How can public information be free if there’s a charge?
Guardian, 8 June 2006
By Heather Brooke
It may be a modern version of squaring the circle. According to the director of the Office of Public Sector Information (Opsi), Carol Tullo, it is feasible to open up the government’s stores of data, uphold copyright and charge the public for official information. Speaking recently at a conference of freedom of information officers from government, she said: “Why should we be gatekeepers? We have enough to do in our day jobs than to worry about what the local economy may find interesting.”
The default position of government should be to trade in information, Tullo said, adding that transparency and openness benefits government in many ways. She cited the non-political website TheyWorkForYou.com – which repurposes data from Hansard online to let users find out about MPs’ voting records, attendance and even register of interests – as an example of how making government information available can benefit society.
“The people at TheyWorkForYou.com have said to me, ‘we shouldn’t be providing this [site]. This is something government should have been providing.’ Actually, no. This is a perfect example of entrepreneurial private-sector activity,” Tullo said.
So does the example of that site mean the Free Our Data campaign – which aims to get government to make available at no cost the non-personal data it collects, such as mapping and environmental information – is misguided? Is the problem simply with the private sector?
Unsurprisingly, no. The creators of TheyWorkForYou risked prosecution to build the site, because parliament (and through it, Opsi, which regulates crown copyright) initially refused to grant permission for them to re-use the Hansard data that was freely available online. It’s just another indication of how the system of assigning “copyright” and “value” to government data stifles wider innovation.
The site’s creators find Tullo’s claims surprising. “We had to take the risk of publishing without a licence because we believe everyone has a right to reproduce what their MP has been saying in parliament,” says developer Francis Irving. “Parliament … did eventually give us a licence, but one shouldn’t have to rely on their kindness. It should be every citizen’s right to reproduce that information without having to ask permission.”
Julian Todd, an IT developer and co-creator of the site, adds: “As far as I know, we have had zero cooperation from the Opsi. It’s also bonkers … to call us ‘private sector’. We’re activists, without a business plan, and without respect for things like ‘parliamentary copyright’ if it can be perceived as an obstruction to democracy.”
So will the government abolish these types of copyright, which are seen by entrepreneurs and activists as restrictive? “Why should government abolish and not respect copyright?” Tullo responded. “We’re very keen to see any form of copyright acknowledgement giving clarity to the user.”
Yet crown copyright remains the method used by the government to maintain its control of official information. The view of the Free Our Data campaign, that official information belongs to the public and should therefore be freely available, is a “philosophical point of view”, Tullo said – one she does not seem to share.
Ministers might reconsider whether to charge if they could be persuaded of the wider economic benefits, she said, “but so far, there has not been a single study clearly showing how providing this information freely would benefit the information economy”. (The Guardian will send her links to the paper by Peter Weiss which does precisely that, and to the recent OECD meeting on the effects of open data.) As noted here on May 4 (“Should government charge … and how much?”), in 2000 the Treasury said this would be a worthwhile topic for research – yet has done nothing.
Tullo’s office is awaiting the results of a study by the Office of Fair Trading into crown copyright that would analyse whether a non-restrictive copyright system, such as that found in the US, would be more economically beneficial, she said.
But Todd points out that Tullo misinterpreted the point about the need for the site: “The project breaks down into two parts,” he explains. “There is the parser, which converts all their online Hansard into properly structured data suitable for a database. And then there’s the front end, which uses this database to generate webpages, email alerts, voting stats, and so on.
“We should not need to write the parser; the data should be supplied in structured format by the government in the first place, which is what they use internally. Then anyone else could put together whatever front ends they liked to provide different services relatively easily. It’s the same if they were to supply geodata. We need the original mapping database …to process it into whatever form we like.”
The team recently did precisely that in a project for the Department for Transport looking at travel times across the UK between different destinations. The results end with the note: “This work was funded by the Department for Transport, who also made it possible for us to use Ordnance Survey maps and data through their licence; without this assistance we would have had to pay expensive fees to use the underlying mapping data or to produce maps with no landmarks, which would be almost incomprehensible …
“Although the journey planning services and software we used were publicly accessible, almost none of the other data is available unless you pay for it … very little of this work could be cheaply reproduced or extended without assistance from a government department.” Perhaps Tullo will begin to take note of that.
See the campaign blog at www.freeourdata.org.uk