[Fwd: Guardian Unlimited Technology: What price information?]

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[Fwd: Guardian Unlimited Technology: What price information?]

Tracey P. Lauriault-2
This is pretty good!  Note that the UK is considered as the worst
example of Cost Recovery in the world.  There are a few other countries,
that are bad, but they do not sell the data, you just get into alot of
trouble if you dare ask for it cuz the military is where the National
Mapping Organization is housed.

The campaigns are very interesting.


tracey spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited Technology site and thought you should see it.

Note from tracey:


To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited Technology site, go to http://technology.guardian.co.uk

What price information?
What price information? The launch of a campaign to stop government agencies charging for data collected with taxpayers' money has drawn a huge response. Charles Arthur and Michael Cross report
Charles Arthur and Michael Cross
Thursday March 16 2006
The Guardian

Why is it that an American company - Google - has made it easier to create maps of the UK that merge data together than the UK's own mapping agency? Why do so many companies that want to get into the mapping market in the UK discover the government-backed agency that should be their data provider is often also a competitor?

The answer is that the data that we pay to have collected (through our taxes), and which is then used by organisations such as the Ordnance Survey, is not freely available for re-use by UK citizens. We, and the companies that could benefit from its use, are forced to pay for it - putting a brake on the information economy.

The campaign launched here last week to Free Our Data (http://tinyurl.com/s33cq) aims to end that asymmetrical setup, and oblige the data collectors to remain taxpayer-funded, and to provide data for free re-use. It brought an avalanche of responses, almost every one of which backed the idea. (We were also asked how one could follow the campaign, and sign up for it. There is now a dedicated website - www.freeourdata.org.uk - which should, in time, become a resource for the campaign.)

But there are moves afoot within the European Union to entrench the concept that geographical data, in particular, should become the "property" of the government mapping agencies by which it is collected, and that they should be able to charge uncapped amounts for providing it to citizens. Known as the Inspire Directive, the scheme has already garnered a campaign site opposing it, at publicgeodata.org: "The Directive talks a lot about public authorities sharing data with each other. Many local government agencies have a lot of uses for geodata - managing voting processes, land use development planning, management of waste services, parks services etc - a monopoly pricing policy on the data they need will have a serious financial impact on them. Businesses and citizens whose lives are affected by spatial data services every day, have had no voice in the creation of Inspire," the site's owners argue.

The popularity of Google's Maps system (maps.google.co.uk) demonstrates that there is a huge desire to combine geographic data with other data to produce maps that could contribute to reduced road congestion, or useful flood risk data from the Environment Agency or weather data from the Meteorological Office. While those organisations do provide a limited view of their data, they do not provide what anyone trying to synthesise a new dataset from two sources - that is, make a "mashup" (see Jack Schofield's article at http://tinyurl.com/e3fdq) - wants: an applications programming interface (API) that offers a seamless interface to the underlying data.

An American developer, Kevin Werbach, made this point recently (at http://tinyurl.com/ha9pb): "eBay, Amazon, and Google: three mega-success stories of the dotcom era. What do they have in common? All of them aggressively open up their technical interfaces, allowing other sites to plug into them, or projecting themselves out to the rest of the Web ... the new paradigm of commerce and business relationships is syndication. Open up your core assets and turn them into a platform; don't hide behind high walls and expect everyone to come to you."

Yet hiding behind high walls is precisely what government-owned agencies (where government is the sole shareholder, and thus the determiner of its corporate strategy) are obliged to do under the "trading fund" regime. This forces organisations like the OS to try to bring in as much revenues from selling their data to other organisations as possible, and pay it back to the Treasury. As long as revenues exceed spending, the government is happy. But are users?

Alastair Rutherford, in Glasgow, contacted us about his site, www.gtraffic.info, created using Google Maps. "It displays a number of free UK traffic information feeds on a Google Maps interface, including BCC data and Traffic Wales motorway cams. Basically this site represents the sort of thing which could not be accomplished without Google supplying the map control and the map data.

"There is no reason that the developer community in the UK could not devise a similar free web-based mapping solution except ... we have no access to the road map data which, as you point out, we have effectively already paid for." (The Highways Agency limits access to data from the road network.) Ironically, Google Maps' UK data is, the Ordnance Survey pointed out this week, derived from OS data, licensed by a company Tele Atlas. But the precision of the data is limited.

By contrast, the OS spends just £105.7m annually (about £2 per person) to collect data that is correct to roughly 1 centimetre horizontally, and within two metres vertically. That seems a small sum compared to the potential benefits of creating far more detailed - and advertising-free - maps than Google can offer.


