Modernise data publishing and reuse

 

Right of re-use

Consistent, comprehensible rights to reuse information from public bodies

‘..to protect individual liberty we should have the freest possible flow of information between government and the people…Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted.’

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, Liberty Speech 29 October 2007

‘..Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. ..Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.’

President Barack Obama, Presidential Memorandum 21 January 2009

Yochai Benkler put the economic case in favour of this approach in the Wealth of Networks. It has since been expanded on in Government and the Invisible Hand. MySociety in the UK and the Sunlight Foundation in the United States of America demonstrate practical applications.

The entries to the Show Us a Better Way competition run by the Taskforce illustrated many new ways of reusing public information to support or enhance public services. The Taskforce was pleased to see a similar exercise developed in parallel in the US by Apps for Democracy, which generated further good ideas.  However, much of the information innovators sought in the UK was held not by central government but by organisations in the wider public sector – particularly local authorities, police forces, schools, the Post Office and the National Health Service.  This information is not easy to access, impeding innovation, economic activity and democratic expression.

There are two inter-related issues: consistency of licensing; and availability of information.

Consistency of licensing

For information held by central government the provisions of Crown Copyright apply.  Crown Copyright is often misunderstood, and we make recommendation on that elsewhere in the report.  But Crown Copyright has the advantage of being a consistent framework for licensing developed by experts after widespread consultation. Public bodies that are not part of central government are not covered by Crown Copyright by default.  Instead there are a wide range of copyright, licensing and re-use rules for published information.

There are significant variations in licensing even within the same part of the public sector. For instance, while working with the Home Office on crime mapping, the Taskforce found ‘dead end’ copyright notices on some police websites (e.g. Northants) with no apparent provision for reuse, and more permissive statements on others (e.g. the Metropolitan Police). So a potential reuser of crime information might face over forty different copyright policies for the different forces.

This inhibits innovation, reuse and debate of vital public information such as crime statistics.  Inconsistency in licensing is a particular inhibitor of economic activity – SMEs seeking to reuse the information as part of a business need unambiguous intellectual property clearance – several complained to the Taskforce. Clear re-use policies can also be important for people seeking to re-use public information to lobby public bodies for better public services.

Individual police forces, hospitals, schools and councils can each set their own copyright policy on the information they publish.  A survey by PSI Consulting for the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information revealed a poor state of compliance with the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations – most Local Authorities not having even basic reuse policies.  Our experience in talking with data owners is that copyright policy often arises not from a detailed assessment of the different options but from best efforts by staff who lack access to expert advice or effective guidance. One typical response from a senior local government officer was:

I spoke with the web manager – she said she put the © symbol on when the website was published some years ago because she thought that we had better have something just in case.  She isn’t a copyright expert after all.’

There are contrasting examples of good practice: Essex and Warwickshire Councils for instance have signing up to the OPSI Information Fair Trader Scheme.  We make recommendations elsewhere about how good practice in local government can be encouraged.

Another grey area which has been drawn to our attention is that computer source code created by individuals and organisations in the public sector as part of their public task may also be a valuable information asset. This is generally not considered within the framework of ‘Public Sector Information’ at present leading to uncertainty over licensing terms and objectives.

As more code is likely to be generated as government adopts web 2.0 practices, it would be timely to use the expertise of OPSI, part of the National Archives, to investigate how this can be handled within the public sector information framework, and to look into appropriate licensing terms drawing on best practice in the open source community.

Availability of information

Inconsistent licensing and reuse policies reflects an historically weak policy on information release in the wider public sector.  This has been due to limitations in the European Directive on the Re-use of Public Sector Information, which as transposed by the UK allows public sector bodies such as the police or health authorities to opt out of making their information available for re-use..  The Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, in its letter to Michael Wills, the Minister for public information at the Ministry of Justice, said:

‘The availability of PSI from UK Public Sector Bodies (PSBs) that can be used for wider purposes is not mandatory in the Directive or the UK Regulations. This ensures that inconvenient requests to use PSI can simply be parked. We believe that some form of guaranteed right of access and use (subject to limited exceptions, such as personal information) is essential to encourage the widespread exploitation of PSI. This need not be expensive since – as we argue in the report – many potential users would take the responsibility for adding value to information provided in an ‘as is’ state.’

The Directive does not prevent member state governments going beyond its provisions to apply reuse rules more widely. Indeed the Taskforce understands that now the Commission would encourage governments to do so. The Taskforce judges that there is a case for the government to do so in the UK.

We have also been concerned to find some examples where information of great potential value for the achievement of public policy objectives is not available for re-use. Departments are not always operating within the government’s policy framework, which says that core information is made available for re-use free of charge, including for commercial purposes. This appears to be a particularly significant issue in the transport sector where services are run by private operators. Public transport operators, local authorities, regional Travelines and Transport Direct are all involved in creating and aggregating transport data. Significant sums of public money are being spent on this data yet complex rights issues appear to be limiting wider re-use. We found that the National Public Transport Data Repository, described itself as ‘Crown Copyright’. However, investigations showed this database is not actually government data and that the NPTDR charges significant fees for use.

The National Public Transport Access Node (NaPTAN) database, of the bus stops, coach stations, airports, ferry terminals etc and the related National Public Transport Gazetteer, a topographic database of towns and settlements, both largely originate from public sector information, but are not freely available for commercial re-use. The Taskforce has found it hard to reconcile these arrangements with the Government’s overall licensing policy.

In order to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision set out in his Liberty speech, the Taskforce judges that there should be a presumption in favour of information which has been created by public sector bodies being available for re-use.  We would also like to see clear and consistent copyright and licensing rules applied to make it easy to work with data from multiple sources in the public sector.  These rules should be communicated in a simple way to both potential information users and the people who run public sector websites.  This would be a radical extension of easy information reuse, stimulating innovation, economic activity and holding public bodies better to account for the services they deliver.

Recommendation 8

  • Government should ensure that there is a uniform system of release and licensing applied across all public bodies; individual public bodies should not develop or vary the standard terms for their sector.

  • The system should create a ‘Crown Commons’ style approach, using a highly permissive licensing scheme that is transparent, easy to understand and easy to use, modeled on the ‘Click Use’ license, subject to the caveats below.

  • OPSI, part of the National Archives, should investigate how source code can be handled within the public sector information framework, and look into appropriate licensing terms drawing on best practice in the open source community.

  • The Government should report on the options for these three recommendations by end 2009 and if required, statutory measures should be brought forward not later than the 2009/2010 session.