Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for December, 2006

One victory for free data: Statute Law database goes online

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Nicely timed just ahead of Christmas, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has put its Statute Law Database online. You can search for any extant law, and various others – including how upcoming legislation will affect existing laws.

We’re happy this is going to be free for anyone (even if it’s not quite user-friendly.. we await MySociety getting their hands on it).

But impressively enough it does go all the way back to the Statue of Malborough of 1267 which points out that

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of [M2 House,] Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously

Free Data: the idea rises above the government horizon; government quizzed on OFT report

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

In this week’s Guardian Technology, Mike Cross notes that the Office of Fair Trading report (which we’ve referred to before) has some interesting analysis of other countries’ models for public data charging. In Commercial case for free data rises overseas, he examines its coverage of the models used in the US, Sweden and Australia.

In Sweden, public agencies can compete with private organisations, and use their own “raw” data to generate “refined” data without transparency in their accounts.

In Australia and the US, by contrast, the study finds that governments prevent public agencies from competing directly with the private sector. There has not been a single complaint from a private operator in either country for the past five years.

There is a price to pay, the international study suggests. In the US, it finds that, while the supply of free data from the US Geological Survey has stimulated private investment, the private sector has now overtaken the government agency, whose maps are now used only as a last resort. Part of the problem may be that an agency forced to provide data for free has no incentive to make its data relevant to the market. The study suggests that, in a free-data environment, regular surveys of users may be necessary to ensure that an agency’s products are still needed.

And just as an added extra, the UK government is now being asked by the opposition what it will do about Ordnance Survey following the OFT’s determination:

James Arbuthnot, for the Conservatives, asked the DCLG what’s going to be done.

Unfortunately the answer is completely unhelpful, apart from saying that “Ordnance Survey officials will be working with officials in my department and in other Departments and organisations mentioned in the report to assist the Department of Trade and Industry in its coordination of the official Government response to the report.”

More detail from the OFT report: where next for public data?

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Guardian Technology today examines the Office of Fair Trading’s conclusion that data restrictions cost the economy £500m:

Although stopping short of endorsing Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data proposal, the report says the Treasury should investigate the benefits of making those public sector databases freely available for commercial re-use. Confusion in government policy is stifling the re-use of data – and that policy “could be better informed by a proper assessment of whether [information] be provided for free”.

It really is time that the Treasury and/or Department of Trade and Industry did a proper study into the effects of properly splitting some data suppliers/gatherers into “raw” and “refined” sides, and the benefits and costs of making supply of raw data free. British Geological Survey already does this, and we’ve not heard any complaints about it. Ordnance Survey doesn’t, and… well, anyway.

But there’s an underlying conclusion that isn’t made explicit in the report. It’s this: trading funds are unsustainable (or barely so) in a model where everyone, including the private sector, has equal access to raw data, and the “commercial” side of public-sector organisations competes directly with the private sector. (Why would you set up a public-sector company to compete with a private-sector one? It can’t compete effectively because of things like pensions, which are more expensive in the public sector.)

So Ordnance Survey, as a trading fund, can only work if it gets some special access to raw data. But that goes against the government’s own rules on data trading. This can’t continue. Either Ordnance Survey is recognised as a special case (because it collects data for all of the country and processes it) and brought back into the taxpayer-funded fold – which its chief executive Vanessa Lawrence thinks won’t work – or it’s going to suffer a very slow death by a thousand complaints and reports. The OFT waves the big stick of the Competition Commission at it; the next few years are going to be tough, in policy terms. And that’s before one gets into the subject of what the Inspire directive means for OS.

OFT says more competition for public sector information would generate £1 billion extra annually

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

While everyone’s been focussing on the Gowers report (into copyright), the Office of Fair Trading – with perhaps questionable timing – has just published its own report into the commercial use of public sector information.

And it thinks there should be more, and that there should be less competition from the public sector information holders (PSIHs).

The key comment comes from John Fingleton, OFT Chief Executive, who said:

‘This is ground-breaking work for the OFT, looking at hidden markets in the economy. These monopoly public sector bodies cost the UK economy £500 million in lost opportunities. Our recommendations will help to make this valuable public asset more easily available for commercial uses which will benefit the economy and consumers.’

