Dr Mike J Smith

Plymouth University

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Free Our Data Public Debate

Tue, 18 Jul 2006

I attended an RSA public debate on access to data collected by public bodies. This was co-sponsored by The Guardian as part of their Free Our Data campaign. The speakers were Vanessa Lawrence (CEO Ordnance Survey), Paul Crake (RSA Programme Director), David Vaver (Director, Oxford Intellectual Property Research Centre), Charles Arthur (Technology Editor, The Guardian), Carol Tullo (Director, Office of Public Sector Information) and chaired by Derek Wyatt MP (audio available here. There were probably more people "in" the industry forming the audience than were on the panel. A quick scan of faces saw people from the BBC (Bill Thompson), UK Hydrographic Office (CEO Wyn Williams), Groundsure, AGI (Angela Baker), Ordnance Survey (Ed Parsons), OpenStreetMap, National Archives, GDC and many others.

The evening started with a 5 min statement from each speaker and then a question and answer session. Whilst the academic value of these events is sometimes questionable (no question or answer is ever free from rhetoric and based entirely upon fact), it is very useful in making the debate far more public. Views ranged from completely free access to publicly collected data (Charles Arthur), to making the most commercial use of said data (Vanessa Lawrence). It was perhaps a little unfair to have the OS "in the spotlight", but as they were present much focus was upon them. It should be said that no one questions the quality of their products and it so happens that they are one of the most successful public bodies for generating money. What interested me was the apparant progress that public bodies have made in making their data available (Carol Tullo), particularly through the adoption of "Click-Use" licenses (National Statistics being a good example). The National Archives also highlighted the fact that they make their historic census data available "at cost" to commercial providers who are able to re-sell the material at about a tenth of the cost that the NA would have to charge. Paul Crake made the statement that their needs to be a balance between copyright (the "protection" of ideas) and freedom which drives innovation (something the RSA has been involved in for over 250 years). This was taken up by David Vaver who gave a good historical summary for the reasons copyright are so different between the US and UK, making the point that whilst the Freedom of Information Act guarantees us access to data, it doesn't mean that it cannot be charged for and it may well be copyrighted.

The overarching conclusion I took away was that free access to data is a good thing that will drive innovation. However it is not appropriate for all bodies (much of the UK Hydrographic Office non-UK data for instance) and if there is no commercial charging then the government needs to fund that body (and maintain standards at the highest level). Vanessa Lawrence is clearly not in favour of such a move for the OS. The debate goes further than this though. It is not a decision for individual bodies as they follow the direction of government; it is a government (and hence political) issue that needs people like Derek Wyatt to take on board. As David Vaver stated, the UK begins from the premise that all government data should be copyright, with exclusions applying. Really this should be turned on its head; such a radical move would have truly positive ground breaking repercussions for the UK, its economy and, ultimately, its population.

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