Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for September, 2007

Information World Review points to benefits of “fair use’ on economy

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Information World Review, which has joined the Free Our Data campaign, has pointed to a study comparing the economic benefits of industries which use copyright-controlled data, and those which use non-controlled data.

The copyright-controlled side generates less economic benefit under the study (though we have to admit having seen a critique by Nick Carr, a columnist for Guardian Technology, pointing out that the study is amazingly wide-ranging – and includes entire industries which may lie on both sides of the “copyright/unrestricted” fence.

It is difficult to do economic analyses of such things. For instance Google runs on the free Linux operating system. But you won’t find it giving out copies to Microsoft (even if Microsoft wanted it). Is that copyrighting, or unpaid use? The argument surely is that Linux *enables* Google to build a huge business which relies, internally, on all sorts of copyrighted, and closely-guarded details. In the same way, making government data free for the benefit of all citizens would give us the foundations for new businesses which could do remarkable things. GPS remains the classic example.

OPSI opens web channel where you can ask for government data

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

One of the fruits of the Free Our Data campaign’s meeting with Michael Wills, the minister in charge (inter alia) of the Office of Public Sector Information, is that we’ve been consulted on the creation of a web channel where people can ask for datasets from government.

That has now been set up.

As OPSI put it in the official press release (on the National Archives page),

The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI), part of The National Archives, has launched a new online forum to engage with anyone interested in the re-use of government information for commercial benefit.

The channel will allow re-users of public sector information to request the release of government data that may have economic value.

The initiative is one of the recommendations from the Power Of Information report. We have met OPSI to advise on content, format and layout of the chanel, which can be found at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/forums/forums/index.asp – more specifically, in the Re-use request service forum.

In the welcome, John Sheridan of OPSI notes that the report says that

Recommendation 8 from The Power of Information says “To improve government’s responsiveness to demand for public sector information, by July 2008 OPSI should create a web-based channel to gather and assess requests for publication of public sector information.”

Good to see government beating a deadline.

The government has accepted this recommendation and OPSI would like to engage with the re-user community with setting this new web-channel up. This is why we have set up this discussion forum, to hear your views and discuss our plans.

So – what data would you like to see? Note of course that this doesn’t (necessarily) mean “free” data; there may well be a price on the data. But the question is, what do you think government has that you might want to see, and adapt, and turn into something? Never forget the power of mashing data – it could be that a few quite cheap data sources will reveal something very powerful.

(We also spotted and notified OPSI of a security hole in the way the forums had been set up – now fixed. So that’s two ways we’ve been useful.)

Ordnance Survey launches “OpenSpace” (sort of); Guardian reports on delays in government GIS report

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Two related pieces of news.

First, the Ordnance Survey has launched – without any announcement we’ve spotted – an element of its OpenSpace platform, with the Explore portal. As originally conceived, this would have let people create mashups on OS maps. However, that functionality isn’t there yet; you can add “walks” (that seems to be all) to a 1:50,000 (Landranger-quality) map, though more is promised for the future.

Ed Parsons, formerly chief technology officer at OS, and now working for Google’s mapping division, comments on his blog:

Although this is nothing new – platial after all offered similar functionality a few years ago – this has been a long time coming. I was involved in some of the design work over a year ago! this is still an important step forward for the OS.

From a technology point of view the service was/is underpinned by the backend system developed to support the long delayed OpenSpace project, so hopefully there will be news about that soon.

Parsons concludes:

Although I would take issue with some of the T&C’s, this really is progress in the right direction from Southampton.

I’d not heard of Platial, but it certainly does do stuff that’s much the same (here’s a randomly-chosen “walk” in London), but using Google Maps.

The Explore page does show some Web 2.0-ness: it’s got a “blog” (more like comments) and shows the latest stuff. Except, as Parsons points out, any “walk” you submit becomes OS’s property. Eh?

Yes – here are the “portal rules“:

7.3 By submitting, posting or displaying any Submission on or through the OEP, User hereby grants to the Administrator a non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty free, worldwide licence to use, copy, edit, alter, reproduce, publish, distribute and/or sub-licence the whole and/or any part of the Submission, on or in connection with the OEP and for any other purpose.

In other words, OS can resell your stuff if everyone creates walks it likes. Not exclusively, but for itself.

Which in fact is exactly the same as we want the OS to provide its data to us, the citizens. Except that things seem to have gotten turned on their head, and OS is acting like a big media company such as MTV wanting to piggyback on the submissions of its viewers. (See “Whose content is it anyway?“, from Technology Guardian 21 September 2006)

Rather unhelpfully, although the page says that

The Administrator may update or revise the OEP Rules (including the Copyright / IPR Policy) at any time, with immediate effect, without notice. You are responsible for reviewing these pages regularly to ensure you are aware of any changes made and your continued use of the OEP after the changes have been posted means you agree to be legally bound by the new OEP Rules.

it doesn’t have a “last updated” tag.

Still, it’s movement, of sorts. But what we really want is an API so we can create mashups.

Update: Ed Parsons points out in the comments that it also bans links to “any page of the OEP Portal”. Let’s see how that one lasts online.

Meanwhile, Guardian Technology this week looks at the delays in the publication of an internal government report on geographical information:

Under the government-wide programme to transform public services through IT, a geographic information strategy for the UK was due to be published by July. But it has not yet appeared – and no publication date has yet been set.

Apart from the prime ministerial changeover, there is another reason for the delay: unhappiness that one organisation, Ordnance Survey, is both the government’s official adviser on geographical information and the main beneficiary of contracts to supply it. It’s roughly akin to Microsoft being appointed official adviser on government software purchasing.

