Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for February, 2008

Susskind steps down

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008


The government’s chief adviser on public sector information has decided to move on.

Richard Susskind, chair of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, says: “I have decided to step down as chair of APPSI. My last meeting will be in mid-April, which will have been five years; two more than was intended. It has been a fascinating and productive period but I think it is time for me to move on.” 



Questions arising from a talk to Kingston University: UKHO and politicians

Friday, February 15th, 2008
I gave a talk on Wednesday to some students at Kingston University as part of their course on “Contemporary Issues in GIS”. They’ve got quite a speaker list – next week it’s Ed Parsons (ex-Ordnance Survey, now Google) and in June they’ve got Vanessa Lawrence OBE, chief executive of Ordnance Survey. Previous to me they had heard from Surrey Satellites (which is interested, of course, in the possibility of Galileo getting the go-ahead). Big Wave : Porthcurno(photo from Flickr by wurz)

Anyhow, the video of the talk may be available at some time in the future. But for now, there were two questions that came up, one hard, one easy, which I thought summed up the present position.

The hard question: if you make UK Hydrographic Office’s marine data free, won’t you get all the foreign organisations who used to pay for those charts taking a free ride, at the expense of the UK taxpayer?

(A part-answer I didn’t think of at the time is that we’re only talking about making the electronic data free; paper charts would still be charged for, at cost.)

Which raises a question I don’t know the answer to: what proportion of UKHO’s revenues comes from sales of its data to overseas organisations? And what proportion of the mapping it does is of waters outside UK territorial waters?

The easy question: what’s the main obstacle to moving to a free data model? Simple – politics. There isn’t the political will there at the moment, and everyone’s reluctant to be the one who might subsequently be regarded as the person who broke this nice system.

Except that didn’t exactly hold anyone back over railway privatisation or the poll tax, nor even the privatisation of Qinetiq, did it?

Australia moves to Creative Commons licensing for PSI; what chance for the UK?

Friday, February 15th, 2008

This week’s Guardian Technology looks at what’s happening in Australia, which started out with crown copyright but now…

When you’re dealing with a flooding emergency in the middle of the worst drought for many years, the last thing you need is barriers to the sharing of geographical and meteorological information.

Yet that’s the situation faced by Australia. The authorities’ response is to consider the widespread adoption of Creative Commons licences for public-sector information.

Last month, the government of Queensland approved the use of Creative Commons, which allows free re-use of copyright material subject to certain conditions, as part of a new licensing framework. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth (federal) government is expected to give the green light to creative commons in a new set of guidelines for the management of the government’s intellectual property.

The new Australian policy will be watched with interest by Britain’s free-data movement. Historically, Australia is a pioneer of free data: a 1968 law exempted most data produced by the federal government from copyright protection.

Of course, we haven’t gotten near to the latter here in the UK, 40 years later, but anything would be a start. Even CC licensing (most commonly seen today on the photography site Flickr).

However – as in the UK – [government] organisations can and do charge for certain kinds of data. Another complication is that licensing regimes vary from state to state.

One result, says Baden Appleyard, a lawyer and research fellow at Queensland University of Technology, is “confusion, lack of interoperability and unnecessary expense in the provision and re-use of public-sector information”.

Does that sound at all familiar? What’s encouraging about Australia is that it’s actually taking steps to do something about it, following a study that was carried out last year into the effectiveness of government policies on data licensing.

Here in the UK, there was a study carried out last year – which looked at the trading funds model. We’re still waiting for the Ministry of Justice to publish it…

DCLG Select Committee snipes at Ordnance Survey; MoD says why not split it up?

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

The report from the Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government looking into Ordnance Survey’s licensing and business model – a followup from 2002 – is now published.

It’s an interesting read, not least for some of the implications of what is said, and also for the repeated refrain that runs underneath: the government’s created a bit of a monster; but it doesn’t have any adequate way to un-monster it, unless it does what the Ministry of Defence suggests in its written evidence, split it:

Perhaps it is time for OS to split in two to have a government funded national geographic database capability and a separate commercial arm which exploits that data, with the same licence conditions as applied to any other commercial user. As the MOD is not a commercial competitor it has not been affected by this aspect of the OS role.

Now what’s interesting about that, of course, is that the government-funded NGD organisation would be, well, government-funded. OK, so there’s not a “free data” exploitation, but it’s a start.

The committee does recommend that OS’s accounts be made more transparent, to show how much of its costs come from the NGD work, and how much from exploiting that work. OS says it’s discussing this with the Office of Fair Trading (whose CUPI report suggested a similar split, along the lines of “refined” and “unrefined” data – which OS says doesn’t apply to its work). But there’s no timetable for a change, nor yet an indication of whether OS will adopt either suggestion.

There’s a brief story in the Guardian’s Technology section – “MPs rap Ordnance Survey’s ‘complex and inflexible’ licences” – , but there wasn’t really space to go into the points made – particularly in the evidence – in any detail.

But the evidence is fascinating for the picture it gives. The private company Getmapping, for example, charges that

competing with the OS in the imagery market has been a dangerous, frustrating and uncertain process

and believes that

OS is competing unfairly in the imagery market. We think that OS can do this because the boundaries between its national interest and its commercial activities are not well defined and because there is no effective regulator to whom we can appeal for help. Had OS taken notice of the recommendations of the previous 2002 Select Committee report then we think that many of our current problems would have been avoided.

We’re now all agog for the trading funds report that was commissioned by the Ministry for Justice all those months ago, which some have suggested to us might be published in time for the Budget (March 12). However, since it’s highly unlikely – even if the report suggested that all trading funds should be put under a direct taxation model (or, insanely, privatise them all), there wouldn’t be time to act on them by the budget. So the timing of the budget probably isn’t going to change the timetable. We’re still in it for the long haul, but the committee’s report has turned up some interesting grumblings within government about the way that OS is forced to cover its costs.

Tell us: what aspects of the conclusions or evidence do you find most interesting?