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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. More...