Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for the 'Foreign examples' Category

In The Guardian: how and why South Africa set its data free

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

Following on from our earlier post about South Africa’s free mapping data, we got in touch with Derek Clarke, head of the CDSM (South Africa’s mapping agency) to ask him what effect the imposition of zero costs – a corollary of the 2000 Promotion of Access to Information Act. (That’s a Google cache link, in HTML.)

In South Africa’s freedom includes its data, we ask whether the move from a charging system, which used to bring in 5% of the budget, has brought any benefits – either in reducing waste, or expanding use, or both.

Derek Clarke, head of the agency, says yes to both: most of the clients for the CDSM’s mapping data before were government agencies, and in Clarke’s pithy words “government paying itself makes no sense but causes administrative waste.” And has use grown? Yes, by 500% (we make that sixfold), he says.

Is it a model for others? Clarke again:

“This model should be applicable to all developing countries where the government must play a developmental role. The same situation does not apply to developed countries with mature markets. However, governments of developed countries should evaluate the opportunity cost of geospatial data – it may be more beneficial to make data free.”

We’ve put the questions and answers from Mr Clarke online already, but the article aims to deal with the critiques we know will follow from any suggestion that the UK might have something to learn from South Africa…

Derek Clarke, head of South Africa’s mapping agency, responds to our questions

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

We earlier noted some questions we had about South Africa’s free mapping. So we emailed Derek Clarke, the head of the Chief Directorate, Surveys and Mapping. Here are our questions, and his answers.

  1. How is the CDSM’s funding guaranteed, and is it enough to keep up to date with changes in South Africa’s geography?
    Funding is 100% from the Parliamentary vote. It is not enough to satisfy all client needs – but must be seen in the context of affordability for the country.
  2. How much has the move to a ‘free data’ model cost, compared with the revenues you received before from selling digital data? Or have you found a way to compensate for that by increasing revenues from other sources?
    Previously the revenue generated was approx. R3.5 million [£243,000 at current exchange rates – CA]. It has had no impact on us as all the revenue had to be returned to the central revenue fund of government. Previously there was no incentive to sell data, except for the satisfaction of knowing that you have happy clients. It should be noted that most of our clients are other government departments and therefore the money paid is government money – government paying itself makes no sense but causes administrative waste.
  3. Is this [free data model] sustainable?
    If we did retain revenue generated it was insignificant compared to the operating budget – approx 5%
  4. Has the number of organisations, both public and private-sector, taking the CDSM’s digital data increased with this move?
    Yes, by about 500%. This figure could be inflated because some requests could be over-serviced (getting more than what the client really needs)
  5. Do you think that the economy as a whole has benefited from this move (that is, have the taxes generated by private-sector companies

using your data, or savings made through using it, compensated for any loss in revenue from charging for digital data)?
Yes. This was one of the motivating factors to make data free – to stimulate the private sector in providing services and to reduce their input costs. The spin-off being job creation.

  • Do you think this model is applicable in other countries, such as the UK?
    This model should be applicable to all developing countries where the government must play a developmental role. The same situation does not apply to developed countries with mature markets. However, governments of developed countries should evaluate the opportunity cost of geo-spatial data – it may be more beneficial to the country to make data free. Please note that the price of data and copyright are two different issues. It is possible to have free data but still have copyright on that data. Copyright on free data is not used to restrict the use of the data but rather to ensure that the user acknowledges the source and also to ensure that no other party claims a copyright on that data.
  • We’ve also followed up in this story in The Guardian Technology section.

    South Africa: mapping is free (and so is other government information)

    Sunday, March 4th, 2007

    The opening of the South African government’s Freedom of Information Act 2000 states its position bluntly:


    • the system of government in South Africa before 27 April 1994, amongst others, resulted in a secretive and unresponsive culture in public and private bodies which often led to an abuse of power and human rights violations;
    • section 8 of the Constitution provides for the horizontal application of the rights in the Bill of Rights to juristic persons to the extent required by the nature of the rights and the nature of those juristic persons;
    • section 32(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that everyone has the right of access to any information held by the State;
    • section 32(1)(h) of the Constitution provides for the horizontal application of the right of access to information held by another person to everyone when that information is required for the exercise or protection of any rights;

    ..and the upshot: maps of South Africa are free. Have a look at the maps pricing page: the only charge is for postage and packing. Which on the digital products is zero, though with the proviso that the supply of digital information not contained in the off-the-shelf products and/or required in any other format, an hourly rate will apply to prepare such information: Provided further that the Chief Director of Surveys and Mapping can provide the data in the required format.

    Questions we’d like to know the answers to:

    • how much does it cost to do this?
    • is the mapping agency’s budget assured, and if so, how?
    • how is the quality of the mapping data assured? (We can have a guess at this from the fact that there’s a network of GPS stations, whose locations are available for download, for free)
    • Has this led to any measurable increase in mapping services in the private sector?
    • Has it had any negative or beneficial effect on mapping suppliers – including the government mapping agency?

