part three of the ever-exciting adventure

Net Neutrality

I was horrified enough at Ed Vaisey’s terrible sentiments he expressed over Net Neutrality last week, to write to my MP on the issue. Hopefully Angie will be more responsive to letters from constituents than my last MP was. Still waiting for a reply on that one…

The letter’s based on Open Rights Group’s template, but I added my own Tory-friendly additions in bold. Sending a generic letter is better than none at all, but given you’re writing to an individual it’s clearly better to tailor the argument for them.

I’d strongly encourage you to do the same if you care about universal access to information.

Dear Ms Bray,

I am writing to ask you to sign the Net Neutrality EDM 1036 first signed by Tom Watson MP, Julian Huppert MP and Peter Bottomley MP.


Today the Coalition Government has taken a huge step towards increasing the transparency of Government by announcing the release of all central government spending data over £25,000 for the first time. You may have seen that the Prime Minister has stressed his support for this drive via a video posted this morning on the Number 10 web site.

This is a significant move which will help reduce the waste inherited from Labour and help drive the growth of an information industry which Francis Maude estimates could contribute up to £6bn to the UK economy. The work which his department has done over the last six months is making the UK a world leader in this field.

Last week however, Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, stated that the UK will allow Internet Service Providers to decide which websites and services can reach their customers at what speed.

This threatens the idea of free access to information to all. If traffic from established media operators is prioritised above others then this threatens the ability of independent organisations to help government find where inefficiencies exist in the system, using open data. It promotes centralism over localism and diversity in our information instructure and is a backwards step in Britain’s development.

The change – often called removing “net neutrality” or introducing ”network discrimination” has already led to complaints from companies including the BBC and Skype, an Internet telephone company, that their content may be slowed down by Internet Services Providers. ISPs, including BT, Sky and Virgin, provide TV and phone services which would give them a reason slowing down certain Internet services provided by competitors.

The danger is that, while some “traffic management” to prevent congestion may be reasonable, allowing ISPs to do what they want, with no checks other “transparency” to customers, will lead to significant market abuse and loss of innovation on the Internet. New services may not start up if they cannot be guaranteed fair access to UK Internet customers.

There are ways this problem could be prevented. One would be an industry agreement by major ISPs not to discriminate against competitors, such as has been put in place in Norway. Another would be to require “minimum service guarantees” including an Open Internet.

Please sign the EDM, and raise this issue with Ed Vaizey, as the Minister responsible.

Will Abson

Seven Days to Stop the Bill

My second letter, with hyperlinks. Please feel free to use this as a template to contact your own MPs.

Dear Mr Sharma,

I wrote to you recently outlining my concerns around the Digital Economy Bill currently before parliament.

You may be aware that Harriet Harman MP announced last week that despite widespread criticism of some parts of this bill from across the creative and technology sectors, it will receive it’s second reading on Tuesday April 6, leaving only 90 minutes for the bill to be scrutinised by the House of Commons.

I hope you will agree that this is not acceptable for a Bill that seeks to define the technological landscape of Britain for the next generation. The Bill has undergone considerable scrutiny in the House of Lords and it is only reasonable to expect this same scrutiny from our elected representatives in the Commons.

I see from your web site that you have welcomed Ms Harman to the constituency on more than one occasion. I would therefore ask you to use your influence as the member for Ealing Southall to oppose the Government’s plans to rush through this Bill in the period before the election and that ensure the provisions receive proper debate and scrutiny in a new Parliament.

I am writing as one of 17,000 people who have also written to their representatives on this matter. I am sure you will have received many letters on this subject and I would ask you to take these views into account and make these known with ministers and party managers.

Yours Sincerely,
Will Abson

Building Britain’s Analogue Future

I tried to catch up on Gordon Brown’s surprise appearance today on Number10.gov.uk exclaiming the virtues of ‘superfast’ broadband and the semantic web, but sadly I was disappointed.

