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Free our Data: A response from the Locus trade association

The Locus trade association would like to thank the Guardian for raising such an important issue and putting public sector information (PSI) on the map. There are a number of points the authors make that the association wholeheartedly endorses, including: a recognition of the difficulties inherent in public sector keeping pace with private sector innovation, the conflict that arises from trading fund status and freeing access to PSI, and the central importance of innovation, enterprise and creativity.

Locus has been established by a group of private sector companies to raise awareness and promote a healthy competitive market in the provision and use of PSI, including in relation to a healthy market between the private and public sectors.

Ultimately, the association strongly believes that achieving a strong market around PSI is not a question of choosing who gets the dregs. Everyone stands to gain:

  1. end-consumers through new products and services at competitive prices
  2. the public sector through established and secure markets for their data, which are constantly innovating new ways of putting that data to use
  3. the wider UK knowledge economy
. Obviously, private sector companies are also interested in making profits during this process. However, as Charles rightly points out, the potential for profits usually comes hand in hand with more competitors. That's a challenge that Locus�s members would not shy away from, provided they are all on an equal footing.

One of Locus�s areas of interest is the Trading Fund model, and its impact on the operation of the wider market. Public sector information holders who have trading fund status are simultaneously monopoly holders of information and competitors in the value-added marketplace. This arrangement can create conflicting incentives: the association believes that the trading fund objectives can conflict with the desire to free up public sector information, and can ultimately have a negative impact on innovation and the health of the wider market.

In the context of this environment, one issue that the FOD campaign has not yet looked at in great depth are the difficulties for private sector companies, particularly start-ups, who might wish to criticise or complain about the activities of a PSI holder. How many have the financial muscle to do so? How will their business be affected by any resulting delays? And could their businesses survive damaging their relationship with their data supplier?

Locus recognises that there are potential pitfalls of making PSI entirely free, particularly relating to ensuring that incentives remain for the collection and maintenance of good quality data. However, that is not to say that the association supports upholding the current status quo. Locus firmly believes that the market surrounding PSI has enormous potential - potential which is being held back by the current system.

And the potential shouldn�t be underestimated. The Office of Fair Trading (which is currently conducting a market study into the commercial use of PSI) and the Government�s Advisory Panel on PSI estimate that whilst the approximate turnover of the larger public sector information holders is £1 billion, the real total value of PSI is much larger (APPSI meeting notes, Sept 05). At every stage of value-addition and use its worth grows; PSI�s value snowballs as it passes through the economy. In 2000 the European Commission estimated that the total value of PSI in Europe could be as much as EUR 134 billion pa (Directorate General for the Information Society, 2000).

For all these reasons Locus warmly welcomes the debate surrounding PSI started by the Guardian and looks forward to seeing more people join the discussion.