Government aims to buy Data.gov.uk mashups

The project plans to license back applications that tap into public data, but some developers are cautious about the legal terms
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government is aiming to pay developers for applications they create using public data from its Data.gov.uk project.

The Data.gov.uk initiative allows developers to take raw public data and combine it to produce applications. For example, an initiative called the Newspaper Club takes data from various public sources to produce a guide to public services in particular postcode areas.

The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI), which is involved in the contractual side of the project, would like future licensing for Data.gov.uk to include a provision that allows the government to use the application for its own purposes, if it chooses. The government would pay for its usage.

"We want to license applications back," Carol Tullo, director of information policy and services at OPSI, told ZDNet UK at the Data.gov.uk launch.

The Data.gov.uk website was opened to public beta on Thursday by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, who have been involved in the project.

Tullo said OPSI would like to formulate a UK-specific Creative Commons 3.0 licence. At present, the terms and conditions for the Data.gov.uk licence are designed to be interoperable with that licence, but they take into account matters such as Crown Copyright.

"There isn't a UK-specific Creative Commons," Tullo said. "We're looking to roll out that whole approach later this year."

Some developers were cautious about the Data.gov.uk licensing plans. Jonathon Raper, professor of geographical information science at City University London, said that while he welcomed the OPSI proposals, the licence terms and conditions would need to be carefully drafted.

"In principle, it's a truly fabulous idea to take government data, mash it up, give it back to the government, and they pay the developers," said Raper. "But there is a potential danger. Crown copyright is an absolute — the Crown owns this data. If there are loopholes [in the Data.gov.uk licence], the government could come back later and dispute ownership."

At the moment, it is unclear how applications can be monetised under the present licence, Shadbolt told a press conference on Thursday.

"This is an article of faith, where it will get monetised," he said. "You'll find a lot of applications will be downloaded from the Apple app store, charged or not — it's embryonic."

Chris Osborne, founder of the London geographical applications developer group #Geomob, said that if developers begin providing services for the public sector, they could turn out to be more cost-effective than current sources.

"Transport maps currently cost up to £1,000 each," said Osborne. "There's an opportunity to provide services to government such as transport mapping."

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