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Reading the transcript, perhaps I needn’t have bothered anyway. Aside from the release of the DfT NaPTAN data (which was made available to OSM some time ago) via data.gov.uk, and a promise to force transport operators to open up their timetabling information when their franchises come up (every 10-20 years) there wasn’t much news on the open data front.

Further justification for releasing data in this way probably wasn’t needed to convince most of the audience, but to illustrate how open data can be used to push the boundaries of innovation, Brown picked a New Labour favourite.

…Independent developers are using the information we’ve published for innovative new websites and mobile phone applications such as ‘asborometer’ – built by one person in just five days. It finds your position using GPS and tells you how many people have been served with an asbo in that area.

ASBOs? Seriously? Surely there must be better examples out there of how citizens have re-used public data to increase transparency, accountability and participation in government?

There was an announcement that @timberners_lee and @Nigel_Shadbolt will he heading up a new institute to study emerging web technologies, although no explanation of why our universities aren’t able to do this themselves (lack of funds, perhaps?). Also a new Digital Public Services Unit is being formed to advise departments on how to ‘transform’ their services for the web, with @Marthalanefox at the helm. Fortunately for her, she gets to keep the word ‘Champion’ in her job title.

The Digital Economy Bill was mentioned only once, in a section defending the 50p phone line tax and emphasising the importance of maintaining a strong regulatory presence in the form of Ofcom, the two parts of the bill most opposed by the Tories. So more electioneering than setting out a future policy vision.

There was no mention of the crippling effect of Clauses 17 and 18 of the bill, which threaten to cut off users and censor free speech on the Internet. The Government can invest as much as it likes in Public Services 2.0, but if individuals, families and businesses are unable to access them because their connection has been blocked then that investment is effectively useless.

So if like the Labour government of the past, you believe that digital inclusion is more important than the BPI increasing album sales in 2011, write to your MP, contact your local paper or make your voice heard at this Wednesday’s protest.


My Digital Economy Letter

Turning into a political week, this one. With the Digital Economy Bill threatening to to take us back to an analogue age (oh, the irony), I’ve penned a letter to my MP highlighting the widely-held concerns that the Government look set to try to ram the thing through during wash-up.

If you’re reading this and you wish to continue using an open Internet where freedom of speech is not threatened, I would strongly urge you to do the same.

Virendra Sharma MP
Ealing, Southall

Friday 19 March 2010

Dear Mr Sharma,

I am writing to you concerning the Government’s Digital Economy Bill, which had it’s first reading in the House of Commons this week.

I have been following the passage of this Bill as it has progressed through its various stages in the Lords, and as a technologist myself I am mindful of the significance of the Bill in it’s potential to improve the way in which Britain uses information technology to it’s best advantage in an increasingly global and competitive age.

Like many others who work in the profession however, I have been alarmed by some of the clauses in the Bill, which seek to impose penalties on Internet users who are alleged to have engaged in copyright-infringing activities, with no legal recourse or right of appeal through the courts. This is especially concerning as recent cases in the news have highlighted the inaccuracy of methods used to identify wrongdoers.

Although there are many legitimate concerns around issues such as copyright and intellectual property which the Bill rightly seeks to address, in it’s current form the Bill risks damaging our economy by imposing unnecessary additional monitoring burdens on organisations as diverse as hotels, libraries and universities who provide Internet access, as well as the Internet Service Providers themselves.

As the member for Ealing Southall I hope you will appreciate the deep divide in access to technology that exists within our constituency. The Government has declared it’s intention to tackle such inequalities, but many of the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill will only hinder this, by increasing the cost of Internet access for families as ISPs seek to recoup the costs of monitoring users’ on-line activities, and others choose to stop providing public access altogether.

Further debate and scrutiny of the bill is required within Parliament to ensure that innocent families are not targeted or feel threatened by a flawed identification process, and that the cost of accessing information technology is not driven up unnecessarily in the current economic climate.

