Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for 2008

OS changes OpenSpace licensing terms in developers’ favour: commercial use now allowed

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Just after our previous post, we find a press release from Ordnance Survey in our inbox:

Ordnance Survey has today unveiled revised terms and conditions for OS OpenSpace, its non-commercial web mapping service.

The OS OpenSpace API (application programming interface) is a freeservice that allows users to build mash-ups of Ordnance Survey mapping. It was launched to the public in January this year and to date has over a thousand registered developers.

(You might note that one thousand isn’t actually a lot of developers in this web day and age.)

The changes to the terms of use reflect the fact the components of the API are now available as a free open-source download – as OSGB Web Map Tools. Available from sourceforge.net, the tools allow Ordnance Survey data licensees to build commercial applications for the Web.

At the same time as amending the OS OpenSpace terms in relation to OSGB Web Map Tools, Ordnance Survey has taken the opportunity to make some further changes that aim to provide greater overall clarity.

“Clarity” is one of those words that companies use either when they’ve been caught out doing something wrong, or when they’ve been forced to change something but want to make it look like it was their idea. Wonder which this was?

Key amongst the revisions is the introduction of new definitions of ‘Your Data’ and ‘End User’s Data’ to complement what is already defined as ‘Derived Data’. It is intended that the changes will clarify the position on ownership of each of these types of data, and will set out in clearer terms the various licences that are granted in relation to each of them.

Well, let’s see now…

Unlike OS OpenSpace, the recently launched OSGB Web Map Tools is released under a permissive free licence and does not restrict licensed developers to non-commercial activities or the use of any particular data source. [Emphasis added]

But then again it’s not quite there:

While the new map tools do not give free access to mapping, since the users must hold one of Ordnance Survey’s data licences, it does allow for third-party information to be freely overlaid and displayed.

Then again, if a licence can change once, it can change again. We’ll await developments.

Read the OS Webspace licence; download the tools (after reading the agreement).

Power of Information blog suggests what should be freed up; Geographic Strategy seems to agree

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Over at the Power of Information Task Force blog, its chairman Richard Allan has been busy – perhaps following on from the Guardian story about the problems with derived data.

He’s got some trenchant opinions about what should be available to people (and companies?) wanting to work with geographic data for free:

All government administrative boundaries – e.g. constituencies, wards, super output areas, health authorities, school catchments etc.

All point data for the location of public service outlets – e.g. schools, hospitals, public toilets, daycare centres etc.

I can’t think of any good reasons why such data should not be declared as free for re-use in all senses of the word, i.e. that no license fee should be payable but also that no restrictions should be placed on how it is re-used so we stop worrying about Google Maps terms and conditions etc. for this class of data.

The major advantage in doing so is that anyone who wants to experiment with this data, both inside and outside government, is able to get on with innovating without having to worry about legal problems.

We, of course, agree. (We’d go further. But there’s a place and a time.)

There are many interesting comments on the post, though perhaps the most interesting comes from Robert Barr:

Street centre lines, all address points, perhaps even land parcel boundaries (I know, Land Registry not OS) could all be provided on the basis that those who cause the data to change are charged not those who use it. That ensures both a fair charge for the one off service (with some element for maintaining the servers) rather than speculative and counter productive attempts at deriving revenue from data sales.

It works for the Land Registry and the Domain Registration System on the Internet, why not OS?

The interesting point is that the recently-released National Geographic Strategy seems to hint at something similar. On page 21 (and onward) we find this:

Each dataset owner (both Core Reference Geographies and other location-related datasets) should simplify their licensing arrangements so as to facilitate the sharing of data to realise greater overall value. This is in line with the Government’s response to the Power of Information Review recommendations and with the sharing arrangements required for INSPIRE.

Although that’s then ameliorated by the next-but-one paragraph:

The simplification should take account of the trading nature of the owners of the Core Reference Geographies and should not duplicate the Government’s separate review of the pricing of public sector information by trading funds. The simplification should also ensure that Crown Copyright is protected appropriately.

We’ll have to wait to see what emerges. But it seems like an approach which sweeps away the “derived data” idea is winning through.

Ordnance Survey business model “to be considered”; national geographic strategy coming Tuesday

Monday, November 24th, 2008

The Pre-Budget Report isn’t usually required reading for Free Our Data, but this time around it was, partly because expectations had been raised by the Sunday Times story suggesting that OS and other trading funds were in line for privatisation. (I was doubtful. I just don’t think privatisation is in this administration’s DNA. Everything it’s done with banks, after all, goes in completely the opposite direction.)

