Updates to UK government information laws: has anything changed?
Last week the UK updated its laws that shape how government data can be accessed and used.
Since 2005, how public bodies in the UK provide access to their content and data, and the extent to which their content and data can be reused, has been dictated by regulation. The Public Sector Information (PSI) regulations are an important part of the UK’s open data agenda, and establish principles around fair access to and reuse of information held by the public sector.
As of 18 July, the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015 came into force, bringing some minor changes and some not so minor changes for public bodies, cultural institutions and users of government information.
The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) began consulting on changes to UK PSI regulations in September 2014. Changes to the existing UK regulations were necessary for the UK to meet new EU requirements around use of government information. While the UK already had some important mechanisms and guidance in place for public bodies to make their information as accessible as possible, the new EU laws required the UK to introduce some key changes, including:
- extending the scope of PSI regulations to include libraries, museums and archives
- make charging at marginal cost (which will usually be zero when data is published online) the default for access to government information; and
- establish a process for complaints about reuse that would provide for binding decisions
The ODI made a submission to OPSI’s public consultation in October 2014, arguing that, among other things, the Information Commissioner’s Office should be given the responsibility of hearing complaints about reuse of PSI. The UK government accepted this proposal, and the ICO will hear complaints and be able to issue binding decisions - in most cases.
Where a complaint is about charging by organisations who are part of the National Archive’s Information Fair Trader Scheme (IFTS) - bodies like Companies House, Met Office, Land Registry and Ordnance Survey - the ICO will only be able to issue recommendations. The IFTS permits some public bodies to charge above marginal cost for use of their data, where they’re required to generate revenue to cover costs. Of the complaints published on the National Archives’ website prior to the 2015 regulations, more than half have involved members of the IFTS. Under the 2015 regulations, if an IFTS member decides to reject an ICO recommendation, the company or individual with the complaint can then appeal to a first tier tribunal - who can issue a binding ruling.
How do we define ‘public task’?
In other ways, the updated Regulations positively affirm the UK’s commitment to open data. They explicitly recommend the adoption of standard, non-restrictive licences for data and content, asks that these be machine-readable where possible, and places a positive obligation on public bodies to allow reuse of their information. The introduction of binding decisions regarding complaints about reuse, and expectation of marginal cost charging, are two significant changes.
The regulations don’t consider all data held by public bodies to be in scope. As well as personal data, third party IP and data that’s otherwise excluded (i.e. for national security), any data that’s being collected, maintained and provided “outside of public task” will be outside of scope. This isn’t new (the 2005 regulations used the same language) but it is still ambiguous. For example:
- Who defines what is inside and what is outside an organisation’s public task?
- What happens when a dataset contains data that has been collected outside of an organisation’s public task? Can parts of a dataset that fall outside of the scope of public task be physically separated, for the purposes of the Regulations?
- Should organisations define data collection and accessibility as part of their public task? For some organisations, like Ordnance Survey and the Met Office, collecting and maintaining data is central to their mission - but what about organisations where data collection is considered a by-product of their public task?
It’s unclear to what extent these will be issues in practice. Up until now there’s been a fairly low volume of complaints under the old PSI regulations, so it’s hard to see how the regulations have been interpreted in the past.
Even with the complexity, the new Regulations are another step towards expanding the accessibility of data and content from the public sector. Bringing museums, archives and libraries within scope of the regulations should mean a richer diversity of data about UK culture & heritage becomes available, potentially leading to new insights and innovations that haven’t previously been possible.
If you want to know more about the Reuse of Public Sector Information Regulations and how they’ll affect you, the National Archives’ Office of Public Sector Information has published guidance for public sector bodies, cultural institutions who now find themselves in scope of the regulations, and for reusers.