February 14 2008. When you’re dealing with a flooding emergency in the middle of the worst drought for many years, the last thing you need is barriers to the sharing of geographical and meteorological information.
Yet that’s the situation faced by Australia. The authorities’ response is to consider the widespread adoption of Creative Commons licences for public-sector information.
Last month, the government of Queensland approved the use of Creative Commons, which allows free re-use of copyright material subject to certain conditions, as part of a new licensing framework. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth (federal) government is expected to give the green light to creative commons in a new set of guidelines for the management of the government’s intellectual property.
The new Australian policy will be watched with interest by Britain’s free-data movement. Historically, Australia is a pioneer of free data: a 1968 law exempted most data produced by the federal government from copyright protection.
However – as in the UK – organisations can and do charge for certain kinds of data. Another complication is that licensing regimes vary from state to state.
One result, says Baden Appleyard, a lawyer and research fellow at Queensland University of Technology, is “confusion, lack of interoperability and unnecessary expense in the provision and re-use of public-sector information”.
Last year, a study found that confusing government policies were harming a business worth up to A$12bn (£5.6bn) a year to the economy. “Government agencies often use their limited funds to collect, manage and distribute the data. This drives some agencies to adopt pricing policies that ‘over-recover’ the cost of producing information,” says the report’s author, David Hocking, chief executive of the Australian Spatial Information Business Association.
Appleyard’s group says that creative commons licensing offers a way to unlock the potential of this data.
Researchers at Queensland will shortly publish a study on the pricing of public sector information which is expected to set out the case for making all government data free. We will watch with interest. In the meantime, we think the UK government could usefully copy one set of Australian ideas: a policy review in 2002 which said that the government should not try to charge for data where to do so is not cost-effective, would be inconsistent with policy objectives or would unduly stifle competition and innovation. Bonza!