Free Our Data: the blog

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

In today’s Guardian: more examination of ‘The Power Of Information’

Today’s Guardian looks at the Ed Mayo/Tom Steinberg report The Power Of Information and asks what sort of Whitehall it would be that could open up, and what the effects will be.

At the moment, the government’s attitude to the web is a mixture of aloofness and outright hostility. This should change, the report argues, partly because some of the most popular user-driven communities – MoneySavingExpert, for example – are closely linked to government policy. Others directly contribute to the public good: in Los Angeles, when the government started putting the results of food safety inspections online, the incidence of food-borne illnesses fell compared with that in neighbouring jurisdictions.

The government should also be involved because online communities are big users of a repository of data generated by public bodies ranging from tide tables to school league tables. The internet greatly increases the value of this information. The humble postcode, originally developed for a single purpose, now underpins countless public, private and voluntary services.

We’ve been around postcodes before, of course, but what’s interesting is that it has become a datum whose use has expanded far beyond its original intention by virtue of being mashed up with something else – geographical location. (In fact we might call postcode analysis the first mashup.)

However, Government 2.0 is not yet official policy. The Cabinet Office will respond “in due course”, officials said, almost certainly to coincide with the government’s overdue response to the Office of Fair Trading’s report on the commercial use of public-sector information.

As we said – long overdue. As in three months overdue. But it makes sense to lump these together, even if the Mayo/Steinberg report took only one-eighth the time to write by my estimate.

The snag is that the response will need approval from arms of government whose income is likely to be hit by the proposals. If Ordnance Survey or the Meteorological Office had to give away information for which they charge today, they would look to their sponsor departments, Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Defence, to fill the gap with tax revenues. With a tight three-year spending squeeze to be launched by the Comprehensive Spending Review in October, this would not be popular.

Hmm.. but on the plus side, the report recommends that

• By March next year, the government independently review the cost and benefits of supplying public information through trading funds. This would examine the five largest trading funds, the trade-off between revenue from sales of information, the wider economic benefits of giving the data away and the potential impact on the quality of data.

• Public bodies, including trading funds, only to charge the marginal cost of distribution for raw information – which online is usually zero. The only exceptions should be where independent analysis shows that this does not serve the interests of citizens.

• All trading funds consider introducing free licences for non-commercial re-use of PSI.

• Ordnance Survey should launch its proposed OpenSpace scheme, allowing non-commercial users free access to data, by December. The service is currently on hold, the review says, because smaller commercial users object to data being made available freely to potential competitors.

That’s got to be positive, surely.

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