UK Issues White Paper on Open Data, FOIA

29 June 2012

The United Kingdom on June 28 issued an Open Data White Paper detailing plans for publishing government data, including some mentions of the  freedom of information law that led several observers to predict higher fees.

While not proposing any changes to the FOI law at this time, the White Paper said that an expanded Code of Practice “will give guidance to applicants and public authorities on how to deal with requests such as: giving permission for datasets to be re-used….”

Most of the paper details plans for expanding the availability and utility of open data.

 “The White Paper gestures at a world in which there is `presumption to publish’ within government, and in which common standards and formats for publishing data online are adhered to. It also includes a commitment on the part of government to provide public sector data for free `wherever appropriate and possible,’ “ according to the announcement.

“The data to be released under the new plans will add to the 9,000 datasets already available via data.gov.uk, a data portal powered by the Open Knowledge Foundation’s open-source software CKAN,” the announcement said. Privacy for personal information is also discussed.

Among many other items in the White Paper, the government indicates that it plans to adopt a “Five Star Scheme” to measure as a measure of the usability of its Open Data.

In addition, the government said it will “shortly publish a Government Developer Engagement Strategy setting out clear principles for how individual government departments are expected to engage with the development community, outlining minimum expectations for Service Level Agreements between developers and departments, and making recommendations on skills and competencies required for effective engagement with this community.”

The development was reported by the BBC, The Daily Mail and The Guardian.

Higher Fees?

The Guardian picked up on this comment in the paper: “We acknowledge that, at present, charging structures for public data remain a salient and emotive issue for many users but equally we must ensure that any changes to existing arrangements must be driven by the latest available evidence on the most appropriate use of public funds.”

The Guardian commented:

Our verdict: FOI is free in the UK – the paper seems to hint it won’t stay that way and certainly doesn’t give any commitment to keep the status quo. In many countries, such as the US, users pay for FOI requests. Here, with a vibrant community determined to protect FOI, it may be hard for the government to make that happen.

Further attention to pricing issues was paid in UKAuthority.com, where an article begins: “Hopes that the government was poised to abolish charges for data sets such as postcodes have been dashed by a much-awaited white paper.”

No Statutory Changes Now

The UK FOI law made effective in 2005 is now being scrutinized by a parliamentary committee and the open data white paper says the government will wait until those recommendations are released before making any proposals on FOIA.

The White Paper noted some changes made this year:

The Government has, however, been able to make important progress in parallel to PLS. The Datasets Section of the Protection of Freedoms Act, which received Royal Assent in May 2012, enhanced access to data. This new section pushes public authorities to consider disclosing data that is not already routinely published and sets out what is meant by a dataset – the raw, factual or source information behind a public function – to allow for a better understanding between the person requesting the dataset and the public authority holding the data of what is being sought.

The new section means that, where the FOIA requires release of a dataset, a public authority will now have a responsibility to release the dataset in a form that can be used and re?used by specifying the licence it can be used under and, where reasonably practicable, in a re-usable format. We have created the conditions for accessing raw, unmanipulated datasets and, by working to embed the release of the dataset in a public authority’s publication scheme, we have taken an important step to give the public an enhanced right to data.

To ensure a comprehensive approach to the commencement of the Datasets Section in the Protection of Freedoms Act, we have amended Section 45 of the FOIA and will be expanding its accompanying Code of Practice specifically in relation to the new Datasets Section as set out above. The expanded Code of Practice will give guidance to applicants and public authorities on how to deal with requests such as: giving permission for datasets to be re-used; the release of datasets in an electronic form which is capable of re-use; the making of datasets available for re-use in accordance with the terms of a licence; standards applicable to public authorities in connection with the disclosure of datasets; and other administrative issues related to making datasets available for re-use.

The Code will be updated in a way that will support those it directly affects. We will open up the development process to the public and offer an opportunity to shape the guidance using a crowdsourced wiki. This will be launched shortly on www.data.gov.uk. In opening the revision for collaborative contributions, we expect the revised Code to be able to reflect the real-world experiences and first-hand knowledge of obtaining datasets capable of re-use. We are aiming for the revised Code to be in place by the commencement of the section early next year, when it will be issued after consultation with the Information Commissioner.

This legislative change is entirely compatible with the Code of Practice for Official Statisticswhich makes direct reference to making datasets available in forms convenient to users for their re-use. To support this, the National Statistician is preparing guidance that will stress the importance of opening up data, reinforcing the role that statisticians can play in delivering wider benefits. Statisticians across government departments are working together to free up more data for re-use.

Continuing Value of FOI Discussed

The White Paper addresses the continuing value of requests for information, noting that changing the culture to encourage proactive disclosure will not occur overnight. The paper further comments, “It is essential that, when a user identifies a dataset that they are unable to access or re-use, they understand the mechanisms available to them to challenge a decision in line with the processes available under the FOIA or in respect of the re-use of Public Sector Information (PSI).”

An annex describes the FOI process, and the report provides information about FOI and data sets, noting: “Traditionally, providing access to information has not given an automatic right of re-use. Under the amendment to the FOIA, datasets that are accessible will be able to be re-used without needing to make an additional request for re-use.”

Information Commissioner Makes Statement

UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said in a statement::

We welcome the publication of today’s Open Data White Paper and its recognition that transparency and openness must be central to the way modern public authorities operate. The proposals complement the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and so support the accountability of public authorities. The paper also recognises the privacy concerns that must be addressed if these proposals are to be successful.

We will continue to work with the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the open data agenda and the government’s wider data sharing proposals increase transparency and accountability, while respecting the privacy rights of the UK citizen.

 

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