For at least three years, it has been official government policy to help entrepreneurs create new digital channels to public information. The policy works fine - until an entrepreneur comes up with an idea. Almost always, it then runs into a wall of obstacles.
The latest to discover the difficulties of creating a business based on public sector information is John Yardley. He accuses a government-owned trading fund of being "contradictory and obstructive" over a proposal to set up an online property business relying on official data.
Yardley, a former government scientist set up his own software company, JPY (of which he is managing director), in 1982. Two years ago he came up with an idea for a property trading website. A crucial element would be real-time information on property sales from the Land Register of England and Wales. This is maintained by Land Registry, a trading fund (charging fees from customers to cover costs, yet owned solely by the government) since 1993. Its programme to computerise the world's largest property database and put it online is regarded in the civil service as an outstanding e-government success.
In November 2004, Yardley took his business plan to the registry. The initial reaction, he says, was favourable. However in April 2005, an email arrived rejecting his proposal, citing two reasons. First, that the Land Registry could not give him an exclusive data feed. Secondly, it had already thought of the idea.
"I was absolutely furious," Yardley says. He said he told the registry he was prepared to waive exclusivity and fund the costs of implementing the data feed. He was allegedly told that before any further meetings he would have to sign an agreement waiving all rights to commercial confidentiality. He was unwilling; his proposal foundered. "After 18 months of wasted negotiations, I realised the Land Registry had no interest in assisting us in this venture," Yardley says.
His experience illustrates several issues raised by Technology Guardian's Free Our Data campaign. We argue that government data, apart from that identifying individuals, should be made freely available to boost the knowledge economy. However, this requires a willingness to respond to proposals like Yardley's, transparency about pricing and access to data, and some assurance that public sector monopolies will not enter new markets with competing "value added" services themselves. The last point applies particularly to trading funds, which have to fund themselves from their own activities rather than general taxation.
Land Registry says that commercial confidentiality prevents it discussing details of Yardley's case. However, it showed the Guardian a standard letter, drafted in July 2006, which it now sends to anyone submitting commercial proposals.
Worryingly, the letter contains two clauses that could be used to knock any proposal on the head. One says: "While we do look to develop new services, our primary requirement is to deliver the statutory functions and services of Land Registry... We therefore have extremely limited resource [sic] to undertake such developments and already have a full development programme in this area." The other says: "We must also ensure that any suggestion put before us does not prevent or otherwise inhibit the development of our future services..."
Yardley's verdict: "In my opinion, they were obstructive, arrogant and unprofessional."
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