Communia – Open Knowledge Foundation

Yesterday I was at the Communia workshop co-organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation and the LSE, listening and talking about opening and unlocking public sector information.

It was a sort of deja vue morning, with a large part of the morning taken up with discussion on geographic information. I think we all agree that the base geography is key to understanding a lot of the other data that is and hopefully will be avaialble from public sector. It seems to me that the discussion on this is almost over now, there will be a resolution or at least a partial resolution when the budget is delivered on 22nd April, I could not see the point of focussing a large part of the morning on this subject – it won’t change government thinking, the decisions have been made.
Professor Rufus Pollock, one of the authors of the economists report on Trading Funds, spoke with passion about the importance and benefits of opening up data, paricularly geographic. He was very clear though that the costs of collecting and maintaining high quality data could not be ignored either 
  1. the goverment pays
  2. the person or organisation that initiates a change to the map that requires an update or edit pays
  3. the user pays

His preference was for option 2. I think Bob Barr first suggested this about 4 years ago.

Jamie Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International, made a breathtaking suggestion when he posed the idea that a vast amount of data held in private sector databases about organisations’ interactions with the public sector ought to be in the public domain. He cited examples of the time corporate lobbyists spend with individual members of government, the volumes and prices of drugs sold worldwide on a country by country basis to enable comparisons and details of contracts signed with government. One can imagine some businesses that have been arguing strongly for free access to public sector information having a slightly different reaction if the tables were turned. Tax paid in all jurisdictions worldwide might be an interesting starter for ten.
Interestingly Tom Steinberg of MySociety said that Steve Coast of Open Street Map thinks “the battle with Ordnance Survey has been won” I don’t know whether that is an accurate quote of Steve’s views but if it is and the battle has been won, why are so many people still so anxious to open up OS data? I guess the battle is not completely won yet, or maybe there isn’t a battle or …. Tom also gave us a great tease talking about a community sourced alternative to PAF that will launch in a few weeks but we will have to wait for an announcement (I thought there already was Free the Postcode)
A great keynote from Tom Watson and several excellent presentations including Naomi Korn talking about orphan artefacts (works of art and items owned by galleries and museums) where the public sector does not have clear and undisputed rights to use the content in digital format. 
Simon Field, CTO at ONS, was both amusing and thought provoking as he explained the amount of data that was already available from ONS and the challenges in providing sufficient metadata to ensure users could understand the data without making it over complex. He showed us how newspapers and others had presented seriously misleading interpretations of the staistics by making some quite elementary errors in presentation, not a reason to make make statistics available but a good reason for wanting ONS to continue providing authoritative interpretation.
My colleague Simon Grice and I talked briefly about the importance of accessible information in empowering communities to have a balanced dialogue with local government and the BeLocal project that will launch soon.
The day faded into an almost laughable (if it hadn’t been so tedious) debate about the wording of a simple aspirational statement to come out of the event. We started with 
Public sector content and data should be made available, both legallly and technically, for public re-use
About the only word that seemed to be uncontested was “and”
And the final outcome? I am afraid that i don’t know, after 45 minutes of what seemed pointless but heated debate, I had to go.
That little rant out of the way. I have to say thank you to the organisers for an excellent array of speakers, stimulating content and a great venue. I hope I get an invite to the next event.
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26 days to budget and counting …