Free Our Data: the blog

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


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

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.

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