This interesting story made the rounds in the United Kingdom the other day, which could become a role model for other countries to follow.  Public sector information seems to a step child in many countries set up only to serve government rather than the public.  Access to information is generally not user friendly and value added information companies are treated often as an unfriendly competitor.  Perhaps the UK example will encourage other countries to follow suit.

Outsell’s Kate Worlock, Director & Lead Analyst, writes from the United Kingdom:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has worked with the UK government to produce the website, a repository of publicly available government information.  Will this stimulate innovative projects and British businesses?

Important Details: [1] was launched last week and aims, much like the US [2] site, to provide a place where non-personal government data can be easily found, easily licensed and easily re-used.  The site is the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee (founder of the World Wide Web) and Professor Nigel Shadbolt at the University of Southampton, and arose from a conversation between Berners-Lee and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a dinner in early 2009.  The Guardian reports [3] that Brown asked Berners-Lee: “What’s the most important technology right now?  How should the UK make the best use of the internet?”, to which Berners-Lee replied: “Just put all the government’s data on it.”  Imagine his surprise when Brown said “OK, let’s do it.”

Since then progress has been rapid.  Berners-Lee recruited Shadbolt, and then set about the unenviable task of persuading government departments that freeing up their information would be a worthwhile task.  Concerns were raised, and put to rest for now at least, over anonymity of data, particularly given the glut of errors whereby confidential data had erroneously been leaked into the public domain, usually through something as simple as data disks getting lost in the post, or laptops holding confidential information being left on a train.  But they have made it in the end, and the site is a simple interface to the rich world of government data.  The intention is to have the data published as RDF, to use open standards and open source software, and to work with the developer community to create really useful resources. Indeed, some have already been created.  The site contains an Ideas page for people to submit ideas for applications they’d like to see, and an Apps page for applications that others have already submitted; there’s also a wiki and a forum to foster community interaction, and a search facility.  Apps which have already been created include CycleStreets [4] (a UK-wide cycle journey planner system), ClearBooks [5] (an accounting software app that allows users to search and store data from over two million companies through the Companies House WebCHeck service), and Health Maps Wales [6] (a tool that can be used to explore a variety of health indicators grouped under broad categories, such as cancer, common procedures and causes of injury).  Next steps for the creators is to create a similar offering for data emanating from local, rather than central, government.

Implications:  After years of effort from many individuals within the information industry and within government to put a service like this into place, it is heartening to see it finally appear.  Now it is up to commercial bodies to demonstrate that this data can be profitably used to build new and valuable services that can help the information economy to grow and that can act as a stimulus to economic recovery in the UK. There are still hurdles, however.  One body which has always been reticent to release its information is Ordnance Survey (OS), the UK’s mapping agency.

As a trading agency rather than a government division, OS must make a profit from its mapping data, and has in the past successfully defended the restrictive licenses it places on this data.  However, November 2009 saw Gordon Brown announce that mid-level OS data would be made freely available – the UK Government seem to have finally heeded advisors such as the Cambridge University report issued in 2009 suggested that making OS data free to use would cost the government GBP 21 million but would bring commercial benefits of GBP 156 million – the tax revenue from this would clearly cover the costs.

Now what is needed are innovative developers of applications with real commercial benefit.  Information providers are in prime position to take advantage of this opportunity – mixing reliable government data with valuable third party data should be a winning combination.     Courtesy of Outsell Inc. a BIIA Founder Member

BIIA Newsletter March I – 2010 Issue