Learning to relax about (new) apps and (old) government brands

You’ll have noticed the drift towards freeing up the information of the UK’s Foreign Office for others to use – the feeds, the API, the social media, and so on. Getting our travel advice especially into the sites, widgets, pages, applications that others are using is hugely important. We have to take this stuff to you, it’s the only way it will work. Well, the only way it will work properly, anyhow.

It does, however, bring its own issues. Much government information is published, by implication if not always made clear at the time, under the Open Government Licence. This document offers just three conditions:

You are free to:

– copy, publish, distribute and transmit the Information;
– adapt the Information;
– exploit the Information commercially for example, by combining it with other Information, or by including it in your own product or application.

Now, aside from the rather alarming capitalisation of ‘the Information’ this doesn’t vary wildly from the ‘conditions’ I attached to the use of our own feeds some time ago:

  • Maintain the brand of the data. Attribute this data to ‘FCO’ with a link back to our site, because the authority of the source is important
  • Do not edit or misrepresent this information
  • Do not sell it without adding value to it

There’s some differences in emphasis here which may (or may not) be important to clarify:

On the branding issue, we think it’s important. It’s not just the normal, puffed-up self aggrandisement of a Whitehall department (though we don’t lack for form there, admittedly). It’s because, when it comes to travel advice, the FCO take on a situation is a serious point. It’s generated in conjunction with staff on the ground across the world and it resonates – not least with your travel insurance company, who will be more likely to pay out if the FCO told you your holiday was in a place you really oughtn’t to go to. The Open Government Licence, though, goes on to make the following additional points:

You must, where you do any of the above:

  • acknowledge the source of the Information by including any attribution statement specified by the Information Provider(s) and, where possible, provide a link to this licence;
  • if the Information Provider does not provide a specific attribution statement, or if you are using Information from several Information Providers and multiple attributions are not practical in your product or application, you may consider using the following:
  • Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.
  • Ensure that you do not use the Information in a way that suggests any official status or that the Information Provider endorses you or your use of the Information;
  • ensure that you do not mislead others or misrepresent the Information or its source;

All of which, I think, backs us up: Attach the brand to the information. Don’t pretend you are the brand. The difference between the provider of an application and the information on that application should be made clear.

A bigger issue crops up with the concept on the Open Government Licence that you can adapt the information. We specifically said you can’t edit the information. You can adapt, but you can’t edit? Is that tenable? It’s arguable, certainly. So I’ll settle for this point – don’t edit, because it will make the site/app/whatever less worthy of anyone’s attention. The point, surely, of using the feeds and API is to re-deliver the FCO’s take on an international situation. If you re-edit it, then it’s not precisely what the FCO said. You’ve undermined your own currency – and there may be issues of liability. So don’t.

And the final point – we say don’t charge without adding value, while the Licence says you can charge as you wish… Our ‘adding value’ clause was deliberately vague – format can be value, extra information can be value. It’s all in the perception of the user. Could we police such a clause anyhow? So we’re stepping away from that a little and leaving it to the market – if you see someone charging for an app, you decide whether the value they have added (format, content, or design) is worth your pennies. Just remember the information we provide is free. And if you’ve got a SmartPhone, it’s probably got a browser, so you could always go here.

All this comes up because a couple of apps have been launched using our API – one for the iPhone, one for the Android. It’s nice to see the model starting to work – we’ve made it easier for people to re-use our information, and they have. Bingo. It’s caused some discussion internally over the way the iPhone app was originally branded (we asked for some changes to make clear the difference between the app provider and the information provider). All was done very civilly, largely through Directgov Innovate who built the API, but it shows the issue a department like the FCO needs to get used to and learn to relax about – once you’ve released your information, you can’t make the rules about how it’s used. But we’re learning to relax…


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Dannielle Blumenthal

That’s interesting because one might argue that mashing up you data while retaining the brand implies governmental endorsement of the new app. Is that always a good idea? (Eg what if the data is used in an objectionable/inappropriate way)

Can the person omit the brand, cite the source, and add a disclaimer re govt endorsement instead?

Jimmy Leach


I’m not sure endorsement is a bad thing – saying ‘this is a good way of using our information’ helps the app, helps the spread of that information. So long as we maintain our approach to that endorsement. If the data is used in an objectionable way, then we’ll try to object. Policing is difficult… The upshot is that we’re learning how to view these things, but its publicly avaialble information for the public to adapt. Like I say, we’re learning to relax.

But whoever uses it ought to make clear, its government information, not a government application.