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Freeing the Data in London

How much access should members of the public have to the data and media projects that their tax dollars fund? How about corporations looking to make a buck from government-financed data? Does information really "want to be free," as Stewart Brand famously pronounced more than two decades ago, and if so, who's going to pay for its production?

These and other questions were on the table at the Open Knowledge 1.0 gathering this past weekend. Radical geographers, documentary filmmakers, DNA researchers and UK bureaucrats were among the panelists and audience members at London’s grubby but vibrant Limehouse Town Hall. What motivated this disparate bunch to devote their sunny Saturday to data? A passionate belief that information becomes more valuable when everyone is free to repurpose it.

Rufus Pollock, executive director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, kicked off the event by exploring the day's themes of "atomization and commercial possibility."
From "genes to geodata, statistics to sonnets," he suggested, data differs, but commonalities are greater. He noted that software developers have a rich history of open source practices for developing collaborative and iterative projects like the Linux-based operating system Debian; the idea now is to migrate those habits and legal structures to other disciplines.

According to Pollock, software development has learned to effectively atomize information processing, parsing out packets of coding to discrete individuals and stringing them back together into a working whole. Versioning systems, tagging, and numbered releases are all examples of practices that can be applied to other modes of knowledge.

Such a divide-and-conquer approach "allows us to deal with complexity," he said. "Without it we’d be hopeless" His remarks reflect a similar realization in the creative arts—that the future is in aggregation and recombination, that reuse is the new creativity.

Mapping for the people

Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, moderated the day’s first panel on open geodata—a topic that has become particularly hot with the rising popularity of Google’s map-based mashups. Panelists included Charles Arthur, the technology editor of The Guardian and a principal organizer of the Free Our Data campaign; Ed Parsons, the former CTO of Britain’s national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey; and Steve Coast, the founder of Open Street Map, a project that allows ordinary people to create collaborative digital maps by participating in "mapping parties" in which they attach GPS devices to their cars, bikes or persons and wander an agreed-upon region. Volunteers then translate these "traces" into lines, which are merged with existing public domain maps to provide up-to-date renderings.

Parsons kicked off the session by agreeing that government-funded geographical information should be more openly available, but noting that it is both expensive to produce and not particularly politically compelling. "Geodata doesn’t get votes," he said. He suggested that the answer lies in more innovative, less bureaucratic licensing of the data for different uses.

In contrast to the United States, which places federally funded information in the public domain, Britain keeps much of its government-funded data under wraps, charging taxpayers, corporations and other government agencies to use it. Parsons had headed up an effort to provide more geodata for noncommercial use via an Ordnance Survey project dubbed OpenSpace, the hope of which was to "fill in the white space that is the gaps between the roads." But the project has been scuttled for now, and he wasn’t able to provide details about what had happened to it.

Coast explained how his OpenStreetMap project is leading the charge against government ownership of geodata by harnessing the energy of volunteers to generate up-to-the minute maps, a "grassroots remapping." The work of OpenStreetMap has revealed some of the tricks of commercial map-makers, who place small "easter eggs," or false cul-de-sacs, in their maps to detect and prevent copyright infringement. OpenStreetMappers around the world can contribute to the "Free Wiki World Map" on the group’s site, and the process is "atomized," because different volunteers perform different steps along the way. While the project is in is infancy, Coast suggested, it will gather momentum as data is added, putting pressure on private and government map-makers to lower the price of their information.

Arthur picked up the call for more public geodata with an explanation of his Free Our Data campaign, the goal of which is to make "impersonal data collected by the UK government organizations available for the cost of reproduction—which for digital is zero." He explained that there’s some funny math happening within the government’s accounting: taxpayers dollars are used to produce one agency’s information, and that agency turns around and sells it to another agency for a profit, creating a false market value. "There’s a lot of data in there," he said, "the trouble is that we can’t get it out." He characterized data as the "mitochondria in the cell of government," and suggested that by putting it in the public domain the government would both rid itself of administrative costs and significantly benefit the UK economy. He offered South Africa as an example—in 2000 the government made its maps available for free, and use of the data has grown by 500 percent.

"I don’t think this is a conspiracy, it’s a cock-up," commented Parsons. "Government really doesn’t understand the value of the data that it’s sitting on."

Content, copyright and community-building

The next panel examined some of the technological and legal underpinnings that are determining the use and distribution of digital media. Paula Ledieu, the director of Open Media at Magic Lantern Productions, and the former project director for the BBC’s Creative Archive project, spoke about the potential of open content and the challenges of licensing media in the digital age. She lauded the current explosion of user-generated archives like Flickr, "an extraordinary body of still images as a repository for us