Tag Archive for Open Government

Open Data – Just Do It?

Central Government has established a datastore for Open Data. But if you’re outside of Central Government, how do you react to calls for more online data? And what is the role of FOI Officers in getting them established? Southampton University’s new datastore may give us some clues.

This week Southampton University launched data.southampton.ac.uk, its open data repository. It is perhaps unsurprising that Southampton should take the lead in the Higher Education sector in this way. Two of its academic staff, Professors Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (yes, that one), sit on the Government’s Transparency Board and are heavily involved in the data.gov.uk site.

However, this is the lowest tier of the public sector at which I’ve seen this done. The Greater London Authority (GLA) in London has a Datastore, but the GLA has always been a strange beast – a weird hybrid between local government and central government with more flexibility than most public sector bodies. There may well be others doing great things, but I’m not aware of them. The fact that a higher education institution could do this set me thinking. Was this something I should be doing?

I’ve been hearing great things about the power of open data, but it all seems rather distant from me. The language used can be off-putting at times. All this XML, ODF, even the term ‘Repository’ suggests to me something difficult, technical and, most of all, expensive.

A journalist asked me last week if FOI Officers were involved in Open Data initiatives in the public sector. Being honest (like Superman, FOI Man never lies), I explained that from what I had gathered, where open data initiatives were in place (basically Government and the GLA) the two things seemed to be dealt with separately. FOI Officers were busy dealing with FOI requests and required specific knowledge of the application of legislation. Open Data projects tend to be run by techie-types, statisticians and economists. And it rankled with me that I was being left out of this important stage of the openness agenda.

Why shouldn’t we be involved in these projects? Through answering FOI requests we’ve built up a vast knowledge of the information held in our organisations and how feasible it is to extract and make public. Those of us who are records managers as well have an even deeper knowledge of our organisations’ information resources. Some of us even maintain Information Asset Registers so have already identified all the key datasets in our organisations. No, scratch that. Not only should we be involved, we should be initiating and leading on these projects.

A ‘repository’ is no more than the place where the files are put; it doesn’t have to be something new – unless and until the volume of material is massive, it can just be saved to our Content Management System (CMS) and published to the website that way. The format we publish in is probably less important than just getting it out there, but I have a hunch that the Excel spreadsheets we often send out when asked for data under FOI would be sufficient for most people who wanted to re-use our data. Once we start publishing this data routinely, we’ll presumably get feedback which will tell us which formats we should make data available in in future.

The biggest obstacle is perhaps the legal side of things. Here too though, things are simpler than they were. The National Archives’ new Open Government Licence provides a straightforward way to licence re-use of our data. Assuming the Protection of Freedoms Bill is passed, it will become mandatory for public bodies to adopt such a licence, so why not get ahead of the game?

But surely FOI Officers are there to deal with the requests that come in under the general right of access? Well, we’re also supposed to be maintaining Publication Schemes, pointing to the information our organisations make available pro-actively. And we’ve come under increasing pressure to create and keep up-to-date disclosure logs of the responses we’ve made to FOI requests. The Publication Scheme and Disclosure Log could well be used to structure our datastores.

I may be being terribly naive here, but it seems to me that establishing institutional online datastores outside central government is simpler than we may think. And that FOI Officers ought to be leading the way on them. We already have the tools and the justification for doing these things. Much of it won’t even need additional approval (which if you read We Love Local Government’s amusing, if depressingly familiar, post on Friday, you may appreciate).

I’d love to hear from anyone who has been involved in establishing an Open Data store for their organisation, or has expertise in this area. Am I over-simplifying this? Or perhaps I’m being slow on the uptake (not the most unlikely thing in the world) and everybody else is already well aware how to go about this? Whichever, do please comment on this post – I’m particularly interested to hear your views on Open Data and what we should be doing to make it a reality.

The Freedom Bill – some initial thoughts

This morning the Protection of Freedoms Bill 2010-11 was published. This is, rather unsurprisingly, not the same as the Bill proposed by the Liberal Democrats in 2009. There’s no end to the Ministerial veto for a start. (Interestingly, the Freedom Bill website has disappeared, so we’re left with this summary from the Campaign for FOI blog.)

