Monday, 17 October 2011

Is free data a good idea?

It’s a question that’s been hotly debated for some time now within the environmental geo-information community. Having experienced the impact of the ‘first tranche’ we’re now in a better position to argue the pros and cons of the release of further free datasets.

However, while we continue to talk, an array of programmes and UK government initiatives are being proposed that will result in the release of a deluge of free data. We therefore need to resolve this debate within the environmental geo-information community and make our views known – before any big decisions are made. The results will, after all, shape the way we work for many years to come.

Free data - what does it mean?
An ardent supporter of free data will argue that data collected by a government department belongs in the public domain. Their view is that data compiled by public servants working in public departments and funded by the tax payer – both private and corporate – should be freely available.

Until recently data was held by a number of agencies and made available to the public under directives such as the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. One popular portal was the Environment Agency’s What’s in Your Backyard website. The British Geological Survey (BGS) built its own geoportal and created the i-Geology app.

In order to streamline access to data the government created Launched by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2010, the portal gives members of the public and businesses quick access to a selection of public datasets from a range of public bodies to open up its datasets to the general public. Some of the most popular datasets released to date are from the Ordnance Survey. Under the banner of OS OpenData, a range of ‘simple data’ has been made freely available. However, this ‘simple data’ has limited potential in terms of how it can be used.

INSPIRE and UK Location Strategy
The current government is committed to the EU INSPIRE program and plans to take this a stage further through the UK Location Strategy.

The goals of the EU INSPIRE programme include:
  1. Standards to improve interoperability of spatial information across Europe or Environmental Policy Making
  2. Enable discovery, viewing and download services for EU government entities, public authorities and members of the general public.
The UK Location Strategy further builds on these:
  1. Re-use of public sector information encouraged.
  2. Strategy should provide information that enables sustainable development, socio-economic analysis and other benefits.
  3. Public data more freely available will encourage smarter policy decisions, citizen engagement and act as a catalyst for innovative geo-enterprise.

This combination of initiatives means that free data for use by the general public is a reality which is here to stay. Following the argument that data gathered by public bodies should be in the public domain, it’s likely that more environmental datasets will be made available. This will be especially helpful to individuals considering property purchases, assessing risk to their homes and considering other factors which could affect their daily lives. The data is, however, for strictly non-commercial use.

When it comes to data there’s a very strong argument that ‘you get what you pay for’. While the casual needs of a member of the public may be met by free government datasets, businesses demand far more. In order to make data truly valuable it must be cleaned, analysed, organised, properly presented and made instantly accessible. Far from spelling doom and gloom for the commercial sector, the release of more free datasets simply presents new opportunities.

The Public Data Corporation - connecting the dots
The establishment of the Public Data Corporation confirms that the government recognises the value of data. Its aim is to apply consistent standards to collection, maintenance, production and charging, as well as providing an unprecedented level of easily accessible public information.

Edward Davey (Business Minister) said, “A Public Data Corporation is a global first and will help make this information much easier to access and understand. It will provide stability and certainty for businesses and entrepreneurs, attracting the investment these operations need to maintain their capabilities and drive growth in the economy. It will also give better value for the taxpayer by driving down costs and making the process more efficient”

Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) further underlined the benefits, saying, “Public sector information underpins a growing part of the economy. The technology that is around today allows people to use and re-use this information in new and different ways. The role of Government is to help maximise the benefits of these developments.”

Working initially with Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and the Met Office, this new unit within the Cabinet Office should be up and running by the beginning of 2012. It will then offer ‘best practice’ advice and guidance to other public bodies such as the Environment Agency and the NERC/BGS, which are currently regulated under the Information Fair Trader Scheme.

The over-arching objective of the Public Data Corporation is to simplify the vastly complex commercial licensing arrangements which currently exist. In its final consultative stage a number of different data supply models are being considered:

Option 1 Maintain licensing and charging status quo, but commit to have more information available for free.

Option 2 Harmonisation and simplification - set simple charges for public data without differentiating the end use.

Option 3 Freemium model - offering the basic, ‘raw’ information free of charge, but then allowing entities to add value to the data and facilitate the market generating a range of value added products.

Within the environmental sector the demand for geospatial information is generally satisfied by ordering standard reports through a supplier. The number of suppliers is limited by the substantial investment required in terms of software, programming and storage, and this leads to limited consumer choice. Opening all government environmental information under the Freemium model (see above) would lead to a wealth of benefits. It would create a level playing field in which innovative, creative organisations with technical expertise could excel by developing new ways of mining data and presenting information. It would also encourage the development of new applications aimed at supporting the intelligent use of data to inform decision making and increase business efficiency. This would go a long way to fulfilling government objectives to increase data availability, expand data choice and encourage competition.

So – is free data a good idea?
We’re poised on the threshold of an extremely interesting period in the supply of geo-environmental data.

For commercial purposes, free data still requires investment to turn it into useful data. Free data will, however, stimulate the development of new products aimed at improving business efficiency within the environmental and geotechnical sectors.

Simpler licensing arrangements and charging regimes will encourage more companies to enter the supply side of the market. In order to compete theywill develop an increased range of products such as custom and tailored reports, Web-GIS applications, Web design/analysis tools, web reporting and recording functionalities. This will lead to increased competition and should result in more competitive pricing.

EnviroFIND is a product which has already responded to the changing demands of the market. Instead of ordering lengthy standard reports, users can instead use a simple view and print service. This allows them to selectively extract only the datasets they require then to analyse and record relationships. Whether the data is from the EA, BGS, Coal Authority, OS or another data provider, the system ensures that it is legally compliant.

EnviroFIND Map Screen
The larger players will benefit from more extensive data feeds direct from the relevant agencies. This should encourage them to develop in-house applications which distribute this data throughout their organisations.

The possibilities certainly excite many in the industry who are already considering the possibility of 3D options incorporating elevations, or even 4D options where time is one of the elements.

While the end result of all these changes may not be free data, the benefits accruing from increased competition amongst information providers is likely to lead to significant cost savings for all involved.

Learn more about EnviroFIND at

A version of this article originally appeared in Environment Industry Magazine (October/November 2011)

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