    We’ll be trying to contact the SAMA, but if anyone has any pointers to answers to these questions, we’d be grateful for the information.

    Why making statistics free can save lives

    Thursday, January 11th, 2007

    In today’s Guardian, in Uncovering global inequalities through innovative statistics, we look at Hans Rosling’s call for governments to stop hiding away their potentially useful data “

    Despite the encouragement that the internet provides, and the hunger of the public for better ways to analyse that data, governments are reluctant to open their databases to the world and make them searchable. “People put prices on them and stupid passwords,” says Rosling. “And this won’t work.”

    Rosling has a very interesting interactive system at where you can plot all sorts of UN data for various countries against each other – such as carbon dioxide emissions vs gross national income, or child mortality against internet connectivity (is there a link? The data should show it).

    There’s also his enormously impressive TED talk – watch this, and then you might start to see the point of free data, if you haven’t already.

    (Our thanks to David O’Brien of Glasgow for pointing it out to us.)

    Update: you can also see the (rather longer, at an hour) video of a Google campus talk by the Gapminder team on the same subject, which covers the same ground as Rosling at TED but in more depth. (You can also download it for Windows, Macs, video iPods and PSPs if you want some offline viewing.)

    Free Data: the idea rises above the government horizon; government quizzed on OFT report

    Thursday, December 21st, 2006

    In this week’s Guardian Technology, Mike Cross notes that the Office of Fair Trading report (which we’ve referred to before) has some interesting analysis of other countries’ models for public data charging. In Commercial case for free data rises overseas, he examines its coverage of the models used in the US, Sweden and Australia.

    In Sweden, public agencies can compete with private organisations, and use their own “raw” data to generate “refined” data without transparency in their accounts.

    In Australia and the US, by contrast, the study finds that governments prevent public agencies from competing directly with the private sector. There has not been a single complaint from a private operator in either country for the past five years.

    There is a price to pay, the international study suggests. In the US, it finds that, while the supply of free data from the US Geological Survey has stimulated private investment, the private sector has now overtaken the government agency, whose maps are now used only as a last resort. Part of the problem may be that an agency forced to provide data for free has no incentive to make its data relevant to the market. The study suggests that, in a free-data environment, regular surveys of users may be necessary to ensure that an agency’s products are still needed.

    And just as an added extra, the UK government is now being asked by the opposition what it will do about Ordnance Survey following the OFT’s determination:

    James Arbuthnot, for the Conservatives, asked the DCLG what’s going to be done.

    Unfortunately the answer is completely unhelpful, apart from saying that “Ordnance Survey officials will be working with officials in my department and in other Departments and organisations mentioned in the report to assist the Department of Trade and Industry in its coordination of the official Government response to the report.”

    How the Danes get it right with address data

    Thursday, November 30th, 2006

    In today’s Guardian, Mike Cross writes about how Denmark has shown that pooling public data can be done – easily:

    The server’s owner, the National Agency for Enterprise and Construction, also licenses bulk data to commercial re-users, such as estate agents and finance businesses.

    About 15 commercial users pay an annual subscription of about £5,000 and then about 10p per megabyte, which the government says is the marginal cost of connecting them and supplying data.

    Before 2003, commercial users had to request individual property details, at a fee of about 50p each. Under the new arrangements, demand for data has soared, says Ulrik Roehl of the agency.

    “When we started, we thought there might be around 10 distributors, but we exceeded that in two years,” he says. The distributors download about 65m property details a month.

    Reducing charges encourages takeup? Simple supply and demand, of course. And within government, there are no charges.

    We’re looking for more foreign examples so we can begin to make the point to government. Anyone else pitch in on how other countries do it?

    How does Australia charge for government data?

    Thursday, November 30th, 2006

    We’re intrigued by a comment on Ed Parsons’ blog (where he is talking about the model used by the island of Jersey, which is part, sort of, of the UK; he notes that “In contrast to the rest of the UK, Jersey with a single layer of government, has just got on a built a single land and property address database which is widely adopted and has become the standard for government use… Half of the possible 8000 government employees access the sole corporate geospatial Intranet and on the sister Island of Guernsey the utilities companies are beginning to publish their assets to single password protected website.”)

    In the discussion that follows (which we have weighed in to), there’s a comment that

    The model use in Jersey is similar to the models that now dominate in Australia. The heavy cost recovery models of the 1990s are now giving way to more sensible and effective understanding on pricing and access to spatial data. In most Australian states web portals provide citizens with free access to basic spatial information (either at state of local government level). The cross charging across government and to the public is declining as it was shown that it cause dysfunctional behaviour and held back the potential of SI. Commercial users are required to pay licence fees but at reasonable pricing levels which will still stimulates economic growth.

