Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Ordnance Survey replies to “Give us back our crown jewels”

The Ordnance Survey has sent us a detailed reply to the first campaign article. You can read it in the articles section. Got a comment on their comments? Put it below.

29 Responses to “Ordnance Survey replies to “Give us back our crown jewels””

  1. Charles Arthur Says:

    ( I think that a better design for that would be a two-column layout so you can see precisely what is and isn’t replied to in the original article. Anyone got ten minutes to spare?)

  2. Tristram Cary Says:

    I think that OS would do better to acknowledge that there are genuine problems with the current model and to engage properly in the debate. Their attitude that the Guardian article was misinformed and wrong is unhelpful.

    Here are two details from the OS response that illustrate the point:

    a) The very first response says that “since April 1999 we have relied entirely from [sic] receipts from the licensing of our data for our trading fund revenue”. This is misleading. OS wants the reader to believe that it gets no public support for its mapping products. In fact the vast majority of NIMSA funding goes towards maintenance of OS maps, but NIMSA funding is not counted as trading fund revenue. A more accurate statement would therefore be “since April 1999 OS has received £60m of government funds to maintain its maps”.

    b) OS’s third last response deals with the Pan Government Agreement competition, and quotes ODPM’s statement that “we seek to balance the benefits of competition in the marketplace with the need to ensure continuity of supply to PGA members”. This is an absurd statement that implies that the timescale of six weeks between contract award and the supply of the services is immutable. Clearly if the government genuinely wanted to a fair competition for large scale mapping then they would have changed the terms of the competition to make that possible. This could be achieved in several ways – for instance the competition could require the mapping to be supplied in five years time, or the mapping could be supplied on a county by county basis, with OS continuing to supply the data in the interim. It is cynical not to acknowledge that the PGA competition has been set up so that only OS can win the large scale mapping work, and that the resulting revenue (maybe £20m per annum?) is therefore in effect public funding.

  3. Robert Homan Says:

    The discussion so far has focussed very much on the role of the Ordnance Survey, not surprising in view of the great interest shown in Google Maps. The OS has been forced to put up a defence (, but I found much of the response unconvincing.

    OS response 1: Without the pre-1999 taxation support, OS would not be pre-eminent mapping organisation that it is now. Years of taxpayers’ investment have gone into fashioning the present organisation with its resources, skills and reputation. “Ordnance Survey” is a very strong brand name and Trading Fund status has had nothing to do with that.

    OS response 2: Shows a narrow, but all too typical concern with pricing, value for money, making money and financial returns. To some extent, the general flavour of this discussion was set in the original Guardian article with its emphasis on the financial stretch placed on start up companies wishing to use OS material. If they have problems, then think of the complete non-starter for charity and community-based users (where my own interests lie) for whom the “small administration fee” of £500 is a complete no go.

    OS response 4: Ok, so some USGS data is 30 years old, but given that some of the most sought after information from USGS and potentially from OS concerns regional physical geography, 30 years should not be too much of a problem in the context of the life span of mountains, hills and rivers.

    OS response 5: Please, no more OS crowing about “Get-a-map”; few would deny that OS paper products are superb, but compared to the Google Map API, the OS embrace of the Internet doesn’t even register as luke warm.

    OS response 6: I suspect this a bit of an OS shot-in-the-foot: the theme of the campaign is that we, the taxpayers , have already paid OS millions – indeed we paid for the massive task of digitising “as long ago as 1971″.

  4. weatherman Says:

    I would add to the above comments on the OS reponse…

    For the OS to justify the way it is funded and its fundholder status, by comparing itself to the USGS is fatuous – complete hogwash.

    The United States of America is one of the largest nations on Earth in terms of area and one of the most sparsely populated. The great majority of the US population and economic activity in the USA is concentrated in a relatively small proportion of the country. The remainder of the US is either sparsely populated agricultural land, or wilderness. The point being that little in the way of landscape change is occuring across large parts of the USA. In many areas what was present fifty years ago is still present today.

    Mapping is undertaken where and when it is required at a scale that is economic and justifiable by the activities occuring or anticipated to occur within the area mapped. Therefore there is no economic or other justification for its repeated mapping or at very large scales (>1:24000) of much of the USA.

