For openness in data use

Lack of licensing policy for use of datasets and apps may hamper accessibility of open data

pratap

Pratap Vikram Singh | July 15, 2013



The data lying in government files has great social and commercial value. Under the ‘open data initiative’, started by the government last year, more and more departments releasing datasets on the umbrella website, data.gov.in. From this site, a citizen can access any government data – be it health indicators or farm statistics. Also, small- and medium-sized companies and application developers’ community can use the publicly available data to create apps that smart-phone users can find handy. For the creation of an ‘app economy’, the developers’ community, however, is demanding that the government should supplement the open data initiative by a licensing policy, which can lay down clear rules for commercial and non-commercial usage of datasets. Under the national data sharing and accessibility policy (NDSAP) 2012, all departments have to release data on the data.gov.in portal. The data, which could be related to mandi rates of commodities, weather and rainfall, traffic, crime, public transport, roads, among others, is being pushed to the portal. The aim, as the NDSAP’s preamble recognises, is to enable a rational debate, better decision-making and use in meeting civil society needs. This could be effectively done through apps, which analyse and simplify the data and make it consumable for the end user.

While it is good that the data and application programming interface is made available by data.gov.in, the commercials and licensing framework is still being worked out by the government agencies. This would help in further usage and proliferation of this valuable data.” 

Jayaram Srinivasan
Founder, Frontal Rain

Jairam Srinivasan, founder of Frontal Rain, a Bangalore-based firm which provides agribusiness apps to help the businesses in procurement and supply chain management of agri-commodities, was the first to point out to the government the lack of a licensing policy. Using the mandi data made available by the ministry of agriculture, under the data.gov.in portal, Srinivasan is offering his clients a price discovery mechanism by creating an app which could search, visualise and analyse mandi rates for commodities across the country.

The absence of accurate market data is one of the biggest challenges for companies working in agribusiness. “As most of the money is spent by agribusiness in purchasing commodities, the absence of accurate market data was always seen as the biggest challenge.

While big companies had their own staff stationed at different government markets (mandis) to collect data, it was till now difficult for farmers, farmer cooperatives, small- and medium-sized traders and agents to do the same,” says Srinivasan.

The app is a web-based application for agribusiness to analyse the data on the government data portal to make informed purchasing decisions. This application is also made available on the Android mobile and tablet for the purchase staff, who are on the move in the markets.

“This initiative is valuable for the farmers, traders and agribusinesses as they now have timely price information about different commodities at different mandis around the country to take on-the-spot decisions with reduced risk,” he says.

As of now, even though the firm is offering a value-added service to customers, it is not confident enough to work out the commercial proposition, as there is hardly any clarity on whether the data could be used for commercial purposes. The concern around the lack of a clear licensing policy is commonly shared by many developers and civil society organisations working in the domain of open government, transparency and accountability.

There are two major concerns which are now being deliberated at various levels, including the NDSAP project monitoring unit (PMU) – which is actively seeking the engagement of the civil society organisations and developers on the issue. One is related with the licensing issues with datasets, whether it falls under the copyright law, and whether it can be used for derivative, non-derivative, commercial and non-commercial purposes. Whether the data will be available for free or there will be a revenue sharing between app developers and departments. The other one relates to the licensing issues with apps: whether the apps available on data.gov.in will be available along with their source code and who will own the intellectual property. Countries like the UK have come up with their own licence, allowing commercial and non-commercial usage of data. [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/open-government-licence.htm.] Going by the definition provided by the Open Knowledge Foundation – a UK-based NGO promoting open knowledge – open data can be “freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone, subject only, at the most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike”.

According to Neeta Verma, DDG, NIC, which is the PMU for data.gov.in, the datasets do not fall under the copyright law. She is, however, not sure if the data could be used commercially. “The licensing issue involving use of data and pricing model will be forwarded to the apex committee monitoring the implementation of the NDSAP 2012,” says Verma. While Verma sees no restrictions on usage of data, the members of the civil society have their own apprehensions. In view of Pranesh Prakash of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), in the Indian context, only works that are ‘original’, meaning works that display a modicum of creativity or an exercise of skill and judgement, can be conferred copyright.

“Undoubtedly, most datasets that the government collects and publishes involve extensive investment of labour, but do not involve creativity, skill, or judgement. Hence, most datasets would not be protected under the copyright law,” he says. He, nevertheless, says that there is a possibility that some government agency might argue that their datasets do pass the test of originality. Hence, it would be better to have clarity on the copyright and licensing.

“While it is good that this data is made available by data.gov.in and the application programming interfaces (APIs) are also made available to access this dataset, the commercials and licensing framework is still being worked out by the government agencies. This would help in further usage and proliferation of this valuable data,” says Srinivasan, who is eagerly waiting for the government to come up with an open data licence. According to Prasanth Sugathan, counsel with Software Freedom Law Centre, which provides legal services to protect and advance free and open source software, if the government is coming up with a licence for open data, it should be with the least number of restrictions, promote wider reach (of open data) and usability. While he agrees that there might be departments which would wish to monetise their datasets, a clear policy should bring in the legal certainty, which might foster the app creation and hence accessibility to the open data.

The open data initiative, started in the US, has yielded results in the form of increasing transparency, enabling an app economy and greater citizen engagement. The initiative datasets, which are in tabular formats and are overflowing with figures, are simplified. According to the information available on the ‘open knowledge foundation’ portal, open government data in the European Union (EU) would increase business activity of £40 billion and up to £140 billion as indirect benefits. The figures were taken from the EU commission research. The UK released data on location of 3,00,000 bus stops; the community correcting 18,000 of them and improving official data accuracy is another interesting example.

As of now, data.gov.in is hosting 2,738 datasets from 41 departments. It is also hosting five apps. The US data portal –data.gov – has over 75,718 datasets from 171 agencies; it has 348 apps (developed by citizens). The UK data portal has over 9,026 datasets; the number of apps hosted on the portal is not clear. pratap@governancenow.com

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