Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for the 'Media coverage' Category

So that trading fund report.. where is it? Because David Cameron might get there first

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

The government commissioned a trading fund report last year. We told you about its terms of reference; and it was delivered (we trust) towards the end of last year.

And since then? Not a peep. The Treasury, which is the lead department looking after the study, told me last week that the report will be published “shortly”.

How long – or short – is “shortly”, I asked? “Shortly,” the spokesman replied. Pieces of string have been more precise.

Now, though, David Cameron may be parking his tanks on the government’s lawns. In a speech on Friday, he noted how American local government and central government organisations make data more easily available:

The second announcement I want to make today is about information. For decades, information, power and control have been monopolised by well meaning public officials. Now, because of the internet and dynamic change in our broader culture, we can consign this top-down model to history.

We’re entering a post-bureaucratic age, where true freedom of information is making possible a new world of people power, responsibility, citizenship, choice and local control. One of the best examples is crime mapping. In cities all over America, police forces regularly publish information about crimes in their area. What type of crime, when it happened, and where.

Anyone can take this information and overlay it on an online map. This gives the public unprecedented information about crimes in their local area. And it gives social entrepreneurs, drugs charities, and a whole host of organisations to pick out hotspots, see what needs doing and transform neighbourhoods.

(You’ll have heard of – now renamed as Everyblock Chicago – which is clearly what he’s referring to there.)

And he continues:

But look at our Government at home. It’s still bureaucratic, still top-down and still old-world. It still thinks it knows best and that it should keep all the information. If you don’t believe me, try getting a supposed freedom of information request on important issues like exactly how taxpayers’ money is being spent. It’s next to impossible. This is bad for democratic accountability. And it stifles the sort of social innovation that we see happening in America.

We Conservatives must be different. Indeed, because of our instinctive scepticism of bureaucracies and our belief in human potential, we are different. That’s why we have introduced a House of Commons bill that will require the government to publish – online and accessible to all – every single item of expenditure over £25,000.

It already happens in the US. They call it “Googling Your Tax Dollars”. And it’s already strengthening democratic accountability and promoting government transparency.

Today, I want to set out for the first time how I want to extend this approach to local government. At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. Sure enough – you all do this.

But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. Some councils use adverts in newspapers. Others use their own magazines. And others publish the information on their website. Because you all present your information differently, it’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account.

That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account. Best Value. Comprehensive Performance Assessments. Comprehensive Area Assessments. We will turn that approach on its head.

We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups. And this move will be accompanied by relaxing controls which force councils to pay to publish statutory notices.

OK – this is very interesting. It’s not quite embracing the whole of the Free Our Data concept, but it’s going some way down the road. At least standardising council output is a step forward. But here’s the interesting bit: he thinks it will make a difference to costs.

That way, we will actually reduce local government costs. I don’t expect this to happen overnight. It will take time to implement all the standardisation and bring everything online. But it is so important that it does happen – because it will make you more accountable to your residents.

He’s clearly read The Power Of Information report (or at least his speechwriters have, and given him the brief version; the clue is the mention of mumsnet below):

But the benefits of setting local government data free go far beyond democratic accountability.

By standardising this data, it can be used by anyone’s website, anytime, anyplace to flag up the services you are putting on and get that information to the people who most need it.

Let me give you some examples. Take the young kid looking for something to do at the weekend. By standardising this information online, it will be for companies or charities to build Facebook or Bebo widgets that keep them updated on when the leisure centre or local swimming pool is open or when the youth centre is holding a special night. Or what about the pensioner looking to join an adult learning course? They won’t have to go to individual websites and find out what’s going on.

By standardising this information, it’s possible for the websites like Saga to collate the information from individual councils and make it all available in one place. The same is true for a young parent looking for local crèche facilities. This information revolution will allow websites like to flag up what is available, where and at what time and save people the bother of trawling individual websites.

Making councils more accountable by giving your residents greater power. But allowing you to get the information out there quickly and effectively.

Setting local information free really is the future.

It’s a start. The Free Our Data campaign is definitively non-political (we just want it done); but there’s a danger for the government of appearing to dither if it sits on this report. David Cameron is only talking about local government data, and not linked to mapped data (though to some extent, service measurement must be linked to location). But starting with more information from local government, free and standardised, for free reuse, is a big step.

Over to the Treasury. Who’s in charge there, then?