Early days, but I’ve already posted some observations on the FOI amendments included in the Bill on Twitter, so for your convenience, here they are in one place:

  • Information Commissioner weakened, in my view, by one term limit
  • ‘Dataset’ provisions seem very wordy way of saying what s.11 said already – this is what Francis Maude promised way back in October. It’s supposed to force authorities to disclose requested ‘datasets’ in the electronic form stipulated by the requester. Whatever your views on this, the Bill seems a bit wishy-washy on this subject, and in fact doesn’t seem to require much more than is already stipulated by s.11 of the FOI Act (ie public authorities have to comply with wishes of requester “so far as reasonably practicable”)
  • copyright changes look interesting, but why just ‘datasets’? – the one aspect of the ‘dataset’ changes that looks potentially useful is the requirement to allow re-use of disclosed datasets in line with a licence which will be stipulated under the s.45 Code of Practice . This has the potential to clear up the issue that @copyrightgirl commented on in her posts here and here on the blog in recent weeks. But why restrict this to ‘datasets’? If they made provision for re-use of all disclosures, it would resolve the tension between FOI and copyright law for good, especially in relation to things like WhatDoTheyKnow.
  • Publication Schemes – req to publish datasets disclosed. Why not all disclosed info? There are some interesting proposals in terms of Publication Schemes, but again they focus on ‘datasets’. Basically it appears to be introducing mandatory disclosure logs but only for disclosed datasets. Why not make it mandatory to publish all disclosed data? Would help FOI Officers who have been battling for years to get Disclosure Logs past IT managers and web masters who think they upset their nice web design.
  • Gets rid of loophole for companies set up by 2 or more public authorities – good.
  • Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC has commented that he thinks the Bill introduces more freedom for the Information Commissioner in procedural matters – not sure I got that, but may well be true.

So overall, nothing really to write home about. Except I have. One to keep an eye on I think.

Archives and Accountability

I’ve noticed a couple of Tweets today about threats to Archive Services/Record Offices. Notably at Doncaster, one of two archivist posts has been marked for the axe. And in Croydon, although it appears that the Local Studies Library has been saved for the time being, the Archives are still under review. These won’t be the last stories we’ll hear about Archives services being under threat.

Why is this important to those interested in openness? Archives are the ultimate form of accountability – or should be. We are used every new year to the disclosures from the National Archives as public records become just that. We find out the truth as to how decisions were reached. The true legacy of politicians and key figures becomes clear. And soon we’ll reach that point even earlier – the 30 year rule is in the process of becoming the 20 year rule.

Information that is exempt today under FOI will be open to all tomorrow. And the Archivists of this country are the people who will make sure that happens. The importance of their work, be it in the National Archives or in often long under-resourced local government Record Offices is often overlooked. But if you care about freedom of information you should care about what happens to your local Record Office and the Archivists who work there.

In the coming months and years, as councils and other public bodies seek to balance their books, there will be numerous suggestions that Record Offices and archivists should be cut. They’re potentially an easy target. Often they don’t have huge numbers of visitors walking through the door. But they will increasingly be making information available online and serving a much larger constituency around the world. They are a superb source (often untapped) for stories of local interest for journalists. And their true value lies in the long term – the ability for future journalists and historians to find out what really happened. If Record Offices are axed, records that might have been retained for future access will in many cases just be destroyed. Accountability will suffer.

Keep an eye on your local council and make sure that they know the current and long term importance of these services. Don’t let the need for short-term cuts destroy our ability now and in the future to interrogate the past.

Guest post – re-use of disclosed information

Emily Goodhand, Twitter’s @copyrightgirl, returns with her second guest post for FOI Man.

Re-using Public Sector information: what you need to know

There’s been a lot of interest and discussion around the government’s Open Government Licence and whether it covers information released under FOI. In short, it does not. The Open Government Licence (OGL) allows others to re-use information which has been made publicly available (i.e. on the public facing web) by a government authority so that individuals wishing to make use of this information do not constantly have to write for permission to do so. It is important to note that not all public authorities have adopted this licence, and that the licence only applies to works which have been published. Any information received by an applicant under FOI will not automatically fall under this licence, and therefore permission would have to be sought via a request to re-use this information before further use (including reprographic publication) could be made.

Why would a Public Sector Organisation be reluctant to apply an Open Government Licence to information released under FOI?

The OGL reads:

“You are free to:

copy, publish, distribute and transmit the Information;

adapt the Information;

exploit the Information commercially for example, by combining it with other Information, or by including it in your own product or application.”

The wide scope of this licence means that it is unlikely that public sector organisations will adopt it as a blanket licence to cover all of the information that they release under FOI.  It is more likely that a selective approach would be favoured, in that some information requested would be released under the licence at the point at which it is sent to the requester, but not all.  This would very much depend on the type of information being requested, which may not fall under an FOI exemption but may prejudice the organisation’s interests were it to be used for commercial purposes. West Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust’s website provides some excellent examples of why a public sector organisation would not wish to release information under the OGL:

“Providing access to information does not give an automatic right to re-use it. Re-use can include publishing information or issuing copies to the public. Examples might be private sector companies wanting to re-publish our documents on their website as part of a commercial service, or wanting to publish our images in commercial publications.”

It is important to take these concerns into account in order to get a fair and balanced view of why, at times, a public sector organisation may not allow re-use of information in certain ways.

