Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for November, 2009

Outrageous. Incredible. International expert was spoken word only even within OS

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Let’s just remind ourselves what it was that Sir Rob Margetts, chair of Ordnance Survey, said at the launch of OS’s proposed new strategy (which is now in little pieces all over the floor since Gordon Brown and Tim Berners-Lee announced the end of derived data and the freeing up of mid-scale mapping, but anyway) back in April:

“We came to conclusion that the cost to government in the first five years [of a free data model] would be between £500m and £1 billion. That wasn’t the only reason that we discarded it. We did, with outside help, a review of equivalent organisations around the world.“

Who, I then asked, was the “outside help”? OS responded:

With regard to the International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models Study, outside help was provided by senior officials of those Institutions contacted.

In the case of the United States of America, as senior officials of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) were unavailable, Mr. David Cowen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, kindly provided us with an in-depth overview of the state of public sector GI data in the United States, including USGS. Mr Cowan is a former chair of the Mapping Science Committee of the United States National Research Council and is chair of the National Research Council’s Committee for the study of Land Parcel Databases.

The document was also reviewed by an internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping who agreed with the analysis and conclusions.

This latter bit intrigued us. An “internationally recognised expert”, eh? Except it turned out that he or she did not want to be identified, although he or she works or has worked full-time for a foreign mapping agency, and read the study for free. And that OS transacted everything with the expert by spoken word:

A copy of the report was provided to the person concerned and engagement on this matter was conducted orally with no permanent record made of these conversations.

And now in response to my latest Freedom of Information request for

copies of all emails and/or documents internally relating to the decision to choose this person – for example, discussion of who would be suitable candidates or who would not be suitable candidates to carry out the review of the report

OS replies:

There was no decision process in place to find suitable candidates. An opportunity presented itself to request the opinion of a global expert in this field which was undertaken orally. The resultant opinion was expressed orally and there was no permanent record made of these conversations.

So here’s what happens. You have a report. You happen to bump into an old mate. “Hey, want to read my report?” you say. “Sure,” they say. They read it. “Seems OK,” they say. You go back to your office and tell people “I met X who says it’s fine.” Even though the report is a thrown-together farrago of disconnected information about various national mapping agencies and their charging methods, combined with an unrelated chunk of poorly displayed data about national GDP versus national R&D expenditure, which cannot by any reasonable measure be claimed to justify anything about any charging model.

This then becomes “The document was also reviewed by an internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping who agreed with the analysis and conclusions.”

If there is anyone at Ordnance Survey who is prepared to defend this course of events, could they please get in touch? Or even the international expert, who is very welcome to comment anonymously to explain whether they think OS’s representation of their opinion is justified. Comments are open.

Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt on the benefits of open data

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

TBL and Nigel Shadbolt, who are together pushing along the open data idea in government, have an article in the Times (London) of November 18 about the benefits of free data, following on from the announcement yesterday:

Data has a particular value in that you can combine it with other data to discover new things. When in 1854 John Snow took the deaths from a cholera outbreak in London and plotted them on a map, he was able to illustrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera — the world changed. In March the Department for Transport released three years’ worth of data about the location of accidents involving cyclists. Within 24 hours someone had converted this data to create cycle-accident route planners that avoid the black spots.

Government data is a valuable resource that we have already paid for. We are not talking about personal data but data that tells us, for example, about the amount and type of traffic on our roads, where the accidents are, how much is spent on areas where these accidents occur. This is data that has already been collected and paid for by the taxpayer, and the internet allows it to be distributed much more cheaply than before. Governments can unlock its value by simply letting people use it. This is beginning to happen in a number of countries, notably in the US under the Obama Administration, and in June Gordon Brown asked us to advise the Government on how to make rapid progress here.

(The fun thing here being that OS would argue that its data has not been collected and paid for by the taxpayer because it’s a trading fund. Unfortunately this doesn’t hold up in front of the point that (a) almost all of its data was collected while it was not a trading fund (b) half its revenues do come from the taxpayer, in the form of licences from public organisations.)