I would urge you to resist efforts by the Government to rush through this legislation before the General Election without the full oversight and scrutiny of the normal Parliamentary process, and in particular to vote against Clauses 17 and 18, which threaten to take us backwards, rather than forwards in our use of technology to improve the lives of local people.

Yours Sincerely,
Will Abson

Ordnance Survey Consultation

I finally got round to completing some responses to the Ordnance Survey Free consultation being run by DCLG, which closed yesterday. Not that I like to leave things to the last minute, of course.

When I first signed up to the data.go.uk beta last year it was a pretty basic site and was password-protected. There’s been some amazing progress since then, but there is still work to be done in persuading public bodies like OS that they should provide their data on equivalent terms to the datasets already released.

I got an out-of-office auto-reply, which apparently constitutes acknowledgement that I’ve officially had my say.

Question 1: What are your views or comments on the policy drivers for this consultation?

As the Cambridge Study shows there are clear social drivers for releasing many of the ‘unrefined’ products. As noted, there is clearly a cost associated with making this information more widely available and in order to ensure that benefits are maximised it is essential that the OS engages with external stakeholders before determining the format and licensing applied to released data.

I strongly disagree with the suggestion that contributors to the mapping data should be charged in order to update geographical data, since this may act as a disincentive for providing this data which is so valuable for ensuring OS maps are up-to-date.

Question 2: What are your views on how the market for geographic information has evolved recently and is likely to develop over the next 5-10 years?

The arrival of the Internet as a mass distribution channel has fundamentally changed the way mapping information is accessed and has the potential to greatly increase accessibility to this data for a wider variety of purposes at a low cost. Therefore the changes that have occurred in the last few years have changed the way in which mapping data is consumed.

Although this trend is expected to continue as licensing changes accelerate the usage of data, the next 5-10 years will see bigger changes in the way mapping data is collected as the Internet moves from a model of mass publishing and consumption to a more collaborative model. This second model is generally referred to as Web 2.0 and heralds significant changes for any organisation involved in the collection and publishing of information.

Groups such as OpenStreetMap (OSM) provide a good example of this model in a cartographic context. OS should increasingly look to leverage external groups and individuals such as this in the collection of data if it is to lower the cost of data collection, which could offset any short-term loss of revenue caused by the proposed licensing changes.

The goal of OS from it’s conception was to provide a comprehensive set of mapping data for the United Kingdom and crowd-sourcing models such as this have the potential to significantly widen this coverage to cover the entire globe. Such a database would not be possible for a single organisation to put together, but the distributed nature of contributors in OSM has allowed previously poorly-mapped countries such as Haiti to be surveyed to the level of detail required to conduct relief operations, at zero cost.

However, in order to allow contributions from diverse organisations to sit alongside each other in harmony, changes are needed to allow a more permissive licensing arrangement.

Question 3: What are your views on the appropriate pricing model for Ordnance Survey products and services?

Generally, the existence of any price-based model for providing access to OS products acts as an inhibitor to innovation and maximising the use of those resources, since it not only limits their availability to those with the necessary financial capital, but also (even where a low price is charged) places additional restrictions on the reuse of products in order to ensure that future revenue streams to OS are not compromised.

The dilemma presented is therefore how to provide free access to OS data on reasonable terms, while continuing to retain a profit-making function in order to recoup the substantial costs of maintaining that data. Therefore in the short term at least a differential pricing model may provide the best way forward for all parties involved. Such an arrangement might perhaps provide free access to certain ‘raw’ datasets while continuing to charge for others, providing free data to any non-commercial entity while continuing to charge profit-making entities, or a combination of the two approaches.

Question 4: What are your views and comments on public sector information regulation and policy, and the concepts of public task and good governance as they apply to Ordnance Survey?

The regulations outlined provide a broad overview of the legislation affecting public sector bodies such as Ordnance Survey who produce data in the course of their day-to-day activities.