Sometimes, the intellectual property walls are absurd. One correspondent (requesting anonymity) noted that an international arrangement means that weather data is shared for free between national weather agencies. Thus a Birmingham-based company found it was more economic to set up an office in San Francisco and get the UK weather data under US Freedom of Information laws from the US weather service and then pass it back to the Birmingham head office. (The weather services subsequently closed that loophole.)

The problems that were described again and again were high costs, and fears of legal retribution if the illegal use of data were discovered. One contact (who preferred that we withheld his name) described trying to get data feeds for a startup company aiming to provide vehicle directions. "Tele Atlas wanted about £30,000 for the UK data at a basic scale, and we could not let [their] data out of our hands at all. MapPoint (the Microsoft geo-location service) wanted a huge number per transaction - about £1 per routing transaction or something. Orange provides geospatial positioning, by triangulating their tower cells against their routing tables. This tells them where a mobile phone is. They wanted £500 per month and a per-transaction charge."

Those proved unfeasible, and the respondent had to resort to an unlicensed use of the data from another source (carrying the risk of prosecution for breaking Crown Copyright if discovered).

John Farrie, who develops add-on scenery for Microsoft Flight Simulator - used by thousands of people - noted: "This issue impacts everyone in consumer-level flight sim, from the freeware add-on developers forced to use OS data surreptitiously (or naively) because there is no other practical source of data, to the commercial developers like myself who are unable to offer users what would be simply stunning add-ons because of the current situation and the users who are derived from the pleasures of enjoying scenery made from data they have probably paid for many times over."

Michael Nicholson, managing director of Intelligent Addressing Ltd - which would of course benefit from the freeing of data - commented: "Government in the UK seems to have no understanding of the effect of its trading fund regime, a concept which has very few parallels elsewhere in the world. As your article rightly states, any financial benefit it brings to Treasury is a miasma which is more than counter-balanced by the suppression of private-sector innovation and enterprise."

A spokesman for the Ordnance Survey said that the question of how the organisation is funded is properly one for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, not the OS itself. But as Robert Barr of Manchester University noted, the fact that the OS has not moved completely to a commercial footing may, perversely, be a benefit: "Ordnance Survey has had its accounts qualified for a number of years because it refuses to value its database. This benefits all users of mapping because, if the Auditor General and the Treasury succeeded in quantifying the value of the database, Ordnance Survey would have to provide a return on that value and prices would rise, effectively double taxing all their maps and data. So, in effect, OS only charges for current services, not the taxpayers' asset."

Our argument is that we, as taxpayers, would be willing to pay for the services, while keeping the asset as our own.

The campaign has only just begun, but already we're discovering the strange shapes that this copyright law is bending our economy into. Learn more and contribute more at www.freeourdata.org.uk today and in the coming weeks.

What the 'Information Asset Register' contains

Public-sector information falls into two categories: published and unpublished. The former ranges from freely available official statistics on the economy and social trends from the Office for National Statistics, to commercial products available from state-owned trading funds such as Ordnance Survey.

Most of government's treasures, however, lurk deep inside the IT systems of individual departments and agencies. The government's Office for Public Sector Information, part of the Cabinet Office, has begun compiling an "Information Asset Register" at www.opsi.gov.uk.

The register concentrates on unpublished resources including databases, old sets of files, and recent electronic files. Individual departments are responsible for creating their own registers, which they are supposed to maintain on their own web sites.

However just because a set of unpublished information is posted on an information asset register does not mean it is available to users. There are three categories of user rights: "available", which means information may be republished commercially; "limited", which means information may be viewed but not reproduced; and "classified", which means it is available only to government officials. A day spent browsing the register gives the impression that most entries fall into the last category. Gems listed on the information asset register include:

· Rights of way. The Planning Inspectorate's Rights of Way Database, containing information updated daily since 1996. Rights: Classified

· NHS patients' data. The General Practice Research Database, published by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, is the world's largest computerised database of anonymised patient data from GPs. It is updated daily by some 370 contributing general practices. Rights: Classified

· A database of applications for costs in planning appeals, updated daily since 1995. Rights: Classified

· Road traffic data. The Automatic Traffic Data Collection database contains hourly counts of vehicles disaggregated by lane and type of vehicle recorded continuously at 130 sites in England, Wales and Scotland. Rights: Limited

· Health research register. The Research Findings electronic Register (ReFeR) provides prompt sight of quality assured information on research findings that emerge from completed projects, for which the Department of Health has a responsibility for content. Rights: Available

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