Government data wants to be free

Buckingham palace

Attended a fascinating debate last night on the topic of copyright and government agencies. (No, really. It only sounds tedious.)

Turns out government data in the U.K. is protected by something called crown copyright, which limits people’s ability to legally redistribute it.

It’s hard for me to understand why data collected in the public interest isn’t, in fact, freely usable by the public, as it is where I come from. (The U.K. didn’t have a Freedom of Information law until 2000, and even now data released under FOI is subject to restrictions on reproduction.)

What this means is that many of the mashups based on government data in the U.S. (I’m thinking of stuff like EveryBlock and, yes, much of the output of the L.A. Times’ Data Desk) would be impossible here under the law.

There are some encouraging signs, though:

  • Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur, who was on the panel last night, has helped lead the charge for opening up government information by co-founding the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign. He says a broad, cross-party consensus seems to be forming around the need to open up government data. Unfortunately, the government — which, to be fair, has its hands full with things like war and financial upheaval — hasn’t picked up the gauntlet yet. (Random thought: It’s kind of too bad that news organizations in the U.S. are so skittish about advocating for good causes.)
  • Meanwhile, some people aren’t waiting for the rules to change. For example, runs a site called WhatDoTheyKnow, a sort of clearinghouse for FOI requests and the responses from government agencies to those requests. It would appear that the responses are published without regard for any copyright restrictions, but it’s hard to imagine government lawyers going after a non-profit for reproducing information released under FOI. In other words: When the law doesn’t make sense, maybe it just needs to be bent until it can be changed.


Oops: Got a little sidetracked from my “What I’ve learned in England” posts. They’ll resume soon.

Photo of Buckingham Palace by René Ehrhardt via Flickr

3 Replies to “Government data wants to be free”

  1. While we’re relatively blessed here stateside, the most insidious trend I’ve seen recently are “public-private partnerships” that present themselves as models of openness, but have a minor impact on public disclosure and tend to act more effectively as a cover that allows governments to pose as transparent. For an illustrative example in the tech sector, look at how the FCC and state governments are handling broadband data.

    And take a look at the “openness” of their actual product.

    Ah, a PDF and an expensive, clunky, locked down ESRI mapping app. Whoopie.

    In full disclosure, I used to work with Drew and we were both part of a lawsuit seeking to force the FCC to disclose its broadband deployment data.

    And, in case I look like a lone nut, have a quick read of the comments to this recent article on a new “openess” initiative in Boston data.

    Or the shameful failure of the Senate Office of Public Records to account for something as basic as amendments in a database that’s intended for no other purpose than public disclosure — rending it deeply crippled for data analysis.

  2. Interesting Eric, thanks for sharing. Thought you and your readers might like to check out the freshly launched Mapping L.A.’s Neighborhoods project, by the @latimesdatadesk –

    It just went live this morning. We welcome everyone’s input and look forward to a rollicking debate on LA’s ever-shifting geographic, cultural and psychographic boundaries.

    Coolest feature, IMHO? Select one of the 87 draft neighborhoods (based on U.S. Census 2000 data), then remix leaving your own visual comments.

    Kudos to Ben and the full LAT Data Desk team.

  3. Hey Eric,

    Am enjoying following your travels. Hope all is well.

    Mike Pirner

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