Fri, 14 Jan 11

Transcript Of You And Yours From The 6th Jan 2011

This is a transcript of Chapter three of You and Yours from the 6th Jan 2011. I transcribed it because I think it makes interesting listening/reading.

Winifred Robinson (15:33): Clever computer programmes that use up to the minute information on buses and trains means that you can now do all kinds of fancy things when it comes to planning your journey. But National Rail Enquiries has decided to charge people who want to make use of its real time data, that’s the facts about the train times, rather than what the timetables say. It’s a change of policy, and some people, including Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister, think the information from publicly funded bodies should always be free. Alex Hewson is a web developer who created an application for mobile phones where users could get some of this live time/live train information, and he was told by National Rail Enquiries to close it down.

Alex Hewson (16:13): There are two different things an app can be. In the case of what I built, it’s a very simple cutdown website. It’s a very simple website which is aimed at mobile phone users. You can click a link on your phone and it’ll tell you the next five trains from your home town to wherever you’d like to go. It can also mean a programme that you pay for in an app store, like the apple version where you’ll pay a certain amount of money for it and it installs on your phone.

Winifred Robinson (16:35): But typically, people like you are dreaming up.

Alex Hewson (16:37): Yes, that’s right, yes, yes. And it was just an idea I had out of the blue really. I became aware that the data was available and it seemed like it would be very useful if I could click a button on my phone every morning and find when the next five trains to work were. It took half a day to write, it was nothing very special, nothing very difficult.

Winifred Robinson (16:54): You were not making any profit from it. You just made it for your own use and then shared it with friends, is that right?

Alex Hewson (16:59): Absolutely, yes that’s right. In fact, the first version would only deal with trains from where I live. It was only after people asked that I made it work with other people’s stations as well.

Winifred Robinson (17:07): And the important thing is that you were able to find out the real running times of the trains, and not just the timetable.

Alex Hewson (17:13): Absolutely, yes that’s right. Cancellations, late departures, things like that. All of these were produced by the servers that were run by National Rail Enquiries, and they were all publicly available.

Winifred Robinson (17:24): Now, National Rail Enquiries told you that you must close down this application. What reasons did they give?

Alex Hewson (17:32): They didn’t really give any, good, reasons. They said a licence had always been required, it’s just that they hadn’t really enforced it very well before.

Winifred Robinson (17:39): Now, what would the licence mean? Presumably you would have to pay for it?

Alex Hewson (17:42): Well, that’s what they said. I said, first of all, is this going to be a free or paid licence and they said it’s going to be/very likely to be paid for, and of course I wasn’t very impressed by that. You know, I’d never made any money out of the application, the data was always freely available before, and it seemed that shutting down this thing that they’d already built and was already free to the public, it seemed a bit off really.

Winifred Robinson (18:01): So they said that you couldn’t have this paid-for licence. Do you have any idea what the licences cost?

Alex Hewson (18:06): Other people have suggested values to me. And what’s been suggested to me is that if you tell them you’re building a website you get offered a very cheap licence, something that you can work with, something that’s pocket money. But if you suggest to them that you’re building an application for a phone or a website that presents the data to a phone then they become very steep indeed, and of course if you’re doing this as a project that’s free, well then you can’t really do it anymore.

Winifred Robinson (18:30): Now as I understand it, you did want to take this application, this app that you had invented, and make some money from it, and you did go to them and ask them if you could have a licence, but they’ve said no, that you’re not to have one.

Alex Hewson (18:42): Well that’s right. About a year ago, soon after I built the free web application, I had an idea for a downloadable app that would run on Android phones. I’d have to pay someone else to write that so it was going to have to be a sold application. So I wrote them a letter asking if I could have a licence. It seemed reasonable that if I was making some money off it then they should have some. I got a response saying, “no way, the data is never for commercial use, it’s not to be commercially used at all”.

Winifred Robinson (19:06): They still stick with the idea that you can’t have a licence, why?

Alex Hewson (19:10): That’s right. Because I was critical of them. I wrote these blog posts where, I think, I quoted three lines of an email from one of their staff. I think they were quite aggrieved by it. I mean, I got this email from their Chief Executive telling me off for doing so. A month after I applied for the licence, you know, I’d heard nothing from them. I wrote again, saying, “can I have a licence” and they said, “no, no you can’t have a licence because you made these comments critical of us”.

Winifred Robinson (19:34): So what are you going to do?