    This said…

    If the USGS or the US Government though there was economic justification in mapping the USA at very large scales, it is very likley that they would not hesitate about the cost of doing so. And still make the results freely available.

    However, such remapping of wilderness areas is now feasable as it no longer requires thousands of many years of legwork. It is instead done using remote sensing (high resolution satellite or ariel imagery and radar)

  5. Ed Parsons Says:


    Hang on.. so is somewhere like downtown New Orleans somewhere you would suggest is worth mapping at a large scale?

    So how-come the USGS Quads there were over 20 years old at the time of Katrina, missing major roads and urban developments – and the USGS imagery was more than 10 years old.

    The end result of underfunding of the USGS in this case was considerable criticism amongst the other failures of federal government and an enquiry which has lead to the closure of at least one major USGS mapping office and the future outsourcing of the creation of the national map to commercial companies who will in due course no doubt sell the data back to the US government, and no doubt to the citizen.

    The politician in the US like, politicians everywhere will rather direct tax dollars to other causes which are more likely vote winners – the USGS has been underfunded for many years and it’s future is less than bright.

  6. weatherman Says:


    I am not suggesting the USGS is the perfect mapping agency, and are no doubt major gaps in the coverage. The effort required to map even only those urban areas at 1:10000 or greater would be heroic. It needs to be borne in mind that many states of the USA are comparable in area to the entire UK.

    What the OS reply also fails to mention and which i did too, is that much large scale (cadestral) mapping of municipal areas in the US is to a large degree the responsiblity of the state government and/or the local municipal government.

    Moreover. whilst up to date large scale map coverage of US metropolitan areas may be patchy, this has to be offset against the wide availability of high resolution orthorectified imagery of these areas, which is usually reasonably recent.

  7. Ed Says:


    You are of course right, large scale data more comparable with OS mapping is the responsibility of usual local government, who may or may not make that data available to citizens free of charge. The data may also be collected a different times, using different data models and is made available in different data formats – there is no consistent base map as there is in many European countries where the approach to mapping is “top-down” rather than “bottom-up”

    Imagery I also agree is more important in the states, however although very useful it is not the same as intelligent topographic data.


  8. mark stanley Says:

    Just how much of the cake does OS want? Here are my comments re the response from the OS

    OS Response

    “Out-of-date map data is no use for today¹s business and government activities. Maintenance is a vital issue, yet it is one that the article completely overlooks?

    From Intermap Technologies

    Interesting- Intermap Technologies collected a complete Dataset for the DTM/DSM and Fully Orthorectified Radar Imagery of England , Scotland and Wales in 2002/03 – around the time that the OS discontinued its Panorama product (Profile product has not been updated since 2003 and was created from a DTM collection in 1997).
    These datasets were offered to the OS for commercialization but we were turned away as the OS response was that the one restriction placed on the use of our dataset for Flood Mapping applications was not acceptable to them.

    Intermap Technologies subsequently made the data available to the Environment Agency and both they and Defra use the datasets on the nation’s behalf for flood mapping and other purposes. As do The Scottish Executive, The British Geological Survey and numerous private companies across the Utilities, Telecoms, Engineering, Planning and many other sectors.

    Intermap Technologies also won the height dataset component of the Mapping Services Agreement (MSA) presumably in competition with the prevailing OS height datasets and is the incumbent supplier through the MSA to all Local Authorities, Police and Fire Services and National Parks across England, Scotland and Wales. To date over 270 of these organizations have taken our data which is being used for applications as varied as Wind Farm Planning, Cycle Path Mapping, Flood Alleviation Measures, Water Directive Projects, Noise Directive Projects, Land-Use Planning, Emergency Response Planning etc.

    OS Response

    Response: “The private sector would not map the country as rigorously as Ordnance Survey. NIMSA covers tasks such as keeping the most detailed mapping of remote areas up-to-date – areas where such mapping is needed for public administration, including the delivering of emergency responses, but where there is little other demand. This work is carried out on a not-for-profit basis and is offering government increasingly good value for money due to cost efficiencies at Ordnance Survey.?

    From Intermap Technologies

    I defer to the previous answer – in addition to the GB–wide DTM/DSM and ORI datasets recently collected by Intermap Technologies a further “Contours? dataset was also created and this is also available via the MSA to Local Authorities.

