Free public sector data? – someone has to pay

By Nick Holmes on May 26, 2006
Comments Off on Free public sector data? – someone has to pay
Filed under Public Sector Information

Society Guardian on howSusskind has approvedthe Guardian’s Free Our Data Campaign:

The British government owns one of the world’s most valuable collections of intellectual property. Government policy on what it should do with this information is muddled. On one hand, it encourages free access, for example to historic census returns. On the other hand, agencies holding some of the most valuable information are required to operate on a quasi-commercial basis, charging for access to their data. The most efficient and astute of these so-called trading funds, such as Ordnance Survey, operate at no direct cost to the taxpayer and even make a profit for the Treasury.

… this policy … generates an absurd bureaucracy in which one government agency has to negotiate contracts with another government agency for permission to use information which the government already owns [and] stifles the knowledge economy because any start-up business based on government data is liable to find itself in direct commercial competition with the very body which produces that data.

The campaign proposes that the government should “get out of the market” and that public sector data should be available to all for free (subject to exceptions for national security etc), to exploit as they wish.

Richard Susskind is chair of the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI) and has welcomed the thrust of the campaign as it recognises the value of PSI and is raising awareness. But he outlines the barriers to achieving this nirvana:

  • Copyright. Crown copyright in itself is not necessarily a barrier as OPSI’s click use licensing already operates in a similar way to the creative commons model.
  • Quality. The Government needs to be confident that in making information more freely available it can still be confident of its quality.
  • Competition. There is a risk that public sector near-monopolies could be replaced by private sector ones: charging citizens and profiting substantially will mean citizens are paying twice and possibly over the odds.
  • Politics. No single minister is in charge of PSI and its value will not be fully exploited if it remains thus. Each department sees PSI as valuable for a different reason and no minister currently sees it as a pressing priority for reform.
  • Provingit’s broke. There is a lack of evidence to underpin a largely intuitive argument for change. The APPSI has called for a detailed study into the economics of PSI, reporting accurately the costs of running the current contracting and copyright protection regime and considering the social cost of raising taxation to pay for “free” data.