For years now at the Open Data Institute we’ve been working to increase access to data, to create a range of social and economic benefits across a range of sectors. While the details change across projects one of the more consistent aspects of our work and guidance has been to support data stewards in making data as open as possible, whilst ensuring that is clearly licensed.
Reference data, like addresses and other geospatial data, that underpins our national and global data infrastructure needs to be available under an open licence. If it’s not, which is the ongoing situation in the UK, then other data cannot be made as open as possible.
Other considerations aside, data can only be as open as the reference data it relies upon. Ideally, reference data would be in the public domain, e.g. using a CC0 waiver. Attribution should be a consistent norm regardless of what licence is used.
Data becomes more useful when it is linked with other data. When it comes to data, adding context adds value. It can also add risks, but more value can be created from linking data.
When data is published using bespoke or restrictive licences then it is harder to combine different datasets together, because there are often limitations in the licensing terms that restrict how data can be used and redistributed.
This means data needs to be licensed using common, consistent licences. Licences that work with a range of different types of data, collected and used by different communities across jurisdictions.
Incompatible licences create friction that can make it impossible to create useful products and services.
It’s well-reported that data scientists and other users spend huge amounts of time cleaning and tidying data because it’s messy and non-standardised. It’s probably less well-reported how many great ideas are simply shelved because of lack of access to data. Or are impossible because of issues with restrictive or incompatible data licences. Or are cancelled or simply needlessly expensive due to the need for legal consultations and drafting of data sharing agreements.
These are the hurdles you often need to overcome before you even get started with that messy data.
Here’s a real-world example of where the lack of open geospatial data in the UK, and ongoing incompatibilities between data licensing is getting in the way of useful work.
Introducing Active Places
Active Places is a dataset stewarded by Sport England. It provides a curated database of sporting facilities across England. It includes facilities provided by a range of organisations across the public, private and third-sectors. It’s designed to help support decision making about the provision of tens of thousands of sporting sites and facilities around the UK to drive investment and policy making.
The dataset is rich and includes a wide range of information from disabled access through to the length of ski slopes or the number of turns on a cycling track.
While Sport England are the data steward, the curation of the dataset is partly subcontracted to a data management firm and partly carried out collaboratively with the owners of those sites and facilities.
The dataset is published under a standard open licence, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence. So anyone can access, use and share the data so long as they acknowledge its source. Contributors to the dataset agree to this licence as part of registering to contribute to the site.
The dataset includes geospatial data, including the addresses and locations of individual sites. This data includes IP from Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail, which means they have a say over what happens to it. In order to release the data under an open licence, Sport England had to request an exemption from the Ordnance Survey to their default position, which is that data containing OS IP cannot be sublicensed. When granted an exemption, an organisation may publish their data under an open licence. In short, OS waive their rights over the geographic locations in the data.
The OS can’t, however waive any rights that Royal Mail has over the address data. In order to grant Sport England an exemption, the OS also had to seek permission from Royal Mail. The Sport England team were able to confirm this for me.
Unfortunately it’s not clear, without having checked, that this is actually the case. It’s not evident in the documentation of either Active Places or the OS exemption process. Is it clarifying all third-party rights a routine part of the exemption process or not?
It would be helpful to know. As the ODI has highlighted, lack of transparency around third-party rights in open data is a problem. For many datasets the situation remains unclear. And Unclear positions are fantastic generators of legal and insurance fees.
So, to recap: Sport England has invested time in convincing Ordnance Survey to allow it to openly publish a rich dataset for the public good. A dataset in which geospatial data is clearly important, but is not the main feature of the dataset. The reference data is dictating how open the dataset can be and, as a result how much value can be created from it.
In case you’re wondering, lots of other organisations have had to do the same thing. The process is standardised to try and streamline it for everyone. A 2016 FOI request shows that between 2011 and 2015 the Ordnance Survey handled more than a 1000 of these requests.
At the end of 2019, members of the OpenStreetmap community contacted Sport England to request permission to use the Active Places dataset.
If you’re not familiar with OpenStreetmap, then you should be. It’s an openly licensed map of the world maintained by a huge community of volunteers, humanitarian organisations, public and private sector businesses around the world.
