Free Our Data: the blog

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

New Zealand makes statistics data free to encourage business – but where’s the logic?

In an announcement that we’re struggling to find much coverage of, New Zealand’s statistics are to be made available for free starting from this August, down from prices of NZ$25,000 (£9,500) in some cases.

That’s quite a radical move, explained by the NZ minister for statistics Clayton Cosgrove thus:

“I am pleased to announce that information to help businesses identify market opportunities, assess their competitiveness, and implement informed investment planning will be made freely available. The roll-out of information will include a host of industry-specific information for the building, retail and tourism sectors, and for importers and exporters. The data will also be useful for local authorities and communities,” Mr Cosgrove said.

And also – chiming with the Free Our Data rationale –

“Previously the information could be ordered at a cost from Statistics New Zealand, but in future, trade figures, for example, which were charged out at around $400 per customised request, or Digital Boundaries files that cost up to $25,000, will be available free.”

“The Labour-led Government is committed to giving businesses every opportunity to grow and prosper by providing the tools to support well informed decision making. Making key information available at no charge will encourage more businesses to identify new markets, for example, and plan for the future.”

Politics aside, businesses are keen on it:

Phil O’Reilly, Chief Executive of Business New Zealand, said, “Business groups have consistently advocated that this valuable information be made freely available, as it is in Australia. I am pleased the Government has taken this step.”

Well, yes, anything that reduces a direct business cost is going to be welcomed. But of course this will have to be balanced with increases in the amounts spent on direct taxation: the NZ government is putting NZ$6m into Statistics NZ over the next four years to ease this process.

And of course in the UK, National Statistics makes all its raw non-personal data (correct me if I’m wrong) available for free, except where it’s forbidden by copyright involving mapping agencies, and only charges for custom-made datasets.

There’s some media coverage – New Zealand Herald interviews the head of Statistics NZ.

An interesting NZ government press release from August 2006, when Mr Cosgrove talked about how statistics can help small businesses. (But not if they can’t afford them, eh?) And the Salvation Army pointed out that the free data is good news for the charity sector:

‘Many of the statistics are currently prohibitively expensive for non-profit groups, so removing the charges will make available a wealth of information otherwise inaccessible.’

A full list of what’s being made available (the government press release plus accompanying PDF).

And here’s a key part, from the FAQs: the expected growth.

Have other countries done this?
Yes. Australia and Denmark have both seen big surges in use of data following similar initiatives to make statistics freely available. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports data downloads have approximately tripled since they made similar information free in 2005.
What is the uptake of the data expected to be?
A similar upsurge in data uptake is expected in New Zealand. In 2003 Statistics New Zealand made Census information freely available on the internet. This has resulted in a significant increase in public usage from around 250 paying subscribers in 1993 to over 20,000 accesses in the last year alone. [Emphasis added – CA.] The INFOS system currently has 93 annual subscribers. Once the system is redeveloped for easy use on the web, based on international experience, usage could increase to between 1500 to 2,000 users per month, and businesses would become the predominant sector using the information.

What we can’t find is anything leading up to the announcement, nor any indication of the economic analysis that surely must have been done before embarking on this. Any pointers?

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