Back in July I gave a talk at Oxford Geek Nights about the Digital Britain report entitled “#DigitalBritain fail” in which I discussed the Digital Britain report and some of it’s many shortcomings.

One of the potential courses of action I suggested that people could take was to essentially smile,  say “that’s nice dear” and continue innovating. To take the typically open source approach adopted by the guys at Open Streetmap (among others) and recreate proprietary datasets in the public domain.

I was therefore delighted when I came across the guys at Ernest Marples, who were attempting to provide a free version of the Postcode to location database.

As a bit of background; in the UK the state (via Royal mail holdings for which the state is the sole shareholder) has a monopoly on all postcode to location lookups. This monopoly is protected by crown copyright and a royal charter, which basically means that even though the dataset was produced using taxpayer’s money it is owned by the crown (in the case of crown copyright), and the charter means that nobody else is permitted to provide the same service.

This means that in order to do anything with postcodes you need to pay a licence fee to the post office, pricing the small players out of the game or limiting them to use a service provider such as Yahoo (which has it’s own terms of usage). A similar situation exists for geolocation in general, but in this instance you have to pay the Ordnance Survey.

This situation is archaic and was a hot topic at Barcamp Transparency. Data which are produced by taxpayer money should be freely available to all, and I had hoped that the dissolution of crown copyright would have been one of the first thing that the Digital Britain report recommended.

Yesterday, Ernest Marples announced in their blog that they were shutting down their service in the face of a legal challenge from Royal Mail, who pretty much accused them of stealing their database. Although the Ernest Marples guys were a little cagey about where they got their data (with hindsight this was probably a mistake) they did explicitly state that it was not using the Royal Mail database in any way.

Under the terms of the charter however, they are simply not permitted to provide this service and compete with Royal mail, and this is the basis of the legal challenge.

I am saddened to see this promising project go, and especially sorry to see that they don’t have the funds to get their day in court. A court case of this nature could provide a useful forum to hold a long overdue debate as to the relevance of the charter and crown copyright in general in the twenty-first century.

Crown copyright is a problem (as well as being morally dubious), and a monopoly is always bad (especially when state enforced). It is sad to see promising UK innovation stifled by entrenched interests, but it seems to be a reoccuring theme in modern Britain. As we have just seen it puts severe limits on just how far a project can go in opening up and recreating data sets, and this worries me.

I wish the project and it’s organisers all the best for the future.

Top image “postbox_20may2009_0830” by Patrick H. Lauke

Last night I attended Oxford Geek Night, where I gave a quick talk about the Digital Britain report.

My presentation slides are below, but I thought I’d write a quick blog post to go into a little more detail.

The Digital Britain report, for those who aren’t already aware, is a report produced by the government. It contains a number of recommendations aimed at improving the UK’s digital infrastructure and boosting the social and economic impact of digital technology.

“The report provides actions and recommendations to promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, to modernise TV and radio frameworks and support local news, and introduces policies to maximise the social and economic benefits from digital technologies.”

What I hoped for was that the government would use this report as an opportunity to do something interesting – for example:

  • Opening the wealth of government data – statistics, contract details etc – the government holds to the general public
  • Scrapping the archaic idea of Crown Copyright, which is both unfair and harms our economy. I would like to see a situation where anything which is produced by the state should be released as public domain.
  • Modification of the tax and accountancy laws to make them more startup friendly.
  • Focussing attention and even funds towards direct democracy – building tools to interact with the government.
  • Overhauling the data protection laws to enshrine in law the idea that data about you belongs to you.

However, what we got was a top down and prescriptive rather than bottom up and inventive. Some vague tax breaks for big companies, ISPs told to police their users, and a tax on all phone lines.

Some things we could do:

  • Educate your MP – they aren’t experts at this stuff, and it is up to people in the industry to tell the policy makers where the problems are. Open source laws FTW 🙂
  • Innovate – continue doing what you were doing already, building out those tools and having those creative ideas.
  • Recreate and obsolete – In the short term, things like Crown copyright are not going away. I wonder how much of their data we can recreate in the public domain? OpenStreetmap is doing a good job at recreating google maps
  • Local councils and individual projects can be a lot more receptive than central government.

In short, you are the government. You’ve got to act like it!

Image from the Digital Britain report