The OpenStreetmap Foundation is the official steward of the dataset with the day to data curation and operations happening through its volunteer network. As a small not-for-profit, it has to be very cautious about legal issues relating to the data. It can’t afford to be sued. The community is careful to ensure that data that is imported or added into the database comes from openly licensed sources.
In March 2017, after a consultation with the Creative Commons, the OpenStreetmap Licence/Legal Working Group concluded that data published under the Creative Commons Attribution licence is not compatible with the licence used by OpenStreetmap which is called the Open Database Licence. They felt that some specific terms in the licence (and particularly in its 4.0 version) meant that they needed additional permission in order to include that data in OpenStreetmap.
Since then the OpenStreetmap community, has been contacting data stewards to ask them to sign an additional waiver that grants the OSM community explicit permission to use the data. This is exactly what open licensing of data is intended to avoid.
CC-BY is one of the most frequently used open data licences, so this isn’t a rare occurrence.
As an indicator of the extra effort required, in a 2018 talk from the Bing Maps team in which they discuss how they have been supporting the OpenStreetmap community in Australia, they called out their legal team as one of the most important assets they had to provide to the local mapping community, helping them to get waivers signed. At the time of writing nearly 90 waivers have been circulated in Australia alone, not all of which have been signed.
So, to recap, due to a perceived incompatibility between two of the most frequently used open data licences, the OpenStreetmap community and its supporters are spending time negotiating access to data that is already published under an open licence.
I am not a lawyer. So these are like, just my opinions. But while I understand why the OSM Licence Working Group needs to be cautious, it feels like they are being overly cautious. Then again, I’m not the one responsible for stewarding an increasingly important part of a global data infrastructure.
Another opinion is that perhaps the Microsoft legal team might be better deployed to solve the licence incompatibility issues. Instead they are now drafting their own new open data licences, which are compatible with CC-BY.
Active Places and OpenStreetmap
Still with me?
At the end of last year, members of the OpenStreetMap community contacted Sport England to ask them to sign a waiver so that they could use the Active Places data. Presumably to incorporate some of the data into the OSM database.
The Sport England data and legal teams then had to understand what they were being asked to do and why. And they asked for some independent advice, which is where I provided some support through our work with Sport England on the OpenActive programme.
The discussion included:
- questions about why an additional waiver was actually necessary
- the differences in how CC-BY and ODbL are designed to require data to remain open and accessible – CC-BY includes limitation on use of technical restrictions, which is allowed by the open definition, whilst ODbL adopts a principle of encouraging “parallel distribution”.
- acceptable forms and methods of attribution
- who, within an organisation like Sport England, might have responsibility to decide what acceptable attribution looked like
- why the OSM community had come to its decisions
- who actually had authority to sign-off on the proposed waiver
- whether signing a waiver and granting a specific permission undermined Sport England’s goal to adopt standard open data practices and licences, and a consistent approach for every user
- whether the OS exemption, which granted permission to SE to publish the dataset under an open licence, impacted any of the above
All reasonable questions from a team being asked to do something new.
Like a number of organisations asked to sign waiver in Australia, SE have not yet signed a waiver and may choose not to do so. Like all public sector organisations, SE are being cautious about taking risks.
The discussion has spilled out onto twitter. I’m writing this to provide some context and background to the discussion in that thread. I’m not criticising anyone as I think everyone is trying to come to a reasonable outcome.
As the twitter thread highlights, the OSM community are not just concerned about the CC-BY licence but also about the potential that additional third-party rights are lurking in the data. Clarifying that may require SE to share more details about how the address and location data in the dataset is collected, validated and normalised for the OSM community to be happy. But, as noted earlier in the blog, I’ve at least been able to determine the status of any third-party rights in the data. So perhaps this will help to move things further.
So, as a final recap, we have two organisations both aiming to publish and use data for the public good. But, because of complexities around derived data and licence compatibilities, data that might otherwise be used in new, innovative ways is instead going unused.
This is a situation that needs solving. It needs the UK government and Geospatial Commission to open up more geospatial data.
It needs the open data community to invest in resolving licence incompatibilities (and less in creating new licences) so that everyone benefits.
We also need to understand when licences are the appropriate means of governing how data is used and when norms, e.g. around attribution, can usefully shape how data is accessed, used and shared.
Until then these issues are going to continue to undermine the creation of value from open (geospatial) data.