09 March 2006

The Dream of Open Data

Today's Guardian has a fine piece by Charles Arthur and Michael Cross about making data paid for by the UK public freely accessible by them. But it goes beyond merely detailing the problem, and represents the launch of a campaign called "Free Our Data". It's particularly good news that the unnecessary hoarding of data is being addressed by a high-profile title like the Guardian, since a few people in the UK Government might actually read it.

It is rather ironic that at a time when nobody outside Redmond disputes the power of open source, and when open access is almost at the tipping point, open data remains something of a distant dream. Indeed, it is striking how advanced the genomics community is in this respect. As I discovered when I wrote Digital Code of Life, most scientists in this field have been routinely making their data freely available since 1996, when the Bermuda Principles were drawn up. The first of these stated:

It was agreed that all human genomic sequence information, generated by centres funded for large-scale human sequencing, should be freely available and in the public domain in order to encourage research and development and to maximise its benefit to society.

The same should really be true for all kinds of large-scale data that require governmental-scale gathering operations. Since they cannot be feasibly gathered by private companies, such data ends up as a government monopoly. But trying to exploit that monopoly by crudely over-charging for the data is counter-productive, as the Guardian article quantifies. Let's hope the campaign gathers some momentum - I'll certainly being doing my bit.

Update: There is now a Web site devoted to this campaign, including a blog.


Anonymous said...

Good point about the genetic data - though of course that raises the spectre of Craig Venter...

I'll put you down for the lone march into Downing Street over the barricades then? :-)

Glyn Moody said...

The interesting thing about Craig Venter is that although there was a moment when the Human Genome was nearly privatised, that moment has (largely) passed (though some people persist in trying to patent bits of it).

And to be fair, I don't think Venter was ever really that keen on the commercialisation - he just needed the money to carry out his rather grandiose research (it was jolly expensive sequencing your own genome in the old days).

And yes, put me down for a couple of barricades....