Increasingly regulations such as the IFTS are focussing on how maximum benefit can be obtained from this data through re-use by others. Since this affects data which has been collected using finances from the public purse, in my view this even places a moral duty on OS to make the collected data available to the entire public audience on a non-discriminatory basis, regardless of their ability to pay or otherwise. But the clear pragmatic argument is also made that wider re-use will produce larger incomes as innovative uses of data allow new businesses to succeed, who will in turn pay their own taxes and business rates.

On the question of Governance, a larger role in driving OS policy should be given to external stakeholders in the organisation such as those using the data. This could take the form of an elected advisory council, who are able to make their own recommendations to the board.

Question 5: What are your views on and comments on the products under consideration for release for free re-use and the rationale for their inclusion?

Providing access to gazetteer, boundary and postcode data is essential as no authoritative nationwide database exists at present to provide this information on an unrestricted basis for re-use by others.

Raster data should be provided at the outline level, as given the many different ways in which raster views may be generated from different data sets and layers, it may be preferable for OS to leave the diversity of such content to be defined to the marketplace. Provided that the raw data is available, others will be able to produce their own raster versions as required.

Question 6: How much do you think government should commit to funding the free product set? How might this be achieved?

In the short term, Government should commit to the necessary capital required to compensate for any short term fall in licensing revenue from Central or Local government departments. This can be justified by the reasoning that the extra costs are being offset by savings within those departments, and due to the reduction in administrative overheads would likely provide a net saving overall.

Government should also, as the sponsor of these changes, commit to providing any required funding to aid with the transitory period, such as new IT systems required to host the data.

Given the current economic situation, any costs met by Government should be costs that can be demonstrated will be paid back later down the line, either in savings in other departments, or as efficiency savings within OS itself.

Question 7: What are your views on how free data from Ordnance Survey should be delivered?

It is essential that the data is made available in open formats as electronic files in order to allow re-use by the widest range of individuals and organisations. Where a choice exists between providing information in a widely-used proprietary format and a lesser-used but open format, the open format should be chosen since it represents a lower risk to the publisher and ultimately will enable greater choice on the part of the consumer.

Data may also be made available in other formats such as DVD and a reasonable charge could be made for such formats.

As stated, it is essential that the OS engages with external stakeholders before determining the format and licensing applied to released data.

Question 8: What are your views on the impact Ordnance Survey Free will have on the market?

Providing some or all of OS’s data under a free license may affect other suppliers who have previously relied on such data being available at a premium only. However, Ordnance Survey, although still the dominant supplier in the UK market, is not the only supplier and other lower-cost or free data sources such as Google Maps, Bing and OpenStreetMap are already ushering in these changes and will continue to do so, regardless of what action OS may take itself.

Question 9: What are your comments on the proposal for a single National Address Register and suggestions for mechanisms to deliver it?

A single National Address Register is currently needed in order to ensure level access to address data by all individuals and organisations. Address data is becoming fundamental to many localised services being delivered via the Internet and many of these services do not have the means to pay for the currently available commercial alternatives.

At present access to this data is available only from a single commercial supplier and significant limitations are places on it’s re-use. It is not appropriate for such a valuable asset to be in the sole control of a single commercial entity with few safeguards to ensure that access is made available on reasonable terms.

Question 10: What are your views on the options outlined in this consultation?

A wide variety of options have been presented, but it is disappointing that no consideration has been given to the benefits to OS of making data more widely available, such as the increased ability for local residents to report changes to the physical landscape in their area or even to modify features themselves.

Question 11: For local authorities: What will be the balance of impact of these proposals on your costs and revenues?


Question 12: Will these proposals have any impact on race, gender or disability equalities?


What are we educating for?

The other night I went to my first real unashamedly political event, a session organised by the “progressive conservative” bright blue (so new they’re yet to appear on Google) at the British Library, discussing the role of education in 21st century Britain.

The event deliberately went back to first principles on education, focussing on why we bother to send people to school/college/university in the first place, then going on to look at how we need to change our current approach. Hence the title, above.