    Again the list of uses in Public Administration and Emergency Response increases daily as more and more MSA signatories take up the independently validated NEXTMap Britain datasets.

    To suggest that the private sector would not map the country as rigorously as Ordnance Survey flies in the face of the evidence of a company engaged in collecting the wider NEXTMap Western Europe and NEXTMap USA programmes.

    As a point of interest readers may be interested to know that in the interest of a wider European market for Transport & Logistics, to name just one Pan-European application example, we will be collecting a Northern Ireland dataset in the second half of 2006 and also completing another complete country dataset namely Germany in 2006.

    One might ask why would the OS set about collecting height data in remote areas under the publicly funded NIMSA agreement when the work had already been carried out to the satisfaction of many Local Authorities who cover the regions and are now happy to use the data under the MSA?

  9. Leslie Ramage Says:

    I hope that the readers of this blog realise that Mr. Ed Parsons is the Chief Technology Office at Ordnance Survey. Knowing that, one should perhaps partake of a couple of grains of salt when reading the apologia which may be posted by him. Also, Ed has forthrightly stated on other blogs that he would support ‘privatisation’ of Ordnance Survey. Am I the only one who thinks that making a government agency into a private company with data, which I as a taxpayer have supported the collection of, is beyond the pale? I do hope the government is listening to this.

    On another note, it’s almost impossible to compare the political framework which gathers mapping data in this country with the US. Mapping, like education, is under the jurisdiction of local political units and these units are not all the same in the various states. The usual hauling out of the ‘quality of data’ card is a red herring. Intelligence creation is where the private sector comes in and which is being stifled in this country by the controls put on public data.

  10. weatherman Says:

    Why would senior employees of the Ordncne Survey be concerned whether the OS was a trading fund or had its activities financed directly and transparently by the Government and ultimately taxpayers? I wonder….

    It would of course have absolutely nothing to do with the prospect of them acquiring a large shareholding in the OS should it beprivatised at a knock down price, as other managers and directors of former state assets acquired when theirs were privatised. No, of course it would not, yeah right!

  11. Ed Parsons Says:

    Hang on guys,

    I was asked in a comment on Jeff Thurstons blog,

    My personal view as expressed there and remains, that privatisation would at least clear up the confusion as to how the Ordnance Survey trades. I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, and it would quite righty need to happen with the overview of a regulator – OFMAP ??

    I don’t think for example, the UK is any worse off because of the privatisation of BT.. or British Airways ?

    Weatherman I accept your point of view but don’t agree with it, and no doubt you won’t believe me, but I am working at the OS because I believe what we do is important – and all I really care about is maintaining and improving the organisation which produces the best national mapping in the world – if I really wanted a share windfall I would be working somewhere else.

    More than anything else I want to make sure the OS is funded adequately to carry out its job.


  12. weatherman Says:


    OK, I accept you are sincere. But, previous privatisations of state assets have shown that their management has often been motivated to support this more out of concen for their own interests.

    However, as an argument for privatising the OS, the idea of privatising it is no more valid than it is for its current trading fund stautus.

    I am pleased to hear you are motivated by wishing to see the Ordnance Survey being well-funded. If so, then you will surely agree that evidence and experience from the US suggests that the present trading fund status of the OS is not capable of giving as good a financial return to the State as it could, albeit indirectly, if it were a non-commercial organisation, like the USGS

    IMHO the only portion of the OS, the privatisiation of which could be justified, would be the hardcopy map drawing and printing side of the operation. However, if this were to occur it would need to made very clear that it enjoyed no favouratism with that part which remained under State control.

  13. Leslie Ramage Says:


    You miss the point. Ordnance Survey does NOT own the data. End of story. I won’t carry on with the crown jewels metaphor, but the data is owned by the taxpayers who funded it. And there is no confusion as to the way OS trades. It is entrusted to licence crown copyrighted data transparently, openly and fairly in order to facilitate re-use. The regulator is the OFfice of Public Sector and HMSO who is empowered by the crown to monitor and regulate this.

    The confusion seems to be mostly on Ordnance Survey’s part and it’s so-called ‘business framework.’ Privatisation in my opinion would be akin to great theft of the highest order.

