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

What if Ordnance Survey’s maps aren’t covered by copyright because they’re right?

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

A very intriguing story in today’s Technology Guardian, based on the analysis that you’ll find

New study casts doubt on Ordnance Survey’s copyright control points out that

According to a new study by government-funded intellectual property lawyers, some users at least have a legal right both to extract items of data and to pass them on to third parties. A study by Charlotte Waelde of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law concludes that a geospatial database does not enjoy copyright protection, as Ordnance Survey claims, but rather is protected by the European Database Directive.

What does that mean?

Unlike copyright law, which can be used to block the reproduction of almost any part of a creative work – even John Cage’s 4’33” of silence – the database directive allows users to copy information, provided that it is not a “substantial” part of a database. The use must also be lawful and “not conflict with the normal exploitation of the database or unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the maker”.

You can find Mike Smith’s original posting on this.

OS, as you might expect, OS sees it differently:

“We haven’t been able to consider the report in detail,” said spokesman Scott Sinclair, “but there is absolutely no doubt that intellectual property rights exist in MasterMap – it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. In all our topographic information, there is copyright as in artistic works. Therefore use of those works without licence is an infringement.”

Now, over to the lawyers…

Baroness Ashton listens to Free Our Data case

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Baroness AshtonAs we report in today’s Guardian, in Minister listens to Guardian’s campaign call, we had an off-the-record meeting with Baroness Ashton, who is in charge of public sector information at the Department of Constitutional Affairs – a role that she has had since the Office of Public Sector Information moved from the Cabinet Office to become part of the National Archives near the end of last year.

The meeting was off the record (so we can’t tell you what she said) because the government is still considering its response to the OFT report on PSI, which won’t come out until after the local government elections in May. (We have no idea what the connection of the local elections is to PSI, but let’s let that go.)

One can though get some idea of the concerns that are going on; Baroness Ashton is clearly listening to everyone who feels that the current system isn’t quite working, as well as those who do. She has promised us an attributable briefing once the response to the OFT is published.

One concern we did note though was about how one could be sure, with a free data model, that errors weren’t being introduced in re-use:

Other questions raised familiar objections to the free data idea. One is how to assure the integrity of government data when it is re-used by third parties. While there are technical solutions such as encryption hashes, the answer may be that the government has to learn to let go. After all, in an era of free data, users and commercial competitors will always be able to make their own checks against the original. And free geospatial data could improve the accuracy of sketchmaps produced by bodies such as tourist authorities, perhaps even saving lives.

We can offer an example here: the photo on this page is, apparently, Crown Copyright; and anyone can follow it back to the original, here, to see if we’ve messed around with it. (We haven’t, because we’re simply calling it directly from the government server.) Data re-use with Crown Copyright without cost? It sounds like a good idea to us.

In The Guardian: a year of Free Our Data campaigning: why is the Office for National Statistics free?

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

And what have we got? You might ask. Plenty of interesting points that there wasn’t enough room to fit in print, in fact (we didn’t get into the matters of other countries which don’t charge for their mapping).

Among a list of “interesting things we’ve learnt in the past year” in A few victories, but the battle goes on in today’s Guardian is one that has been intriguing me ever since the NCeSS event last week.

It’s this: the ONS makes its data available for free. The Ordnance Survey doesn’t. But they’re both dealing with data that are constantly changing.

As the story puts it:

  • Despite being in effect half taxpayer-funded, OS’s position as a trading fund protects it from financial neglect by the Treasury, according to advocates of the model. They argue that OS has to collect data about a constantly changing landscape, and that making it fully taxpayer-funded would put it at the mercy of central funding, which could wane (as happened between the two world wars).
  • The Office for National Statistics, which collects data about constantly changing social elements such as internet use, labour, manufacturing output and so on, is not a trading fund, and makes the majority of its statistics – including demographic data from the 2001 Census – available for free via its website.

So here’s the question: why isn’t ONS a trading fund, if it’s such an effective model?

Your questions please for Baroness Ashton – and a question for you, the reader

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Baroness Ashton, of the Department of Constitutional Affairs, and about as close as the government gets to being a minister for public sector information, has agreed to give us an interview meet us, off the record, next week. She would like to “hear our concerns”.

So, what questions would you like us to ask her? Reasonable ones, please.

