Free Our Data: the blog

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


Ed Parsons, ex-Ordnance Survey: ‘data belongs to citizens’

Ed Parsons, who left OS at the end of December, has an interesting post following his speech to the e-Government awards about “the potential impact of web 2.0 approaches and the development of mash-up applications to future e-Government service”. (We’d love to see the notes from the speech, Ed, or even a post about it..)

In his post, he points out that

a perfect example of what I was suggesting as a future approach was announced yesterday by the US Environmental Protection Agency who are taking their first steps by publishing the locations of some contaminated land sites in XML of their website, with the specific intention of allowing citizens to analyse the data themselves. Of course raw data has always been more available in the US and I not getting into that debate… the difference here is that by publishing data in XML the EPA are opening up the data for people to manipulate using their own lightweight applications.

I’ll just give you some of the text from that News.com story, because it’s worth quoting directly:

The pilot piece of that effort, posted early Wednesday morning, is a single XML file containing information on about 1,600 locales relegated to the Superfund National Priorities List. As required by Congress since 1980, the EPA uses that list to locate, investigate and clean up the worst-offending landfills, chemical plants, radiation sites and other areas known or suspected of releasing contaminants, pollutants and other hazardous substances.

By the end of the year, the EPA hopes to expand its offerings to include data on at least 100,000 sites from across its many different regulatory programs, including hazardous waste storage and treatment sites, air pollution trends and toxic chemical releases.

And that single XML file is only 146KB, at present, and you can even feed back on data points you think are wrong.

Now, with some talk about people in London wondering about radioactivity beneath a potential Olympic site, wouldn’t we all be glad of a similar XML file here? (This is the point I was making to Steven Feldman in the comments of the previous post: while it’s good to have websites with data, what makes the whole system mesh is XML feeds, so computer can talk to computer, which can be controlled by person who filters or decides what to cross-correlate; not just making data available on a website to someone who has to laboriously cross-match sites together. The latter is web 1.0; the former, web 2.0.)

Anyway… Ed concludes

we should not forget that they are simple and cheap approaches to providing greater levels of information to the citizen by allowing the citizen to carry out the analysis themselves.

Another key point I made was that the next generation of citizens, “Generation Y? if you like, are in many ways more open to sharing data, having grown up defining they characters on-line on mySpace and Bebo than today’s. However this willingness to share data with others, even government? comes from the fact that as authors their “own? their own data and are free to modify, correct and update it.

For anyone delivering the citizen services of the future here is an important lesson – it is NOT your data, it is the citizens’ and they must feel true ownership of it.

You know what? We agree. And since we own those data… we should have unfettered access to them. [Update: Ed clarifies his definition in the comments for this post: he means citizen-*provided* data such as names and addresses.]

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