Monday, March 27, 2006

Public Access to Public Data

In a development that has far reaching implications for public access to publicly funded geodata, the Guardian reported last Thursday that Tim Berners-Lee has made a speech to an Oxford University audience in which he challenged the British government to make Ordinance Survey mapping data available at no cost for Web use and

may get his wish later this year. Sir Tim Berners-Lee told an Oxford University audience last week getting "basic, raw data from Ordnance Survey" online would help build the "semantic web", which he defines as a web of data using standard formats so that relevant data can be found and processed by computers.

Berners-Lee said it may be reasonable for OS, the premier state-owned supplier of public sector information, to continue to charge for its high-resolution mapping. But even if licences were required, he added, OS should make its data open to manipulation. "I want to do something with the data, I want to be able to join it with all my other data," he said. "I want to be able to do Google Maps things to a ridiculous extent, and not limited in the way that Google Maps is."

The guest lecturer said he had discussed this with OS. "They are certainly thinking about this and studying what they can do. OS is in favour of doing the right thing for the country, as well as maintaining its existence, so I think there's a fair chance we'll find mutual agreement."

This relates to a similarly controversial subject in my State and anywhere else in the United States where individual datasets for current county coverage can cost the purchaser thousands of dollars and be encumbered with copyright restrictions and in proprietary MrSID or ESRI formats. As someone else said:
In the United States there seem to be two contradictory trends in public access to public data. On the one hand, more public data than ever before is being published on the Internet for free download. On the other hand, many public agencies ignore laws guaranteeing public access to public data, or they are providing the data in a form that renders it unusable by the public.

Roger Longhorn, Info-Dynamics Research Associates Ltd points out that
It is important to remember that, in the USA, free (no cost) access to geodata applies only to federally collected (or paid for) data. State and local government, holders of vast quantities of geodata, can (and some do) charge for access and/or exploitation of these important, typically large scale, geodata resources.

Local governments charge fees at levels that discourage innovation, throttle data dissemination, skew distribution and discourage data reuse. I don't mind paying a reasonable fee and I truly don't mind local governments recouping reasonable cost. Hundreds of dollars and in some cases, thousands of dollars, per data set is not reasonable. Consider that these same agencies and districts would have to provide this data at the cost of copying it to CD's if requested under their freedom of information requirements. The difference in charges is for timely delivery and the substantial benefits that derive from being a team player.

Yet it is unseemly for us in the United States to complain. Our nation's history supports the basic premise that "one of the reasons to have a government is to have good map data" available to the public. Post-9/11 security concerns have clouded the issue but (as analyzed in this pdf)have not changed the fundamentals.

Rapid developments in the UK and UE will encourage those in the USA working to make publicly funded data more freely available, and less encumbered with restrictive copyrights and proprietary formats. What goes around, comes around.

Complementing open geodata efforts is the open source geospatial technologies movement. The newly formed Open Source Geospatial Foundation (discussed here, here and here) will develop the standards needed for open source to advance. I hope both movements, open source and open data, do well. On both sides of the Atlantic.

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sophronia_ said...

oh, lawd --a soil scientist lauding gis. i must comment!!
.... a former spouse, who has been employed happily at ESRI for yea these many decades yammers about this every other year or so... how open architecture and internet-shared datasets will render the governmentally sourced updates both useless and unnecessary --and then goes back into his vapid vapor-world of non-explanation about how to get a current project to simply print. a pox on gis and all its net-schemes. i miss the days of erwin raisz.... couldn't resist the comments 'cause there just aren't that many blogs covering this subject, my sincere apologies if it offends. but do you really think gis has improved the world since the mid-1980s? once a convert, i'm horribly jaded in my old age, unfortunately. had too many mapping projects go over budget, i guess, and too many people from whom i depended to get good data turn out to be --shall we say --underwhelming in their capability to produce the required project. i did better when i updated tiger files in arcedit myself (using PCArcInfo!!) than my last consultant did in producing a simple county map showing currently monitored illegal dump sites.... sigh. the technology gave them room to be sloppy, arrogant, and they didn't even choose decent colors, for pitysake.

Philip Small said...

erwin raisz. I love that style he used. It draws you in personally like no other. One of my favorite maps of Washington State is done in that style. Made just before the War Between the States, it shows where army survey parties were on which days as they investigated potential railroad routes. With those hand drawn ridges and mountains, you really get the flavor for what they were seeing and how it must have been affecting them. Hard to get that with a DEM.

Philip Small said...

Peter Suber is watching this issue at Welcome to the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #96 (April 2, 2006)


Go about halfway down the page to "Momentum builds for OA to geodata in the UK and EU."