Access to public sector data

Also see Inspire

Our taxes fund the collection of public data - yet we pay again to access it.

Executive Summary

One government makes the data it collects available free to all: the United States. The US takes the attitude that data collected using taxpayers' money should be provided to taxpayers free. And a detailed study shows that the UK's closed attitude to its data means we lose out on commercial opportunities, and even hold back scientific research in fields such as climate change.

See Inspire which is the current European Parliament effort to unify all mapping data, and the on running conflict between those who want free public access to the data and those who want restricted or expensive access to the data.

The OFT's market study into the commercial use of public information has found that more competition in public sector information could benefit the UK economy by around £1billion a year


Different governments have taken very different views on public right of access to state managed data. The UK government has consistently taken the most restrictive interpretations of the EU directive, so that data is generally only available for a fee, and the system is geared only to commercial users. Free software which uses this data becomes impossible, as does any other use purely for the public good. This has so far caused most problems with map-related data, postcode tables etc, but there are other areas where the current position is against the public interest. Food composition tables, for example, which are freely available to the public and can be used to create free software for nutritional advice, logging software for carbohydrate consumption for diabetics, etc, are freely available to US citizens or Danes but not to UK citizens (we can use the other countries tables of course but they don't reflect the UK diet).

Various recent studies have confirmed that the UK approach is economically and socially unproductive.

There is an ongoing study by the Office of Fair Trading which is excepting written submissions; results due out summer 2006.

Problems and Concerns



2007-04-13 - The Guardian - Canada drops licences and adopts free model for map data
Author: Charles Arthur
Summary: If you've got a computer and a fast connection, you can now download all the maps and satellite pictures you could ever want of Canada. Its government has decided to abandon the charging model that it used until last month for the use of its map data and move to a "free data" model - as being urged for Britain by Technology Guardian's Free Our Data campaign.
2006-12-08 - eGov Monitor - OFT report finds public sector bodies cost the economy half a billion in hidden information markets
Summary: The OFT's market study into the Commercial Use of Public Information (CUPI) is published today, and has found that more competition in public sector information could benefit the UK economy around £1billion a year.
2006-09-18 - The Times - Free data – a valuable commodity
Author: Gervase Markham
Summary: Far from charging us for the data it collects, the Government should encourage us to use it freely.
2006-03-06 - The Guardian - Give us back our crown jewels
Author: Charles Arthur and Michael Cross
Summary: Make the data freely available to stimulate innovation. Imagine you had bought this newspaper for a friend. Imagine you asked them to tell you what's in the TV listings - and they demanded cash before they would tell you. Outrageous? Certainly. Yet that is what a number of government agencies are doing with the data that we, as taxpayers, pay to have collected on our behalf.
2005-08-04 - Brand Republic - Office of Fair Trading to look at public sector data market
Author: Daniel Farey-Jones
Summary: The market for public sector data, including Companies House, the Electoral Roll and the death register, could be shaken up after the Office of Fair Trading said it is to launch an investigation.
2005-02-24 - Financial Time - Public information wants to be free
Author: James Boyle
Summary: Take publicly generated data, the huge and hugely important flow of information produced by government-funded activities - from ordnance survey maps and weather data, to state-produced texts, traffic studies and scientific information. How is this flow of information distributed? The norm turns out to be very different in the US and in Europe.



  • FOI Wiki A Wiki about Freedom of Information in the United Kingdom