GreenAmps fights OS and HMSO over use of map data

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

More from The Guardian: GreenAmps, a renewable energy company, has been taken to court by Ordnance Survey and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office over its use of OS data sourced from an academic licence for making applications to councils.

The core of the argument was that GreenAmps said that using OS data was imperative for making its applications – but that it is a monopoly supplier, and that that couldn’t be right.

[Nick] Brown [chief executive of GreenAmps] says that OS maps are in practice an indispensible component of planning applications for wind turbines. He admits obtaining sets of mapping data “from academic sources” and using them to develop a software tool for streamlining planning applications, initially just for his company’s use. “Early on, though, we decided that this was too important to stay in house.” He says that the government, in the shape of the Department of Trade and Industry, asked him to make the software available to “all and sundry”.

OS and HMSO argued that the data is Crown copyright and so could be sold and priced as they see fit.

In 2006, Brown says, he tried to negotiate a non commercial licence for the data. OS said that, as a commercial firm, Green Amps should pay a commercial licence fee, of £16,000. Last year, OS and HMSO, the formal holder of copyright, took action in the High Court.

Brown says the court action was out of proportion to the size of loss faced by OS; for its part, OS says it has a duty to safeguard the public purse.

OS said that it went to

“a great deal of effort to offer [Brown] a licensing situation that would work for him,” including its developer programme for start-ups. “He simply refused all suggestions.”

But as the article points out, while we can’t condone the theft of (intellectual) property, the case shows an interesting policy issue:

This is the question of whether the practice of managing government information through trading funds like Ordnance Survey is compatible with European regulations requiring essential public information to be made freely available.

Brown says he will base his appeal on the claim that maps are an essential component of planning applications, a quasi judicial process. Last month, he published a survey of planning officers concluding that, while in theory maps could come from anywhere, in practice local authorities look askance at applications not supported with OS data. “It appears that no viable alternative to OS exists on the market.”

On that basis, he says, charges for the use of such essential data are a breach of human rights, as well as against the spirit of the EU Inspire directive, passed last year to enable the free exchange of data for the purposes of environmental protection. We await the appeal with interest.

UKHO decision: no selloff; and a year on from CUPI, are we any further ahead?

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Today’s Guardian notes that we’re a year on from the OFT report on the Commercial Use of Public Information, but that government still hasn’t come up with a coherent response that covers what’s suggested.

So far, the main government response has been to ask for more information. It commissioned the Power of Information investigation, which recommended that the government do more to encourage the re-use of public sector information. It, in turn, called for studies on the effect that changes in pricing would have on trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and the UK Hydrographic Office. In response, the government commissioned a study of the trading fund model. That is due to be submitted by the end of the year. This month, the MoD is due to decide on whether the UK Hydrographic Office will continue as a trading fund or become a private company.

The UKHO decision has been reached: it’s not being sold off. Instead, it will remain a trading fund.

That has to be good news for the possibility of a free data model (or even a reduced cost of data, or free unrefined data model).

The MOD press release:

The UK Hydrographic Office will remain a Trading Fund of the Ministry of Defence, after a review of the business and its future.

Defence Minister, Derek Twigg announced to Parliament today that the business will remain as an arm of the MoD and will continue to be located in Taunton, but that major changes needed to be made.

The review included a detailed restructuring programme to ensure the business and its personnel are best equipped to meet the needs of the 21st century mariner in an increasingly competitive environment.

In an overhaul of the business by the Ministry of Defence and the UKHO, proposals have been developed for a reduction of between 250 and 300 permanent posts over a period of up to 5 years.

That’s quite a cut, even if it leaves 800 staff still there. Prepare for heavy seas in the UKHO’s constituency when the next election or byelection comes.

Free Our Data mentioned in Parliament. It’s a start…

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

We’re gradually trying to get the Free Our Data campaign moved up the agenda: ministerial meetings, civil servants, European comparisons.

But we have to thank Mark Todd MP (see right) for at last mentioning the campaign in the House of Commons, during an adjournment debate on Monday night on the topic of “Public Information (Commercial Use)“.

