Copyright, exclusive ownership, Web 2.0 and fighting bushfires

A column published today in the Age. 

Its all shoulders to the wheel on the fires. Or is it?

On the weekend, Google, the largest internet company in the world and (how can it be?) one of the most agile offered Victoria a helping hand. It was turned away.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) Web site wasnt coping with demand for its online list of bushfire updates. According to the story its Engineering Director Alan Noble told a Broadband and Beyond conference in Melbourne this week, Google proposed overlaying CFA data onto Google Maps to produce online, real-time mapping of the fires’ locations, and intensities. Especially in an emergency, why did it have to ask?

Where the Government acted with great timeliness and success in migrating to the web as a platform for its existing public communications – hoisting every government report you can name on the net its having terrible trouble adapting to the potential provided by the new use of the internet as an online collaborative platform.

Thats because collaborative web is also serendipitous web. You never know how useful some information might be until you let people get hold of, play around with, repurpose and republish it. And those kinds of possibilities are cruelled, each day every day, by intellectual property paradigms that havent received the comprehensive reworking collaborative web requires, and by organisations usually large firms or government agencies whose standard presumption involves containing the unpredictable and maximising their control.

Anyway, four hours after asking the CFA, Google was permitted to take its data feed and become a firefighter. But the CFA feed only covered private lands. The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) provides similar information on public lands. According to Googles Nobel, DSE hadnt established a data feed and explicitly refused Google permission to access DSEs internal data. And so it couldnt be presented on Google Maps.

I dont know all the details people have been understandably preoccupied with other things at short notice but what seems clear is that, in the age of serendipity in the age of Web 2.0, Governments shouldnt presume that content they are funded to produce should be their own monopoly, or even exclusive intellectual property unless theres a strong case for it to be so.

The converse assumption is more apposite that publicly funded and/or generated information/content is a community resource and should be made freely available unless and until there are good reasons not to do so.

Such reasons of course include the protection of privacy and confidentiality. And access restrictions can make sense if they enable the sale of public data to (usually private) resellers because that can help defray the costs of collection. So the Met should be able to charge TV stations for the data that drives their fancy weather presentations.

But even here, in the serendipitous world of distributed internet collaboration, restrictions should be imposed with great caution. They can gum up the works in all sorts of completely unforseen ways. And there should be a variety of exceptions, analogous to easements in real property rights, for experimentation, research, for non-commercial use, perhaps even for innovative commercial uses. And ehem . . . for emergencies.

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Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
12 years ago

Nice column, Nicholas.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

And access restrictions can make sense if they enable the sale of public data to (usually private) resellers because that can help defray the costs of collection. So the Met should be able to charge TV stations for the data that drives their fancy weather presentations.

So if the TV stations cover (for example) one fifth of the cost of the BOM, then they should have exclusive access to what was mostly paid for out of taxpayers pockets? Why does that leave me feeling a bit ripped off…

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

Yes you are right, the taxpayer who has paid the majority of the collection costs, could go and pay more to get a look at what they collected. So it isn’t strictly exclusive. However, the process is expensive and annoying enough to exclude most of the curious amateurs who might have some idea for an interesting project. Once the taxpayer in question has purchased their own data, they don’t actually have the ability to redistribute that data so they can’t share their project with other taxpayers either, thus all GPL and similar projects are completely excluded from consideration.

For example, a GPS navigation engine licensed under GPL (or any other collaborative license scheme) could not use any of the taxpayer funded GIS data, it would require a separate effort to collect all that GIS data again (and people are doing it). There’s also been a few amateur weather networks turning up who are willing to share data.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

enable the sale of public data to (usually private) resellers

Generally the word “sale” implies payment. If the taxpayer wants access to the BOM data, they need to pay once with their taxes and once again to buy the actual data.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

The “value add” model that you describe (the raw data is freely available but derived intelligence filtered from that raw data costs extra) is not what is currently in use by either the Australian Bureau of Meteorology or Geoscience Australia. Quite the opposite model is in use actually, for example the processed and packaged rain radar images are freely available here:

http://www.bom.gov.au/weather/radar/

You get a map, and pictures of the rain. You cannot get historical information (and I’m sure that if they detect someone sweeping their site every hour on the hour they would block you, although I haven’t put this to the test). You cannot get access to the raw data sets in any format that might be usable for some sort of value-add calculation (not for free anyhow). The subscription service for the same rain radar is here (note that all the same data sets are available, but everything is blocked from access):

http://www.bom.gov.au/reguser/by_prod/radar/

Regardless of the price of the information, you still don’t have permission to redistribute the data in any form without explicitly asking, getting written approval, and then a bunch of other restrictions also apply. These are sufficient to exclude any GPL effort and most other collaborative efforts.

http://www.bom.gov.au/other/copyright.shtml

So my conclusion is, yes I have paid for it, but no I can’t use it for a whole lot. All I can really do with it is check whether it is raining right now (which I can usually also achieve with the help of an open window or door). OK, to be fair, it is very useful for checking the rain in Perth or Adelaide. It is sad that we have this very powerful tool that locks out 99% of the people who paid for it from either looking at the raw data or doing anything with the data, just because 1% of people make a small additional contribution to the collection costs.

dan90
dan90
12 years ago

This article might be of interest to some commenters; it’s a reasonably high-profile repor by th UK government arguing that for reasons such as this serendipitous use of data that the most efficient price to charge for taxpayer-funded data sets is the “marginal cost of provision” – i.e. zero.