Free Our Data: the blog

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


In the Guardian: ‘we’re now in sight of victory’; so what next?

Following on from the trading standards report, today’s Guardian examines what it could mean, and what the government – and other – response so far has been.

In sight of victory notes about the study that:

The findings will be hard to dismiss. Unlike previous studies, they are based on hard figures from the trading funds affected. It also takes a holistic view, for example taking into account the overall cost to society of the extra taxation needed to pay for free data.

And then there’s the reaction:

Britain’s leading expert in public sector information policy, Professor Richard Susskind, chair of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, described the report as “precisely the kind of detailed, systematic and rigorous economic analysis of trading funds and PSI re-use that APPSI has been recommending since 2003. We hope this represents the beginning of a new era of open and sophisticated thinking about the economics of PSI.”

Michael Nicholson, chair of the industry association Locus, said the study “breaks new ground. It is the first time the consequences of exploiting public sector data have been reviewed from a socio-economic perspective in this way”.

Ordnance Survey, the agency that would be most affected by a change in policy – and whose raw data the report says would benefit the UK most – said the study is “an important input to the wider debate”.

Ed Parsons, the OS’s former chief technology officer, noted that “the ludicrous merry-go-round of government departments paying [each other] would disappear, reducing costs and increasing the use of geographic information (GI) within government … the relatively small GI industry in the UK would flourish”.

(We should also note that Ed is not in favour of an OS that is totally directly funded. In the same blog post he says that

OS in the position where its continued operation and the quality of its data is reliant on a subsidy from government [would be] a disastrous position which could result in a USGS like reduction in funding if political priorities change.

We take that point on board – and we’ll deal with that in coming weeks.)

So what does government, which now has stacks of data about free data’s benefits, say?

Central government was less enthusiastic in its responses. The department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which oversees the running of trading funds, implied pricing policy would continue as before. While the government would set out clearly what information it needs for its public task, to ensure that such information “is made available as widely as possible for use in actual and potential downstream markets” the principle of recovering costs will remain in the next spending review (after 2011).

Yes, you can groan now.

“The underlying principle will be that information collected for public purposes will be made available at a price that balances the need for access while ensuring customers pay a fair contribution to the cost of collecting this information.”

In other words, DBERR knows much better than economists using data gleaned from the organisations involved what’s right for the economy. It’s a bit shocking, really.

Over to you: what do you think should be the next steps in the campaign? Our first thought is to examine how effective a system where Land Registry registrations part-fund Ordnance Survey, since registrations are (in economic lingo) inelastic. Anyone know where the data about the number of registrations via LR for the past 10 years could be found?

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