Free Our Data: the blog

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

Inspire decision


The European parliament and council of ministers have finally agreed a compromise wording to the Inspire directive designed to harmonise spatial information around Europe. The directive had become a cause celebre in the movement to make public sector data freely available. Broadly, the European parliament backed our position, while the council of ministers was opposed.

Here’s today’s announcement of the compromise, hammered out on Tuesday night (after this week’s Technology Guardian went to press).

“The European Parliament and Council reached agreement last night on the contents of the proposed INSPIRE Directive, which aims to harmonise spatial information across Europe.

“Key points resolved during the final stages of the discussions between the institutions included the principles according to which citizens should be allowed to examine the official maps and other spatial data covered by the directive, and rules for granting authorities access to data held by other authorities. Copyright issues were also dicussed in detail.

“The directive will oblige EU member states to improve the administration of their map services and other spatial data services according to common principles. This will give Europe’s citizens better opportunities to find useful information about the environment and other issues from the internet. It will also enable the authorities to benefit more from information compiled by other official organisations.

“Data search services designed for the public will generally be free of charge, although the directive allows fees to be charged for access to data that has to be updated frequently, such as weather reports.”

Looking from a parochial point of view, the compromise seems to satisfy the UK government’s two objections to amendments voted through by the parliament last summer: that they would compromise national security and put trading funds such as Ordnance Survey out of business.

Satu Hassi, a Green MEP from Finland who was closely involved with the negotiations, told me this morning that while she was not 100% satisfied with the outcome, the compromise at least puts some limits on data charges. In particular, it prohibits what she calls “arbitrary charging” – a finance ministry cannot suddenly decide to double the price of an information asset. 

One disappointment was the loss of an amendment that would have forced governments to make available data about radioactivity. Sounds like a worthy target for the Free our Data campaign. 

To sum up? Well, obviously the outcome isn’t what we’d have hoped for. Inspire isn’t going to end the absurd practice of public bodies spending time and effort negotiating rights and paying royalties for using data already owned by the taxpayer. (In Hassi’s words: “a ridiculous zero-sum game”.)

We’re not downhearted, however. Thanks to Inspire, the argument for freeing public sector information has been made at ministerial level in every government in Europe. It is on the mainstream agenda.

And, strongly as we feel about free data, let’s not lose sight of the main story. Inspire is about building new tools for understanding continent-wide impacts of climate change and pollution.  That seems like a good idea, even if some of the nuts and bolts aren’t the ones we’d have chosen ourselves.

There’s more in tomorrow’s Technology section. Feedback welcome, as always.


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