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Open data campaign given high-five by PM


Smarter Government seminar

Martha Lane Fox and Gordon Brown at the Smarter Government conference yesterday

Yesterday some significant ground was covered in the war to free up public data when the government announced it would move towards making Ordnance Survey maps freely available from April 2010.

Gordon Brown signed up the www inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee in June earlier this year to help the UK government reach levels similar to its US counterparts in terms of freeing up mapping data to the public. At the Smarter Government conference at Downing street yesterday afternoon Brown said:

“I think we’re on the verge of a revolution that can transform public services and the public sector. I’m speaking very specifically about how government can change to meet the needs of the times. I think we are determined to be the first government in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public.”

Norway has already been leading the way in freeing up maps. Limited to individuals and not-for-profit organisations, from 1 December 2009 users can freely access maps from the Norwegian Mapping Authority, in the hope these users will come up with good solutions to a number of problems.

The Guardian has been leading a three-year ‘Free Our Data’ campaign and yesterday called the announcement ‘a significant victory’. The campaign has called for the government to take copyright off national data so it can be used by anyone – arguing that taxes pay for the collection of data, and tax-payers should not have to pay again to have this data made available. The Guardian Technology team says keeping public data private stunts creativity, innovation and the substance which makes new businesses thrive.

Sir Berners-Lee compared opening up data to life before the internet – saying we could not predict how it made our lives easier, but we also would not deny that it has. He said:

“This data is incredibly valuable. If you’re living in the UK it actually makes your life more easy to have that data available.”

But what exactly will be made free, and how can it be used, and will this make a difference to the lives of public people?

On the Ordnance Survey website you can already download Great Britain maps and boundary outlines. Part of the catalyst for the government opening up this mapping data came from the success of crime mapping which helped citizens access how dangerous a certain area is, and mapping data which helped target dangerous spots for cyclists in London. Here’s a recent example from Red Brick who used Google maps to help plot reports of burlary, robbery and theft in Birminghams Selly Oak area.

Another example of how mapping data could be successfully used in this way includes the work of Leeds University student Nick Malleson. Nick pumped in a bunch of data and statistics and used the speed of the National Grid to help him forecast crime rates across the UK. His research draws on criminology and can predict residential burglary in an area. He used GIS (geographical information system) data to aid his project, along with census boundaries and statistics of local houses and communities. There is no doubt OS data could help his study, and his model shows some of the things which might happen if OS data is free to use. With developers using free OS data, police may be able to tackle crime in areas in new ways, and the public might be able to find out more about their area.

But it seems the union at the OS are not in favour of this move – so it may be a bit of a struggle before we get there. The opening up of OS data is a precursor to 2,00 data sets data Brown is committed to opening to the public in the next few years. This is part of the government’s pledge to Make Public Data Public. Last month Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms said:

“Information is the essential “raw material” of a new digital society, opening up solutions to these kind of challenges.  And Government must play its part by setting a framework for new approaches to using data – and, as they say, “mashing” data from different sources to provide new services which enhance our lives.  In particular, we want Government information to be accessible and useful for the widest possible spectrum of people.”

After the government called for developers to sign-up to a forum they have had over 1,300 people contribute to discussions which lead to ideas and then hopefully applications being made. The government are working with people at the Guardian, hosting a number of developer days to encourage ideas and applications. Examples which came out of this were visualising transport data and the postcode paper idea. Seeing these small projects and ideas start to arise does make the freeing of Ordnance Survey data even more exciting.

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