Ministry for the Environment

By Holly Grover

In July 2009, the Ministry for the Environment started to release its datasets under a Creative Commons Attribution licence, becoming one of the first New Zealand government agencies to do so.

The process started in 2007, when  MfE found themselves with a range of expiring license agreements for the distribution of some of their datasets. These databases were distributed and managed by a third party, who would charge a fee, register users, then get people to sign a license agreement before receiving the data. It was, in the words of Karl Majorhazi GISP-AP – Senior Analyst, simply “the way things were done.”

Screenshot from River Environment Classification, Wellington, by the Ministry of Education, via Koordinates. Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence.

“But it’s not what we wanted,” Karl explains, “because when you invest in a database, the value of that is related to the number of users and uses it’s put to. So in the five years that that distribution agreement had been running, there were 99 registered users. And when you are looking to fund an update and you’ve only got 99 users it doesn’t make the maths look good.”

At this time, the State Services Commission was beginning to look into the use of Creative Commons licenses. Karl sat in on SSC meeting with Creative Commons Australia Project Lead Anne Fitzgerald, of the Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Law.

Following this meeting, the decision to move to Creative Commons licensing was rather straightforward.  “We tested it out, got some advice on what it is, what it could be used for what it couldn’t, and eventually we came to the decision that this was the way to go.”

The second piece of the puzzle was an online data platform Koordinates, launched only a few months earlier, which provided an easy way to search, sort, and share the datasets.

The Ministry’s first release was on 1 July 2009, and it didn’t take long for the data to be used in unexpected ways.

“We had a request from a company in Germany who were making a flight simulator app for the iPhone, who wanted to know if they could use the Landcover database in their system to give a more feature rich environment for anyone that’s flying over the country.” Of course, they didn’t need to ask as, unlike past arrangements, “the license terms and conditions mean there’s no reason why they can’t.”

The Landcover database went from 99 registered users to over 2000 downloads, as researchers, students and members of the public began to freely use the data.

Recently, Karl had a phone call from someone “who was looking at the watershed data that we provide as part of the Marine Environment Classification. He was using that for a search and rescue project, using the watersheds to determine where people get lost and found. That’s one of these unintended reuses that you don’t plan for when you are developing this database.”

Karl notes that one of the downsides of open data platforms is that you are unable to track users. Nevertheless, there have been several other exciting examples of high-value reuse of Ministry for the Environment data.

As Karl explains, “I turned up at a seminar and a colleague of mine came bounding over from the other side of the room with a big smile on his face and said ‘I’ve got a good news story for you!’ He operates a small consultancy and he was asked to turn around a quick analysis for parliament on how much it would roughly cost to dig trenches along side roads motorways to lay broadband cable.

“He couldn’t get access to the soil information from Landcare at the time because it was it was under wraps commercially, but he found a piece of research that tied to it the attributes in the Land Environment dataset. He managed to download that dataset, use it in his analysis and turn that job around.”

“That is a case where people could do the job they needed to do because the data was already there – it’s an argument for being proactive, not waiting until somebody requests it.”

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