Here’s the relevant extract from the PBR (1.7MB PDF)

Re-use of public sector information from trading funds

4.54 The HM Treasury/Shareholder Executive assessment of trading funds has considered the potential for innovation and growth from increasing commercial and other use of public sector information. It will shortly publish some key principles for the re-use of this information, consider how these currently apply in each of the trading funds and how they might apply in the future, and the role of the Office of Public Sector Information in ensuring that Government policy is fully reflected in practice. For the Ordnance Survey, this will involve consideration of its underlying business model. Further details will be announced in Budget 2009. [emphasis added]

As Ed Parsons, former chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey and now a map guru at Google, points out:

This is not about privatisation – this is about how the OS trades.. how it charges for data, and its relationship with other departments. This has been on the cards for a while, although I think the issue with derived data no doubt moved this up the agenda a bit!

Yes, the issue of derived data really has stirred things up within Whitehall. And we hear that on Tuesday the national geographic strategy for the UK – often promised, never yet seen – will be published. That might be interesting too.

Update: we’ve been pointed to some more mentions of OS and other trading funds. Seems the Sunday Times wasn’t completely wrong about some being in line for privatisation – but OS still isn’t.

The relevant section is in Box 6.4 (”Operational Efficiency Programme – Asset strand”), on page 119 of the report. My comments in [italics]

Gerry Grimstone is heading the asset strand of the Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP), and will be working with departments, agencies, and the Shareholder Executive to consider, for a number of Government assets, the potential for alternative business models, commercialisation, new market opportunities and, where appropriate, alternatives to public ownership. The work includes:

 

• a review of British Waterways’ model for managing its canal-side property portfolio which  will assess how best public value might be delivered from these assets in the medium term; [partial or complete privatisation? What does BW do that needs to be in government hands?]

 

• options for the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, after a recent study concluded there was no public policy rationale for the Government to own it; [looks like a selloff]

 

• a strategic review into the future business model of the Ordnance Survey, that will take into account its role as a public sector information provider, together with providing value for money for the taxpayers; [doesn't look like a selloff because of the "role as a PSI provider"]

 

• work with the Land Registry to explore ways to improve its operating framework; [again, no selloff; operating frameworks are how you get stuff done, not whether you're private or not]

 

• widening the scope of the study of capacity requirements at the Dartford Crossing to include the potential to realise value for the taxpayers and, in addition, continuing to explore options  for the commercialisation of other transport assets; ["realise value" for taxpayers sounds like a selloff]

 

• a study to explore the potential benefits of alternative future models for the Royal Mint; [unclear]

 

• reviews of the Met Office, Oil & Pipeline Agency, and Defence Storage & Distribution Agency examining alternative business models. [notable that it doesn't mention Met Office's role as a PSI provider, which is rather suspicious]

 

Budget 2009 will report on progress, and will also take into account market conditions and the views of relevant stakeholders. Gerry Grimstone will work with Lord Carter of Coles, who heads up the OEP Property workstrand, in ensuring that any appropriate efficiencies in relation to property associated with these assets are taken in account.

There’s also some interesting mentions at the end: read in full to see how the market is affecting thoughts of selloffs – or not:

Departments are also working to achieve efficiencies on other Government assets:

 

• the Ministry of Defence will shortly publish its response to a recent consultation on its plans to release and share parts of its electromagnetic spectrum holdings, with the release process for initial spectrum bands beginning in Spring 2009;

 

• the Government continues to explore options for realizing value from its stake in Urenco;

 

• a study of the Forestry Commission’s portfolio in England is being launched to examine options for delivery of public value from the estate in the long term; [=selloff]

 

• a major redevelopment by Covent Garden Market Authority will aim to put it on a sustainable financial footing, enabling the Government to achieve its long-term objective of disengagement.[=selloff]

 

In addition, it was concluded in October not to pursue a sale of the Tote in light of current market conditions, and that it should be retained in public ownership for the medium term, to be brought to the market when conditions are likely to deliver value for the taxpayers and the racing industry. [=no selloff because there are no buyers.]

Privatisation, of course, is all very well if you can find a buyer. But in a falling, or stagnant, market, you can’t get the best price. Alastair Darling would be in a weak position if he sold any assets off now only to see the market rise before an election – which would open him to accusations of selling the country short.