    As to funded properly and Ordnance Survey’s ‘job’, at this point in time, OS is spending enormous amounts of money defending itself, creating convoluted licences and contracts and basically dealing in obfuscation with a certain amount of ill will, if the writers to this blog are to be believed. I would graciously submit that if you weren’t beating off the alligators at the gates all the time, you might be able to do your job better at less cost.

  14. Steven Feldman Says:

    There seem to be a lot of comments criticising OS in this blog and nobody apart from Ed arguing the alternative case.

    At the very least if as Leslie suggests “one should perhaps partake of a couple of grains of salt when reading the apologia which may be posted by him” then surely the same qualifiers should apply to postings from GetMapping and Intermap – I don’t think this about the national interest, could it be about profitability?

    There are a lot of organisations out there who have built successful business models around OS licensing and pricing. Could they do more if the terms changed, probably. Do they really expect the data for nothing? No. Surely the proponents of this change will not be offering their value added services for nothing.

  15. Charles Arthur Says:

    True, commercial organisations have something to gain – the reduction in data acquisition costs.

    But they have something to lose too: there will potentially be many more competitors.

  16. John Farrie Says:

    The Ordnance Survey’s response to the issue of their data being out of reach of startup companies without deep pockets is seriously flawed:

    1. “Start-up companies who wish to build products and services based on our data can join a developer programme in which they can access more than £40,000 worth of data in return for a small administration fee of £500″.

    Yes they can, but as this is only a *developer* program, and the £500 fee does not give any right or license to distribute whatever product may be developed. This fee (not insubstantial for a small business or an individual wanting to explore the technological possibilities), and the fact that any subsequent licenses to actually sell whatever product has been developed are subject to a hefty minimum yearly royalty regardless of numbers of sales means that small developers cannot take the risk of developing a product unless they are absolutely sure that the sales will be substantial enough to meet the minimum costs. This completely rules out ‘cottage industry’ scale businesses or anyone developing speculatively to test the marketability of an innovative product.

    In other words, their data (or should I say ‘our’ data?) *is* out of reach of very many businesses and individuals who either cannot be certain of making the necessary sales to meet the minimum royalties, or who are developing low volume, low cost products on a cottage industry scale where the minimum royalties would be very unlikely to be met in any case.

    In addition to small businesses, I think it is important to recognise that the Ordnance Survey does not cater in any way for the army of freeware scenery developers who create add-on scenery free of charge for the hundreds of thousands of consumer-level flight simulator users in the UK. There is simply no license available that will allow these people to legally use the data they really need to use in order to create freeware add-ons compatible with the current generation of commercial flight simulator scenery.

  17. John Farrie Says:

    To address another of the responses the Ordnance Survey has made:

    OS Quote: “There is no uniformly consistent large-scale mapping of the USA”

    By focussing on the USGS data, I feel that the OS may be trying to lay down a smokescreen to obscure the fact that extremely detailed mapping data *is* available from many US sources, particularly state governments, who are under the same obligations under US freedom of information legislation (not just an “attitude”, the Guardian people may wish to note) to make publicly funded data available.

    Yes, what the OS says is probably true to a large extent in respect of the USGS data, but it clearly does not represent the whole story, even if the OS perhaps are hoping that the casual reader will assume that it does.

  18. John Farrie Says:

    In view of the previous concerns on disclosure of interests, perhaps I should clarify that I am a developer of add-on scenery for Microsoft Flight Simulator, and have done do using data from both Getmapping and Intermap, but significantly (I think), not from the Ordnance Survey despite protracted discussions with them on how and why their business model completely failed to meet my needs as a developer. I was presented with a take-it or leave-it off-the-shelf contract which unfortunately I had no choice but to decline. It completely failed to address my needs.

    My other interaction with Ordnance Survey was in relation to a competitor who I was concerned may have been using data derived from the OS (and other EU government agencies as it happens) without authorisation or a license to do so. (In fact, it is possible that there may have been no legal route by which the data could have been used for this particular application at all, but that’s another story). Despite the OS sharing my concerns when presented with detailed evidence, they ultimately failed to follow the investigation to completion or take any action against the people concerned.

    The reason I mention this is that it is the very impracticality of obtaining data via the official channels which can lead to such backdoor exploitation, though this does not in any way excuse such behaviour. However, it does highlight the way in which the current situation can put more scrupulous developers at an extreme disadvantage against those who are prepared to take chances, or even against those who are naive enough to be unaware of the restrictions on the use of maps/data. (This latter category comprises most of the UK population by the way)..