    Can anyone point us to more detail about how Australia implements its charging models?

    Should Ordnance Survey be split into two?

    Thursday, November 9th, 2006

    Following our earlier post about the Ordnance Survey losing the NIMSA contract, this week’s Guardian Technology investigates: Survey subsidy wiped off the map – and talks about the death of NIMSA to a number of people. Robert Barr of the University of Manchester mentions some possibilities:

    Ending subsidies to Ordnance Survey raises another possibility: that a future government might consider outright privatisation – an option considered and rejected in the 1990s. This would be a disaster for free data. Barr suggests an alternative approach: splitting the organisation into two. One division would operate a national geospatial database, funded by the taxpayer and made available to all, while the other would compete freely in the marketplace for maps and other “value added” products.

    Another model could be Canada’s Geobase project, where since 2001, mapping agencies at different levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – have agreed to share and make available geospatial data under so-called “copyleft” royalty-free licences. The database, available at the Geobase portal, includes administrative boundaries and height data, which have both been subjects of anguished controversy in Britain.

    We repeat: we don’t think it would be at all good for Ordnance Survey to be privatised. For the free data model to work, you need a publicly-funded government agency.

    Ordnance Survey gets its lobbying in against INSPIRE

    Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

    A long interview in the Times details Vanessa Lawrence’s discomfort at the idea of INSPIRE, which would compel government organisations in Europe to swap their data for free – and in effect compel them to drop any system whereby they charge for intellectual property.

    OS has been doing some subtle lobbying (read the long Daily Mail hagiography of the organisation here; interesting how it makes so much of the funding model “that means it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a thing”) recently.

    INSPIRE, though, might be immune to lobbying. That hasn’t stopped a right-wing group called the Taxpayers’ Alliance from picking up the piece and suggesting that OS is talking the truth, and that it’s absurd to suggest that OS should be publicly funded, instead of taking funds from public organisations.

    However, although the Taxpayers’ Alliance seems to fight rather shy of finding out what other taxpayers think (there’s no way to comment on its blog), Heather Brooke at Your Right To Know (who deals with Freedom of Information and related issues) spears it neatly in her own post on the YRTK blog:

    Ordnance Survey is a monopoly, so claims about profitability, product quality, dividends and running costs are moot – we have nothing to compare them against. Would it be just as good value if the OS cost £200 million to run and paid a 8% dividend? Economic theory gives us a good idea of what actually to expect – price maximisation, inefficency and stagnation. It’s easy to turn a profit when you got your capital assets for free and can charge whatever you feel like.

    Meanwhile, INSPIRE is going to be voted on November 21. Counting down..

    Is France going to move to free geographic data?

    Thursday, September 28th, 2006

    In today’s Guardian Technology, the Free Our Data campaign looks at the example of France’s IGN – where 70% of its budget is paid by the government. That’s not producing the results that might be hoped for, says a damning report – and it recommends moving towards a model where the data is available for free online.

    Far from encouraging the use of geographical data, the report says, the institute has discouraged the RGE’s take-up by setting high prices, despite a 70% government subsidy. The mechanism for setting charges is complex and secretive, relying on the “good sense” of administrators. Their incentive, is to get as much income as possible in the short term, which encourages squeezing more money from captive customers. Altogether, the inspectors find “a lack of rigour” in the institute’s commercial policies.

    “This situation is responsible for the low level of sales and the feeble development of the geographical information sector in France, compared with other European countries,” they comment.

    One problem is that government allows the institute to wear two hats, that of publisher and author. The report says that government has abandoned matters of geographical information strategy to the institute “allowing it to set policy according to its own vision and interests”.

    Read France maps out the path to liberate its data for the rest of the story.

    Manitoba, home of the free (data)

    Thursday, August 17th, 2006

    It’s always interesting to hear about foreign examples of data freedom. And the state of Manitoba, in Canada, has taken a very important step, after deciding that the bureaucracy invvolved in charging different bits of government for mapping data generated by another part of the state goverment was a waste of money – taxpayers’ money.

    So it has made the data available for free.

    Read Canada proves itself to be genuine land of the free: Manitoba (about three times larger than the UK, but with only 1 million inhabitants) might not give a precise comparator to the UK (since its local-level geography will change much more slowly, with less housebuilding and changing). But the rationale – that it’s too expensive to charge for, and more effective to make free – is encouraging.

    You can also read about the Manitoba Land Initiative, as the scheme is called. [URL corrected – thanks Chris Corbin.]

    OECD meeting on public sector information: now online

    Saturday, June 10th, 2006

    The OECD recently held a meeting in Paris on public sector information and charging models. We were represented (ably, by Mike Cross) but haven’t yet digested it in its fullness.

    However, you can find most of the presentations and topics at,2340,en_2649_34223_36860241_1_1_1_1,00.html. If you notice any particular elements that you think deserve to be highlighted, add them in the comments..