As all of this data becomes available, we have to look for the joins between it. A new set of standards for the web is emerging that allows us to link data from different sources. Everyone knows that web pages have addresses that identify them, allowing you to navigate around and find what you want. To make the web of linked open data work we also need to give identifying addresses to the objects and properties that make up the basic information in pages, spreadsheets or databases.

Think about the practical applications. If Companies House referred to companies using these new open, uniform identifiers, then other people who needed to talk about companies could use these whenever they referred to a company. If all websites that make data available about companies point to the same identifier for a company, then it’s possible to pull that data together very easily — whether its data about stock price, a product or a director. This is one of the core principles at the heart of the web of linked data.

None of this works unless the data is there in the first place. But when it is, innovation flourishes. Maybe someone uses the web to show schools close to you and their Ofsted reports, or the planning applications that might affect you, or the allotments available to use, or the crime rates in your area. Data is beginning to drive the Government’s websites. But without a consistent policy to make it available to others, without the use of open standards and unrestrictive licences for reuse, information stays compartmentalised and its full value is lost.

So there you have it: the free data concept is right there at the heart of government, with extra semantic web power from the person who invented it. That’s good. That’s very good.

Gordon Brown announces OS maps to be free online

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Do we scent victory? Hell yeah. It seems that the prime minister plus the chief secretary of the Treasury plus the inventor of the world wide web collectively outrank Vanessa Lawrence, and so Gordon Brown was able to declare at a seminar at No.10 yesterday (to which I was invited, thanks for asking) that

Today, some of you may know, we are opening up Ordnance Survey information – one of the first recommendations that Tim Berners‑Lee made to us with Nigel Shadbolt in the work that they are doing. We are making Ordnance Survey material available to the up to a certain level in a way that it was not available free of charge before.

The Guardian has the story: Ordnance Survey maps to go free online:

The government is to explore ways of making all Ordnance Survey maps freely available online from April, in a victory for the Guardian’s three-year Free Our Data campaign. The move will bring the UK into line with the free publication of maps that exists in the US.

Gordon Brown announced the change at a joint event in London today with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who is now information tsar advising on the handing over of private government data to the public.

The government has been inspired by the success of crime mapping where “data openness” is helping citizens assess the safety of geographical areas.

Today’s announcement will be followed by a speech, due next week by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, explaining how the freeing up of data, alongside the scaling back of other functions of central government, could lead to a “smarter state”.

Our understanding is that Liam Byrne was key in getting this pushed throughL since it involves financial risk – OS won’t be getting that income – the Treasury has to approve it.

Key points: it involves “mid-scale” maps from 1:10,000 upwards; and it kills off the “derived data” rows that government departments and everyone else has been having for so long. Derived data will have a stake through its heart.

Oh, and – this “free” will extend to being free for commercial use. That’s right, you’ll be able to build a business with it. Though it’s not clear yet whether you’d be able to take the maps and create *printed* ones. Must ask about that.

There will be a consultation starting in December. We’d urge any customer of OS to add in their views. And we’d urge any would-be customer who would otherwise not use the data to add their views too.

Quite where this leaves OS’s “hybrid strategy” isn’t clear. And OS doesn’t seem very clear about it either. Vanessa Lawrence wasn’t at No.10, and nor was anyone from OS, which seems surprising – you’d think they’d want to bask in the reflected glory of being praised by Tim Berners-Lee for the quality and usefulness of their data, surely?

When we asked this morning how much foregone revenue this means (since obviously giving away maps you used to charge for means less income), OS said it was “not in a position to make any comment at this time”, which seems surprising, again, because you’d think that it would have given Liam Byrne very clear indications of how far the roof would fall in if it were to do this.

Text of Norwegian mapping service announcement, in English

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Here’s the best shot that Google Translate has come up with in translating the web page at the Norwegian mapping service announcing its forthcoming free map service. There are some important extra points which might be worth noting – such as that it’s going to be for an experimental period of six months in the first instance. (And you’ll have to allow for the fact that it’s not quite been translated into English.)

