Free Our Data: the blog

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

And now, OPSI sets up an “unlock that data” channel

The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) goes from strength to strength. After its chief Carol Tullo spoke out in Europe about the importance of greater access to data, OPSI has set up a web page where you can request data sets you want released:

As the regulator for public sector information re-use, we know that people can encounter problems from time to time getting hold of the information they need in the formats they want. Difficulties can include problems with charging, licensing or the data standards that public sector information is provided in.

These problems aren’t about access (which is dealt with under Freedom of Information legislation), but all the other issues which can occur when you want to do something with public sector information – copy it, remix it with other data or add value and republish it. If you are trying to re-use some public sector information, but the data you need is locked-up, this service is for you.

How it works:

  1. You describe the public sector information asset you want unlocked for re-use, and post a request to the service. We’ll check through your request and if it’s OK (e.g. not a Freedom of Information request) we’ll post it here.
  2. Others can see your request and support it, either by adding a comment or by voting. The more support a request has, the better the chances of unlocking the information you want to re-use.
  3. We’ll contact the public sector information holder and see what can be done to unlock the information for re-use. To keep things simple, if the problem relates to an issue specifically covered by the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations or the Information Fair Trader Scheme, we’ll treat it accordingly – so you won’t need to make a separate complaint. We’ll post back our findings here.

And there’s already one request in there, for access to OS electoral boundary details, which I recall is an issue that comes up again and again – it was certainly mentioned at the RSA/Free Our Data debate nearly two years ago.

The problem, as detailed by “Matthew”:

I find it odd that if I want to know the actual boundary of the ward or constituency I am in (co-ordinates, not just an image), I have to pay Ordnance Survey lots of money for their Boundary-Line product. I would have thought that, given it’s quite important to know which MP or councillors I’m going to have the option of electing, that this information should be freely available as part of a healthy democracy; it’s compiled by the various publicly funded Boundary Commissions/Committees as far as I know.

His ideal solution:

I think the actual data rather than just images of the boundaries should be available, so that people can create things using the data – you can’t do anything with images besides display them. For example, I can’t create a Google map (using their My Maps feature) of my ward marking on where and when councillors hold their surgeries, and other local amenities. I can’t create an application that asks people to select where they live on a map and it tell them if their Parliamentary constituency will be changing at the next general election, what it’s changing to, and what difference that makes to them.

I am aware of the website, but this is extremely hard to use – you have to know the name of your area before you can enter a postcode, you can’t look up by e.g. ward name, and it only provides images of the boundaries.

More power to his, and OPSI’s, elbow.

This is all terrifically encouraging, especially along with the Show Us A Better Way competition using government data for imaginative (and perhaps commercial) mashups. Have you got your entry in yet?

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