Who really owns population and census data: and should commercial use be allowed?

Over the last ten years, the power and use of data for transparency, accountability and research has become a central feature of the way that government and academia are doing their work. Both have come to recognise that data and publications - including research - have the most benefit when it is shared with everyone, and that they have no moral case for restricting what other people do with factual information.
The central idea is that since government pays for this information through our taxes, people should be able to do whatever they like with it without having to ask permission first. As Dave Mayall explains, this approach results in people doing interesting, clever, and unexpected things.

FreeUKGen is dealing with data that was collected and created at great expense, through the will of the Crown and Parliament. Going back to Henry VIII, laws have demanded the creation of population records by the Church. From 1801, the state collected additional information through the census, and in 1837 started collating birth, marriage and death records through the GRO.
If there were simple justice in the world and we were not going through economically hard times, the government would have a duty to digitise and release historic data such as this for free and without restriction. Birth, marriage and death data which they currently hold digitally will, if the UK government acts consistently, be released freely once it ceases to relate to living individuals.

As a project we have a simple dilemma. We know this data should exist, and everyone should have free access to it. That is why the project started and it is our mission. Some of us are, however, uncomfortable with our efforts potentially being used by commercial outlets. To those who feel this way I would ask four questions:

(1) The vast majority of the expense in creating this data was borne by the public purse, at the time that governments decreed that it be collected and preserved. Why should we claim that our efforts, valiant as they are, should then deny the public full and free access to the dataset when everybody’s ancestors paid for it in the first place?

(2) If the government digitised and released this data today we would surely wish them to release it without restriction, so that everyone can benefit and use the data as they like. There would be no good reason for the state to choose who can use the data and who cannot. If we would expect the government to do this, why would we apply a different standard to ourselves?

(3) As a charity, we must seek to ensure the best and fullest use of our charitable work for the public good. From this perspective, who are we to say whose use of data is valid or invalid? Why should we choose who can do what?

(4) In the long run, from a national or global perspective, this data like any other publicly created dataset should be open and free to ensure all the benefits can be made of it. If we try to keep it closed, then someone else will feel the need to re-digitise it. The first full, free and open version will be what is used, in the long run. Is it really the best way forward to risk that our work in digitising the data, by being partially closed (to commercial use for instance), should be supplanted and discarded as the result of a second effort in the future?

This change of perspective may well also change the way that commercial players work. Today, they compete by charging for access to closed datasets. They have no incentive to encourage sharing of transcriptions and data. If we start the sharing, they may (where our shared resources are best) find it is pragmatic to help us with these key resources. Of course, they won’t open up all their data, but where we do it best (as we do!) it will be pointless, expensive and bad for their business to try to duplicate what we do.

This is not fantasy: this is what happens in the software world today. Free and open source software, like LinuxApache, -and a whole range of other software- is built by IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook and others, including many, many volunteers. They all work with open projects for a variety of reasons but the underlying point is that it makes business sense, for instance for reasons of quality and efficiency.
The same applies in other fields, including Wikipedia, which dominates the world of public domain knowledge. Even freely licensed photography helps the world illustrate their blogs and websites. 
There are other freely licensed historical records, too, such as historic weather, digitised by volunteers. As Open Data, it is making huge contributions to climate science. Perhaps we could use it for family histories in some way!

As trustees, we know we are asking for some faith that opening our data is worth doing. We believe that we will become more relevant in the future by going down the road of Open Data. We can become the lodestone of accurate and rich genealogical data, and bring more people into our endeavours on more genealogical projects. But this only works if we see our mission as being that of public benefit for all, rather than restricting that mission to individual researchers or projects we pre-approve.

Ben Laurie, one of our trustees, went through a similar process with the Apache Software Foundation some years ago. Apache is software that runs most websites you visit today. There were voices of opposition to ‘commercial’ repurposing of the software, with some people worried that the software would simply be taken away by companies, who would then seek to create their own web server monopolies.
However, this hasn’t happened. Today, Apache is a huge success story. This could only happen because they released it as an open project, and made no judgement about who might use it. This isn’t to say that Open Data for our projects is without risk - but it does show that for public charitable endeavours in today’s digital world, being open and allowing any kind of use of your creations can be a winning strategy.

Jim Killock

Trustee, Free UK Genealogy