The Association for Geographical Information has called for quicker publication of minutes of the government’s Geographic Information Panel; those from the June meeting haven’t appeared on the GIP’s website yet.

One final note of interest: this week’s edition of Guardian Technology carries a large recruitment advert on the front page – for staff in geographical information. It’s a burgeoning business…

Crown Copyright: time for an end?

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

In this week’s Guardian Technology we ask whether it’s time to end crown copyright. Time to take the jewels from the crown? examines the knotty question:

We argue that the UK government should follow the US in making all raw taxpayer-funded data available to the knowledge economy – except where that data compromises personal privacy or national security.

Some of our supporters say that a short cut to this state of affairs would be to abolish crown copyright itself. The idea is worth examining. Abolition was last floated in 1998, as part of a series of examinations in to what the government should do with its publishing arm, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. A green paper, Crown Copyright in the Information Age (http://www.opsi.gov.uk/advice/crown-copyright

/crown-copyright-in-the-information-age.pdf, 273KB PDF), proposed abolition as one of seven options for crown copyright.

In the public consultation that followed, abolition emerged as the most popular. From 70 responses received, abolition received 12 votes as preferred choice. The runner-up (retaining copyright but in a simpler form) received eight votes. The snag was that although abolition was the most popular response, it was also the least popular, receiving the largest number of “unacceptable” votes.

Faced with this polarised response, the government chose compromise. In 1999, the Cabinet Office found a “general consensus” in favour of retaining copyright, with simplified procedures for re-use.

There are arguments for and against crown copyright – certainly, the one that we hear from ministers is that it would mean you could be sure that something did originate where it claims to have done. (A hash on the original data could be followed through and computed on subsequent data to check its origin, for example.)

But the problem with crown copyright as it stands, and more importantly as it’s used, is that it’s used to restrict. That’s what copyright was used to do originally (over the Bible: see the introduction given at the RSA/Free Our Data debate – transcript, as PDF – last year by David Vaver of the Oxford Intellectual Property Group) and still is. Even the word itself has that ring. Maybe we need a different word.

Bonus link: Wikipedia’s page on crown copyright

Government seeks input on flooding review: got an opinion?

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

The Cabinet Office has set up a “Flooding Lessons Learned Review” site, where you – yes, you, the citizen in front of the computer screen – can comment in a helpful way, one hopes, to prevent this summer’s floods repeating.

The terms of reference says that the “specific objectives” are (emphasis added here):

  1. To understand why the flooding was so extensive.
  2. To learn lessons on how in future we can best predict, prevent or mitigate the scale and impact of flooding incidents in a potentially changing environment.
  3. To look at how best to co-ordinate the response to flooding in future, including the significant social implications for communities.
  4. To establish what access to support, equipment, facilities and information is needed by those involved in the response at local, regional and national levels.
  5. To ensure the public has as much access as possible to information on the risk of flooding to allow them to take appropriate precautions, be adequately informed on developments as an emergency unfolds, and be looked after properly in the immediate aftermath.
  6. To establish how the transition from response to recovery is best managed.
  7. To identify those aspects of the response that worked well and should be promoted and reinforced.
  8. To make recommendations in each of these areas to improve the UK’s preparedness for flooding events in the future.
  9. To make recommendations, drawing on the experience of the flooding incidents, to improve the UK’s broader ability to manage the loss of essential services in any future emergencies.

We’ve already commented on how the Environment Agency restricts access to its flood data – a fact that is complicated, we now learn, by the fact that although the EA is a government-appointed agency, its data is not crown copyright (because it may have to sue government departments, which are “owned” by the Crown, and the monarch can’t sue him/herself. Follow that?) So not only would the Free Our Data campaign have to get trading funds reversed, it would have to get agencies paid by government to put their data under crown copyright. Honestly, it’s one step forward and one back.

Notwithstanding, it would make a lot more sense if the flood map data was simply available to everyone to use and even improve upon. We’ll suggest that in the flood review. You’re welcome to add your own comments on the Flooding Review site.

A free, searchable law catalogue: hours of fun for all (especially lawyers)

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

The other day I was thinking to myself that one thing we could really do with is a database of court judgements. Not because I had any pressing need to look up a court judgement, but because logically – given that the courts are government-funded, work for the benefit of citizens, and are never ever going to be privatised – their output is a public property which should be available as a public good.

And lo and behold, someone has got there long before. Today’s Guardian leaders included one praising the work of Bailii, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, a charity devoted to freeing the law and whose trustees are chaired by Lord Brooke.

The leader notes that

Since 1999, Bailii has been amassing past judgments and negotiating to publish current and future ones. This is not just a wheeze for lawyers to get something for nothing, nor is it only for people fighting their own cases through the courts. It provides a constitutional right, allowing anyone interested to read the decisions taken most days in the courts that influence the public domain. With a handful of people, a budget of just £120,000 a year, and a shrewd grasp of what technology can do, it is finally making a reality of the ancient quest for universal access to common law.

Having tried it very briefly and searched on a few points of interest, it’s clear that Bailii is trying to dom something very like what theyworkforyou.com does for Parliament – make the law courts’ output into something that we can all access. Its utility might not seem huge on face value, but that’s a false argument. Compare that to the utility you’d lose if it wasn’t there. Not sure what that is? Don’t worry – all databases grow in value with time and size.

The only shame, in fact, is that Bailii has to be charitably funded, outside government. It’s the sort of thing that we should be expecting the courts to do themselves. After all, £120,000 a year is about the cost of a few troops in Iraq. And I hear we’re withdrawing those now..