Free access is not open access

By Nick Holmes on October 11, 2007
Filed under Public Sector Information

I highlight again a single point from para 87 of the Power of Information review from my acronymically-entitled previous post PSI4U:

It is relatively easy to suggest changes that would give citizens and organisations better access to information held by government. These include … republishing information in open standards or as web services.

Let’s look at some examples central to the legal profession:

  • The publication of the Statute Law Database as a free access, public resource was a huge step forward and did represent a “sea change” in the government’s attitude, but free access to its web views does not open up the data. You cannot easily extract, re-use or repurpose the data as you are at the mercy of its formatting and a URI scheme that relies on its internal document IDs; and there are no RSS feeds of new legislation.
  • Similarly, the numerous different courts publish their judgments, but all in their own way and with no RSS feeds that I could see at last review. (BAILII does a grand job aggregating and making sense of these, but even they do not provide RSS feeds.)
  • All government websites add important new policy documents daily to their websites, yet, again, there is no consistency and the provision of RSS feeds for these latest additions is relatively scant, patchy and inconsistent.

These are all materials which there is no argument we should be able to use and re-use freely, but for the sake of a few days’ programming time, we are denied the keys to open access which would unlock the data’s potential.

Then we have the PSI that is locked up in trading funds. This is a political issue, with the nay-sayers believing that its value can only be exploited via the fundholders’ monopolies and the open access brigade believing that huge social and commercial benefits will flow from its release into the public domain. We do have, in many cases, free access to the data in that we can, via the appropriate website, query the fundholders’ data for the information we need, but it is served up in small chunks, and if we want to do anything with a meaningful set of data, we are reduced to scraping the websites. That’s fair or foul depending your conscience rather than the niceties of copyright law.

If you’ve any interest in leveraging public sector information, then do publicise (via a link in your blogroll or wherever) and contribute to [updated 10/07/2008 OPSI’s Public Sector Information Unlocking Service].


A few points…

From your quote of the report:

“These include republishing information in open standards or as web services.”

I’d say that it is important that the web services be ‘open’ as well — see the work being made in defining an open service at the OKFN

I totally agree that more and better RSS is the way to go.

I skimmed the report, and found little discussion of copyright. This is another huge logjam in sharing PSI, and it is not just Crown copyright, but also parliamentary copyright and even copyright over judicial opinions. In the latter, Ronan Deazley has done some work in this area:

Judges, Judgments and the Jacobean Press: Ownership and control of judicial
opinions in the twenty-first century

Finally, though I am of the opinion that we should take a long hard look at the utility of such things as Crown Copyright, you mention sharing of data. I’m not sure that it would be a good fit for the PSI context, but I, together with Dr. Charlotte Waelde, have been working on an open database licence. It is like Creative Commons or the GPL, but for databases and data.

It is still in the drafting phase, so comments are most welcome.

by Jordan Hatcher on 12 October 2007 at 8:23 am. #

Bailii does actually provide a crude RSS that is still in design phase, simply replace html with rss at the end to see the results.

by Andrew Keogh on 14 October 2007 at 4:28 pm. #