Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for November, 2007

Free O’Data: Ireland makes (some) data free

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Apologies for the headline, but then again, it was inescapable.

But: Ireland’s geographical agency, the GSI, has made a number of its datasets about boreholes available for free online.

Announced by the minister, the web page itself is a bit spartan: “Minister Ryan launches Spatial Data Projects to allow free online access to Deptarmental data. GSI, along with PAD, EMD and Enginerring Divisions of DCENR, all contributed data to these series of web map viewers, data download pages and GIS web services. Click on www.dcenr.gov.ie/spatial+pages [Note: this isn’t a valid page, or at least not to me on my Mac] or http://www.gsi.ie/mapping for further details.”

The more useful data is at this page, which explains that it’s access to the borehole database:

Dr. Ronnie Creighton, Senior Geologist at GSI, explains that engineers regularly consult the database during the desk study stage in site selection and the planning of ground investigation design. ‚ÄúThe data are used to create subsurface maps of the depth to bedrock for Dublin city centre, for instance, as well as 3D visualisation of the subsurface bedrock topography. These are vital tools in construction and major infrastructure planning,‚Ä? he said.

Access to the database is free and is now online, via a specially designed web map viewer, accessible from the following GSI web page www.gsi.ie/Mapping.html The map viewer currently provides public and professional users free access to over 12,200 digitised boreholes and trial pits from the database via an easy to use map-based interface.

An interesting contrast with the Environment Agency for England and Wales, which as we pointed out in May, is trying to charge people for details about water extraction locations:

[the] Environment Agency… used to make available the data about the location of ‚Äúsource protection zones‚Ä? – essentially, areas around groundwater sources which must be protected from pollution to avoid contamination of drinking water supplies.

We’d be interested to hear though from anyone who could tell us precisely how useful these new Irish data are. Even so, datasets online for no price? Sounds good to us.

Does this sound familiar? Virtual London removed from Second Life – at Ordnance Survey request

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

The Virtual London project has once again fallen afoul of Ordnance Survey, which this time has spread its domain of dominion into virtual worlds that have no physical existence.

So, the virtual London that the UCL team had built in Second Life has had to be un-built. The team explains:

Our Virtual London model in Second Life has been removed from the collaborative environment at the request of the Ordnance Survey.

The research is currently ‘pending license clearance’ as the Ordnance Survey are ‘uncomfortable’ with the use of the data.

Details on the work currently unavailable are in the post below, we are reserving comment at request on this one, but i guess you know our views…

Three Dimensional Collaborative Geographic Information Systems (3DC/GIS) are in their infancy, Google Earth opened up the concept of three dimensions to the mainstream but issues with data copyright, the inability to effectively tag data to buildings and the asynchronous nature of the platform have limited developments.

Second Life however provides a synchronous platform with the ability to tie information, actions and rules to objects opening the possibility of a true multi-user geographical information system. It has been notoriously difficult to import 3D data into the Second Life but at CASA we have managed to import our Virtual London model of 3 million plus buildings into a scrolling map. The map is built from prims that ‘res’ our of a central point to build accurate models based on Ordnance Survey MasterMap with height data supplied by InfoTerra.

We’re very interested by the concept that you can infringe copyright with data in a virtual world. Then again, maps are the original virtual worlds, aren’t they?

Free Our Data mentioned in Parliament. It’s a start…

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

We’re gradually trying to get the Free Our Data campaign moved up the agenda: ministerial meetings, civil servants, European comparisons.

But we have to thank Mark Todd MP (see right) for at last mentioning the campaign in the House of Commons, during an adjournment debate on Monday night on the topic of “Public Information (Commercial Use)“.

Even if it was only to dismiss our precept… he said:

I should like briefly to comment on the free our data campaign [our emphasis], which has suggested that the correct path is to distribute Government data virtually for free, or at cost. The difficulty of that model, which relies on the argument that that would generate substantial economic growth and tax revenues that would easily repay the amount lost in revenues directly associated with the sales, is that I am afraid it places a substantial reliance on any Government—not just this one—to continue to fund the development and maintenance of the quality of data in those organisations. At the moment, the organisations have revenue streams on which they can rely to invest into the future. Simply relying on the Treasury to bury its hand into its pocket periodically to develop data into the future is wishful thinking. That is not the path down which we should be treading.

He makes a good point, but then, the Office of National Statistics faces much the same problem. Somehow that can be relied on to be independent

It is well worth reading the debate, even though the only participants (perhaps the only people who were present?) appear to be Mr Todd and Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development. As Mr Todd notes, it’s shaming enough that in trying to get a government minister to respond to PSI questions, nobody seems to be in charge:

One of the difficulties is that a variety of Departments have a role to play; there is no clear, coherent leadership, as was evidenced in the preparations for responding to this debate. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has been passed the parcel of answering at 10.15 or thereabouts, but to be honest the task could have gone to a number of other Ministers. Indeed, I was asked which Minister I thought it appropriate should answer the debate. There is a lack of clarity at that level that needs to be resolved.

