Tom Steinberg – Public data, the commons, and democracy in the UK
From groups in emerging democracies like Georgia struggling to get their parliaments to publish basic information like who voted which way, and who said what in debates, through to campaigns for freedom of information laws in more established democracies like the UK, the openness of data collected by government is high on the agenda. Freeing access to public data is a step towards a better functioning democracy, argues Tom Steinberg.
The UK’s official mapping agency is called the Ordnance Survey, and has been around since a possible invasion by Napoleon pushed the state to get involved with the creation of maps to aid with defence. Its maps have a distinctive, even iconic look and are very popular with walkers and climbers across Great Britain.
Between openness and control
In 1999 the status of the Ordnance Survey was changed from a direct branch of government to a “Trading Fund”, a new status that meant it was almost like a company, except that the main shareholder remained the government. Set a target to make a return on its capital, the Ordnance Survey exceeded all expectations from Government, reducing staff numbers, bringing the organisation into the digital age (in terms of map production) and returning the profit that had been asked of it.
So far, so neoclassical: in an age of denationalisation another small agency is set afloat amongst the sea of market forces and encouraged to swim.
Until the last two years the status of the Ordnance Survey was of very little concern to anyone except perhaps the direct competitors and corporate clients. But the developments on the contemporary internet have in very little time made the Ordnance Survey’s trading fund status and its licensing policies into a matter of some controversy, including a campaign by a national newspaper, the Guardian. This story is worth telling both for its own interest, but because it echos other dilemmas relating to government gathered data across the globe.
So, what changed? Ten years ago, nobody except for large and wealthy organisations, could make any use of the Ordnance Survey’s datasets to do anything much more than look at the data available, and so they were priced accordingly. Almost nothing of worth is given away for free by the Ordnance Survey, and a great deal of data was made available only for many thousands of pounds, suitable levels for its main clientèle. But the rise in cheap available computing power, and the launch of geographic services which are designed to be hacked, like Google Maps’ API, has changed all that. Now someone with a couple of geographic datasets, a laptop and a little programming knowledge can produce whole new services like chicagocrime.org or gmap-pedometer.com. These sites can create great public value, and current rules that stop them coming about start to create opportunity costs of a worrying scale.
This rise in cheap, easy geographic hacking has culminated in a small group of individuals and organisations starting to campaign against the current company-centric licensing regime, focusing in particular on the perceived costs to the UK taxpayer, and on the seeming unfairness of publicly funded data not being made available to the public themselves. For example, the cost of obtaining a dataset which tells you where the boundaries between political constituencies in the UK are starts at over £900 (or about €1400). But such basic democratic information is a basic pre-requisite for building nearly any web site that tells users who their politicians are, and what they do.
Campaigns for reform
From the perspective of someone watching the wider Creative Commons and Open Source movements, it is interesting to a familiar pattern. There is a general direction of campaign for reform, but there are different people and groups pushing for slightly different things. For example, some are protesting the current system by trying to create a rival open source map using GPS devices – OpenStreetMap.org. Others are campaigning to revoke the Trading Fund status of the Ordnance Survey completely, and to move it to a more public body status where it is not obliged to squeeze its assets to make a return on capital. And lastly there are those who seek no change in the status of the Ordnance Survey as an organisation, but who simply want its licensing conditions regulated by government in the public interest. This might mean, for example, that it would have to make its mapping products available for free to groups planning to use them for non-profit purposes.
These map-related campaigns are just a few of many campaigns to make data gathered by government departments or agencies more freely available going on around the world at the moment. From groups in emerging democracies like Georgia struggling to get their parliaments to publish basic information like who voted which way, and who said what in debates, through to campaigns for freedom of information laws in more established democracies like the UK, the openness of data collected by government is an agenda item in many countries at the moment. And the Internet only accelerates the push for the process.
Some people reading this might be somewhat confused at these campaigns. Why, for example, do the public need things as esoteric like free access to datasets on where electoral boundaries are, or datasets which show which postal code links to which set of coordinates?
The non-profit organisation that I run, mySociety.org, demonstrates various reasons why more free availability of such datasets can really benefit the public. For instance, if you have a list of postcodes, a list of boundaries, and a list of politicians, then it is possible to build websites like WriteToThem.com. This is a site into which users enter their postal code and they are told who their politicians are. Users can then choose to write to whichever politician it is they think is best able to help them solve their problem. Over 100,000 messages have been sent through it so far.
With only about 40% of people in the UK able to correctly identify their own member of parliament, such systems are empowering to those who have little knowledge of the political process. And users who visit TheyWorkForYou.com, another mySociety site, will see public data drawn together on debates, votes, expenses and other parliamentary information to create a new service which is greater than the sum of its parts. This required a whole different data-freeing struggle, and ultimately required a change in the copyright regime to make it legal for us to make a site that improved the usability of the record of what is said by politicians in Parliament.
Back at the Ordnance Survey itself, response has not been slow. An API has now been built and announced which will allow access to certain datasets for web developers working on a non-profit basis. And Ed Parsons, the Chief Technology Officer of the Ordnance Survey has been in regular public debate, both in real life and on his blog about the issues.
So, the open public data debate moves on apace in the UK. I hope that those of you facing struggles to free public data in your own countries can use examples of some of the things achieved here so far to act as levers for change. And we look to other states for inspiring things that can be done with public data that we might adapt and use at home, in the never ending pursuit of a better functioning democracy.
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