Free Our Data: the blog

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

Environment Agency charges for data that were free – creating risk to water

In “Free groundwater information dries up“, today’s Guardian looks at the example that was passed to us of the Environment Agency, which used to make available the data about the location of “source protection zones” – essentially, areas around groundwater sources which must be protected from pollution to avoid contamination of drinking water supplies.

One-third of the water Britons drink comes from the ground; in dry and crowded south-east England that proportion rises to three-quarters. But groundwater is a limited resource and vulnerable to pollution. Contaminants can be diffi cult to detect until it is too late. According to the Environment Agency, the main danger comes from constant small leaks of sewage, agricultural chemicals and oil.

The first step to safeguarding our hidden groundwater is to tell people where it is. For this purpose, the agency has identified some 2,000 “source protection zones” around wells, boreholes and springs supplying public drinking water. These zones cover the total area of land needed to support removal of water from a source. They identify places where there is a risk of contamination and allow the authorities to monitor and control polluting activities.

Those data used to be available free as a download from its website; consultants and others considering where and what to do in places they suspect might be SPZs could consult them. Government-collected data, available for free, with a public benefit in its being free.

Now the EA is charging companies for the data:

One consultant says he has been quoted £750 for an annual licence to access data on source protection zones. The agency confirmed that it charges business users. The policy began “a couple of years ago”, it added.

Strangely, it seems to say that individuals can get it for free. (How about self-employed ones?) To which consultants reply that this will probably lead to companies taking the cheaper way out – use the old datasets. But because SPZs can change, that implies a risk to groundwater.

From the article:

Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, which argues that all impersonal electronic data collected by the government in the course of its public duties be made available free to all comers, agrees. Apart from the direct risks arising from data not being available, there is also a chilling eff ect to the wider knowledge economy: innovative ways of disseminating these data may never be developed if it remains controlled by government.

There is also a practical issue: does the revenue from licensing to conscientious professionals (for unscrupulous ones may find their own sources) really outweigh the cost of administering and policing the charging regime? And is there an overall benefit beyond any (undemonstrated) financial one? With data held on a web server, issues of scarcity do not exist; unlike a well, a server will never run dry of the necessary 0s and 1s to make a copy of a dataset. Yet the Environment Agency is seeking to impose an artifi cial constraint on the supply of this data without any evidence that such a constraint is necessary.

Note: this is, as so many of the examples in this campaign are, an example of charging for data that arguably would be better free sent in by a reader. We’re always grateful for these, and fascinated by how wide and deep your experience goes. Please do let us know, either by leaving a comment here or emailing me ( works well) about other examples of data being charged for that should be free. The government is beginning to listen, we think.

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