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Public info office throws out data reuse complaint

Zero-Now loses fight for Milton Keynes data

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A company has lost its fight to gain access to data about public services in Milton Keynes for use on its website.

Web design company Zero-Now has spent four years trying to win access to information held by Milton Keynes Council for reuse on its own website about the town. The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) has now ruled that it has no grounds for complaint and that the council is not in breach of regulation 13 of the PSI Regulations.

Zero-Now wished to reuse information held on the council's database, the Community Online Information Network (Coin), at the same time as the council's contractor, MKWeb, which supports and hosts the authority's official website. MKWeb owns a separate website, which it describes as "the official website for Milton Keynes and North Bucks", and visitors can link to the council website through this portal.

After assessing the complaint, OPSI found in favour of the council. It judged that MKWeb, in which the council has a 20 per cent stake, publishes documents under contract by the council for the sole purposes of fulfilling its public task.

OPSI decided that there would be no grounds for complaint if the council had published the material itself on its own website, and that equally there could be no objections to a public sector organisation using a third party.

The council said it was responsible for managing its own website, which is solely for council purposes, but conceded it retains a close association with MK Web. It described the contract to support and host the website as "a fair and open procurement competition" and said Zero-Now had declined to participate.

However, Eric Merner of Zero-Now told GC News on 24 August 2007 that the case was a whitewash and that the MKWeb site was "obviously a commercial site".

He pointed to OPSI's own findings, which state: "The material originated by the public sector information holder (the council) appears as a sub page of a larger portal website which contains other information about Milton Keynes, which the PSIH does not originate."

Merner added: "Either it's a commercial site or it's not. All we've ever asked for is a fair and level playing field."

His comments were echoed by Christopher Corbin, an analyst for ePSIplus, a network funded by the EU's eContentplus programme to support the implementation of the PSI Directive, which was implemented in July 2005.

Corbin said that it was difficult to find the difference between Zero-Now's downstream website and MK Web's downstream portal. He argued: "In many respects the websites are similar to a conventional newspaper that publishes public sector information, sometimes verbatim and sometimes via editorial, which constitutes reuse under the PSI directive."

In a statement issued to GC News, the council said: "The dataset at the heart of Zero-Now's complaint is located on the council's site, remains as council data and is not 'provided to' the MKWeb site.

"MKWeb.co.uk does hyperlink to it, as could any other external site. The fact that MKWeb Ltd are providing web hosting, publishing and support services to the council's site does not mean that the council is giving them exclusive permission to re-use the data on their own site for their own purposes."

It added that the local government ombudsman also rejected the Zero-Now complaint.

Despite ruling in favour of the council, OPSI identified several areas where the council could improve its policy on the reuse of information. It suggests, among other things, that the council should: implement its draft reuse policy as soon as possible; encourage the reuse of its information; and undergo the Information Fair Trader Scheme's online assessment.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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