Free map services [Published: 12.11.09, Updated: 12.11.09]

Now everyone can access the latest maps around the clock. Together with our partners we are releasing through the Norwegian Mapping Authority a number of their map services – by Mapping Manager Anne Cathrine Frøstrup

From 1 December, you can click on the state map sites and get direct access to digital map services – absolutely free.

“We have the best and freshest maps foundation in Norway, and now we share this with everyone. This shows that cartography is visibly for the benefit of society, and is entirely in line with government policy of more openness,” said Hydrographic chief Anne Cathrine Frøstrup.

Map Services released, covering both sea and land, and regularly updated. They should meet the needs of the vast majority of us.

Hoping for creativity: It is free to develop their own functions related to the maps, and in the long run, this can provide a range of new opportunities.

“Be creative and use our maps to develop new exciting additional services,” said Frøstrup.

With the release of the maps she hopes that creativity will flourish. Inventive souls can tie together maps and other map information in new and clever ways.

Availability cookbook: with some computer knowledge, it is possible to use the new map services. On the website of the Norwegian Mapping Authority, you will find a basic cookbook that gives you the recipe for how to integrate the various solutions.

The links to the services will operate from 1 December.

In the first instance we are talking about a test period of six months. The scheme will be constantly evaluated and improved. Works and services so we have planned, will the offer be made permanent. [Not sure how this last sentence should be interpreted.]

Norwegian mapping authority frees up maps

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Oh, those crazy Norwegians. They’re giving away maps for free. Within limits – it’s limited to “individuals and non-profit associations”. So that’s half a step towards free data.

Interesting that this is also including maritime information – the stuff that the UK Hydrographic Office sort-of provides; it’s rumoured to be on the list for privatisation, however.

And of course Norway was one of the countries in the OS’s woeful International Comparison report. Apparently it gets an unknown amount of government grant, but operates a “full cost recovery” system (6.1.4 in the report).

Arguably this is similar to the OS’s OpenSpace project, which is free-ish availability of data for individuals and non-profits… as long as they don’t get too big. What’s not clear in the Norwegian example is what its rules on “derived data” are. That would be interesting to know from any Norwegians.

From this Google translation page of the Associated Press story in Norwegian:

(AP) Soon, you can use much of the information at the Norwegian Mapping Authority on your private website, and take up battle with Google Maps.

From 1 December this year, you can retrieve detailed information from the Norwegian Mapping Authority, and bake it into your own web pages. Totally free, if you are an individual or operate a non-profit association.

It follows the Norwegian Mapping Authority in the footsteps of Google and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, who shares the information it holds on to the free public use.

There is talk of detailed maps and geographic information that the Norwegian Mapping Authority has been sitting for a long time, and that until now only been available for those willing to pay.

“The data has been available through the programs that we manage, but now it will therefore be direct access to the service,” explains Erland Røed the Norwegian Mapping Authority to VG Nett.

Like for example, Google’s maps will be extended the opportunity to mix together information from several sources, and then add this on top of the map from the Norwegian Mapping Authority.

You should read the whole page (so I’m not going to copy it all here). But it does sound like the Norwegian Authority is getting with the program in a big way.

….At the State Map Verks web pages, users can decide how utstnittet of the map should look like, the layers of information to be included and finally get a clip of code.

…The system located at the bottom of the State Map Verks solutions [is] also at the forefront of the development of open software.

“Operating systems and databases we use are free software, so this is done by the book. It’s gone out 80 million map images of this year, says Røed. “The public and private individuals who have gone on our site has generated a lot of use before it is released freely, “he says.

By releasing data free on the way the Norwegian Mapping Authority do hope that the users themselves to come up with good solutions. A few examples of how users can generate more information from the maps of the Norwegian Mapping Authority is sports.

See chart to the Norwegian Mapping Authority, for example, be used as background during a real-time tracking of Færderseilasen with all available information as a true marine gear.