Why privatising Ordnance Survey (and other trading funds) would be the worst possible outcome (updated)

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

A story in today’s Sunday Times, ahead of Monday’s Pre-Budget Report, suggests that Ordnance Survey, the Forestry Commission, Land Registry and some other trading funds will be privatised:

A string of state-owned household names including the Met Office, mapmaker Ordnance Survey and the Forestry Commission, are being prepared for sale by the government in the next two years to raise cash for the stretched public purse.

Alistair Darling, the chancellor, is thought to have drawn up a list of 10 companies to offload, including the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. He will outline the programme in the prebudget report tomorrow alongside details of a Whitehall efficiency drive.

I’m inclined not to believe this report – sunday newspaper journalism is not always what it appears to be; the phrase “managing expectations” has to be borne in mind (talk up a scary prospect; something less scary but still surprising then seems acceptable). But let’s treat it as correct on its face.

The Free Our Data campaign has always opposed privatisation of any of the government’s data collection agencies. We have said consistently that we admire the OS’s ability as a data collection agency; our argument is with its fiscal model.

If we begin with the Ordnance Survey, here are the reasons why a privatised OS would be far worse than the current one.

  1. as a commercial enterprise, it would not have the commitment to map all of the UK that the national mapping agency must have. If that commitment is forced on it by its articles of association, it would be less competitive than rivals, meaning it would be less competitive and so be vulnerable to takeover or worse
  2. valuing the asset would be almost impossible: what’s the value of the MasterMap and its geographic data? OS has consistently refused to put a price on this*, which has led to its accounts not being accepted by the National Audit Office. What you can’t value, you can’t sell
  3. OS presently updates its database with data provided for free by local authorities and others. This is causing some friction. If OS were a private company, it would have to pay a “market rate” for that data. The arguments about what that rates was would make everything that’s going on now look like a tea party
  4. OS does important defence-related work; are you going to give that to a private company whose shareholders you don’t know about (even if government keeps a golden share)?
  5. privatisations of government properties don’t get good value: the instance of DERA (now Qinetiq) was found to be exceptionally bad value to government, though those who completed it did OK
  6. any asset sale now will not realise the sort of value that might expected: this is a terrible climate in which to try to float a company
  7. financial advisers will tell you anything at present to try to get a selloff – but that doesn’t mean they’re right: look how well they did with mortgage securitisation
  8. most of all, OS doesn’t cost the Treasury anything. It generates a 5% return on its revenues – which is better than you’d get from a bank.

Similar arguments apply to all the other trading funds, at a rough guess. Even the Forestry Commission probably has a valid reason for being part of government.

We’ll wait to see what’s really in the Pre-Budget Report, though.

Update: the PBR gives absolutely no indication of privatisation – quite the opposite, in fact.

* from the latest accounts for 2007/8:

The geographic data (‘the data’ – referred to as the National Geographic Database in previous financial statements) is the term used to describe the suite of geographic datasets that Ordnance Survey collects, develops and maintains to represent as digital and paper products which generate revenue.

The data is an internally generated intangible asset per Financial Reporting Standard 10 and as such can only be capitalised where there is a readily ascertainable market value evidenced by an active market for similar assets. Since the data is unique and has never changed ownership, we consider that no market value can be attached.

(back to text)

Home Office responds re OS and crime maps

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I asked the Home Office yesterday whether the home secretary Jacqui Smith was still standing by her pledge that all police forces would have crime mapping by the end of the year, in the light of the fact that OS claims that plotting any data on a Google (or Microsoft or Yahoo or Ask..) map which is “derived” from an OS map breaks its licence.

The Home Office reply in full:

“Crime mapping is being delivered through ACPO as part of the Policing Pledge. We have been aware of this issue for some time and have worked with ACPO to ensure that forces remain on track to publish crime maps as part of the Policing Pledge by the end of the year”.

I’m intrigued by that “aware… for some time” bit. Because it seems to me that time is running out to hit that target.

Looking, for example, at the site for the county where I live, Essex, the crime figures and statistics page shows a tiny map of the county, and then simply gives you a listing of crimes (if you can figure out where you live; good luck with that if you’re near a boundary, because the map can’t be expanded) in the wards.

To have a crime map by the end of the year will mean changing that all over to something plotted within, let’s be generous, 20-odd working days (unless the Essex coders are going to work over Christmas). Four working weeks.