Even if it was only to dismiss our precept… he said:

I should like briefly to comment on the free our data campaign [our emphasis], which has suggested that the correct path is to distribute Government data virtually for free, or at cost. The difficulty of that model, which relies on the argument that that would generate substantial economic growth and tax revenues that would easily repay the amount lost in revenues directly associated with the sales, is that I am afraid it places a substantial reliance on any Government—not just this one—to continue to fund the development and maintenance of the quality of data in those organisations. At the moment, the organisations have revenue streams on which they can rely to invest into the future. Simply relying on the Treasury to bury its hand into its pocket periodically to develop data into the future is wishful thinking. That is not the path down which we should be treading.

He makes a good point, but then, the Office of National Statistics faces much the same problem. Somehow that can be relied on to be independent

It is well worth reading the debate, even though the only participants (perhaps the only people who were present?) appear to be Mr Todd and Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development. As Mr Todd notes, it’s shaming enough that in trying to get a government minister to respond to PSI questions, nobody seems to be in charge:

One of the difficulties is that a variety of Departments have a role to play; there is no clear, coherent leadership, as was evidenced in the preparations for responding to this debate. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has been passed the parcel of answering at 10.15 or thereabouts, but to be honest the task could have gone to a number of other Ministers. Indeed, I was asked which Minister I thought it appropriate should answer the debate. There is a lack of clarity at that level that needs to be resolved.

His cause is to point out that there’s enormous value locked up in public sector information which ought to be made more visible. We agree; we only differ about the charging methodology.

Then again, the answer from Gareth Thomas does contain something that we find less encouraging:

Given that the trading fund model is well established, the Government believe that we should take the time to look at the issues in some detail. We must ensure that high-quality data continue to be produced, and public sector tasks fulfilled, at the same time as opportunities for the wider economy are maximised. It would be entirely premature to abandon what has been a high-quality data production model without fully exploring the consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the UK has world-class agencies, including Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry. I shall take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the professionalism, expertise and talent that is housed in each of those offices. We should be careful to avoid destabilising those excellent agencies.

Yes, but we’d hate to think he’s prejudging the outcome of the trading funds study, which will report on November 22.

(Mr Todd’s interest stems from the fact that before becoming an MP he worked for Pearson, and considered or may have set up companies which would have used data – some of it sourced from the public sector. As he says on his biography,

I spent 20 years in the publishing industry starting as an editor of school history books and leaving when I was running the warehouse, customer service and information systems of the UK business of Addison Wesley Longman. Through most of my business career my task was the transformation of previously unprofitable businesses or service functions which were too costly and failing to deliver.

Nice use of Google Maps on his site, by the way… the only pity is that he’s standing down at the next election. Then again, that could be some time away.)

Still, we’ll drop him a line to say thanks. And point out the ONS…

And an extra note for Steve Feldman: we didn’t lobby him..

|In Thursday’s Guardian: want to know where post offices are? Sorry, we can’t (or won’t) tell yoyu

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

The latest edition of Guardian Technology looks at the peculiar question of the locations of post offices, in “Want to know where the UK’s post offices are? Sorry, you can’t“.

It’s the by-now familiar story: you can get a little data free (the ten nearest post offices to a particular postcode), but the whole lot – no.

Demographer Keith Dugmore has been trying for the past couple of years to get hold of such a list. He runs the Demographics User Group, made up of people who use information such as census returns to make business decisions. A list of post office locations would be of great interest to other retailers, he says. It might also be of use to people publishing online guides, or to campaigners against the current programme to cut the network by 2,500 branches.

As a state-owned company (a subsidiary of Royal Mail), Post Office Ltd is in theory subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “I made a freedom of information request to the Post Office asking if they would be able to supply a single file of all post office addresses in the UK,” Mr Dugmore said.

The answer was no: first because it might have value to competitors; secondly because such a file would have commercial value in itself. He is now considering his next move. He could either appeal to the information commissioner or create his own list by “scraping” data from the Post Office website.

But as the article points out, you could ask now for that dataset from OPSI through the Re-use request service forum – the web channel that has been set up precisely for requests like this. Use it early, use it often. We ought to know what datasets government departments have.

Power of Information authors rebuff Ordnance Survey over “free maps” article

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Today’s Guardian carries a letter from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information report, responding to the “response” article in the Guardian last week by Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, which was headlined “These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.” (We’ve done our own analysis of it.)

The letter is short and worth quoting in full:

Scott Sinclair’s defence against the Guardian’s Free Our Data Campaign (Response, October 4) frames the debate about public-sector information in a wilfully misleading way.

