Governments have tended to see the web primarily as a medium for the delivery of documents and the dissemination of content to the citizen. The UK government is beginning to develop a far richer and deeper understanding of the web technology and the contribution it can make in terms of achieving better and more personalised public services to the citizen and business, achieving greater operational efficiency of government through more effective information sharing, improving evidenced based policy making through large scale information aggregation and analysis and, finally, supporting the development of the knowledge economy through commercial re-use and exploitation of public sector information. In public policy terms these are widely varying objectives - what links them is the web and its vast potential to realise broad economic and social gains.
In common with many other states, the UK has developed a strong e-Government agenda over the last ten years, initially focussed on providing access to information and more latterly on delivering public services online. The publication of the government's IT strategy document, "Transformational Government Enabled by Technology" in November 2005 marked an important shift in the UK government's thinking to a much broader technology agenda.
This is reflected in a change of the language the government now uses, with the term "e-Government" less in vogue. No longer an end in itself, technology is now seen in terms of its capability to transform the business of government by increasing efficiency, delivering higher quality public services, and offering more personalisation and choice to the citizen. To do this the government has sought to consolidate its online services around DirectGov for the citizen and BusinessLink for business, and a small number of other government websites.
The Office of Public Sector Information, which operates from within The National Archives, is at the heart of information policy in the UK, setting standards, delivering access and encouraging the re-use of public sector information. OPSI developed from Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), which has responsibility for the management of much of the UK government's intellectual property. In the UK any work produced by an employee of the government is deemed to be owned by the Crown and thus subject to Crown copyright. Under this constitutional position, Carol Tullo, the Director of OPSI in her capacity as Controller of HMSO, is granted authority by Her Majesty The Queen to manage all copyrights and database rights owned by the Crown. OPSI also has an important role as the regulator of public sector information holders for their information trading activities. Such information traders include Ordnance Survey, the UK's mapping agency and The Met Office.
In addition to its policy and regulatory role, OPSI is also a high profile provider of online services, providing access to legislation, official publications, as well as the London, Belfast and Edinburgh Gazettes, the official journals of the UK government. A recent National Audit Office study has shown that the OPSI website (www.opsi.gov.uk) is amongst the five largest provided by central government in terms of the volume of content and serves a substantial audience (in excess of 1 million unique visitors per month).
OPSI is making an important contribution to The National Archives Vision, to lead and transform information management in government. This aims to bring together government's thinking for information exploitation and re-use, while addressing the more traditional concerns of records management and long term preservation. As part of the Transformation Government Strategy, the recently established Knowledge Council provides a forum within government to address this wide ranging agenda.
In Europe the re-use policy agenda for public sector information stems from the Lisbon Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in March 2000. EU member states set themselves the strategic goal of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. Estimates had shown the information industry in Europe to be relatively small when compared to the United States.
Recognising the enormous value of public sector information and the contribution it could make to stimulate the development and growth of Europe's information industry the EU Directive for the Re-use of Public Sector Information was agreed in 2003. The aim of the Directive was to harmonise the rules for the re-use of public sector information across the community. In the UK, transposition of the Directive into domestic law was led jointly by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI). The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations, implementing the Directive in UK law, came into force on 1st July 2005.
The UK government operates a mixed regime for charging and licensing the re-use of Crown information. This regime stems from the Cross Cutting Review of the Knowledge Economy in 2000, sponsored by HM Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry. Some categories of information, including most material published on central government websites, can be re-used free of charge or under the terms of the free Click-Use PSI Licence. In general for this "core" information, the principle of marginal cost pricing applies. For other categories of information, so called "value-added" information products, pricing is at a fair market rate. Those parts of government which are designated as Trading Funds, such as the mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, are required to achieve a return on their investment, and thus seek to deliver a profit to the taxpayer. The Office of Public Sector Information regulates their information trading activity through the Information Fair Trader Scheme (IFTS). All Crown bodies that have a full licensing delegation from the Controller of HMSO must become IFTS Accredited, although any public sector body may apply. IFTS sets out five principles for licensing the re-use of public sector information, of openness, transparency, fairness, compliance and challenge. Non Crown bodies, such as local authorities and parts of the National Health Service are able to set their own policies with respect to charging for the re-use of their information, bound only by the provisions of the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations.
The impact of government's information trading activities was recently assessed by the independent Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which has conducted a market study into the Commercial Use of Public Sector Information and has made a wide ranging set of recommendations. At the time of writing the UK Government has yet to publish its response, although publication is due before the end of May. It is also worth noting that there is an active public campaign to change the government's policy for charging for the re-use of public sector information. Entitled "Free Our Data" and launched by The Guardian Newspaper last year, this aims to make all public sector information re-usable free of charge.
Public sector information (PSI) can make an important contribution to the development of the semantic web, which in turn will yield many gains. However, this requires that many public organisations move beyond their current understanding of the web as a medium for the delivery of documents.