I may be a pessimist, but unless there’s a radical change in how OS interprets its licensing – or in how OS data gets licensed – I don’t see that happening. The argument about licensing remains. And commenters have previously noted their frustration over the OS licence, which prevents them getting anything done.

Is there a list of the UK police forces, and can anyone find any others that have introduced crime mapping apart from the Met (illicitly), West Yorkshire and West Midlands?

Ordnance Survey says Met Police crime maps break its licence. Does Jacqui Smith know? Or Gordon Brown?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Ordnance Survey has confirmed to me that the crime maps being used by the Met Police break its licence.

And any other police force that uses “ward boundaries” (subdivisions of their force’s policing area, which is how all police forces record crimes) or refers to an OS map in order to plot the location of a crime, and then plots it on anything other than a fully-licenced OS map, is also breaking the OS’s licence.

This, basically, derails any sort of useful crime mapping – and has to call into question whether police forces can meet the deadline promised by the home secretary Jacqui Smith in July.

Just to remind you what was said:

Every neighbourhood in England and Wales will have access to the latest local crime information through new interactive crime maps, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced today.

The rollout of interactive crime maps follows the announcement made by the Home Secretary earlier this month, as part of the Policing Green Paper, that every police force in the country has now delivered monthly crime information to the public on their websites. New interactive crime maps will take the rollout of local crime information to the next level.

By the end of the year every police force area will produce crime maps which will allow the public to:

  • see where and when crime has happened, down to street level for some crimes;
  • make comparisons with other areas; and
  • learn how crime is being tackled by their local neighbourhood policing team.

The new maps will give the public the information they need to hold their local police force to account. The maps will communicate to the public how they can get involved in setting local policing priorities to reduce the crime that matters to them in their area.

The Met Police then went and set up their own crime mapping site, which doesn’t give precise locations of crimes, but does show relative levels of crime, broken down by ward, and plotted – fatally – on a Google Map.

Yesterday OS sent me a statement which said:

“Our understanding is that the Met Police sourced their boundary information through the Office of National Statistics (ONS). We class this as being derived data therefore taking that outside the terms of our licensing. We are working with all the parties involved to find a solution.”

(Need to remind yourself about “derived” data? Be our guest.)

This though skewers Jacqui Smith’s publicly-announced plans for crime mapping. There can be no solution while the OS’s licence – which forbids one putting OS-derived data obtained under one OS licence onto a map that has another licence (or no OS licence at all), unless the two licences have an exactly congruent set of users and terms.

It’s never a good idea to tell a home secretary that the pledge they made publicly in July, allowing six months to happen, now can’t be met.

Then again, perhaps Jacqui Smith isn’t a formidable enough opponent. How about Gordon Brown, who is also in favour of crime mapping?

That said, there are some crime maps already available, which do use OS maps: West Yorkshire police; West Midlands police. As I’ll explore in a later post, they’re complete rubbish – they lack any sort of helpful positional API, multiple layers, or other features that make crime mapping useful. Though they do seem to build on an OS map. This means OS is offering some sort of API-based system. Pity that it’s pretty much hopeless.

Compare and contrast it with the Chicago output of Everyblock – for a particular police beat, or a neighbourhood – and you can see how prehistoric these UK efforts look. Even the ones that are breaking the OS licence. (And especially the ones that aren’t.)

If one good thing can come out of all this it would be for the OS’s stranglehold on geographical information to be broken by a political row in which it frustrates the Home Office – one of the most powerful departments in the country.

Are the Show Us A Better Way winners safe from Ordnance Survey?

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

After the results of the Show Us A Better Way competition – the X-Factor for web services (as I think I dubbed it) – now here’s the letdown. Ordnance Survey has emailed local government organisations waving its copyright stick. And it’s quite a bit stick. One which, in effect, could prevent many – perhaps all? – of the SUABW winners (Free Our Data announcement; BBC announcement), and certainly those which might rely on local authority data that is in any way geographically related – from being implemented, certainly on Google Maps.

Which would only leave OS’s own OpenSpace product. Which as you know isn’t for commercial or high-volume use. Which would rather complicate things.

The OS, we’ve learnt, has circulated local government with a helpful Q+A about how they shouldn’t embed info on Google Maps (or of course other mapping companies such as Microsoft or Yahoo or..) if it has been “derived” from OS data.

Q I want to pass information I have captured, which has been derived from Ordnance Survey data, onto Google for Google to display on Google Maps. Can I do this?

