Free Our Data: the blog

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


A quick roundup to start the new year

Hope you’ve all come through the new year without suffering too many leap-last-year problems. I thought it would be interesting to round up a few things that I’ve seen but not really had enough brainpower to turn into anything more than notes.

First, Public Data Sets stored on Amazon Web Services. (Via Richard Allan.) An interesting idea: got public datasets? Well, why not get them stored somewhere really cheap where people can access them but you only pay per download. It’s the ultimate outsourcing, and you also get to see how many people are downloading it without the capital costs of the servers.

Public Data Sets on AWS provides a centralized repository of public data sets that can be seamlessly integrated into AWS cloud-based applications. AWS is hosting the public data sets at no charge for the community, and like all AWS services, users pay only for the compute and storage they use for their own applications. An initial list of data sets is already available, and more will be added soon.

It’s already got the Human Genome and the US Census data. The idea of hosting UK public datasets on AWS was floated in the Cambridge Economics report released with the Budget back in March. Any takers?

Second, Municipalities open their GIS systems to citizens (thanks, Gerry Gavigan, who points out that “As well as innovation and the other usual unexpected benefits, it points to the existence, alas without quantification, of financial benefits.”) The article explains:

For instance, the online burning permit sales service of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allows citizens to declare precisely where they would like to burn woody debris. High precision is essential in deciding whether a permit is obtainable, as well as when and under what conditions: if there is a high fire risk in the area and day for which a user asks for a permit, the software must refuse it. The Web site, however, makes it easy to enter the location with the greatest possible resolution: users first type an address into a form to get an approximate location on the map, then zoom at will and finally click on the exact spot for which they are applying for a permit.

And, more pertinently:

The success of initiatives like OpenStreetMap or the availability of Yahoo! and Google Maps APIs may make you think that people may create services like these and many more all by themselves, without getting any bureaucrat involved. However, in order to benefit the most from digital maps and other spatial data, citizens need such data to be officially inserted in, and completely integrated with, the maps and databases public administrations use to plan roads, zoning, and everything else.

Citizens may use Web sites like those mentioned here to request services as different as bus stops, trekking permits, or new post offices. Other uses may include signalling construction abuses, damages to public property, or illegal dumpsters. We may draw our preferred public bus routes on a map in our City Council official Web site.

Of course, to make all this work in practice, public administrations should also clarify the data ownership situation. Who owns data directly and freely provided from citizens? What license should apply to those data or any derived ones? This, however, is a separate issue, not really related to open source software.

And finally, some interesting questions being asked in Parliament by John Howell (of the Tories) about Ordnance Survey income from local authorities, and on use of OS vector data for commercial use (and, previously, about discussions between OS and Google over mapping licences; Ed Parsons, formerly OS and now Google, says the minister’s answer is wrong); while Mike Gapes, a Labour MP, about London mapping payments to OS and payments to OS for use of its data by various government authorities.

We’d be interested in any comments on what Gapes and Howell are trying to unearth here… and of course your comments on anything else. And happy new year!

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