Open Access News

News from the open access movement


Saturday, May 19, 2007

More on unfree access to public data in the UK

Michael Cross, Free groundwater information dries up, The Guardian, May 17, 2007.  Excerpt:

The [UK] Environment Agency this week admitted imposing charges on businesses wishing to download information vital for protecting the safety of groundwater. The consequences, according to one expert, could be catastrophic....

Ordinary citizens can look up the maps by entering their postcode in the excellent "What's in your backyard?" section of the agency's website....

Originally, the same free data were also available to companies in the business of preventing pollution. However, professionals say they are now being asked to pay. One consultant says he has been quoted 750 for an annual licence to access data on source protection zones. The agency confirmed that it charges business users....

One professional who has encountered the charges is Karl Daines, a geographical information expert with an environmental consultancy . He says he finds the change "surprising" - especially as one of the main uses of the data is to produce reports that are then submitted to the Environment Agency itself.

Charging for data will inevitably reduce the extent to which it is disseminated, with possibly disastrous consequences, says Daines: "Removing the data from the public domain is going to hinder the spread of people's understanding of groundwater issues, and in instances where the data is required, the cost may be prohibitive or the data not referenced, and as a result recommendations may be made which ultimately put an source protection zone at risk of pollution."

Technology Guardian's Free Our Data campaign, which argues that all impersonal electronic data collected by the government in the course of its public duties be made available free to all comers, agrees. Apart from the direct risks arising from data not being available, there is also a chilling effect to the wider knowledge economy: innovative ways of disseminating these data may never be developed if it remains controlled by government.

There is also a practical issue: does the revenue from licensing to conscientious professionals (for unscrupulous ones may find their own sources) really outweigh the cost of administering and policing the charging regime? And is there an overall benefit beyond any (undemonstrated) financial one? With data held on a web server, issues of scarcity do not exist; unlike a well, a server will never run dry of the necessary 0s and 1s to make a copy of a dataset. Yet the Environment Agency is seeking to impose an artificial constraint on the supply of this data without any evidence that such a constraint is necessary....