    What is needed to counter this (other than effective enforcement where a business has been financially disadvantaged by such misuse) is clearly defined, genuinely useable and affordable access to OS data scaled all the way down from the current user base (medium to large businesses/organisations if you exclude the end-user-only/non-developer scenario, which is really just another red herring in the OS response) right down to genuinely small businesses and individuals, charities and community-based users (as illustrated by Robert above), and people producing things free of charge, as illustrated by the thousands of freeware add-on scenery developers whose collective efforts transform the experience of so many people using Microsoft Flight Simulator and other consumer level flight simulator and games.

    I hope you will bear with me posting my responses to different issues separately. I have further points to make in relation to the OS response, and hopefully will be able to do so in due course.

  19. John Farrie Says:

    I should just clarify that what I’m saying above regarding the need for access to OS data scaled all the way to individuals and charities etc is in the context of the current licensing scenario and as a rider to the Ordnance Survey’s ludicrous claim that they aleady provide this. In the wider scheme of things, I have to say I am completely behind the basic principal of the Free Our Data campaign, and that access to publicly acquired data should be free.

    I think we’re in danger of getting sidetracked here. Are the Ordnance Survey really able to address this at the political level, which is where such a basic change really needs to be changed? No they’re not – they can only operate within the charter and whatever guidelines they are given by the politicians. Has any attempt been made to seek an official government response to the issues the campaign raises?

    While I think it is important to counter the claims made in the Ordnance Survey response (and I intend to continue to do so), I think that focussing on the Ordnance Survey per se may serve to limit the scope of what is being addressed, which may suit the purpose of the politicians better than opening up a genuine debate on the issues at a wider political level.

  20. Leslie Ramage Says:

    In response to Steve’s statement above: “There are a lot of organisations out there who have built successful business models around OS licensing and pricing. Could they do more if the terms changed, probably.” I would suggest that the Norwich Union case study featured today should be read. As has been noted over and over again, ultimately it is the private citizen/consumer who pays. How do we pay? We pay through higher priced consumer goods, higher rates for services (insurance etc.) and higher taxes for the knock on effect of government’s paying itself repeatedly for the same public sector data.

    So aside from the lack of public interest from our government organisations, most specifically, Ordnance Survey, where is the solution to this problem? No one has yet pointed out the significant conflict interest which is the rotten core of this apple. Government mapping, land use and planning lies within the bailiwick of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. ODPM has appointed a Geographic Information Panel ( “to provide high-level advice on geographic information issues of national importance for the United Kingdom.” (

    Now for some interesting questions.
    Who is the Chair of the GI Panel? (
    Who is a non-Executive Director of ODPM?
    Who is Adviser to Government on all things Geographic? (


    Herein lies the rub. OS has set itself outside of its own regulator, the Office of Public Sector Information, because of its business framework and the business environment in which it must operate. And yet, OS itself is the centre for government GI advising and policy making.

    If this is not an obvious conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.

  21. KD Says:

    Two points:

    (1) It is somewhat cheeky of the OS to suggest that it’s easy for any small commercial enterprise to create added value products and services from their data. Yes, it’s only 500 quid (though still a lot for some) to join their partner program but the benefits are few and far between. The fees to use OS data in any useful commercial manner are, last time I looked, x10 higher as a minimum and this was required up-front before you make any sales. Also the licensing terms are such a nightmare in terms of restrictions and caveats that make it barely worth the effort wading through them.

    (2) One of the contributors above raised the issue of affordability for voluntary bodies so let’s try and locate the OS policy on provision of data to the voluntary sector. Now where would I find that? Mmmm, there doesn’t appear to be one – in reality, no discounts, they have to pay full commercial rates. Contrast this with the on-going push for local organisations across the public and voluntary sectors in the UK to work together in partnership to deliver joined-up services for the benefit of communities. How can that work effectively without access to common core datasets? It’s no wonder the voluntary sector find it tough to support all the same types of services. How much longer is this situation going to last?

  22. A. Wit Says:

    You don’t need Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

  23. s Denman Says:

    I would like to clarify an element of the OS response regarding Local Authorities statutory duty.

