Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for October, 2008

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.


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. to close, pursued by Environment Agency (updated)

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

The website, 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 ( 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 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..