Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for December, 2007

OBE for Robert Barr, free data campaigner

Monday, December 31st, 2007

We don’t want to be too bold in claiming influence in high places, but we’re delighted to record that one of the inspirational figures behind this campaign has picked up a gong in the New Year’s honours list.

Congratulations go to Dr Robert Barr, of Manchester Geomatics and Manchester University, on his OBE for services to geography. Among his many other activities, Bob is a passionate campaigner for a saner approach to the management of public sector information, in particular address databases. We hope he won’t mind being counted as a (sometimes critical) friend.

Perhaps he’ll put in a word for free data when he drops in at SW1A 1AA…

Is OS’s OpenSpace all it’s cracked up to be?

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

Merry Christmas to our dedicated readers; and apologies for not updating more often – I did blog the launch of Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace on the Guardian Technology blog, and thought it had been quite well covered. But we could have done it here too..

Anyway, people have had time to (as they say in the US) kick the tyres of OpenSpace. What do they think?

Ogleearth is not impressed because of the restrictions on volume. The OpenSpace FAQ says:

1.4 How much data am I allowed to use?OS OpenSpace allows your API key to access up to 30 000 tiles of data and up to 1 000 place name look-ups per day for free.

5.4 My site gets a lot of traffic, what can I do?Congratulations :! Contact us to talk about the different possibilities we may be able to offer you. If you are interested in commercialising your application, take a look at point 6.2 of the FAQs.

To OgleEarth, which is a well-read blog, that means that

So let’s say I add an embedded OpenSpace map to a blog post on Ogle Earth that shows 9 tiles. That should last me about the first 12 hours of every day. Sorry late-rising Californians, my quota is up! Should I add two such maps within 15 posts of each other, so that the front page of the blog displays a total of 18 squares, then Europe is out of luck too. Translation from OSese: Feel free to have a website that uses our maps, as long as it is obscure and unpopular.

Mm. And it adds:

this is so stupid and tone-deaf to the realities of Web 2.0 that I’m practically sputtering into my Malay gin & tonic. Pages and websites are artificial constructs in Web 2.0, as we’ve now all moved on to services aggregated from wherever they may originate. Do I really have to set up an ad-free and link to maps served from there as popups or iframes every time I want to use OpenSpace? Is OS not aware that advertising such as Google ads is ubiquitous on the blogs and hobby sites that the OpenSpace API is ostensibly for? For the overwhelming majority of bloggers — certainly those for whom 30,000 tiles per day is plenty — the ads at most help defray hosting costs, or else they are injected by web hosters to pay for free hosting services.

That’s not really a great vote of confidence. What do other people say? A Technorati search brings up a long list of results – with people who are happy that OS has done this.

The OpenStreetMap crowd (that’s a compliment – eyes, bugs, shallow) analysed the licence and found that if you generate something new, using information from the OS, which is “a severable improvement” (as in, you can separate it from the map, and it’s better), then it’s your data. A small win…

TechCrunch UK wasn’t impressed, because it doesn’t go far enough for them:

However, it is not great news for startups. The OS has “almost? come to its senses because there remains the issue that startups will not be able to create commercial businesses out of this data from the word go. Even though these are businesses from which the government could potentially extract tax revenues, again.

That’s straight out of the Free Our Data playbook, though we have to say we’ve not been in touch with TCUK. (Maybe we should.)

Blacksworld notes that the OS cartography has far more detail, which is a very pertinent point – and the one which is behind us pushing for this data to be more easily usable.

As its author notes:

The license is a license, so some people and going to love it, some will hate it and most will just get on with hacking. One thing that the guys from the OS were emphasising yesterday, was that they really want people to consult with them. That’s why we were there yesterday – so that the people who made OpenSpace could see what we thought. I think the desire of the OpenSpace team to listen to people’s feedback and act on it is a genuine one, so maybe we could all try some constructive criticism before trashing it. But hey, this is the internet.

It’s a good point. The OpenSpace API could be better; it could be unlimited; but then again, the OS has to pay for its data costs somehow. While it’s a trading fund, it can’t just give away the use of its data centres. We’ll have to wait for a more enlightened regime, perhaps.

UKHO decision: no selloff; and a year on from CUPI, are we any further ahead?

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Today’s Guardian notes that we’re a year on from the OFT report on the Commercial Use of Public Information, but that government still hasn’t come up with a coherent response that covers what’s suggested.

So far, the main government response has been to ask for more information. It commissioned the Power of Information investigation, which recommended that the government do more to encourage the re-use of public sector information. It, in turn, called for studies on the effect that changes in pricing would have on trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and the UK Hydrographic Office. In response, the government commissioned a study of the trading fund model. That is due to be submitted by the end of the year. This month, the MoD is due to decide on whether the UK Hydrographic Office will continue as a trading fund or become a private company.

The UKHO decision has been reached: it’s not being sold off. Instead, it will remain a trading fund.

That has to be good news for the possibility of a free data model (or even a reduced cost of data, or free unrefined data model).

The MOD press release:

The UK Hydrographic Office will remain a Trading Fund of the Ministry of Defence, after a review of the business and its future.

Defence Minister, Derek Twigg announced to Parliament today that the business will remain as an arm of the MoD and will continue to be located in Taunton, but that major changes needed to be made.

The review included a detailed restructuring programme to ensure the business and its personnel are best equipped to meet the needs of the 21st century mariner in an increasingly competitive environment.

In an overhaul of the business by the Ministry of Defence and the UKHO, proposals have been developed for a reduction of between 250 and 300 permanent posts over a period of up to 5 years.

That’s quite a cut, even if it leaves 800 staff still there. Prepare for heavy seas in the UKHO’s constituency when the next election or byelection comes.