Mobility

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Open info for all?

Government stonewalling citizens

Compiled on TG409 flying Bangkok to Singapore and dispatched to silicon.com via a hotel wi-fi connection four days later

Governments and ministers seem to find it very hard to decide what information should be in the public domain and what should not.

For sure, it is a complex issue often involving national security and/or other interests of the state. And I'm not talking expense claims and petty crime here but things like national infrastructure and sensitive data.

This was brought home recently when I tried to find the location of sample UK cell sites for a series of triangulation experiments. I approached the mobile companies but they would not divulge anything.

Now, a modest pair of binoculars reveals cells site locations with ease - but knowing where a cell site is is one thing, finding out who owns it and its detailed characteristics is another. Obviously, measuring the signal strength on a mobile phone close to a tower is one way but it is time consuming and often very inconvenient.

I was just about to contact Ofcom to find out whatever details they might furnish when I read an article detailing its alleged reluctance to reveal details of 2G and 3G coverage to a former journalist.

But surely this is all public information and should be available to all under the UK Freedom of Information Act!

At about the same time a friend stumbled across a brilliant Ofcom-hosted facility, called sitefinder, which provided everything I needed.

The site's homepage explains Ofcom's position with regards to revealing this information and includes a prominent disclaimer. I quote:

"Sitefinder was set up as a result of recommendations of the Stewart Report to the Government in 2000. It is a voluntary scheme under which mobile network operators make information available on the location and operating characteristics of individual base stations…

"Ofcom hosts the Sitefinder database on behalf of the Government, which is responsible for planning and health issues relating to mobile phone base stations and masts, and for policy on the scope of the Sitefinder scheme…

"The data within Sitefinder is owned by the mobile network operators, who supply it on a voluntary basis. Ofcom has not, therefore, supplied the underlying dataset to any enquirers. Following a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and a decision by the Information Commissioner, upheld by the Information Tribunal, that Ofcom must disclose the nationwide information contained within Sitefinder to parties who request it, operators ceased to supply updates of their information for the site. Ofcom has decided to appeal that decision and subsequently, most operators (excluding T-Mobile) have agreed to resume voluntary updates. As a result, some information contained within Sitefinder is out of date.

"Ofcom cannot accept liability for any inaccuracies or omissions in the data provided within Sitefinder, or its currency."

Personally I found the amount of information available sufficiently detailed and relatively up-to-date, with interactive maps and tables outlining locations, system types, and power levels - such as the one below.

As a result of this information, I was able to complete my study quite quickly. But I had to question all the fuss and bother generated in the first place.

Since this incident I have found further examples of data being available at one end of an organisation, while at the other end access is denied.

To my mind this all illustrates the absolute futility of trying to deny the public access to what is rightfully theirs. But then, recent events involving MPs, expense and allowance have brought that home with a bit of a bang!

I just wonder, has anyone learned anything?

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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