The Ordnance Survey is a public body, and some public bodies do, on the orders of politicians, give things away “for free”. The NHS provides services in the order of £100bn, and does indeed give them away mostly free of charge.

The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

As a body committed to the public good, we hope the the board of the Ordnance Survey will soon take up a more constructive approach than this article written on its behalf.

Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo

Authors, Power of Information review

A couple of points to note:

  • I didn’t solicit this letter – I wasn’t aware it was going to be published. Which made it a nice breakfast surprise;
  • rather than the £110m that OS quotes for its required costs, this suggests £60m as the real “cost” – the extra taxpayer funding that would be needed (£110m to run OS, but a saving of £50m on licences within government);
  • they refer to the trading fund review, which we hear is being carried out by Rufus Pollock – but we don’t know what the terms of reference are. If anyone does know, we’d be interested to hear.

OS: ‘we can’t give away these maps’

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

In today’s Guardian, in the “Response” column – where people or organisations can respond, unedited, to pieces that have appeared in the paper which they feel misrepresent them – Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, has written a piece that has been headlined These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.

The crux of the argument: that “giving away” the OS’s data (as this campaign is pushing for) would mean a decline in the quality of OS data.

But in repeatedly calling for our core information to be given away, the campaign ignores the fact that someone still has to collect supposedly “free” data, and that it needs to be supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Out-of-date or poor-quality data is useless.

We agree about the need for quality data, though not the “ignores” bit. We have actually thought about this.

It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

This campaign doesn’t say (not even “often”) that OS is paid for by taxes. We repeatedly point to its trading fund model, and how we think that distorts the market. Though in the sense that just under half its revenue comes from government, which last time we looked was funded by our taxes, the OS does get taxation funding. It’s just indirect.

Many local-authority websites and free-to-air services from private-sector companies embed Ordnance Survey information. We offer an emergency mapping service that helped in the response to the summer flooding. More than 30,000 university students and staff download free mapping from us.

The students aren’t free to create commercial services with it, though; nor are the local authorities, of course, while the private sector companies often find that the costs of using OS data can be downright scary. If you’re not Google’s size, you’re not going to create your own system.

Underpinning all of these examples is accurate and up-to-date information, which requires investment. Experience from around the world, and even from our own history between the world wars, shows that underinvestment can lead to a severe deterioration in quality.

As we’ve said, here if not in print, there would need to be safeguards to make sure that OS got the funding it needed to meet its present targets (where something like 95% – or is it 99%? – of changes are put into MasterMap within 6 months of being captured).

The key aim of the Free Our Data campaign is to force us to give everything away. We believe this would seriously threaten the quality of our information at a time when more people are relying on more of it in more ways than ever before.

We believe it would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

What’s interesting is that he references last week’s piece about Norway, which removed internal charging for its map data within government (though not externally) and has seen as a result that departments have leapt on the ability to create new systems and concepts as a result of not having to worry about cost or licences. Norway has only gone halfway – it still charges externally – but it shows what can happen.

Ordnance Survey launches “OpenSpace” (sort of); Guardian reports on delays in government GIS report

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Two related pieces of news.

First, the Ordnance Survey has launched – without any announcement we’ve spotted – an element of its OpenSpace platform, with the Explore portal. As originally conceived, this would have let people create mashups on OS maps. However, that functionality isn’t there yet; you can add “walks” (that seems to be all) to a 1:50,000 (Landranger-quality) map, though more is promised for the future.

Ed Parsons, formerly chief technology officer at OS, and now working for Google’s mapping division, comments on his blog:

Although this is nothing new – platial after all offered similar functionality a few years ago – this has been a long time coming. I was involved in some of the design work over a year ago! this is still an important step forward for the OS.

From a technology point of view the service was/is underpinned by the backend system developed to support the long delayed OpenSpace project, so hopefully there will be news about that soon.

Parsons concludes:

Although I would take issue with some of the T&C’s, this really is progress in the right direction from Southampton.

I’d not heard of Platial, but it certainly does do stuff that’s much the same (here’s a randomly-chosen “walk” in London), but using Google Maps.

The Explore page does show some Web 2.0-ness: it’s got a “blog” (more like comments) and shows the latest stuff. Except, as Parsons points out, any “walk” you submit becomes OS’s property. Eh?