And (since I’ve linked to theyworkforyou): Tom Steinberg, one of the people behiind MySociety, asked a key question about the realpolitik of the campaign:

“What single piece of evidence would you put forward to the Treasury that would convince them that it is worth spending tens of millions of pounds to make this data free?”

In other words, where’s the proof that this move to free data would really bring economic benefit?

Your submissions please. Links to papers (even very geeky economic ones) for, and against it you like.

‘What happens at the next Lockerbie?’ – the risks of killing NIMSA

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

One of the points that I made during the Open Knowledge Foundation meeting in London last week was that the Ordnance Survey knows when everything changes. It has a mission to map the UK, and pretty much anything the size of a garden shed will get noticed by its overflights. (Wouldn’t local authorities love to know about changes in their areas that conformed or didn’t to planning permission? How much do they have to pay if they do?)

I’ve been to OS – which apparently six of the eight past ministers in charge of OS haven’t – and seen the work they do loading the overflight data onto the MasterMap. It’s impressive. The OS target is to get 99.6% of changes in the database within six months.

However the end of the National Interest Mapping Services Agreement (NIMSA) last year means that the OS gets no subsidy to map areas that are out of the way. If it’s having to compete with a growing number of commercial services (apparently the latest one Vanessa Lawrence is concerned about is China’s mapping agency), how can it justify mapping remote areas at that speed?

Ed Parsons, former chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey, says that it won’t. “Areas in cities will get updated, but in Scotland your new garden shed might not be noticed for five years.” Nice for your garden shed – but what happens when a plane or a tanker or some other disaster happens in that remote area that has been neglected because of the death of NIMSA?

That is why the Free Our Data campaign says that Ordnance Survey is valuable – and that the government has a responsibility to citizens to make sure the UK is well mapped, within the public sector. Duncan Shiell of OS, who spoke at the NCeSS event, said that between the wars, councils did a lot of the mapping – but that when the OS was re-funded back to strength and took it over, it discovered that many of the maps didn’t join up across county boundaries... explains what happened between the wars in the comments (Any errors are mine, from misremembering.)

We think the point remains though. That’s why you need a well-funded – taxpayer-funded, not privatised – OS.

ESRC events and Open Knowledge day: podcasts/transcripts available

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

The Open Knowledge Foundation event was very interesting: there’ll be a couple of blog posts arising from it (which I’ll put up here in a moment).

Meanwhile, Steve Coast of OpenStreetMap has put up the podcast of the panel at which Ed Parsons, he and I (Charles Arthur) spoke.

The National Centre for e-Social Sciences (NCeSS) has a page which might, or might not have the webcast – it’s not clear whether it will be archiving the content. It was a very interesting debate, made more interesting by the fact that many had thought – wrongly, we emphasise – that the campaign wants to make personal data available. We don’t. The aim is to get impersonal data made available without restriction for the cost of reproduction.


an interesting writeup from an archaeologist’s point of view.

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…

Who owns Scotland? Now without maps!

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

The owner of the Who Owns Scotland site, which aims to document the ownership of the land in Scotland (durr), gets in touch to tell us about how the Ordnance Survey (sorry, yes, them again) kept switching its position on whether and how or even if he could use its maps on his site.

As this page he outlines his problems:

All Ordnance Survey (OS) digital mapping was removed from this website on 23 February 2007. This was due to the unilateral termination of my contract by OS in October 2005 and my unwillingness to accept the new terms that were being proposed by them due to excessive costs, continuing contractual uncertainty and a breakdown of trust.

The problem arose because depending who he spoke to in OS, he either was allowed or wasn’t allowed to use their maps on his site. Eventually, just as he was trying to decide whether to renew his licence (he was paying, like a good protesting but law-abiding citizen) to use the maps, the OS told him that it had summarily ended the contract about six months earlier.

It was recently established that OS has “no more than sewven lawyers, amounting to 6.2 full-time equivalents”. One feels that they’re spending time undoing each others’ work. Now, if there weren’t any copyright issues…

Will the government try to privatise the UK Hydrographic Office?

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

In this week’s Technology Guardian, we look at the options being examined – and one important option not being examined – for the future of the UK Hydrographic Office.