A Any use of Ordnance Survey data, or data derived from Ordnance Survey data, should be in accordance with the terms of your licence. You are only able to provide such data to a third party in limited circumstances, for example, to your contractor undertaking authority business on your behalf, and only provided that such contractor enters into a Contractor’s Licence. (You should note that we believe the terms of the Contractor’s Licence are wholly inconsistent with what we understand to be Google’s standard terms and conditions.)

Therefore, you cannot pass such information to Google for display on Google Maps, and we must remind you that provision of data to Google in this way would be in breach of Crown copyright.

But what is “derived” from OS data? At local government level, pretty much anything if it relates to where something is.

Q What constitutes data ‘derived’ from Ordnance Survey data?

A Simply put, Ordnance Survey derived data is any data created using Ordnance Survey base data. For example, if you capture a polygon or a point or any other feature using any Ordnance Survey data, either in its data form or as a background context to the polygon/point/other feature capture, this would constitute derived data.

It should also be borne in mind that data from other suppliers may be based on Ordnance Survey material, and thus the above considerations may still apply. We therefore recommend that you verify whether any third-party mapping you use may have been created in some way from Ordnance Survey data before displaying it on Google Maps.

OK, then, how about another way of doing things? What if you run Google Maps and overlay info on top of that, rather than putting it “into” Gmaps?

Q I want to pull Google Maps onto my system and host my Ordnance Survey derived business information on top, so that no data will pass to Google. Can I use this solution instead?

A No. Although you will not be passing any data directly to Google, by displaying such data on top of Google Maps in this way and making such mapping available to the public, it appears that you will be granting Google a licence to use such data. This is the case despite the fact that you will be hosting the data on your system. Google’s terms and conditions appear to provide that any display of data on or through the Google services grants Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such data.

The terms of your licence do not permit you to license Ordnance Survey data to a third party in these circumstances.

If you’d like a copy to marvel at, then download the PDF. (Provided as a public service.)

Now, the OS is perfectly within its rights – indeed, it’s asserting its rights as required by its terms of business – to follow this.

But as implemented it would make it impossible for local government organisations to make available any geographical data about locations of objects they own. (And just for clarification, Google does not license OS’s data, not even through a third party. I’m sure I’ve heard phrases like “have to be a snowy day in hell first” but have no idea who said it.)

That means that things like school catchment areas (if given to geographical accuracy, or pulled off an OS-based mapping system) or postbox locations (if local government holds them) or recycling locations or cycling routes or toilets… gracious me, I seem to have listed the top five applications suggested for SUABW.

Let’s be clear, again: OS is perfectly within its rights to assert these rights. One can even argue that it’s obliged to. But I suspect that it’s not going to go down very well with ministers who have worked very hard to get the SUABW competition off the ground, and indeed into the stratosphere: let’s name Tom Watson (Cabinet Office), Michael Wills (Ministry of Justice) and Jim Knight (Department for Education). And of course the Department for Communities and Local Government put up some prizemoney for the competition too. Which OS – which reports into CLG – seems now to be, um, tripping up.

One could view this as a mistake. Or a political oversight. Or perhaps an attempt to force Whitehall, and in particular the Treasury, to decide whether it wants OS’s rights to prevail, or those of ministers who want more openness. In any event, I think that it might be the first test for OS’s new chair, Sir Rob Margetts, who as you’ll recall is required – according to the job advert – to

be an experienced Chair who understands how to build commercial opportunities in the public sector and who has the intellect to take forward a challenging debate about Ordnance Survey’s future strategy. S/he will have experience of change.

“Challenging debate”. Hope your season ticket to London is up to date, Sir Rob.

Show Us A Better Way winner: Can I Recycle It?

Monday, November 10th, 2008

The overall winner of the government’s Show Us A Better Way competition is Can I Recycle It, which (inter alia) “will tell people what the recycling facilities are in their area, based on their postcode.”

Congratulations to Adam Temple, 26, from London. He explained his project to the Cabinet Office, which awarded his prize: “Each area has a different recycling scheme with different capabilities, so it is not surprising that households are unsure what can be recycled. Local information may be of some use, but there are a million and one things that people want to know about recycling.

“Having put in their postcode, the householder will get an easy-to-read version of what is recyclable and what is not in their area. After that, they could type in keywords for the specific piece of rubbish that they are concerned about. If it is in the database, the householder would get an immediate answer.

“If not, the question could be forwarded to the appropriate person in the local council. That person could then amend the database, and that way the website would gradually get more useful.”

