Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Prospects for open data in New Zealand

David Penman, An information revolution,, September 13, 2007.  Penman is Assistant Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at the College of Science, University of Canterbury, and Chair of the Governing Board of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.  Excerpt:

...It is somewhat ironic that the internet was conceived as a means to share scientific data, yet it is now an enormous vehicle for social change and commercial benefit. Somehow, the scientists have become the laggards in sharing information, yet there are enormous benefits that can come from a greater sharing of data....

ECan [Environment Canterbury] has some pilot projects in real-time monitoring of water resources that water users and communities can access. Wouldn't it be fantastic to roll out such a system across Canterbury and make the information freely and openly available to all? Can we not envisage information on water use, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, public transport use, air quality, waste generation etc being available on television, the internet or even in Cathedral Square? Is this the sort of information we need to change our behaviour in the drive for sustainability?

Why can't we just do it, then? We require an information infrastructure....

Open Access is a rapidly growing movement committed to making data openly and freely available. Where data are generated using taxpayers funds, it should be made openly and freely available. This is now a requirement for some of the major US and European science funds. Basically scientists will have two years to publish papers based on their data, and then the data become available to others. Many journals now require authors to at least indicate where the raw data may be located.

The internet then becomes what it was intended to be – a means to share scientific data.

So what is the situation in New Zealand? Our scientific institutions have been required to make data publicly available at the cost of access if the information was contained within a designated "nationally significant database or collection" and only if the request was for a "public good" purpose. If a commercial product might emerge, then an agreement to pay a commercial rate was negotiated. Other data from publicly-funded research are not generally available.

The great temptation for institutions is to hold the data because it might be commercially significant. In a few cases this may be so, but mostly there is a false sense of value of individual data sets. Experience tells us that the real value comes from looking at multiple data sets in new ways and with new tools.

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology is now reviewing its data policy and moving towards the norm for the OECD – greater open access for publicly-funded data. Rather than the research provider deciding on access, all information is openly and freely available unless restrictions such as national security, environmental damage (eg, the GPS co-ordinates of threatened species), or clear commercial disadvantage can be justified.

Our researchers will also have to change. No longer can they sit with filing cabinets full of data waiting for the definitive experiment or the life time monograph. Publish quickly in electronic media, make your data and models freely available and get rewards from both publishing and showing that your data are being used by others – this should become the norm.

Many initiatives are now underway to liberate data. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility, of which New Zealand is a member, has just launched its new data access portal ( and now makes over 130 million records on species openly and freely available....