Free Our Data: the blog

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


Data pricing: more fuel for the fire

The following comments come from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, but has given permission for them to appear:

I applaud your ‘Free our Data’ campaign – it is lifting the roof on a debate we have had rumbling on in our industry for years.

How about the example of Electoral Ward boundaries. My understanding is that the Boundary Commission captures this boundary data at tax payers expense, passes it on to OS (who may do some validation checking), who then sell it back to the public sector and anyone else bundled into a commercial product.

There really needs to be a set of core underlying geographic datasets (addresses, postcodes, wards etc) that are so key to efficient government that they are made free (or nominal cost) for all – this could be done under the OS NIMSA agreement although there’s likely to be major problems with data derived from Royal Mail as a commercial body. I would like to see core OS raster mapping down 1:250k, 1:50k, 1:25k and StreetView included in this ‘national interest data bundle’ to act as a set of base mapping widely available on a cost recovery or even free basis.

Contrast the Government position on funding OS with that of funding the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – very different. In a thoroughly forward-thinking move, ONS got Central Government funding to make Census 2001 data free for the first time at its point of use – see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/census2001/op2.asp for more. This is in stark contrast to the position that it is ‘politically unpalatable’ to fund free data distribution. This move has freed up the market for increased use of the data and more suppliers to come into the area and create added value data products – the only problem is that if you want to do anything spatial with it you need geographic boundary data much of which is OS owned. So you are back to the problem of needing data from different parts of government and inconsistencies in data distribution models.

We can only hope recent changes at ONS to become a more neutral ‘arms length’ organisation will not mean a more commercial attitude is taken to data dissemination. There is no suggestion this will happen…yet.

How you get round legal issues of fair trading is not clear – right now there are few suppliers of large scale topographic map data for the UK with the exception to some extent of companies like Navtech and TeleAtlas although their focus has traditionally been on roads for navigational purposes. It would be very interesting to understand their take on this debate.

Let’s hope your campaign gets heard at the heart of government. It would all be much clearer if
  1. organisations that were wholly funded by government could only supply their data for free or on a cost recovery basis to anyone under relatively standard HMSO terms
  2. or

  3. organisations that were semi-funded by government and captured data using these public funds had to release it under the same HMSO terms – otherwise organisations would be free to sell it commercially
  4. If there are Trading Funds that want to go it alone (OS may be a candidate) then privatise them, keeping a chunk of shares under public ownership to reflect the intellectual property invested to date. At least this creates a level playing field. There are starting to be sufficient competitors in the market to give existing OS customers some realistic alternatives.

On a related point it would be great to get an independent accountant to assess the proportional value of the current OS intellectual property that results from long-term public investment compared with the proportion attributable to their own more recent self-funded investment. No doubt there is no simple calculation to do this but they do have methods. Of course the answer would be hotly debated but it might be a start to addressing the whole issue of “what’s ours” and “what’s theirs”.

Interesting – though I’ve also discovered in the past few days that NERC does make some of its data available for free. (I’ll do a separate post later, but it’s been pointed out that organisations like NERC are placed in a difficult position when they have to buy in commercial data to generate the datasets they use.)

What does everyone think? From the discussions here, one would imagine that people think the OS should veer more towards privatisation – which, to be honest, is not the aim of the campaign at all. (As we said in the original article launching the campaign, we think the UK should have a strong mapping agency: “if you view [the UK] instead as belonging to its taxpayers, and meriting rigorous mapping for their benefit, there are no “uneconomic areas” – only places that people haven’t started to use yet”.)

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