Seems all the cool kids are doing a series of themed blog posts, so I’ll join the party: over the next few weeks I’m going to cover four topics from my ‘Someday/Maybe’ list of applying social media in government:

  • Licensing
  • Accessibility
  • Guidance
  • Evaluation

Let’s start with the one I’m most sketchy about: licensing.

Punched paper tape
Image credit: Marcin Wichary (licensed under Creative Commons)

A couple of weeks ago, Richard Allen from the Power of Information Taskforce posted a useful set of links for local authorities looking to unlock the power of their information, including some basic information about Click-Use licensing, which I’ve come across but never fully got my head around.

I like all the PoI data reuse stuff – it speaks to me. For a couple of years now, I’ve run a website which tries to get public sector jobs information out to a wider audience (and 20,000 visitors/month seem to want it). Like others (I suspect), I have a soft spot for Neighbourhood Statistics, from my mis-spent time trying in vain to find a way to make it usable. And I love services like UniStats when I come across them at work.

But I’ve got a day job which is mainly about other things. I said in a plaintive comment on the PoI blog:

“This isn’t a whine, but to be honest these issues are just too far down my list to really get the attention they need, and my team is too small for us to really get under the skin of it. I suspect there are many of us in government temperamentally predisposed to open up the information we help to manage, but never quite managing to get it done. Similarly when it comes to building APIs to data.

Could the Taskforce provide some kind of help – boiled down practical guidance, a helpdesk, some priorities, template business cases or model approaches – that we could use to help us move foreward in this area quickly and confidently?”

Contrary to Wired’s provocative nonsense, that comment led to a flurry of activity. Adrian Norman got in touch via this blog, and we met today to chat about markets and precedents in public sector information, marginal cost, FoI, and the problem of incentives for people in government to make their data readily re-usable. He has an ambitious solution of his own: use software to auto-generate Information Asset Registers for public sector organisations, linked to a Europe-wide marketplace where the costs and value of the data can be more transparently assessed and the information more easily traded. If nothing else, he reminded me of the market value of what we hold, and that it’s not necessarily about giving stuff away for free.

Another response to my query came from Carol Tullo, Director of Information Policy and Systems at OPSI who gently suggested I make contact and tap into their help, which I’m doing at a meeting next week.

Which brings me to my point: what would be useful to know, as busy, jobbing webbies – the gatekeepers and enthusiasts for low-cost web publishing – to help us kick start more data syndication, licensing and re-use in our organisations?

Here’s my starter for ten (eagle-eyed readers will spot that I don’t have the foggiest about any of this, and a seriously non-legal mind):

  • We have increasing amounts of content (pictures, video, blog posts, methodology documents etc) which I’d like to share with the world, for others to comment on, adapt and reuse. What’s the best way to do that?
  • Can we license stuff under GPL or Creative Commons?
  • What if we use open source stuff and build upon it – can we ‘share alike’ under the same terms?
  • If it’s created by a Civil Servant, I understand it’s probably Crown Copyright, but I’m not sure what that means from a reuse perspective. I know it sometimes get waived anyway. So what’s the deal there?
  • I’ve heard dark things about the legal terms imposed by some of the online services out there such as YouTube. What should we be watching out for, if anything?
  • What really is ‘Click Use’ and is it the solution to my quest for a simple Creative Commons-style licence I can slap on stuff we create?
  • What should I say when talking to data holders in my department about this, and convince them to (i) look for and (ii) store and publish in reusable ways the data they hold?

That’s my list so far: what would you like me to ask about? Or what has your experience been?

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Do we also need to change the way we think about intangible assets?

Public sector information has so far mainly been “traded”, now we can enable the public to re-use it and not only create something personalised to them and their communities, but also “share it” with others (non-comercially), there is great social value in mashups – not only on mashups which specifically help people help themselves, but by the process of sharing, help each other. A kind of online co-production.

There is also great latent economic value (if we are helping people create ways to mashup information on our services and the online tools they are already using, will there still be a need for creating websites on new projects/services/etc?)

Ah yes, Neighbourhood Statistics. If I have a ‘soft spot’, it must be from all the bruises. Tell you what, if ever there was a justification for simply building an API…

‘@Noel: Interesting point – Simon Berry quoted someone from his web24gov workshop a while back using the phrase “government should be the wholesaler, not the retailer” of information, which struck a chord. And Gartner’s just come out with something about how putting the tools in the hands of consumers means the role for government as producer will diminish.

I’m not sure – I’m not sure government will ever be as innovative as a masher could be, but I think there’s going to be a role for someone official putting a front end on the API for a while yet.

@Simon: Indeed. I wonder if Directgov isn’t another such case.

have you found out any more about “What if we use open source stuff and build upon it” ?

we’ve made modifications to the FOSS software we use internally and we need to get those modifications submitted back into the main codebase so that we don’t have to maintain them as patches.

presumably i need to go find out about GPL vs Crown Copyright from someone at OPSI.

Re Crown Copyright. My understanding is that Crown copyright can be used by anyone, but must be referenced and used in the way that it was intended, ie bits of it must not be quoted out of context.

But I am not legally minded either, and this is just the way I have worked and ecouraged use of such materials.

We’ve raised similar question in meetings with OPSI (I’m CTO at ONS). My reading of the click-use license, which our statistical data is released under, suggests that it re-use in public data mashups is not permitted. I feel we should be aiming for a creative commons type license agreement.

To Simon’s comment on Neighbourhood Statistics, he’ll be pleased to hear we are already implementing an API for all our published statistical data.