Yes – here are the “portal rules“:

7.3 By submitting, posting or displaying any Submission on or through the OEP, User hereby grants to the Administrator a non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty free, worldwide licence to use, copy, edit, alter, reproduce, publish, distribute and/or sub-licence the whole and/or any part of the Submission, on or in connection with the OEP and for any other purpose.

In other words, OS can resell your stuff if everyone creates walks it likes. Not exclusively, but for itself.

Which in fact is exactly the same as we want the OS to provide its data to us, the citizens. Except that things seem to have gotten turned on their head, and OS is acting like a big media company such as MTV wanting to piggyback on the submissions of its viewers. (See “Whose content is it anyway?“, from Technology Guardian 21 September 2006)

Rather unhelpfully, although the page says that

The Administrator may update or revise the OEP Rules (including the Copyright / IPR Policy) at any time, with immediate effect, without notice. You are responsible for reviewing these pages regularly to ensure you are aware of any changes made and your continued use of the OEP after the changes have been posted means you agree to be legally bound by the new OEP Rules.

it doesn’t have a “last updated” tag.

Still, it’s movement, of sorts. But what we really want is an API so we can create mashups.

Update: Ed Parsons points out in the comments that it also bans links to “any page of the OEP Portal”. Let’s see how that one lasts online.

Meanwhile, Guardian Technology this week looks at the delays in the publication of an internal government report on geographical information:

Under the government-wide programme to transform public services through IT, a geographic information strategy for the UK was due to be published by July. But it has not yet appeared – and no publication date has yet been set.

Apart from the prime ministerial changeover, there is another reason for the delay: unhappiness that one organisation, Ordnance Survey, is both the government’s official adviser on geographical information and the main beneficiary of contracts to supply it. It’s roughly akin to Microsoft being appointed official adviser on government software purchasing.

The Association for Geographical Information has called for quicker publication of minutes of the government’s Geographic Information Panel; those from the June meeting haven’t appeared on the GIP’s website yet.

One final note of interest: this week’s edition of Guardian Technology carries a large recruitment advert on the front page – for staff in geographical information. It’s a burgeoning business…

Crown Copyright: time for an end?

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

In this week’s Guardian Technology we ask whether it’s time to end crown copyright. Time to take the jewels from the crown? examines the knotty question:

We argue that the UK government should follow the US in making all raw taxpayer-funded data available to the knowledge economy – except where that data compromises personal privacy or national security.

Some of our supporters say that a short cut to this state of affairs would be to abolish crown copyright itself. The idea is worth examining. Abolition was last floated in 1998, as part of a series of examinations in to what the government should do with its publishing arm, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. A green paper, Crown Copyright in the Information Age (

/crown-copyright-in-the-information-age.pdf, 273KB PDF), proposed abolition as one of seven options for crown copyright.

In the public consultation that followed, abolition emerged as the most popular. From 70 responses received, abolition received 12 votes as preferred choice. The runner-up (retaining copyright but in a simpler form) received eight votes. The snag was that although abolition was the most popular response, it was also the least popular, receiving the largest number of “unacceptable” votes.

Faced with this polarised response, the government chose compromise. In 1999, the Cabinet Office found a “general consensus” in favour of retaining copyright, with simplified procedures for re-use.

There are arguments for and against crown copyright – certainly, the one that we hear from ministers is that it would mean you could be sure that something did originate where it claims to have done. (A hash on the original data could be followed through and computed on subsequent data to check its origin, for example.)

But the problem with crown copyright as it stands, and more importantly as it’s used, is that it’s used to restrict. That’s what copyright was used to do originally (over the Bible: see the introduction given at the RSA/Free Our Data debate – transcript, as PDF – last year by David Vaver of the Oxford Intellectual Property Group) and still is. Even the word itself has that ring. Maybe we need a different word.

Bonus link: Wikipedia’s page on crown copyright

A free, searchable law catalogue: hours of fun for all (especially lawyers)

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

The other day I was thinking to myself that one thing we could really do with is a database of court judgements. Not because I had any pressing need to look up a court judgement, but because logically – given that the courts are government-funded, work for the benefit of citizens, and are never ever going to be privatised – their output is a public property which should be available as a public good.

And lo and behold, someone has got there long before. Today’s Guardian leaders included one praising the work of Bailii, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, a charity devoted to freeing the law and whose trustees are chaired by Lord Brooke.