    OS claim: “Local government has no statutory duty to “collect street addresses?. Some local authorities are the street naming and numbering authority ie they allocate names and numbers but that is not the same thing.”

    This is misleading, and I would go so far as to say factually incorrect………

    All district councils and Unitary authorities have a statutory duty to assign street addresses to all properties within their boundary, therefore all properties in the UK fall within a statutory street naming authority. The legislation forms part of the Public Health Act 1925.

    Secondly, the mapping services agreement, MSA, an agreement between the Improvement & Development Agency (acting on behalf of LAs), Ordnance Survey and other agencies, requires that all authorities in England and Wales collect this street address information within their Local Land & Property Gazetteers, LLPGs. The LLPG hold these street addresses to a British Standard (BS7666) and each address is geographically referenced using a grid coordinate.

  24. Andy Green Says:

    Whether the cost of maintaining the maps is partly funded by taxpayers’ money or not is irrelevant. The revenue from selling the data is still a considerable contribution towards the cost of maintenance.
    If you make OS give away their data for free – and hence remove that source of revenue – whis would ultimately end up costing the taxpayer an awful lot more.
    The majority of people get no direct benefit from OS maps or data. Let the companies who use it pay for the maintenance.

  25. Charles Arthur Says:

    @Andy, you haven’t seen the numbers (which can happen), consider this: OS gets just under half its revenue from sales of its data to local government, which doesn’t have much option about licensing it (if it did have an option, it wouldn’t license it, hmm?).

    So half of OS’s work comes from funds taken from taxpayers, though one might argue that adding layers of government probably makes the provision of funds less efficient; it might be cheaper to provide OS with funding equivalent to what it gets from local government, and make the data available to local government free.

    Except that wouldn’t be fair dealing. Well, OK, one does need a level playing field.

    However your last comment – “the majority of people get no direct benefit from OS maps” – is tangibly untrue. We all benefit, though things like utilities planning where to put stuff, delivery companies being able to find your house via satnav (or just maps), and so on.

    Thinking that just because you don’t consult a map means that it you don’t benefit from OS’s work is like thinking that just because you don’t have a nuclear reactor in your back garden that it doesn’t matter how radioactive waste is disposed of.

  26. steven jones Says:

    Eds comment that the Uk isn’t any worse off after the privatisation of BT is interesting. As a whole the country may not be worse off – but try getting a broadband service in a rural area like mine. Before privatisation BT spent the profits gained in urban areas on maintenance and upgrades across the country, now it dishes them out to shareholders. Rural areas now have a second rate service, with our lines going dead regularly. BT are now angling for taxpayers money to help provide services in unprofitable areas. (Sound familiar?). No doubt the Royal Mail will ‘rationalise’ their rural services, British Gas no longer invest in new supplies in our area.
    So O.S lose NIMSA funding – no doubt this means out of date maps on top of everything else. Thanks a bunch.

  27. Gerard Kennedy Says:

    I’m saying above regarding the need for access to OS data scaled all the way to individuals and charities etc is in the context of the current licensing scenario and as a rider to the Ordnance Survey’s ludicrous claim that they aleady provide this. In the wider scheme of things, I have to say I am completely behind the basic principal of the Free Our Data campaign, and that access to publicly acquired data should be free.

  28. matt Says:

    I run 6 geocoded websites, and im guessing i have paid for 10,000 postcodes to be geocoded (i pay per item as i cannot afford the fees for the whole database)

    I have so many things i want to do, i have many plans to connect people, places, and business together. But i cant, the cost makes it impossible. I feel the fees associated with this are incredibly debilitating. I think location based searching is the future of the web, and this is only available for big companies to take advantage of because that’s who can afford it. The internet used to be a level playing field for little and big business, how can I grow my sites if i have to pay £4000 for the privilege of finding where something is?

  29. stuart goldhawk Says:

    Will the OS ever release data for flght simulator . It seems to a bit cloak and dagger as far as us guy’s go. I mean what do they think we are going to do with the data. I would like us all to have free data for the terrain mapping of at least the UK. £ 4000 to find out where something is is just far to much money. If flight simulation is to evolve we are going to need some help. flight simulation parts are expensive enough as it is. I will gladly join your campaign

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