The Re-Use Regulations

Public sector information which is publicly available but is not released under the Open Government Licence is still subject to the terms laid out in the Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations of 2005. Information received under FOI from a public sector body is subject to these regulations with the following exceptions:

  1. The Regulations do not apply where a third party owns relevant intellectual property rights in the document (i.e. the document was written by an independent consultant who retained the copyright in the work)
  2. The Regulations do not apply to public service broadcasters and their subsidiaries, educational and research establishments, or cultural establishments

A request for re-use of information can be submitted to the remaining authorities who are not excepted from the regulations at the same time as an FOI request. The FOI request will be dealt with first, as re-use of information is impossible if access to that information is not granted. It is up to the institution as to whether it chooses to grant re-use of the information supplied, and it is entitled to make a charge for the re-use of the information. Complaints are handled by the Office of Public Sector Information, and more information about the re-use of public sector information is available from the National Archives.

Fair Dealing: what the Copyright Act allows you to do

The CDPA makes certain allowances for the use of work without the need to request permission to use it from the copyright holder. The main defence is fair dealing with a work for the purposes of: a) non-commercial research and private study; b) criticism and review; c) news reporting. It should be noted that photographs are specifically excluded from the fair dealing defence for the purposes of news reporting.

The emphasis in the Act is on the word “fair” – although it is not specifically defined, various case law has indicated that the work used must be no more than is necessary to make the point (i.e. an insubstantial amount) and must not have a detrimental economic impact on the original work. In addition to this, other factors also come into play, such as whether the work is published or unpublished, what the motive was for the dealing, and whether the purpose could have been achieved by different means. The defence, if relied on, should be used carefully, as one court found the copying of as little as 11 words to be copyright infringement. However, it is generally accepted that journalists can rely on this defence to re-use insubstantial portions of the information they receive as a result of an FOI request for the purposes of news reporting, with the exclusion of photographs.

Third parties and FOI

Journalist David Higgerson highlighted a case yesterday where the Department for Transport (DfT) had refused a request for detailed information about overcrowding on trains. The exemption applied was s.43 of the FOI Act, which can be used to protect information which would, or would be likely to, prejudice commercial interests.

First off, let’s give credit where its due – DfT should be congratulated on their openness in publishing all their responses to FOI requests online routinely. This probably wouldn’t have come to light if they didn’t do that. Not many public bodies (not even my own) take that approach. And I’d also say that whilst it’s not perfect in its wording, generally speaking, the response is actually pretty detailed and helpful notwithstanding the decision not to disclose all of the information.

But David draws attention to a serious issue. The key reason given by DfT was that the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) had refused permission for details of passenger numbers to be disclosed. DfT are putting together a new dataset which relies on the cooperation of the TOCs, so they were concerned that if they disclosed such data, the TOCs might not help with the new project.

This highlights a key problem for public bodies answering FOI requests. All information we hold is subject to FOI, but not all of it was created by us. In my experience, one of the most common reasons why exemptions are even considered is to avoid offending third parties. And sometimes third parties can be pretty aggressive in making clear that they don’t want the information that they supplied to be disclosed. Often, they just have no understanding of what FOI means for public bodies, even though they are usually informed in advance about the possibility of disclosure, and we try to explain the situation again when requests come in.

Public authorities need to get better at standing up to third parties. In my experience, some are too inclined to just accept the third party’s view that information should be withheld. Government departments in my experience are particularly prone to this. We have to remember that it is our decision in the end, and not the third party’s.

If the Government is serious about openness, it really needs to tackle the attitudes of the organisations that it does business with, especially amongst those private companies that provide services to the public. If they can’t be made to co-operate, they should be at least threatened with being brought under the auspices of FOI. Then they’d understand the situation much more clearly.

The most powerful third parties even attempt (and sometimes succeed) to change the law to avoid their information being disclosed. A few years ago, MPs fed up with their correspondence to local authorities being disclosed in response to FOI requests tried to enact an amendment to the legislation to specifically exempt any correspondence from MPs. Oh, and while they were at it, they tried to sneak in an exemption for both Houses of Parliament. Eventually that proposal was defeated, but only because once it had passed the Commons, their Lordships were too embarrassed to support it any further.

Yesterday, by Statutory Order (following the passing of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act by the last Government), the FOI Act was amended to strengthen the exemption for Communications with the Royal Household (s.37). From now on, public authorities will be able to (and will no doubt be leant on to) use an absolute exemption (ie with no public interest test) to withhold correspondence between the Monarch, the Heir and the second in line to the throne and themselves. So in future nobody will be able to find out if the Prince of Wales is seeking to influence planning decisions or the design of hospitals. This only came about, I suspect, because some public bodies felt that there was a public interest in disclosing such correspondence in the past, and pointed out that in this circumstance, they had to disclose the correspondence. That won’t have been happily received.

Some third parties can be very powerful indeed.