The leader notes that

Since 1999, Bailii has been amassing past judgments and negotiating to publish current and future ones. This is not just a wheeze for lawyers to get something for nothing, nor is it only for people fighting their own cases through the courts. It provides a constitutional right, allowing anyone interested to read the decisions taken most days in the courts that influence the public domain. With a handful of people, a budget of just £120,000 a year, and a shrewd grasp of what technology can do, it is finally making a reality of the ancient quest for universal access to common law.

Having tried it very briefly and searched on a few points of interest, it’s clear that Bailii is trying to dom something very like what does for Parliament – make the law courts’ output into something that we can all access. Its utility might not seem huge on face value, but that’s a false argument. Compare that to the utility you’d lose if it wasn’t there. Not sure what that is? Don’t worry – all databases grow in value with time and size.

The only shame, in fact, is that Bailii has to be charitably funded, outside government. It’s the sort of thing that we should be expecting the courts to do themselves. After all, £120,000 a year is about the cost of a few troops in Iraq. And I hear we’re withdrawing those now..

Information World Review joins Free Our Data campaign

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

We’re pleased to welcome our first official partner in the campaign: Information World Review, a VNU publication, has joined the campaign.

In a posting on the IWR blog, IWR’s editor Mark Chillingworth notes that

it would be great if Information World Review and its readers can be part of a campaign to make the information we already own more easily available.

IWR – motto “Information for competitive advantage” – is Europe’s leading newspaper for the information industry, covering both content and information management issues from the perspective of information professionals and managers responsible for intranets, extranets, portals and content management. It is circulated to information professionals, information managers and content managers working in corporations, consultancies, and public sector organisations in the UK.

As I note on the blog post, the more people and organisations we have on board, the better our chances of success. If you see more examples where government is charging or re-charging itself for data, let us know – add a comment here.

Virtual London online plans killed off by Ordnance Survey licensing demands

Friday, August 17th, 2007

The map to the side was created by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, showing air pollution (redder means worse; bluer less bad). It’s the sort of map that would have all sorts of uses, if you could make it interactive and navvigable online: you’d be able to determine how polluted the street where you were looking to buy a house was; or (as a planner) where congestion was worst; or (as a scientist) where to site experiments.

But you won’t find a navigable map like that – only snapshots. Reason being that longstanding attempts by Casa and Google to persuade the OS to license the use of the map online have foundered.

The reason: Google wanted to make a one-off payment for the MasterMap data the map derives from; OS insists that it must be a per-user system, as applies to all sorts of other people (and which has scuppered other plans in the past, longstanding readers will recall – see “Travel maps of Britain.. measured by time, not distance” in May 2006. There too it was OS’s licensing model that meant that work funded by the Department of Transport couldn’t be shown online).

In Want to see a great 3D model of London online? Ordnance Survey says no we look at what’s been lost:

Virtual London, developed by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London, represents all of the capital’s boroughs in 3D, including 3m buildings. It was intended to help citizens visualise the impact of new developments and hazards such as air pollution and flooding. The mayor’s London Connects e-government programme has also sent copies of the model, running in Google Earth, to each of London’s 33 local councils.

Then the problem emerged. Virtual London contains spatial data derived from OS’s MasterMap, the definitive crown copyright database of Britain. Licences to use MasterMap data are a valuable income stream to OS, a trading fund required to earn a profit for the Treasury by selling products and data licences. There was no problem with London’s boroughs using the 3D model in-house, because, like virtually all government bodies, they have licences to use OS data. What they could not do was post Virtual London on websites for London’s citizens to use.

The Virtual London team blogs their disappointment:

While it is fair to say that Google can be demanding the lack of movement by the OS does strike [smack? – CA] of an agency out of touch with today’s data requirements.

The Free Data Campaign has a number of posts and information with regards the practices of the OS. While we have not always agreed with them, and indeed have been warned off openly criticising the OS in the past by the powers that be, we cannot deny that the whole episode has been slightly Pythoneque.

The OS currently does not have the ability to license models for public usage and this is from a government-funded and approved agency.

(Obviously OS would argue about the “government-funded” part of that last sentence. But since just under half its revenues come from licensing to central and local government, it’s at least partly correct.)

The Virtual London team – while saying that they are merely passing on the link (to the world) while “worrying slightly in a ‘we need to distance ourselves from all this for the sake of our career[s]’ sort of way” – point to an article on the matter by the Londonist about OS entitled “Ordnance Survey are not our friends”:

You’ve seen those adverts for a well known building society, right? – the ones with the annoying chap explaining that it ‘doesn’t work like that’.

