OPSI’s ruling on the PinPoint Information

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Coal Authority case clarifies re-use concept and importance of sound re-use procedures within public sector bodies.

Author: Hans Graux

Metadata

  • Thesaurus terms: re-use, OPSI, Information Fair Trader Scheme, IFTS
  • Regulatory Body: Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI)
  • Jurisdiction: U.K.
  • Legal provisions concerned: Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005, Information Fair Trader Scheme (IFTS)
  • Case identifier: PinPoint Information Limited and The Coal Authority
  • Date: October 2011

Short impact analysis
One of the UK Coal Authority’s public tasks is the collection of information on coal mining activities, and the creation of standardized reports on those activities, which are available for re-use. PinPoint Ltd. however wanted the right to re-use the databases that the Coal Authority held to produce these reports. Upon refusal of this request, PinPoint filed a complaint with the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI). OPSI ruled that the UK’s PSI Regulations formally did not apply to PinPoint’s request, as it failed to state a clear re-use. PinPoint had only specified an intention to produce its own reports, similar to the ones the Coal Authority was producing. This was not a form of re-use, according to OPSI, but rather a replication of the Coal Authority’s public tasks. The case highlights the importance for aspiring re-users to specify in their requests how exactly they intend to re-use PSI, including by describing how the use goes beyond the public tasks already performed by the public sector body (PSB). OPSI also found that the Coal Authority’s treatment of the request violated several principles of the Information Fair Trader Scheme (IFTS), which determines how PSBs should process re-use requests. OPSI made several recommendations to improve the Coal Authority’s practices.

Summary

The case relates to a dispute between PinPoint Information Ltd. (PinPoint) and the Coal Authority on the permitted re-use of the Coal Authority’s information on coal mining information. The Coal Authority systematically collects and maintains certain data on past and ongoing coal mining operations. This information is used (among other purposes) in the course of conveyancing: when selling property, information from the Coal Authority is requested in England and Wales though standardized forms (so-called CON29M forms). The reports provided by the Coal Authority in response to these requests (CON29M reports) are then used to determine any risks to the property caused by coal mining activity. Thus, the information is commercially valuable in the course of real estate transactions. Granting access to this PSI is one of the statutory tasks of the Coal Authority.

A number of commercial companies have implemented arrangements with the Coal Authority, under which it supplies CON29M reports for specific properties upon request. The commercial companies then use this information to enrich their own data, and sell the results. PinPoint is one such company, which specializes in the commercialization of official geospatial data. PinPoint however sought a more extensive arrangement, seeking to license the entirety of the Coal Authority’s databases, rather than obtaining specific information through individual requests on a case by case basis. It submitted a request to this effect to the Coal Authority in August 2010. After some discussions PinPoint proposed the establishment of a joint venture with the Coal Authority as a method for implementing this data sharing plan; however, the Coal Authority declined. When PinPoint’s request to engage in mediation before the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) was refused by the Coal Authority, PinPoint submitted a formal complaint to OPSI.

The complaint related both to the Coal Authority’s rejection of the joint venture proposal, and to the failure to grant a licence to re-use the databases as proposed by PinPoint, which PinPoint argues was in violation of the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005 (the PSI Regulations). Specifically, section 12 of these PSI Regulations implements article 8.1 of the PSI Directive, noting that licensing conditions on re-use may be imposed provided that they do not unnecessarily restrict the way in which a document can be re-used, or competition. The Coal Authority refused to engage in a joint venture on the basis that the proposal was not innovative, nor of value either to the Coal Authority or to the public. PinPoint saw this restriction as a violation of Article 12.

However, OPSI noted that re-use by definition requires that information is used for a different purpose than the initial purpose within the public task for which the document was produced. Noting that the production of CON29M reports is a part of the Coal Authority’s public task, OPSI found that the production of similar reports by private companies is not a form of re-use but rather a replication of existing public tasks, and that the relevant parts of the PSI Regulations therefore did not apply. As PinPoint declined to clarify any further plans for the information (which might have gone beyond the production of CON29M equivalent reports, and thus might have constituted re-use covered by the PSI Regulations), OPSI found that the request for re-use did not “state the purpose for which the document is to be re-used”, as required under the Regulations.

PinPoint’s complaint also argued that the Coal Authority did not observe several of the principles established in the Information Fair Trader Scheme (IFTS). The IFTS consists of a series of six principles (maximisation, simplicity, innovation, transparency, fairness and challenge) adopted under the PSI Regulations, which determine how PSBs should process requests for PSI re-use. The Coal Authority is one of the bodies that had committed to respecting the IFTS. However, PinPoint alleged that the Coal Authority’s actions violated the principles of maximisation, fairness, transparency, and innovation. OPSI ruled that the Coal Authority’s handling of the request indeed fell short of its commitment on a number of points. Generally, OPSI found that the Coal Authority’s communication on its reasons for denying re-use requests was inadequate and contrary to at least some of the IFTS principles.

Ultimately, OPSI decided to partially uphold the complaint. While the complaint could not formally be based on the PSI Regulations due to the fact that PinPoint did not specify any clear intended re-use, OPSI none the less found several deficiencies in the Coal Authority’s treatment of the communications. As a result, OPSI recommended that the Coal Authority review its communication to the public, to potential re-users and to OPSI, and that it re-examine the original request.

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