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Mashing in the UK?

In the last two weeks, several people have suggested to me that the UK could take more advantage of data collected here. Public agencies such as the Met. Office, Ordnance Survey, Transport for London, the British Crime Survey, the Land Registry and others hold data on various aspects of our lives. Private companies such as Experian and major retailers collect much more. If these were available as web services (in the broadest sense), inventive developers could mix and match them in new ways, displaying the results in meaningful ways (such as in map form).

Such activities are already popular in the USA, where more similar data sets are available. A widely-quoted example is Chicago Crime and there are many more. The question is, how can the UK catch up?

A few example projects are already underway. The DEWS project is combining Met Office data with health information and (separately) the coastguard. The Ordnance Survey is holding a Mashups day. Paul Longley's team at UCL caught the public eye with their Surname Profiler and eSociety Profiler. The Department for Transport has funded similar work - e.g. travel time maps and a data mashing workshop.

Despite these examples, "mashing" has yet to really take off in the UK. A major block is that some of the data is only available commercially - for example, there is an ongoing debate about access to Ordnance Survey data. I'm not against people making money - far from it - but the UK could benefit from providing would-be entrepeneurs with better access to data sets for experimental use. Licences could then be charged on commercial ventures that arise as a result, benefitting both the entrepeneurs and the data curators.

We also need to increase the provision of data sets in the first place, preferably using a small set of standard access mechanisms. Web services seem a good candidate, especially where secure access may be an issue. Alternatively, plain Web 2.0 interfaces may be good enough to experiment with.

The whole area could benefit from some joined-up thinking and collaboration across a range of agencies. Provided, of course, that this hurries things along rather than holding it up while people argue.


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