Such tracking is technically possible even with the Google service Google Maps, but without details that a real chart can offer.At the State Map Verks map is the depth measurements, lighthouses, beacons and all the relevant information for sailors, where Google Maps only shows the blue sea.

Similarly shows the topographical maps of the Norwegian Mapping Authority highly detailed rendering of the terrain, long more accurate than Google Maps.

There is also a reader discussion of site boundaries, which has a translation too.

International expert fun rumbles on

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Tom Watson, the former Cabinet Office minister, has also weighed in to the International Expert fun. He filed an FOI request asking for

any briefing papers, emails or any other documents relating to Charles Arthur of the Guardian and the media interest as to the identity of the “internationally recognised expert”.

I am particularly interested in the discussion that may have taken place in regard to his enquiry about the status of the “internationally recognised expert.”

Where possible, I would like to see the advice that was given to civil servants, ministers and the shareholder executive about this matter.

OS’s reply (in a TIFF – a giant uncompressed image format that can crash many machines if you don’t have enough memory installed; what’s wrong with output to PDF if you want to ensure it’s in the format you created it?):

Correspondence with and about Charles Arthur’s enquiries of Ordnance Survey on the “internationally recognised expert” involved only Ordnance Survey staff and Mr Arthur. No briefings, emails or any other documents were communicated to other civil servants, the Shareholder Executive or Ministers on this matter.

I’ve now filed another FOI request seeking to know what internal communication there was about the international expert:

I request copies of all emails and/or documents internally relating to the decision to choose this person – for example, discussion of who would be suitable candidates or who would not be suitable candidates to carry out the review of the report.

I agree that, for reasons of privacy, some names of those considered and of some of the senders/receivers of the information internally may have to be redacted. I would expect this to be kept to a minimum.

However as the study is officially the responsibility of OS’s chief executive I would expect that where the chief executive’s name appears in such documents that it should not be redacted as the chief executive was in overall charge of the decision. Similarly I would not expect the names of any OS board members to be redacted in such correspondence as they must have a secondary responsibility for the report.

Let’s see how that goes. The answer is due by 2 December.

PDFs are bad for open government, says Sunlight Foundation in US

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

This is always worth remembering:

Government releasing data in PDF tends to be catastrophic for Open Government advocates, journalists and our readers because of the amount of overhead it takes to get data out of it. When a government agency publishes its data and documents as PDFs, it makes us Open Government advocates and developers cringe, tear our hair out, and swear a little (just a little). Most earmark requests by members of congress are published as PDF files of scanned letters, leading the Sunlight Foundation and others to write custom parsers for each letter.

I know that a lot of the efforts going on in the data.gov.uk channels are about finding effective ways of parsing data. The hope has to be though that very little of that involves finding ways of reversing data that has been output to PDF. The point being of course that turning PDF into useful data is, in the famous quote, “about as easy as turning hamburger into cow”.

Back to the Sunlight Foundation again:

Here at Sunlight we want the government to STOP publishing bills, and data in PDFs and Flash and start publish them in open, machine readable formats like XML and XSLT. What’s most frustrating is, Government seems to transform documents that are in XML into PDF to release them to the public, thinking that that’s a good thing for citizens. Government: We can turn XML into PDFs. We can’t turn PDFs into XML.

And another word for Flash. Ah, Flash:

Flash isn’t off the hook either. Government has spent lots of time and money developing flash tools to allow citizens to view charts and graphs online, and while we’re happy the government is interested in allowing citizens to do this, Government’s primary method of disclosure should not be these visualizations, but rather publishing the APIs and datasets that allow citizens to make their own

The comments are worth it too, such as Adrian Holovaty: “If I had a dollar for each hour I’ve spent trying to finagle raw data out of PDFs, I could afford Adobe Photoshop.”

And the rather scary one from Michael Friis: “Here in Denmark Parliament publishes many ancillary documents as PNGs.” Which is quite scary, though in line with Ordnance Survey’s tendency to release FOI requests as TIFFs.