His cause is to point out that there’s enormous value locked up in public sector information which ought to be made more visible. We agree; we only differ about the charging methodology.

Then again, the answer from Gareth Thomas does contain something that we find less encouraging:

Given that the trading fund model is well established, the Government believe that we should take the time to look at the issues in some detail. We must ensure that high-quality data continue to be produced, and public sector tasks fulfilled, at the same time as opportunities for the wider economy are maximised. It would be entirely premature to abandon what has been a high-quality data production model without fully exploring the consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the UK has world-class agencies, including Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry. I shall take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the professionalism, expertise and talent that is housed in each of those offices. We should be careful to avoid destabilising those excellent agencies.

Yes, but we’d hate to think he’s prejudging the outcome of the trading funds study, which will report on November 22.

(Mr Todd’s interest stems from the fact that before becoming an MP he worked for Pearson, and considered or may have set up companies which would have used data – some of it sourced from the public sector. As he says on his biography,

I spent 20 years in the publishing industry starting as an editor of school history books and leaving when I was running the warehouse, customer service and information systems of the UK business of Addison Wesley Longman. Through most of my business career my task was the transformation of previously unprofitable businesses or service functions which were too costly and failing to deliver.

Nice use of Google Maps on his site, by the way… the only pity is that he’s standing down at the next election. Then again, that could be some time away.)

Still, we’ll drop him a line to say thanks. And point out the ONS…

And an extra note for Steve Feldman: we didn’t lobby him..

APPSI chief comes out swinging against lack of government information/data policy

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Richard Susskind, head of the government’s Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, has been rather critical of government’s lack of strategy over PSI. We’ll have a longer interview with him in the paper on Thursday, but meanwhile here’s some extracts from a position paper (or lack of position paper?) that he has just completed. You can find it on the APPSI’s “Papers for Ministers” slot, or linked below here on the site.

“This paper is written primarily for Ministers who have a direct interest in or responsibility for the re-use of public sector information. It considers why and how the Government should formulate an explicit strategy for the re-use of PSI”

, it begins.

and continues:

“There has been growing recognition in recent years that this information (for example, geographical, meteorological and statistical information) constitutes a resource of great potential value; that public information is an asset, an intellectual asset, that should not be seen as usable for one purpose only. Instead, it is argued, this information can and should be made available for re-use (a recycling of sorts).”

Under current obstacles, he identifies

  • disagreement over the value of reuse (“APPSI strongly and confidently challenges the OFT”): Susskind says that “APPSI argues that the impact of the re-use of PSI is very significantly understated in that document and is better understood not by calculating the revenue generated by licensing PSI but by identifying the extent to which businesses and institutions rely on PSI.”
  • unclear government priorities: does it want to cash in on PSI to reduce the net public expenditure, or strengthen UK industry’s competitiveness?
  • There has been no single focal point for PSI, at Ministerial level, to ensure coherence across the public sector.” (This was one of the remarks made – with some amazement – by Derek Wyatt at the RSA/Free Our Data debate in summer 2006.)
  • The rapid growth of the Internet and emerging online developments may render current policy out of date.” (Already has, we would argue: the internet tends to make available any data and information resource that is reliable and free and elevate them above paid-for resources.)
  • There is significant disagreement over charging policy.” That is: “Some support trading funds and their sale of PSI in the manner of private sector businesses. Others argue for making PSI available at no cost or marginal cost. And still others make a case between these two poles.” Could he possibly mean us?
  • most damning, “There has been, until recently, little interest in the re-use of PSI amongst most Ministers and senior officials.” Although, he adds approvingly, “Recent ministerial interest suggests this may be a problem of the past.” Certainly if the response from Michael Wills is anything to go by.

The question of privatising some of the trading funds (first in line might be UK Hydrographic Office) is moot, he says, “in the absence of clearer underpinning policy” [on PSI]. That is, if you don’t know quite how valuable your PSI is – and what UKHO generates is definitely public-, not private-sector information – then you can’t make an informed decision about whether the taxpayer (who is the present shareholder in UKHO) will benefit from privatising it. If you reduce the shareholding to those who buy the shares in the privatised company, does that benefit the people who used to own it (us) by more than we lose?

His short-term list of jobs for the government is that within a year, the Government should:

  1. undertake or commission a robust analysis of the actual and potential impact

of PSI re-use on the UK economy and society, supported by plausible

valuations;

  • prioritise clearly which classes of re-user should be the prime beneficiaries
  • and identify what tangible benefits it expects to accrue;

  • nominate a senior Minister to champion the systematic and coherent re-use of PSI across the public sector;
  • assess the impact on PSI re-use of existing and emerging Internet-based technologies, especially Web 2.0;
  • revisit charging policy in relation to the licensing of PSI with particular
  • reference to trading funds 6; [already being done; report due November 22 – CA]

  • increase awareness of the impact and value of PSI within and beyond the
  • public sector.

    As I said, we’ll have a longer interview with Richard Susskind in Thursday’s issue. Meanwhile, you can read the document from here on the site.