Free Our Data: the blog

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


Freeing the oceans’ data: new Estonian startup aims to do just that

Ben Rooney writing in the Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “Public Ocean Data Made Available“:

An Estonian start-up is offering a single point of access to much of the world’s available oceanographic data.

Marinexplore, based in Tallinn, has pulled together a large number of public and commercial datasets, to provide over three petabytes (3 million gigabytes) of public ocean data.

“The tools and working processes for ocean exploration have changed little over the last 15 years,” said Rainer Sternfeld, founder and CEO of Marinexplore.

That’s a hell of an ambitious plan. It’s not just the cost of getting oceanographic data out there; it’s also the challenge of getting around the multitude of copyright entanglements in them. When the Free Our Data campaign was in full swing (or doing its jazz hands if you prefer), we prodded at the UK Hydrographic Office a few times – principally over tide data, since that’s hardly what you’d call “international” – but soon discovered that the people there are even more aware of the problems in disentangling quite who owns what. Making the UKHO data free might end up just meaning less data availability altogether.

“Most of the data comes from public sources”, the story says, which is telling in itself. There are lots of sources, but the problem often comes about in determining which is canonical – that is, which ones you really trust. One of the challenges for European countries has been making sure that simple things like sea levels are the same across borders. It’s a bit embarrassing if the data say it dips or rises by a few centimetres when you take one step along the shore from one country to another.

Which is why it’s no surprise to find that near the end of the story we learn that

Most of the data is from public data sets such as the US NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) stations

. Yes, that’s the US taxpayers-pay-government-collects-and-gives-back model again.

This is course means that the datasets when it comes to locations such as the UK may be severely restricted both in use, detail and timeliness. We haven’t examined it yet – if anyone gets a change to look at Marinexplore’s data and assess it, please let us know.

(As a sidenote: isn’t it fascinating how the the US government and its citizens are perfectly happy to run a system where everyone contributes to the cost of collecting data about the oceans and then gets it back for free at the point of use – even if some won’t use it, for example because they live in landlocked states – but cannot countenance the idea of everyone contributing to the cost of healthcare which they then get back for free at the point of use? One is the peoples’ right to what their tax dollars are spent on; the other is, apparently, socialism. Beats us. We still like the US model for data payment/collection/use.)

One Response to “Freeing the oceans’ data: new Estonian startup aims to do just that”

  1. Bod Says:

    Without wanting to defend the USA’s bizarre attitudes regarding health care and “socialism”, there is a key difference: information goods (e.g. a NASA Hubble photo of a nearby galaxy) can be reproduced infinitely at zero cost even if it cost a fortune to create the first one; hospitals and doctors on the other hand cannot*. Scarcity in the former is therefore artificially created, theoretically to incent the person creating it to do so in the first place, an incentive that doesn’t really apply to government data.

    Since the campaign is “Free our Data” and not “Free our everything” I think we all get that, but we should be careful with our language because I’m not sure it’s so self-evident to everyone why the two things differ. A key aim is surely to stop people treating data in the same way they treat tangible goods (hoarding them and charging for them) and I’m not sure the “free at point of use” argument and bringing in healthcare really helps get that across.

    * Many medicines with large R&D and low production costs are closer to the information side of things though.

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