In UK Hydrographic Office runs into dangerous waters, Mike Cross notes that two options – making UKHO a private company fully-owned by the Ministry of Defence (which is a first step to privatisation) and remaining as a trading fund – are being considered.

Worryingly, the review announcement lists only two “principal options” for the office: to maintain it as a trading fund, or to convert it into a company owned in whole or in part by the Ministry of Defence. As the review coincides with a squeeze in spending, ministers may be tempted by any injection of cash that could be raised by a share sale.

For free data, this could be an even worse outcome than the present state of affairs. The perils of creating a jointly owned company were illustrated last week by the Department of Health, which found itself criticised by auditors over the way it set up a joint venture with a commercial business, Dr Foster.

Kablenet reports on the NAO’s kicking of NHS:

The report notes that government is increasing its use of joint ventures, but concludes that, in the absence of a fair competitive tender process, the Information Centre had no fair comparisons or benchmarks to demonstrate this was the best structure to meet its needs, or that it represented good value for money.

Back to the UKHO: the FOD campaign believes

that the Hydrographic Office review should include at least one further option: that of direct government funding for the collection of raw hydrographic data, which should be freely available to all comers. At a time when information about coastlines and seabeds is of vital environmental importance, this would be in keeping with the spirit of the European Inspire directive on the exchange of geophysical information. It would also maintain a British tradition of international cooperation, regardless of politics, in matters of maritime safety.

But there’s always a kicker. And in the case of an MoD-owned or operated organisation, it’s this:

One objection, of course, is that this policy would force the Ministry of Defence to choose between funding hydrographic surveys and giving soldiers on the front line decent body armour. It would be a courageous minister who favoured the former.

One could argue, of course, about the wisdom of needing to make the choice; on whether better intelligence can be gathered by more free access; and so on. But politics is the art of the possible. The government review is a worrying development, because it implies that everything must have a price – no matter what the economics might show.

Do ministers listen to advisory panels? The one on public sector information (PSI) isn’t so sure

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

The Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI) has just issued its third annual report, and it’s a mixed bag, at least in terms of how it sees ministers reacting to it. Mostly, it seems, they don’t – or they don’t take the value in PSI seriously.

In Yes, minister, it’s time for the data debate, Michael Cross points out how the APPSI has struggled with what could be interpreted as indifference:

The advisory panel’s report suggests that current policy – torn between the demands of data protection, freedom of information and earning a commercial return – is in a mess. The report reveals a tale of frustrated attempts to try to interest ministers in public sector information – which one expert member describes as “the main asset of government”.


Throughout the report, there is frustration at the low priority given by ministers to questions of public sector information. Members of the panel “have been disappointed in the past year with our inability to stimulate and secure ministerial interest”, the report reveals.

And as the article also points out, we know how it feels. Guardian Technology has for the past month repeatedly requested an interview with Baroness Ashton, the minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs with responsibility for information rights. Her office has not responded. (Her theyworkforyou page includes the interesting note “never rebels against her party in Parliament”. Well, ministers tend not to, of course.)

We might start a timer to see how long it’s been since we requested the interview to date.

The money-go-round, and the truth about Ordnance Survey funding

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Wonderful what a bit of careful watching of the theyworkforyou site (which slices and dices the doings of Parliament into usable form) can do.

For instance, revealed through a series of questions posed by Derek Wyatt (who chaired the RSA’s Free Our Data debate) is the fact that more than half of the Ordnance Survey’s funding for the financial year 2004-5 came from the public sector, because while it’s happy to say its figures are only 47%, that doesn’t include NIMSA funding.

In fact, Nimsa contributed £13.2m to OS that year while “turnover from operating activities” was £114.7m. Nimsa was thus more than 10% of OS revenues that year. (The reports don’t seem to distinguish between NIMSA revenue and trading revenue.)

Here’s the question.

In Bureaucratic nonsense of the government’s money-go-round we point out that a lot of the Ordnance Survey’s revenues are part of a carousel – upheld by lawyers (it’s got six, and spent more than half a million on outside legal fees) – in which money travels around the public sector.

And it’s not the only one:

Meanwhile, defence minister Derek Twigg shed some light on the extent to which another successful trading fund depends on government support. Answering a question from Conservative MP Mark Lancaster, Twigg said that of the Meteorological Office’s revenues of £170m in 2005-06, 36% came from central and local government. The scale of such payments being made between different arms of the state calls into question the government’s claim that its mapping and meteorological agencies operate on a commercial basis.

