Open and Closed Case

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities

So, we’ve been banging on about opening up access to public data for a while. Talis has put its money where its mouth is and helped to fund the PDDL to give organisations a legal framework for dedicating their data to the public domain. (We’ll even host open data for free on the Platform under the Connected Commons.) We see the benefits of open data being shared innovation, and many projects exist which make use of this data for scientific, journalistic, entertaining and just plain useful purposes. We’ve been seeing a strong trend towards removing siloes and encouraging reuse of information resources to the point that we’ve begun to create our own jargon around open access. This is great, and even governments are beginning to see the benefit of this with projects like data.gov and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s advisory appointment in the UK.

But there is an alternate side to this story of opening up and sharing our data. Where there is open, there is an implied “closed” too. Some closed data is absolutely necessary—you wouldn’t argue that your recent financial transactions are data I should have a right to pry into, for obvious example. There is a lot of hidden data necessary to run applications and to make a profit, and it is entirely right that this should be the case.

But a recent case here in the UK has illustrated the point that if open data encourages innovation, closing down data can quash it. The Royal Mail recently sent cease and desist letters to the directors of ernestmarples.com, who had been providing online services with a set of API’s to turn UK postcodes into location information. This provision had enabled the building of services which, for example, let people look for jobs in their area, and monitor and map political leaflet claims. The Royal Mail charges £4000 to make use of its official list of Postcodes, and wasn’t happy with ernestmarples.org providing postcode data for free. (ernestmarples.com did not license the data, but scraped it from other sites, apparently.) As soon as ernestmarples.com stopped providing the lookup, all the services built on the data were stopped too. So, in effect, the data was enclosed again behind a barrier of a steep paywall and legal action.

There is a lot of discussion about whether the UK postcode data should be free anyway. It was funded by public funds, for one thing, and it only generates around £11million annually for Royal Mail. The subscription rate is high for startups or non-profits, especially when compared with the Zip-code data in the United States, which I found out only costs $500/year to purchase. {1} It could also be argued that the steep pricing is an archaic throw-back to a time where such services cost a lot to provide, so needed to be high in order to recover costs. But this reverse peppercorn rent could no longer be valid, and £4000 must certainly be an order of magnitude (or two) higher than the cost of provision.

There is a lot to discuss about specific datasets like this, and they may need to be tried legally and publicly before all the details are sorted out, but this case is about as illustrative as possible of the principle of encouraging innovation. A single, simple and non-charging service provided a framework for thousands of users for mostly socially-beneficial aims. Imagine the impact if hundreds of source-services had access to postcode data? Perhaps tens of thousands of users could look for employment, or track their local governmental organisations’ progress. Who knows what else might have been developed? It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to envision services tailored to your very local locality, does it? Just as easily, though, the enclosure of a single database has cut off a huge network of potential innovation.

The Guardian has covered the story, if you want more details too.

Photo: “Open/Close” bymag3737 via flickr, Creative Commons License

{1} I’m not entirely sure about the licensing of the Zip-code data, but the representative I spoke with at USPS said you can purchase the 5-digit Zipcode product for $500/a.

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