Freedom of information and datasets

New legislation on datasets means further opportunities for interesting and innovative mash-ups

Protection of Freedoms Act 2012

The UK's Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1st May 2012. Amongst other things it extends the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) by requiring datasets to be made available in a re-usable electronic format.

Many datasets are routinely published by public authorities and are available for re use at little or no cost (e.g. see Others can be accessed by making an FOI request. The Protection of Freedoms Act will make access and re use of datasets much easier. The key points are:

  • There will be a new duty on public authorities, when releasing datasets, to adhere to any request to do so in electronic form which allows its re-use where reasonably practicable.
  • Any dataset containing copyright material (where the authority holds the copyright) must be made available for re-use under a specified licence.
  • Publication schemes will in future contain a requirement to publish datasets, which have been requested, as well as any updated versions.
  • Such datasets will also have to be published in an electronic form capable of re use and any copyright material must be available for re use in accordance with the terms of a specified licence.

Opportunities to innovate

On the face of it, these obligations seem onerous. However they may also bring an opportunity for public authorities to raise some much needed revenue. They will be able to charge a fee (and make a profit) for allowing re-use of any datasets containing copyright material.

Once datasets are released, the idea is that people will think of innovative uses for them.  This may involve mashing up with other data. One example is Fearsquare, an application which allows FourSquare users in the UK to see the official crime statistics for the places where they 'check-in'.

Foursquare knows all the locations that a user visits most often. These may be areas with high levels of recorded crime or are known for specific types of crime. For example, a user may be contemplating walking in an unfamiliar area where there have been a lot of muggings. FearSquare aims to keep the user updated on their surroundings and the levels and types of crimes recorded nearby.  After all, forewarned is forearmed!

Fearsquare takes its crime statistics from the UK Police Crime Statistics database. It has a 'leaderboard' of the most dangerous areas based on the crime reported. The leaderboard gives out points to the most crime-heavy areas based on the types of infractions that take place, be it robbery or weapons related crimes. The site also has a real-time ticker that displays check-ins that have unlocked crime statistics.


Interestingly there is a 'game' built into FearSquare. The bold and the brave are awarded points when they visit the most crime-ridden areas in the UK.

Fearsquare is the brainchild of Lincoln Social Computing Research Centre (part of the University of Lincoln) and is part of a study looking at how this sort of personalised data could change user behaviour. It is a good example of an innovative use of an openly available dataset. Public authorities need to start work now on identifying useful datasets they hold and raising awareness amongst stakeholder departments as to how they could be exploited.  This opportunity, which should not be left to the private sector alone, nor should it be the realm of those who are motivated by profit.

Now if Dorothy or Little Red Riding Hood had this app on their mobile phones, I wonder which route they would they have taken?

Ibrahim Hasan is a solicitor and Director of Act Now Training (

Image courtesy of DazzieD via Flickr.