Public bodies collect information as a matter of public task or duty, creating raw information assets. It is often the case that useful information is produced when combining different information assets. The potential for public sector information to be re-used in useful and interesting ways has grown exponentially with the development of the web. In the UK, vast quantities of public sector information have been made available, ranging from geospatial, statistical, financial and legal information. However, making data available and making data reusable are two very different things. Most government data is published online in text formats with little structure, thus inhibiting its re-use. By using unstructured, non-semantic representations of the data, it becomes almost impossible for machines to find or understand and integrate this rich source of information. A key problem is not how the information is captured, but how it is represented and made available on the web.
One of the great benefits that Semantic Web technology offers is facilitating the large scale integration and sharing of distributed data sources. For the Semantic Web to spread widely, more data will need to be made available in machine understandable formats. The UK government holds very rich, high quality, and sought after data. Whilst much of this information is published and available for re-use by others, it is often trapped by poor data structures, locked up in legacy data formats or in fragmented databases.
To investigate these problems more fully OPSI joined up with Advanced Knowledge Technologies (AKT), an inter-disciplinary research project led by the University of Southampton. Our work with AKT, in a pilot project called AKTive PSI, had two aims:
We sought to bring together as wide a collection of heterogeneous public sector information assets as possible to experiment with. To do this a broad selection of public bodies were involved in the project, including Ordnance Survey, The Met Office, The Department for Communities and Local Government, The Office for National Statistics, The Department for Food and Rural Affairs, The Environment Agency and The London Boroughs of Camden and Lewisham. The research showed the potential of semantic web technology for large scale integration of public sector information and the benefits such aggregation can yield. Beyond the research outcomes, which were very exciting for all those who contributed data, one of the main benefits of AKTive PSI was the level of engagement and understanding that was built in government. We were able to share the outcomes of this research work with the EU Commission and with other member states, as part of the European agenda to encourage the re-use of public sector information.
Semantic Web technology provides the best candidate solution to a range of interoperability problems, and if widely adopted has enormous potential to drive the re-use of public sector information. Through our role supporting the Knowledge Council, we are also engaged with initiatives to investigate the use of Semantic Web technology to help support evidence based policy making.
OPSI is continuing to work with the University of Southampton, to develop awareness of Semantic Web technology. Plans for a publicly available research space using public sector information are well advanced.
The issue of providing better access to public sector information has also been identified in the policy review, "The Power of Information", conducted by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. The review aims to position the UK Government in response to developments in the use and communication of citizen and state generated information on the web. Due for publication soon, we anticipate this review will make some specific recommendations to help address the re-useable format issue.
The UK Government's model for public services reform seeks to combine four pressures to help achieve better public services for all. Government traditionally regulates from above, setting targets and standards. While that approach necessarily continues, increasingly we are looking to users to shape services from below, introducing a greater degree of choice and personalisation, supported by funding which follows their choices. Alongside this trend the government is working to improve its capacity to deliver, through professional skills, and to introduce an element of contestability - the recognition that not every public service to the citizen needs to be delivered by a public provider.
Against this backdrop the web provides a set of unique opportunities, in terms of delivering more personalised public services, and enabling others to more easily develop other types of information products or services that government itself does not provide.
For OPSI and The National Archives, two key players in government for online service delivery, the realisation of this potential of the web is encapsulated by our online strategy, "Provide and Enable". The strategy was born of the realisation that no one, not even the likes of Google, Amazon or the BBC, seeks to do everything on the web, yet the information that Government holds has almost limitless potential. The challenge is one of providing online services against a backdrop of endless possibilities at a time of rapid, disruptive and occasionally perplexing change.
The "provide and enable" strategy has at its heart a choice. Where we chose to provide, we deliver a high quality online service; where we enable, by allowing others to use our information, they provide. Providing means directly producing high quality online services that address the citizen's needs and expectations. It involves understanding our customers and their expectations of us. However, choosing to enable is recognition that the web affords another possibility. By making information re-usable in flexible ways on the web, the market can drive innovation. All we need to do is to facilitate that to happen by serving our data in a re-usable way. The richness and variety of our information can provide for an almost limitless range of services - far more than we ever could or should hope to provide.
Our work with AKT has given us a glimpse of what is possible by applying Semantic Web technology to public sector information. The "provide and enable" strategy now provides the rationale for taking the next step, and developing our online services in this rich vein.
The web is revolutionising how citizens and state relate to one another - opening up entirely new modes of behaviour. OPSI's interest in this area spans our three roles, leading the development of information policy with respect to re-use of public sector information, regulating the public sector's information trading activities and providing a range of online services to the citizen directly ourselves. At the forefront of addressing some of these issues in government we see the potential that lies ahead, particularly for Semantic Web technology.