports that At last, the price is right for access to our laws – explaining that the legal statute database, which has been developed over years (and at some cost) will be available online for free.

We previously wrote about the pilot on August 17. Back then, there was a warning:

“The Statute Law Database and the material on the SLD website are subject to Crown copyright protection. The Crown copyright waiver that applies to published legislation generally does not apply to SLD because it is a value-added product.

But now, we learn via an email that was sent by Clare Allison, the enquiry system project manager at the Statute Publication Office, to testers of the Statute Law Database, that

the website as it stands will be launched free to the public once piloting has been completed.

However, there is a kicker – the government still wants (in the parlance of financiers) to sweat the assets by making them pay any way they can. The email continues:

A commercial strategy will still be developed next year, but will be looking at options that concern the commercial reuse of the data and the development of functionality that will serve the needs of the specialist user.”

Why not let commerce work out what it wants to do with the information, and just provide it, rather than trying to be both public and private sector?

Where we are today: chasing half a dozen ministers who won’t take responsibility

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

In today’s Guardian, Michael Cross looks back at more than six months of the Free Our Data campaign, and rounds up what we’re truly found out in this time.

Briefly, it’s that we have a £1 billion business which supports 25% of the economy – that is, public sector information – and yet nobody in government is prepared to take responsibility for it. By our count, there are at least six ministers (including Margaret Hodge, Ed Miliband, ohn Healey, David Miliband, Angela Smith and Pat McFadden) who are in some way or other in charge of public sector information. And none of them seems to want to be in charge of it, or take responsibility. There are two ministers in charge of the Ordnance Survey.

Read all about it at The fight has only just begun. And give us your advice on what we ought to do next. We wondered whether fixing up a few interviews with ministers might not help. And what would be the best questions to ask them?

Why aren’t public servants’ details public?

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

What are the penalties for releasing information gathered at public expense which is sold to the public? Why, huge fines and imprisonment. That’s the reality behind the Civil Service Year Book web page.

There, you can buy a copy of the book with names and phone numbers of thousands of civil servants for £70 – and get online access to the web page and its search function.

But if we were to make the username and password available to the public, we could be prosecuted for copyright infringement, with both civil and criminal liability. (If The Guardian did it, its editor could be sent to jail for up to six months.)

Does that make sense? If the information is gathered anyway, couldn’t outside organisations create better versions of it – rather as satnav companies make use of the data gathered by organisations like Ordnance Survey? Why create a monopoly in the data (by licensing it to The Stationery Office, a private venture between Apax Ventures and the TSO staff)? Isn’t it our data, since our taxes pay the people included and the collection of that data?

Other countries do make the information available – for instance in Seattle, where a listing of government staff is online.

Read more at Why Sir Humphrey won’t give us his phone number and give us your thoughts in the comments below, or by emailing us at