The speakers really made the event for me, especially as Toby Young’s presence on Newsnight last week had motivated me to put down my own thoughts on the matter.

It must be said that Anthony Seddon generally out-shone Young in terms of stage presence, but the former came across much more so as someone who really wants to make a difference, rather than one who simply offers a critique of current policy.

The two were united in their criticism however, with Young pointing to various studies which have shown how measures such as social mobility (which, if nothing else, education should surely aim to improve?) have painted a worsening picture over the previous 50 years, and Seddon lambasting targets and exams in encouraging a sort of herd-like behaviour, where all effort is focussed on the short-term goal of achieving the best score, rather than in maximising purer academic performance.

As the arguments were developed further, the point was made that the education system focuses too heavily on teaching children to recall facts, rather than to develop the sort of critical thinking and logical reasoning required in today’s fast-moving world. PSE in particular was noted as form of indoctrination, where pupils are taught item-by-item what is right and wrong, rather than being given the chance to decide this for themselves.

There were disagreements between audience members and the panel and at times between the two speakers themselves over how best to formulate an overall educational policy and how to measure it’s outcomes, but there was almost universal agreement that the current system which has served us so well for the previous century is now looking increasingly out-dated, and that despite the personal interest of two PMs and many more high-profile education ministers, the massive investment made over the last few years have not delivered the improvements hoped-for.

The argument was therefore presented that another approach is needed. Seddon was particularly critical of policy for deliberately excluding parents from the education process, arguing that schools and parents must be in line with each other and that a failure to bring the two sides together causes alienation reduces the sense of belonging. Young’s school, if successful, could change this.

As Seddon surmised at the end, we are all common stakeholders in the process of education. We have all been educated, and many people have or may in the future have children who will go through the same process. Current circumstances provide a once-in-a-generation chance to get things right this time, and so now is the time to act.

Can Sweden teach us a lesson?

Interesting report on last night’s Newsnight over Tory “dreams” to bring a Swedish-style schools system to the UK, with independent groups receiving funding to operate within the state sector to increase competition and choice.

Radio 4 covered the same topic recently, interviewing actor Toby Young about why he wants to set up a new school here in Ealing. According to Young,

“Our parent group, which is about 250-strong, would apply to be the main sponsor of a new academy… Ours would be the first parent-sponsored academy.”

Doing a bit more digging, it seems Young kicked things off last year with an opinion piece in the Observer. The Ealing Gazette picked this up shortly afterwards and put a local twist on it and more recently, the Guardian and Newsnight re-opened the debate with their own further coverage on the subject.

Labour have taken us so far down the academies route, and (perhaps surprisingly) the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

But this is a scheme dreamt up in the heady days of the boom years. Underlying the academies scheme is a belief that the state (in combination with suitably wealthy donors) can play a central role in tearing down the old and replacing it with shiny new facilities, with scant regard for what is there already. Academies have done for the education system what the 1960s did for urban planning, to the extent that bodies like English Heritage now feel compelled to issue warnings.

In Education as in IT, the days of the all-enabling state are well-and-truly over. People have lost patience and the system has run out of money.

As Young’s example shows there are a huge number of people on the ground who think they can do it better and are motivated to do so. These are parents, teachers and others in the community who want to take back some of the control that’s been taken away from them over the last 60 years, first by central government and the LEAs and more recently by the academies. As Antony Seldon says in the Radio 4 piece:

“We’ve had a pretty state-run system for the last 100 years where schools have been run from the centre… and parents have been marched off to go to this school and it’s been pretty ordinary… We need to abandon the factory schools that served us so well in the 20th century and move towards a much more individualised system…”

The Newsnight report shows that the Swedish example is not perfect. Standards must be enforced (this being an ideal  role for the state) and non-profit status should be required for any organisation wanting to set up a new school, but bearing these in mind we can surely do things better by opening the process up further and allowing “individuals and organisations to flourish”.