Free Our Data: the blog

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


The money-go-round: how often does the government charge itself for its own data?

An interesting email dropped into the inbox today..

One point which does not seem to have come across in the printed discussion is the question of other Government departments having to pay the OS to use OS data. This might seem bizarre – it is – but that is how things have come about. I was involved in negotiations with a number of Government departments and OS over a Service Level Agreement. Those of us who understood the huge potential benefits of GIS and linking datasets across departments were crying out for OS data but could not afford the fees OS wanted. Very many meetings were held between departments and OS, which resulted in reporting back to our own departments, then instigating discussions with sponsor departments to see if they would fund the use of data. The toing and froing was incredible. What it has cost the taxpayer in staff time far outweighs the income OS (and the Treasury) might receive. SLA’s now exist. Their terms are commercially sensitive. The cost is unbelievable. The whole process bogged down GIS development for 5 years and the enthusiasm of many hard working civil servants was drowned in the process.

(The sender requested anonymity).

This is an interesting point, because it’s clear from the Budget that Labour wants to push off any costs it can out of government – that is, not put any cash into organisations, and indeed to sweat the assets as hard as it can.

But if more than half of the OS’s £100-odd million in “revenues” is actually coming from other parts of government which aren’t “revenue-generating” (Defra? the Environment Agency – it uses OS maps to ilustrate its flood maps) or even private organisations which charge back to government (Capita uses postcodes for the congestion charge and for the TV Licence databases; would the cost of the contract to government be lower if the postcode or OS data were available free?) then something strange is going on.

That is, money is washing around in a sort of slush pile, and you never quite get to see where the music stops. If OS charges Capita for data, and Capita charges the government to run the TV licence, we arguably see no net benefit from charging for the data; it’s just an administrative exercise that makes work for the accounts people and the lawyers at OS.

Sure, Capita adds value to the data; that’s the idea of a private company. (No loans jokes please..) But this circular motion between government departments of money that only exists theoretically seems to me the weakest point of the government’s case for trading funds and charging for data – and remember, it’s that case which we’re trying to demolish.

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