52 An Introduction to the Open Data User Group
in the UK and further afield to bring Open Data to the masses as part of a drive for greater
transparency and sharing of information, as well as how this ‘public sector first’ approach is
beginning to influence the world of big business.
The Open Data Movement
The growth of Open Data in the UK is linked inexorabl y to the growth of the web by several
things, with the most obvious being the name Sir Tim Berners-Lee. 3 This article will come
back to him later. However, there are some clear parallels to be drawn immediately between
the Web and Open Data. The Web was intended for use b y anyone, for free and for any
purpose. Open Data is exactly that: information released for Free (or at most with a cost-
recovery charge) which can be used, re-used and combined with other information or software
tools to create a service, product or dataset that can then be shared or sold. Open Data is often
available as raw information in a spreadsheet and increasingly as an API (or direct software
link) for e asy use b y developers and data scientists. Importantly, there should also be no
control on what the data can be used for (other than the normal lawful purposes governed by
state personal data protection and other laws).
Open Data in its most simple and common guise is often made up of the information collected
or created by public bodies in the course of providing services to tax payers, for example:
maps, addresses, rail stations, weather forecasts and tax receipts. Such bodies often build up
vast quantities of reference data and transactional results (e.g. whether or not your child’s
school had a good pass rate in GCSE Geography). That data may be used to improve those
services, recoup the cost from other agencies or publish statistics every now and then, such as
the Census or GDP.
In the past, this data was either locked awa y within the agency that collected it or sold to the
open market for rather high prices with very complex and restrictive licenses designed to
prevent onward sale and reuse (o r at least make some more money from any reuse!). Good
examples of th is practise include Ordnance Survey4 maps or Royal Mail postcode data5 – all
of this data built by government agencies in order to serve their citizens. This d ata is paid for
by taxes but then sold back to those same citizens for a profit.
Open Data is different – the agencies releasing it have realised that you’ve already paid for it,
it’s not ‘secret’ or personal and you have a right to see the information and use it for the
benefit of your business or community. It also serves the notion of ‘transparent government’
as it shows you (or more commonly, investigative journalists) what your ta x money is spent
on; giving you the opportunity to hold those in power to account and make an informed
choice on election day. As an added bonus, this extra scrutiny makes it easier for public
bodies to find efficiencies and improve services.
The UK Open Data Structure
As with everything involving Government, the number of bodies involved in Open Data
weaves a complex web. I’ll try to simplify this as much as possible and identify only the key
4 h ttp://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/business-and-government/products/index.html
International Free and Open Source Software Law Review Vol. 6, Issue 1