Free Our Data: the blog

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

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

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.

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