One thing government has got quite good at, especially over the last 10 years or so, is collecting data. Measurements of performance, incidents, activity, behaviour, travel, it’s all getting logged on a daily basis. Whilst all this data has a primary purpose for the people that collect it, there are of course other uses for it beyond this sphere.
History’s probably going to benefit from it, although future historians will probably have to be statisticians to make best use of it, but given the vast quantity of it collected, there are potentially more immediate uses for all of this data too. The thing is, it takes someone to think of what they might be. Some of the best applications for different data sets, bringing the biggest benefits to civic society, might not be thought of for some time. So, all government can do in the meantime is free up and release this data for public use, allowing people to explore, experiment and reuse it in a variety of different ways, until the greatest benefits are found.
One of the largest state owned datasets we use most often here at Delib are Royal Mail postcodes. They drop into our Consultation Finder system to allow people to look up consultations by their postcode, and they’ve fitted into all sorts of other projects we’ve done over the years.
So, this news (via Lib Dem Voice, itself via my local councillor’s facebook) seems a real tragedy. Sites like the Straight Choice and Planning Alerts (two greats sites you really should know about by the way) have both been hamstrung recently by the Royal Mail issuing a cease and desist order against the organisation that supplies them with postcode data for the UK.
Ernest Marples was an excellent project to free up UK postcode data and use it to enable a whole load of great sites to function. It always seemed like it was a black or white situation for it; if the Royal Mail told them to stop, they’d have to, and the sites that were supported by them would have to too. It seemed absurd that anyone would want to close down such sites, so it seemed fairly safe, but maybe the absurdity was only apparent to web savvy people.
So, it’s down for now, and UK civic society is the worse for it. But at the end of the day, if civic society is the worse for it, then it’s up to civic society to make its voice heard and turn this situation around. It’s not immediately clear what, if anything, is being done around this now, but if we find out more we’ll let you know.
In the meantime, there’s one thing you can do. Let as many people know as possible, through your blogs, twitter, facebook, whatever. The more people find out about this, the harder it will be to stop the data collected in our name from being used by all of us.