(I’ll vouch for it: my local council only recycles plastics 1, 2 and 3 – though actually what would really help would be if manufacturers of packaging were obliged to print in large diagrams which of the many recyclable plastics theirs were. It gets kind of boring holding packaging up to a 100W light to try to discern whether the number two millimetres high inside the recycling logo is a 3, 5 or 6.)

Show Us A Better Way attracted more than 450 entries from around the world, with around 70,000 people visiting the website over the summer. The total prize fund was worth £80,000.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson, who spearheaded the competition, said (to quote the Cabinet Office press release):

“This is a world-leading competition that has attracted entries and praise from as far away as Australia, India and the USA. Show Us A Better Way has really captured the imagination of people in their own communities. This is about taking service design out of Whitehall and to the people who use it.

“By trusting the public and throwing it open to them to put forward their ideas, the solutions are of real, practical use. Ultimately, this is about building something from the bottom up rather than having Whitehall dictate from the centre.”

Watson also said: “This ingenious idea is a simple map showing you where recycling facilities are and what they will accept, so you can quickly and easily find out where to take your rubbish.”

And there’s even a quote from Hazel Blears, who we hadn’t noticed being entirely in favour of these bottom-up things recently: “The positive response to this competition rightly highlights the power and benefits when local people have their say, have access to good information and have the enthusiasm and the chance to make a difference locally. I am pleased that extra funding from CLG will help take some of these creative ideas forward and help encourage the use of new technologies and community media. Access to information – which these awards aim to promote – is an important part of empowering communities.”

Michael Wills – who has been an important driver of more open access from within the Ministry of Justice, and who would have helped raise prizemoney for the competition – said: ““The Government is committed to encouraging people to get involved in civic activities within their communities and across the country. Show Us A Better Way highlights the innovative ways in which people can do this.”

Just as important, SUABW seems to have inspired a similar project in the US – where there’s now a competition called Apps for Democracy running in Washington, DC, soon to be the home of that Obama fellow – who might have some people on his staff who will take note. Only $20,000 prizemoney, but it’s a start.

And congratulations to everyone again who entered SUABW – it has inspired a lot of thought within government about what can and could be done with data once it’s made available.

Show Us A Better Way: the winners are chosen

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

It seems like an age ago that Tom Watson and the Cabinet Office kicked off the Show Us A Better Way competition, intended to see whether there really was an entrepreneurial spirit out there that wanted to get hold of government data and make something with it.

It turns out that yes, there was. And like a team of Bob the Mashup Builders, many people said “Yes, we can!”

And now the competition has got its results. (And the Guardian reports it exclusively.)

Tom Watson, the Cabinet Office minister who pushed so hard to get it off the ground, said: “These excellent ideas are born out a truly democratic competition which has seen entries submitted for all over the world. Show Us A Better Way has really captured the imagination of people in their own communities. They are telling us what information they want and how they want to use it.

“I have been delighted by the ideas submitted and how ingenious people have been in applying the information that government already holds. This is about taking service design out of Whitehall and to the people who use it. I hope the people behind the ideas that just missed the cut will not be disheartened and will continue to develop them into working websites.”

So who are the winners? In no particular order, in the first category they are:

  • Can I Recycle It? Input your postcode to find out what your council recycles
  • UK Cycling A one-stop site to plan your cycling route, for those at any skill level
  • Catchment Areas Shows boundaries of school catchment areas, even “fuzzily”
  • Location of Postboxes Shows where the nearest one is to wherever you are
  • Loofinder A mobile texting or website that tells you where the nearest public toilet is.

But there are two other categories:
Ideas where the government will develop the idea further:

  • Road Works API, an interface to any and all roadworks so that organisations (such as satnav companies) or individuals could build alert systems;
  • Oldienet, which would tell you about services in your area;
  • Free Legal Web, which would be an authoritative mashup of expert legal commentary and public-sector information;
  • Allotment Manager, for better allocation of garden allotments; and
  • Where Does My Money Go, an interactive web application showing government budget data via maps, timelines, graphs and charts.

There were then another four that were declared to be “fully working” already, as prototypes, and which will be funded for further development:

  • UK School Maps (showing where the UK’s schools are – building on data released for the competition by the Department for Children, Schools and Families);
  • School Guru, which helps determine whether your child could get into a school (in Hertfordshire only at present);
  • Where’s the Path, with an Ordnance Survey map and Google Maps satellite picture of any spot; andthe
  • UK Wreck Map, showing the location of undersea wrecks around Britain’s coast.

