Open data: free to use and republish

In the last issue we looked at the concept of open law; we should probably now take a step back and consider what is meant by open data.

Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or similar. The philosophy behind it is long established, but the term “open data” itself was more recently coined. It appeared for the first time in 1995, in a document from an American scientific agency, and it gained traction with the rise of the internet and the web as the platform enabling its effective delivery.

In 2009 open data started to become visible in the mainstream with a number of governments (including the USA, UK, Canada and New Zealand) commencing initiatives to open up their public information.

Open government data

Government data is one of the most important forms of open data. In the UK, government data is subject to Crown copyright which, per section 163 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, applies to any work “made by Her Majesty or by an officer or servant of the Crown in the course of his duties.” These include legislation, government reports and codes of practice, official press releases, academic articles and many other public records, as well as data from Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, Highways Agency, Environment Agency, UK Hydrographic Office and other agencies.

The latter, operating as trading fund near-monopolies, have been particularly controversial. In 2006 the Guardian’s technology supplement carried an article entitled “Give us back our crown jewels.” The argument was simple: “Government-funded and approved agencies such as the Ordnance Survey and UK Hydrographic Office and Highways Agency are government-owned agencies; they collect data on our behalf. So why can’t we get at that data as easily as we can Google Maps or the Xtides program?” Their subsequent “Free Our Data“ campaign was highly successful and instrumental in developing the open government data agenda.

At the same time, an Office of Fair Trading market study into the commercial use of public information found that more competition in public sector information (PSI) could benefit the UK economy by around £1billion a year and proposed a number of solutions. Public sector information holders (PSIHs) should, inter alia:

  • make as much public sector information available as possible for commercial use/re-use;
  • ensure that businesses have access to public sector information at the earliest point that it is useful to them;
  • provide access to information where the PSIH is the only supplier on an equal basis to all businesses and the PSIH itself.

The Open Government Licence

In 2010 the UK Government created the Open Government Licence, which public bodies are encouraged to apply to their Crown copyright material. You cannot assume that all government information is covered by this licence; the works must have been expressly released under the OGL terms by the relevant rights owner or authorised information provider.

The Open Government Licence is based on and designed to work with Creative Commons licences. The current version 3.0, in short, provides that:

“You are free to:

  • copy, publish, distribute and transmit the Information;
  • adapt the Information;
  • exploit the Information commercially and non-commercially for example, by combining it with other Information, or by including it in your own product or application.

You must (where you do any of the above): acknowledge the source of the Information in your product or application by including or linking to any attribution statement specified by the Information Provider(s) and, where possible, provide a link to this licence;

If the Information Provider does not provide a specific attribution statement, you must use the following:

‘Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.’”

In 2010 was established to help people to find and use open government data and to support government publishers in maintaining data.

The site, run by the Government Digital Service (GDS), was re-designed in 2018 and named “Find open data”. Using the site you can find data published by central government, local authorities and public bodies and links to download data files to help build products and services. All content is available under the Open Government Licence v3.0, except where otherwise stated.

Data is at the heart of digital transformation and a part of the Government Transformation Strategy. GDS works with other organisations both within and outside government in shaping the strategic direction on how data is managed, accessed and used. GDS works collaboratively on a range of issues with the Office for National Statistics, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and The National Cyber Security Centre.

The market for PSI

In 2014, an independent report by DotEcon evaluated the impact of the 2006 OFT study into the commercial use of public information (see above). It found that the market for PSI had grown substantially following the study, driven in part by its recommendations, but also by the Government’s open data agenda which was designed to improve transparency and accountability of the public sector and also to stimulate economic growth, and by wider technological developments. It concluded:

“Many of the concerns identified by the OFT have been addressed through the push for Open Data. At the same time, others have re-emerged, in particular because of the inherent tension between the trading fund model and the Open Data approach: requiring trading funds to self-finance while at the same time asking them to make available data for free means that either the Government has to provide funding for some of this activity, or that trading funds need to make up the shortfall of revenue elsewhere. Both of these options come with their own problems and could raise new competition concerns. Resolving this tension may be one of the major challenges in relation to the provision of PSI going forward.”

Open data resources

Open Knowledge International is a global non-profit organisation focused on realising open data’s value to society by: demonstrating the value of open data for the work of civil society; providing organisations with the tools and skills to effectively use open data; and making government information systems responsive to civil society.

Their Open Data Handbook discusses the legal, social and technical aspects of open data. It can be used by anyone but is especially designed for those seeking to open up data.

Their Global Open Data Index provides the most comprehensive snapshot available of the state of open government data publication.

The Open Data Institute was co-founded in 2012 by the inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee and artificial intelligence expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt to show the value of open data and to advocate for the innovative use of open data to effect positive change across the globe. It is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan company that works with companies and governments to build an open, trustworthy data ecosystem.

The ODI helps people identify and address how open data can be used effectively in their sector and connects, equips and inspires people around the world to innovate with data.

The EU Directive on the re-use of public sector information provides a common legal framework for a European market for government-held data (public sector information). It is built around two key pillars of the internal market: transparency and fair competition.

The European Data Portal aims to improve accessibility and increase the value of open data. It harvests the metadata of PSI available on public data portals across European countries. Information regarding the provision of data and the benefits of re-using data is also included.

Nick Holmes is Editor of the Newsletter. Email Twitter @nickholmes.