Alex Hewson (19:36): Well, what I’ve done is appealed, and it turns out that I can write to the chief executive of national rail enquiries. So, I’ve done that but of course, I’m not very hopeful because he’s the same man who told me off for quoting his staff’s emails. At any rate, he’s obliged to give a response to this appeal, in writing. I sent that a month ago, it got to him on the sixth of December. I’ve had nothing back yet. I’m very curious to see what he says.

Winifred Robinson (20:00): Alex Hewson. Well National Rail Enquiries is run by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies, and Edward Welsh speaks for them. Edward Welsh, it’s probably fair to say isn’t it, that some of these applications appeared before anyone, including you, knew the potential of them.

Edward Welsh (20:15): Well, let me explain how this system works. I mean, there were a couple of inaccuracies in what that report was saying. I mean, first of all, this information is a data feed that is effectively like the wholesale provision of information to retailers, if you like, and the Network Rail Enquiries website is like the shop front. It’s like the retail outlet, and the apps are the same things. So, actually, the data feed itself, is not publicly available information. It is correct that we have expected people to seek a licence and abide by our terms and conditions for four or five years now and we were assuming bona fide users of that information were applying for licences, and many organisations did. Some of them got the licences granted free as well. It just so happened that last year we realised that people were effectively using this information without agreeing to the terms and conditions, without seeking a licence, and so we put a password on it in November and that meant that various people who had been using it without seeking a licence, without agreeing to the terms and conditions, had to come to us for a password. Now, around a dozen organisations came to us, one of them was Mr Hewson, and it’s a great pity because it didn’t have to finish, it didn’t have to end up like this. None of those organisations who were in the same boat as Mr Hewson, i.e. somebody who hadn’t got a licence and was using the information without agreeing to the terms and conditions, we had highly successful discussions with them, they have got licences, they are using/have access to the data/information. They have the password and some of them are/have effectively got that for free. What happened in the case of Mr Hewson was that, yeah, he did write this on the blog and I have to say that when you’re opening up discussions with another organisation, or another person, you’re trying to build up a relationship of trust and I think, whether you’re a commercial organisation or not, you would find it slightly off-putting, it would colour your view, of somebody else if they put private email exchanges up into the public domain during those discussions.

Winifred Robinson (22:18): Well, let’s leave him aside for one moment, because we’ve got limited time here. The argument against charging for this raw data and trying to control who uses it to develop these applications is that you are not a private company like any other. Your business is heavily subsidised by the tax payer and in that sense, this information belongs to us, and not to you.

Edward Welsh (22:36): Well, let’s get two things clear here. First of all NRE is a limited company. The shareholders are the train companies and it doesn’t make a profit. Train companies, many of them pay money, net contributions to the government. Some of them receive money from the government to run services. Overall, train companies receive about three hun.. net subsidies around six hundred million pounds a year. That’s one fifth of the total cost of running the railways. Secondly, the data feed is not free. Somebody has to pay for it. We don’t believe tax payers who subsidise the railway, or passengers who pay to get on trains should have to pay for apps to have this information for free. Now Transport for London, I believe…

Winifred Robinson (23:20): But you’d never think of these brilliant apps, would you? You’ve had years to do it, you’ve never come up with them. These are people with a special kind of mind and they think of this stuff and they do it.

Edward Welsh (23:27): Well, and that’s exactly what is going on, I mean, I just talked to my colleague in NRE and he told me we’ve granted around a dozen licences in the last two to three weeks. Half of those are to small, independent entrepreneurs. The original iPhone app, which is one of the most successful apps on the market, was thought up by a one man band, who came to us, has a licence and was granted a licence. It’s not blocking innovation.

Winifred Robinson (23.50): Well, Edward Welsh, I have to leave it there because we have another guest with us, David Rowan, the editor of Wired magazine. Just to give us an idea, if you would before we go, of the potential for using this information. Transport for London decided to offer all its raw data to these web developers free. Tell us what they have managed to do with it.

David Rowan (24:06): Well, I think National Rail Enquiries is a dinosaur that’s scandalously working against the public interest because the great thing about developers is, they invent things that organisations like that won’t. Transport for London released its data feeds. Coders, developers, like Matthew Somerville created a real time map of where individual underground trains are. It’s like a google map with these little moving icons. They wouldn’t have thought about that. I’m a tax payer, I’m also a passenger. I want the generosity of the developers to help me do my journey more efficiently.

Winifred Robinson (24:37): I mentioned that Gordon Brown strongly thinks this information should always be supplied free. What does David Cameron think?

David Rowan (24:42): David Cameron, thank goodness, is backing open data because he understands that if you put raw data out there, developers, creative designers can turn it into information that the public can use.

Winifred Robinson (24:54): David Rowan, thank you very much. That’s it for today…