Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for January, 2010

A new No.10 petition: free PostZon

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Mark Goodge added this as a comment to the data.gov.uk post, but it seems worth making more visible. So here it is:

“While the launch of data.gov.uk is a big step in the right direction, the government’s response to the petition inspired by the forced closure of ernestmarples.com has been pathetic. As a consequence, I’ve created a new petition which seeks to focus more tightly on the Postzon data (the data use by ernestmarples in their API). This can be found at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/geopostcode/.”

That’s one that’s definitely worth getting behind. Head over there and …do whatever the verb is for petitioning someone. Is it petition?

Data.gov.uk: now that’s what we call a result

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The official launch yesterday of data.gov.uk, with an index of 2,500 datasets provided by government departments, is fantastic news – and a significant milestone for the Free Our Data campaign.

It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come since 9 March 2006, when we kicked off the campaign in Guardian Technology with Give us back our crown jewels:

Imagine you had bought this newspaper for a friend. Imagine you asked them to tell you what’s in the TV listings – and they demanded cash before they would tell you. Outrageous? Certainly. Yet that is what a number of government agencies are doing with the data that we, as taxpayers, pay to have collected on our behalf. You have to pay to get a useful version of that data. Think of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) mapping data: useful to any business that wanted to provide a service in the UK, yet out of reach of startup companies without deep pockets.

This situation prevails across a number of government agencies. Its effects are all bad. It stifles innovation, enterprise and the creativity that should be the lifeblood of new business. And that is why Guardian Technology today launches a campaign – Free Our Data. The aim is simple: to persuade the government to abandon copyright on essential national data, making it freely available to anyone, while keeping the crucial task of collecting that data in the hands of taxpayer-funded agencies.

And further on:

[The consultancy] Pira [carrying out a study for the EU] pointed out that the US’s approach brings enormous economic benefits. The US and EU are comparable in size and population; but while the EU spent €9.5bn (£6.51bn) on gathering public sector data, and collected €68bn selling and licensing it, the US spent €19bn – twice as much – and realised €750bn – over 10 times more. [Peter] Weiss [who wrote a study comparing the US and UK] pointed out: “Governments realise two kinds of financial gain when they drop charges: higher indirect tax revenue from higher sales of the products that incorporate the … information; and higher income tax revenue and lower social welfare payments from net gains in employment.”

Happily, that argument has been driven through Whitehall by the efforts of Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. I interviewed Berners-Lee for the Guardian: see the video or read my account of how they did it.

So is that it? Is the campaign over? No, not at all. There are plenty of holdouts: UK Hydrographic Office is complicated (because it buys in third-party data which it then resells), yet even so one would think there should be information that it collects about British coastal waters which could be released as having public benefit.

Similarly postcodes, where there is some notable opposition to making any of the datasets free. The easiest one would be PostZon, which simply holds geolocations for each postcode plus data about which health and administrative boundary it lies inside; that’s nothing like as extensive (or valuable) as the full Postcode Address File (PAF).

But there’s really strong resistance against making anything from the Royal Mail available for free, and one detects Lord Mandelson’s hand in this.

If you haven’t yet had your say on the OS consultation, Harry Metcalfe has created a terrific tool for doing precisely that at osconsult.ernestmarples.com. Go along and make your views heard.

How GIS reveals discrimination in urban planning

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Does this sound at all familiar?

Not all local governments appreciate the rise of GIS-driven advocacy, especially when their own data is used as a hammer against them, and they have begun to restrict public access. Some have pulled data off the Web in the alleged interest of national security; others charge exorbitant fees to produce it or deliver jumbled masses of data that are difficult to manage or decipher.

Turns out though that it’s not from the UK, but the US, from a fascinating article about how GIS helps to demonstrate discrimination being practised by towns and cities – and how when that is revealed by mapping, the reaction tends not to be to get rid of the discrimination, but to get rid of the troublesome access to the data that reveals it. After all, it’s so much cheaper to do the one than the other:

Mebane, the Cedar Grove Institute’s first case study of municipal discrimination, passed an Infrastructure Information Security Policy shortly after the study was published; the policy limited infrastructure data access to qualified engineering firms and town agencies. The city of Modesto, Calif., locked in a legal underbounding battle, pulled its infrastructure data off the Internet after the lawsuit was filed, citing national security grounds. “There’s no conceivable national security interest in where the traffic lights are in Modesto,” scoffs Ben Marsh, the institute’s chief mapmaker. A recent appellate ruling in California rejected a similar national-security rationale, as well as a copyright argument by Santa Clara County, but whether that opinion stands as precedent remains to be seen.

However…

Though restrictions on access to government data could prove troublesome, advocacy groups that use GIS have already been finding data sources outside of government. In particular, data collected by community residents have become an effective supplement to the “official story,” as University of Washington professor Sarah Elwood calls government data.

Elwood has used GIS not only to map problems but to build the capacity of underserved and disadvantaged communities to advocate on their own behalf. Simple walking surveys that catalogue infrastructural deficiencies — potholes in sidewalks, missing stop signs, burned-out streetlights — fill gaps in the public record that mask actual conditions on the ground. With locally produced data, Elwood says, “You can tell a very detailed and very current, compelling story about neighborhood needs.”

If that reminds you at all of fixmystreet, it ought to – that’s precisely the sort of idea it sprang from.