The issue of freeing data, and whether it’s a good idea or a middling one or a bad one, or even a good one that would be confounded by a Treasury keen to cut funding for any agency, is one I’ve been discussing quietly with Steven Feldman (who often contributes in the comments here) over at his Giscussions blog. You’re welcome to comment here or there.

But a key point is this: the Treasury hasn’t looked into the cost/benefit of making more data free of charges and of copyright restrictions. The Office of Fair Trading has at least made a beginning. We think it looks better than the Treasury allows.

Local planning applications: free data, but hard to collate.. until now

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

We haven’t focussed much on local government so far in this campaign, because it has to be said that many local councils do pretty good work in terms of making data available – possibly because they’ve often, in the past, been required to do so.

Planning applications, for example, are generally available on the web. The problem is finding out whether one in your area will affect you, because if it’s a few streets away you might care about it, but won’t receive a letter telling you about it.

Which drove Richard Pope to write (note you need the “www”, as in the link; the site is just a placeholder). It took him five days over Christmmas, but he reckons the template – which uses a screen scraper – can be applied very widely. So although he’s only got 41 or so councils hooked up, the other 300 or so should be quite easy to add, because there are a limited number of software packages used by councils to put planning data online.

Pope’s idea: you put in your postcode and email, and the site will contact you when something is applied for in your area.

Simple? Yes (by computing standards). Clever? We think so. Could be done by government? Well, it sort of is – except at much more expense, and put into the hands of a commercial company (Emap) which says it retains the copyright on the data it offers through the National Planning Application Register.

In Don’t panic: we’ll email if someone plans to demolish your house, today’s Guardian Technology explains what Pope would like (an API/XML feed from councils that would obviate the need for screen-scraping).

The irony is that government already offers a similar service to search for planning applications through its national planning portal at But rather than five days, it has taken a year to build; it doesn’t send out proactive alerts; and a formidable copyright notice says that the National Planning Application Register is copyright of a commercial company, Emap Glenigan (whose website is used for the searches).

By contrast, Pope hasn’t worried much about copyright: “This information should be available to all.”

We’ve got nothing against Emap Glenigan using the same data that’s widely available – but it’s everyone’s, not Emap’s.

Is the new Statistics Board the right model for free data?

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

In this week’s Guardian Technology, Michael Cross examines what the proposed changes to the structure and oversight for the Office for National Statistics means for data access.

In Statistics are free – now let’s work on the rest of the data, he notes

national statistics are an important example of public sector information being posted free on the web. We would like to see all impersonal data collected by government to be made available this way, for the benefit both of democracy and the knowledge economy. Second, the governance regime now before Parliament could be applied to other types of data, from maps to weather forecasts.

What do you think?

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.)

Public money paid for it – but the public can’t view because of crown copyright

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

The longer this campaign goes on, the more we seem to generate headlines like that on this post. The latest example is the project by University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis,

(image from the CASA blog; see below for link)
In Copyright fight sinks virtual planning, Michael Cross points out how the Virtual London project can only put clips on YouTube and small examples on its blog, because it is barred from putting the whole project online – which would let any of us zoom through a virtual London, and see how the Olympics projects might look, or model flooding, or planning or any of a host of truly useful activities – by, yes, the licensing restrictions imposed by Ordnance Survey.

That’s because the model lays the OS’s Mastermap (with details of all buildings and heights in the UK) over a Google Maps system. For London, it’s very impressive – see the Casa blog.

Is this, strictly, OS’s fault? Not really – it’s the fault of a government attitude which insists that every bit of data must be sweated as an asset; OS must cut its cloth to fit that insistence.

The real obstacle is crown copyright. For data gathered with taxpayers’ help, and by organisations answerable to the government, crown copyright makes less and less sense in a world where the free movement of data enables more activity.

After all, isn’t this the same administration which abolished museum charges? What was the rationale for that? Interestingly, less than a year after doing so, museum visits were up by 62%. We suspect that if you scrapped data charging you’d see a lot more than a 62% rise in the use of data such as the OS’s. (If anyone can find the cost of the free museums initivative, we’d like to hear.)