In March 2001, GNS Science, in partnership with the Earthquake Commission (EQC), launched GeoNet, a website providing real-time information on a range of geological hazards, including tsunami, volcanic activity and earthquakes. Since 2009, all GeoNet’s data has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand licence.

The idea for GeoNet came in the mid 1990s, as GNS started a process to get funding to re-establish the old scientific monitoring system. Several years into the process, the Earthquake Commission suggested a partnership.

As Ken Gledhill, who manages the GeoNet project, points out, EQC realised the intrinsic benefits of opening up public earthquake data. In discussions with GNS, EQC insisted that all aspects of the data be made publicly available. “The idea was that the data would be available to all who wanted it, and that wouldn’t just be restricted to New Zealand. It was international. It was intended to increase research and then lead to better knowledge of our geological hazards.”

At this early stage, EQC and GNS agreed on a user licence that was similar in principle to what would become, several years later, Creative Commons. As Ken puts it, “The essence of Creative Commons was already there. The reasons EQC got involved were the same reasons that underpin Creative Commons today: if you hoard it, nothing happens. If you get it out there, there are all sorts of benefits.”

Peter Barker, General Counsel for GNS, agrees: “EQC showed a lot of foresight in going in that direction.”

In 2009, the GeoNet contract between GNS and EQC was renewed, and at that stage it was decided to apply a Creative Commons Attribution licence to the data. “It was a convenient means of doing what we were already doing, and was consistent with government policy.”

“The whole intent of the contract between GNS and EQC for GeoNet was public good. It wasn’t about any particular financial benefit to an organisation.”

Peter points out that the cost of producing data and the need for GNS to operate as a business will continue to complicate the drive to make all scientific data accessible at no cost.

“We don’t believe in hoarding the data, for any reason. We believe in the economic benefit to the country of having the data available and this is how science works. At the same time, in a significant area that we work, the collection of data is quite expensive. We need to see what’s under the earth or sea bed. Drilling, for example, is very expensive, so the financial ramifications have to be considered.

“Also, the Crown Research Institutes Act requires that we run a viable business and profit is the way we pay for salary increases and scientific equipment. Our model is therefore to make data freely available but sometimes not for free. The cost will reflect our expenses and should not be a barrier to access.”

Ken adds that it is much easier for a consortium of organisations to open up for free data produced by high-cost, capital-intensive public good projects like GeoNet, where the costs incurred byGNS are covered. An ongoing example of this kind of collaboration is the effort by GNS and LINZ to measure the gravitational field for science and survey purposes. The raw data they produce from this project will be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

For other projects, including some involving an inventory of extremophile biological material, GNS have used more restrictive Creative Commons licences. GNS has also licensed a number of the databases on its website under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence.

Peter explains that the organisation wanted to use Share-Alike in order to “perpetuate the concept of Creative Commons. A lot of the scientists here are very supportive, as they use open source material in their own research. They believe in it.”

GeoNet remains their most successful example of open data. At its peak, the GeoNet site receives up to 16, 000 visitors a second. There have also been many examples of innovative reuse of GeoNet data. Ken remembers in particular in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes.

“A lot of what we saw in those first few months, where people were grabbing the data we were making available, and presenting it in completely new ways. We didn’t like all of it, but that’s tough. Some people did some neat animations, others did 3D imaging. It was really very good.

“There are bright people out there, and if you make it discoverable, they grab onto it really quickly.”

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