The judging was difficult, and protracted. You may wonder why the ideas that got the largest number of votes on the Uservoice site didn’t automatically get the prizes? Because we recognised that there were weaknesses in the Uservoice system – one could vote without registering, or just wipe your cookies and vote multiple times – and also that the aim of the competition was to reward ideas that were truly innovative, that would stretch the capabilities of government data, and not just replicate services that already existed either within government or commercially (a surprising number of entries did, one way or another).

Thanks of course to the DCLG (£40,000), Ministry of Justice (£20,000) and Cabinet Office (£20,000), which all contributed to the prize fund.

But that’s not all: the final winner will be announced on BBC’s iPM programme on Radio 4 this Saturday. Let’s see who gets it.

The “Jersey question”: what if the profits of free data move offshore?

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I gave a talk last month about the Free Our Data campaign to be2camp (which had the aim of getting the idea of better sharing of data through wikis and other social systems for architecture).

Amidst it there were questions, and among the questions was this one: “if you make all the data available for free download, what’s to stop companies from relocating to Jersey – which pays no UK tax – and operating from there?”

That would mean that the UK taxpayer now wouldn’t be getting the benefit of revenues to the Ordnance Survey through its licensing fees, and wouldn’t get the tax revenue on the company that would now be headquartered in Jersey. So you’d have higher taxation costs (since the OS would now be funded centrally) and no obvious economic benefit.

So what’s the answer?

We don’t know.

The government has struggled with this problem over issues such as gambling, where companies have preferred to locate in places like Gibraltar or far-flung Caribbean countries with less strict tax regimes and offer services online. There’s a money flow out of the UK with those too.

One possible argument is that even if the data were sold and the profits taken abroad, the UK economy would benefit because the information is being made more widely available – and that has to have a benefit. There could even be a multiplier effect, as there tends to be with any commodity: making steel bars is a profitable business (or can be), but making buildings is a much more profitable one. Perhaps in time, with a free data model, the OS data would be the steel bars of the building: necessary, but not the biggest part of the value chain.

Today in the Guardian: ‘free data’ ministers still in place, but face uphill challenge

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

The dust has settled from the ministerial reshuffle of last week, and we’re happy to see that the ministers whose views about access to government data chime with ours – particularly Tom Watson in the Cabinet Office and Michael Wills at the Ministry of Justice – remain in place. Note too that Shriti Vadera, who was at DBERR, now has a higher-profile role which is expected to have quite an impact. (Baroness Vadera, a former City high-flier – remember them? – is understood to hold strong views on, inter alia, making government data more easily accessible.)

In today’s Guardian we note the fact that that hasn’t been shuffled around, and the new challenge that ministers pushing the free data idea face: how do you persuade a government that has just melted down the golden rule in order to quasi-nationalise high street banks at a cost of around £500bn, with what looks like a shrinking economy on the way, that it should forgo hundreds of millions of pounds in tax funding to pay to make data free?

(One answer might be: because it’s cheaper to do that than pay the unemployment benefits and other consequent costs if companies that pay for government data go bust.)

In Free data faces a tough challenge in the new parliamentary season, Michael Cross notes that

Decisions about the future of such trading funds will need to be made soon. A much-delayed government-wide strategy for geographical information is due for publication this autumn. It has spent the past year being bounced between Civil Service desks as its ideas are aligned with Britain’s commitments to open access to environmental data under the EU Inspire Directive. More interesting for the Free Our Data campaign will be the outcome of a review by the government’s Shareholder Executive into the trading fund model.

Oh, yes, that review. Today’s bonus link: Parliamentary Question from the Tories’ shadow minister for innovation and skills, Adam Afriyie: who has the review team met?

The answer:

the Shareholder Executive team has heard the views of around 20-25 stakeholders from the private sector, as well as others from the public and third sectors. The private sector stakeholders have included customers, suppliers and competitors of the trading funds, small UK-based companies, large multinationals and representatives of trade associations and interest groups.

However…

It would not be appropriate to name the organisations individually because their contributions to and comments on the assessment have been to inform advice to Ministers and were on a non-attributable basis.

Ononemap.com to close, pursued by Environment Agency (updated)

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

The website ononemap.com, which has been featured here on a number of occasions – first for getting the list of telephone masts, and then for getting Environment Agency data about flood risks for England, Scotland and Wales – is shutting down.

