Before going too much further, I wish to state that I am not a lawyer, and this should not be read as legal interpreation. I’m a geek. I am writing from the perspective of a geek. Take that into consideration.

Secondly, it helps if you read some of the background material:

The OIA response as a whole

The response from FENZ to the request for communications about licensing the data is oddly filled with justifications for the decision about the license.

FENZ appears to be more concerned that releasing their discussions about licensing will undermine their policy, than acting in a transparent manner about those discussions. This is a concerning interpretation of the OIA, the purpose of which is transparency and not a vehicle for an organisation to spin their line on the information.

It suggests that FENZ internally, in at least some parts of the organisation, recognise the policy is largely nonsense. That their response tries to bury or cover-up this is not in the public interet, nor respecting transparency expected of public service organisations.

FENZ justification for restrictive licenses

The core justification provided by FENZ to the restrictive license is roughly summarised as:

  • Previously, inconsistent data between agencies resulted in confusion and potential public impact (ie, emergency services don’t go where they were expected to)
  • Data used by others must be kept current, to ensure any use by the public in an emergency is only using the current data

The first of these is entirely an internal matter between the organisations and has no bearing on the use of the data by anyone else. It does not stand up as a good reason to prevent the distribution of the data under an open license.

Those organisations need explicit policies and bilaterial agreements over location information, simply because they are explicitly providing a co-ordinated service. Those obligations are arguably steeper than the criteria FENZ uses for the ‘public’ release of the data.

In other words, the presumption seems to be that the public shouldn’t have a copy of the data because organisations who need to care about the data aren’t doing a good job of that. That’s unfortunate, but that’s a bad argument to withhold the data from an open license.

The second of these seems willfully ignorant of the likely public use in an emergency. The assumption is that location information provided by the public is based on the FENZ data. But the emergency service system must still operate when a member of the public is not staring at a GPS or positioning system.

Therefore, the system will always need to tolerate the degree of actual accuracy a person can provide in an emergency, which is often not going to be first by looking up the reference data set provide by FENZ.

Secondly, the more alarming assumption is that where the data is used by device makers etc, the positioning accuracy is itself reliable. GPS and other positioning systems are not perfect, so the locality information will still have significant errors in it.

For example, if location app uses a blend of point data from wifi signals, and uses the FENZ data to present the “correct” location, we have no idea if the wifi signal data is correct anyway, and so the FENZ “correct” location is arguably worse than a guess. That is, you can’t get a more correct position if you start with bad data in the first place.

It is unclear then what the apparent public risk really is. The public are not likely to consult the FENZ data for the “correct” location - just witness the size of “Epsom” in any property listings for an example of that syndrome - and where devices use the FENZ data we are presuming their positioning is more accurate than we should trust.

The core justification just doesn’t stack up.