Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, July 29, 2007

New UK govt moves toward OA for public data

Charles Arthur, The minister will hear you now, The Guardian, July 26, 2007.  Excerpt:

Guardian Technology's Free Our Data campaign has been invited by the government to help set up a channel through which the public can say what public data they want to access, and how.

The invitation, which marks significant ministerial recognition for the case being made by the campaign, came from Michael Wills, the new minister for information, who personally convened a meeting with Guardian Technology....

Wills, who is a close political confidante of prime minister Gordon Brown, set up the meeting within days of being appointed to his new role as part of Brown's reshuffle. "Personally I'm very excited about this area. I asked to do this as part of my portfolio," he said.

Wills said that it was time to re-examine the trading fund model used by organisations such as Ordnance Survey, the UK Hydrographic Agency and others, under which they receive no direct tax funding but cover costs by charging for data and services. "The world has changed dramatically since the 1970s [when trading funds were first set up; Ordnance Survey became a trading fund in 1999] and we have to re-examine it, that's absolutely clear." ...

An independent study commissioned by the government will report to Wills by December on the effectiveness and efficiency of the trading fund model....

The [Wills] meeting came less than 18 months after Guardian Technology launched its campaign, which argues that impersonal public-sector data collected by the government should be made available for unlimited free reuse and resale, because it would spur the creation of information businesses that would generate tax revenues, offsetting lost revenues from charging for data at source. Examples include the Global Positioning System, provided for free by the US government and used for satellite navigation around the world, which generates millions of pounds of business in the UK alone.

"It's a compelling pitch," Wills said of the campaign. "As a broad approach, we are very sympathetic to that." ...

OPSI [Office of Public Sector Information] is now setting up a web-based channel to gather and assess requests for public-sector information, Wills said: "And we would like you [at Guardian Technology] to become involved in shaping how we develop that."

This puts the ball into our court: we welcome your input on what public data that is not already available should be, and by what channels you think it should be provided - such as a constantly updated XML feed, PDF document or web page. Less important is the potential use of the data. As Wills notes: "The presumption is that you let people follow their own instincts, let them make some money; if it works, great. That's the way you're going to get the creativity and the energy. If you start saying what should happen, you won't get something wonderful."

Comment.  Kudos to Wills for his openness to a significant change of policy and for initiating the discussion with proponents.  Congratulations to the Free Our Data campaign for eliciting this initiative through 16 months of informed and unrelenting advocacy.

Update. Also see the full transcript of the meeting with Michael Wills.