Change the building society for the Ordnance Survey (our national mapping agency) and make Google the customer for a farce that has made London the laughing stock of the mapping world.

Google – Can we publish the Virtual London model from the guys at CASA? We’ll pay, and even put on your logo so that you get the credit.

Ordnance Survey – Doesn’t work like that.

Google – OK how does it work? Lets find a way around this, after all it is in the public’s interest and what with the Olympics coming up…

Ordnance Survey – Doesn’t work like that.

When you consider it like that, the whole thing really is Pythonesque. It could have come straight out of Life of Brian.

Not waking the dead: time to make details of the dead available?

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Overdue, but last week’s edition of Technology Guardian wrote about the place that we could call the dividing line between personal data and potentially free data: that of death. Like taxes, it’s inevitable. And notably under the Data Protection Directives, the dead do not enjoy data protection – details about a dead person can be passed without reference, because (obviously) they’re dead.

That means though that dead people are (weirdly) potentially liable to identity theft (people assume the identity of the dead person, if organisations don’t realise they’re dead; infinitely less risk of the dead person spotting their credit record going sour, after all). And there are other problems too, such as people receiving mailshots at upsetting times, as the article – Direct mail reaches beyond the grave – explains:

In June this year, the Ministry of Defence sent a recruitment mailshot to the family of Lance Corporal Dennis Brady, a reservist with the Royal Army Medical Corps, inviting him to re-enlist. But Brady had been killed eight months previously while serving in Basra.

Although the blunder was very public, prompting a ministerial apology and the MoD to suspend direct mailing, it was not unusual. About 570,000 deaths occur in Britain every year.

The key point is that death data should be shared within government (one of the drivers behind the e-government framework was one of its architects’ discovery that in trying to notify a death, a family had to contact official bodies 44 times over a period of 18 months.

Releasing information about deaths, and the identities of the dead – so that they can be removed from databases (and so that credit and other applications in their names would be flagged) would obviously have huge benefits.

Up to now, we have been concerned mainly with information about the natural environment and anonymised statistics, where we think the case for automatic free dissemination is clear. At the other end of the spectrum, data about identifiable citizens should be rigorously protected – the more so as the government moves towards joined-up databases.

Records of deaths lie at the boundary between the two. We believe that, while the existing restrictions on the release of bulk data are absurd, the potential harm to living individuals means that re-users (including those in government) should be under a special obligation to get their facts right.

We’ll offer a footnote here to the Bereavment Register, which offers a similar service, aiming to reduce the amount of direct (junk) mail sent to the deceased. It costs money, of course, whereas our scheme might make such prevention in effect free at source, since marketing databases could be cleaned against them. But a company like this could offer a service “cleaning” databases too.

Administrative note: If you want to promote an organisation that has some connection to this campaign (or campaigns against it – we’re all for robust argument) then please use your real names. If you want to get in touch separately, then please email me – works well.

More on government departments’ submissions to the Select Committee

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

This week’s Guardian Technology supplement expands on the acid remarks from Defra and also the Ministry of Defence over the Ordance Survey’s licensing system in submissions to the Communities and Local Government select committee inquiry.

In Ordnance Survey under fire from inside the government we note that

the Ministry of Defence paints a picture of a 200-year-old relationship turning sour because OS has to operate as a business. While the agency is a world-class organisation providing an excellent service, “in recent times the boundaries applied to the use of OS’s data for public service and national interest work have become increasingly blurred. MoD has experienced more stringency and complexity being applied to the release of data by OS, which has resulted in uncertainty and lack of flexibility in the use of that data by the MoD.” Licensing charges set by OS are “particularly high”. As a result “some government users are being denied access”.

Sound familiar?

Also worth noting: there’s now a single page with all the Free Our Data stories from the Guardian. (It’s part of the website redesign. Maybe we’ll try on here some time.)

Late, but anyway: New Zealand makes (some) statistics free – but why?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Left over in the busy-ness last week was the piece in Guardian Technology about New Zealand’s government making a leap of faith and freeing a number of its statistical data that was previously charged-for.

In New Zealand puts its trust in statistics, I ask Statistics NZ and Business NZ (the trade body lobbying on behalf of business) what the economic justification for the move was. The answer: nobody seems to know. But it seemed like a good idea.