The reason: it’s not really making any money (property adverts are one thing, but you may have noticed there’s been a tailing-off in house sales recently..) and – I understand – it was still being threatened with legal action by the Environment Agency. (We’ll check this with the EA and correct if necessary.) Update 11/10: the Environment Agency says it has not pursued any action since last year and that none is outstanding.

We noted in June 2007 that the Environment Agency asserted its copyright over flood risk data, forcing ononemap to remove it from its site.

What wasn’t told at the time was the efforts that the Environment Agency went to in order to obfuscate its data: it renders the flood maps as pictures, rather than using layers. That means each search is an individually-generated picture. There’s no “generic” map of the flood data.

So ononemap got to work – and recruited a handful of servers to crunch 24/7 through the data, using a colour-recognition algorithm to figure out what the flood risk for each part of the map was, and encode that back as its flood data. (Interesting legal question: since it isn’t using the EA data directly, but interpreting it as presented, is that a new database with its own copyright? Or is it simply a re-representation of the EA data, and hence an infringement of copyright?)

The site’s blog (ononeblog.com) is no longer functioning, though the site is for now.

It’s a pity, though: an early attempt to try to make something of the data available on the web and create a useful mashup for would-be property buyers. But the latter are in scarce supply right now, while the right data weren’t ever available in the form needed.

Vote for the idea you think should win Show Us A Better Way

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

The government’s Show Us A Better Way competition has finished its first part – getting entries. And there are lots of them. (More than 500, by a rough count.)

We’ve been asked to help draw up the shortlist, and take part in the judging panel. And we’ve been specifically asked to get everyone out there to vote on their preferred ones.

You can: go to http://suabw.uservoice.com and get stuck in. Almost all of the entries are there, apart from some last-minute entries. (There may also be duplications: when you find them, leave a comment and I’ll try to fix it.)

You each have 10 votes; use them wisely.

How should you choose? Ah, yes, that’s the question. I think that ideas that truly deserve the £20,000 prize should be (1) widely useful [which I think rules out applications that would only run on particular computers or phones] (2) achievable [ie not requiring supercomputers, or everyone installing some custom-made widget] (3) beneficial (4) not duplicating something that could be or is already done commercially (5) has that magic something which makes you think “ooh, clever!”.

Those, anyway, would be my suggestions. You’re welcome to use your own criteria. But get voting and tell your friends!

We’ve also written about it in the Guardian. Even so, tell more people..

FOD interviewed for BBC iPM on making court records available online

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

We were happy to be interviewed for the BBC’s iPM programme (Radio 4, Saturdays, 5.30pm) on the topic of Jack Straw’s announcement that court records will be made available online.

Now, the Free Our Data campaign is, strictly speaking, about non-personal data: we argue that should be made available for free re-use. When you’re talking about court records, that’s rather different: it’s about as personal as you can make it.

But there is a wider principle, which is that it seems to us good if the government is wrapping its collective head around the idea that data can be useful, and that the assumption should be that data are made available, rather than kept secret.

Some lawyers argue in the piece that the court records are riddled with inaccuracies. Obviously, that would have to be ironed out.

But there’s a wider point: newspapers now have online archives, and they don’t delete them. (It’s a principle at The Guardian, for example, that we don’t change what’s on the site without very good reason.) That means that these records are going to be there, even if the government doesn’t make them available.

To be honest, Lord Falconer’s argument that articles relating to high-profile court cases should be removed from online news archives because of the risk of prejudicing trials is simply untenable. It won’t happen. Bloggers will write things. American sites will collect data. Google’s cache holds data. The Wayback Machine holds the data. Once on the internet, data tends to survive. Falconer’s suggestion is typical of people who can’t conceive that the internet has changed the idea of access to data completely.

My suggestion is that, given these facts, we simply need to move to a situation like the US: where juries are sequestered, and told to try people only on the facts of the case (as they are here too, of course).

Of course besides making it easier to retain data, the internet makes it easier to spread it – and, potentially, create businesses from it. Which is also what this campaign is about.

Welcome, iPM listeners

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

If you’ve just come here after the iPM item – welcome. Do have a look around. We have studies of the economics of freeing data and Ordnance Survey’s lobbying against our case and all sorts..

We’d suggest that once you have, you take a look at the clearest fruit of our efforts – the government’s Show Us A Better Way competition, where people are suggesting ways to use government (non-personal) data to create new services. Not long until the closing date..