£500 million? The taxes on that would easily cover the £50 million in private sector funds that the Ordnance Survey needs, wouldn’t it?

Here’s the press release text:

“The OFT’s market study into the Commercial Use of Public Information (CUPI) is published today, and has found that more competition in public sector information could benefit the UK economy around £1billion a year.

Download a copy of the report (PDF, 707KB).

Examples of public sector information include weather observations collected by the Met Office, records held by The National Archives used by the public to trace their family history, and mapping data collated by Ordnance Survey. The underlying raw information is vital for businesses wanting to make value-added products and services such as in-car satellite navigation systems.

Public sector information holders (PSIHs) are usually the only source for much of this raw data, and although some make this available to businesses for free, others charge. A number of PSIHs also compete with businesses in turning the raw information into value-added products and services. This means PSIHs may have reason to restrict access to information provided solely by themselves.

The study found that raw information is not as easily available as it should be, licensing arrangements are restrictive, prices are not always linked to costs and PSIHs may be charging higher prices to competing businesses and giving them less attractive terms than their own value-added operations.

The report has also found that much of the legislation and guidance which aims to ensure access to information is provided on an equal basis, lacks clarity and is inadequately monitored. As a result the full benefits of public sector information are not being realised.

The OFT concludes that PSIHs should :

  • make as much public sector information available as possible for commercial use/re-use
  • ensure that businesses have access to public sector information at the earliest point that it is useful to them
  • provide access to information where the PSIH is the only supplier on an equal basis to all businesses and the PSIH itself
  • use proportionate cost-related pricing and to account separately for their monopoly activities and their value-added activities so that PSIHs can demonstrate that they are providing and pricing information fairly and in a non-discriminatory manner, and
  • enable the regulator (Office of Public Sector Information) to monitor PSIHs better, with improved enforcement and complaints procedures.

    Implementing these recommendations could double the value of public sector information to the UK economy to £1billion a year, and benefit consumers by providing a wider range of competitively priced goods and services.

    Competition watchdog reports

    Thursday, December 7th, 2006


    The Office of Fair Trading’s long awaited market study into the commercial use of public sector information makes interesting reading. It appeared too late for this week’s edition but we’ll be taking a close look next week. It doesn’t recommend “free data” – that possibility was never in its remit – but it does list a catalogue of obstructive behaviour and opaque pricing.

    One public sector agency is singled out as a special case because of the problems encountered by users of its information, and for the way “previous attempts by regulators and other bodies to influence [its] behaviour…. have met with resistance”. If you can’t guess which one, and are in a hurry to find out, read The Commercial Use of Public Information, (OFT 861), Office of Fair trading.



    Ed Parsons to leave Ordnance Survey: but why?

    Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

    Ed Parsons, the go-ahead chief technology officer of Ordnance Survey, is to leave at the end of this month.

    The reasons aren’t clear; there’s simply a posting on his blog which reads (in part, quoting the “agreed statement” that went out inside OS):

    Ed Parsons is leaving his post as Chief Technology Officer of Ordnance Survey to pursue new challenges in the increasingly dynamic Geographic Information (GI) Industry.

    Since his arrival in June 2001, Ed has developed Ordnance Survey’s IT strategy and has led OS Research labs. Ed has been instrumental in moving the organisation’s focus from mapping to the creation of geographic information.

    Ed’s comment:

    I am not is a position to add any more to this statement, but of course I am sorry to be leaving a great group of very committed GI professionals, the future for me is not completely clear at this point – but whatever it turns out to be, you will read it here as it happens !!

    Odd that he would be leaving with no definite plans, but we’re sure that there are going to be plenty of companies looking to hire him – he’s got experience they’ll find invaluable.

    Our take? The fact that he has his own blog shows he’s not your average member of a public sector organisation. We found him an interesting person who was certainly prepared to engage in the debate about free data and constantly looked for what the future holds in mapping. Who will succeed him, and will they bring that same drive to OS?