Public Data should be free

A government study has concluded that it would best to stop charging for public data, reported in the Guardian yesterday. In the 80's the UK Government established 'trading funds' for a number of its statistical and data management bodies including the ordnance survey (Maps), DVLA (Road Vehicles and Users), Companies House, the Land Registry, Met Office and Hydrographic Office, and required them to charge for access to data that had either been payed for by the taxpayer, or it was mandatory to provide to government.

This research, conducted by a team from Cambridge University, discovered that freeing the information creates greater value in the economy than would be lost through charge income.

The campaigners for free information argue, firstly that consumers have payed already for the information through their tax payments, and secondly that the government is often in a monopoly position as the only body capable of collecting some of the data through its power of compulsion. The state monopoly makes it very hard to determine a market price, particularly as the marginal cost to supply is zero. The report also denies the argument that participation in a market encourages innovation in the supply chain, because of both the lack of regulation, and the monopoly position of the government. It should be noted that some of the government's "income" is paid with taxation, since the government agencies cross charge each other.

The release of this public information would in all probability lead to innovation in the use cases as more people seek to add value to it, with different approaches and use cases, and its this innovation that will crete real economic value. This is a very real case showing that welfare optisation occurs when information and knowledge is charged at marginal cost, which for digital information is zero or virtually zero.

We'll have to see what the Treasury does.

You might also want to see the Guardian's Campaign Page, Free our Data and the Open Knowledge Foundation's web site.

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