Free Our Data: the blog

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


Government answers (cagily) on free data questions

The Green Party has been doing some sterling work trying to get the government to answer questions arising from the Cambridge economics study into the potential benefits of making data sets available for free.

We draw your attention to the exchange in the Lords (where the Greens have a representative, Lord Beaumont of Whitley) over this. Though you may find the answers uninspiring, at first:

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty’s Government: Whether they intend to make the Ordnance Survey’s MasterMap available free of financial or legal restrictions. [HL2714]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): As announced in the Budget, the Government will look closely at public sector information held by trading funds including Ordnance Survey, to distinguish more clearly what is required by government for public tasks and ensure that this information is made available as widely as possible for use in downstream markets. In the lead up to the next spending review, the Government will ensure that information collected for public purposes is priced so that the need for access is balanced with ensuring that customers pay a fair contribution to the cost of collecting this information in the long term. In the mean time Ordnance Survey will continue to generate the revenue it requires to cover its costs, to fund investments and to provide a return to government, from sales of paper mapping and from licensing use of the Crown copyright and Crown database rights in its data, including OS MasterMap.

This is the same “customers pay a fair contribution” line we’ve been hearing since the report came out (first used by DBERR, as we recall).

Of course the key to really good questions in Parliament is to ask something that the government can’t disagree with, but which isn’t part of its policy at present – because that puts it into the logical bind in which it should take up that policy. The case of economic advice given to the government is the classic one. (But you hear it all the time at Prime Minister’s Questions – the ne plus ultra of this game – in which opposing MPs try to expose gaps like this.)

Undeterred, Lord Beaumont pressed on soon afterwards (April 3):

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty’s Government:

  • Whether they intend to make unrefined information held by trading funds available free of legal and financial restrictions, as recommended in the recently commissioned study, Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds; and [HL2713]
  • Why certain financial information in the Ordnance Survey and United Kingdom Hydrographic Office sections were redacted as confidential in the recent Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds report; and [HL2715]
  • Whether they intend to make the Met Office’s unrefined information available free of legal and financial restrictions, following the finding of the recently commissioned study Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds (p76) that this would provide a net benefit to society of £1.03 million; and [HL2733]
  • Whether in light of the finding of the recently commissioned study Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds that there is a net benefit to society if trading funds release unrefined information at marginal cost, they will review the financial and legal restrictions on all unrefined information held by public bodies. [HL2734]
  • Whether they will define the “public tasks” for trading funds in order to identify information that should be released free of financial and legal restrictions, as highlighted in the recently commissioned study Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds (chapter 3, paragraph 3.49). [HL2735]

Lord Davies of Oldham:

As announced in the Budget, the Government will look closely at public sector information held by trading funds to distinguish more clearly what is required by Government for public tasks and ensure that this information is made available as widely as possible for use in downstream markets. In the lead-up to the next spending review the Government will ensure that information collected for public purposes is priced so that the need for access is balanced with ensuring that customers pay a fair contribution to the cost of collecting this information in the long term.

For central government bodies other than trading funds, the clear policy is that raw information should, subject to any statutory provision, be freely available or provided at the marginal cost of dissemination.

In drafting the report Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds, Cambridge University relied on the co-operation of and provision of data from trading funds. Some of the financial data provided was commercially confidential and was therefore not published in the report. This did not alter the overall conclusions of the report.

Tom Chance, a coordinator for the Green Party (who helped draft the questions, notes on his blog that the commitment to make information freely available “subject to any statutory provision” is encouraging:

That’s good to know, and backs up the Green Party’s case for making it accessible as well, e.g. Parliamentary procedure in an open, machine-readable format rather than plain HTML, or key data on domestic energy use in one place as a canonical source rather than being scattered across different sections of government departments (Defra, BERR, CLG, etc.)

One other thing he remarks on (about the Guardian’s mapping):

It would be nice if we could supply those guys with a decent set of OpenStreetMap graphics for use in articles rather than using non-free sources too!

It’s actually an avenue we’re exploring – I’ve swapped emails with Steve Coast, who says that a change in the licensing for OSM may make this possible in the near future. It would certainly cut some of our mapping costs.

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