Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for June, 2006

Why is the government trying to corner the market for travel-direction sites?

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

In today’s Guardian we ask why it is that Transport Direct is using lots of data from local and central government (paid for by local and central taxes) to provide a service that has bugs – and is entering the market after a number of private ones.

In Time to tell this travel site where to go, Michael Cross investigates Transport Direct, which has had three million users this calendar year and uniquely offers point-to-point directions.

In an age when it is not seen as appropriate for the public sector to run power stations or railways, why is it running nationalised industries in what should be the most dynamic sector of all, the web-based knowledge economy? The question lies at the heart of our campaign, which argues that government’s role should be to collect and administer high-quality raw data, but make it freely available to everyone to create innovative services.

Transport isn’t the first area where the government has come late into such offerings:

Since its conception nearly a decade ago, “e-government” has been exempt from conventional political wisdom about competition, monopoly and state aid. The consequences are not only theoretical. In 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom, a London startup company called iMPower had the idea of launching a service to sell fishing licences on the web. It was supposed to usher in a new age of “intermediaries” providing electronic routes to public services. In theory, this was supported by government policy – but another government policy required the Environment Agency to launch its own fishing licence service on the web. The private-sector offering was unable to compete.

[Transport Direct’s chief executive Nick] Ilsley says that research by the department before Transport Direct’s launch showed the private sector wasn’t interested in providing a one-stop all-purpose site. However the site was launched in a market already populated by the private sector, albeit with less sophisticated offerings. Their operators argue that these are more in tune with public needs.

Our question: why not just make the feeds available for anyone to make use of, and build sites which could compete with each other, which would benefit taxpayers by generating revenues, rather than costing them for a function that sits on top of essential government?

How much does it cost to display a map online? The correct(ed) answer

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

After last week’s blog post in which we suggested it would cost millions to put an OS map of the UK online if you had a successful site (with, say, 2,000 users per day), we’ve had lots of people saying that’s wrong. And it is.

So today’s Guardian carries the story How much does it cost to display an OS map on a website?:

Much less than we estimated last week. In “Time to account for travel maps’ costs” (June 22), we wrote: “For a charity to put [those maps] on a webserver that might be used by hundreds of people (a typical server can handle 2,000) would cost millions of pounds annually.”

In fact, Ordnance Survey points out, the cost would be more like £18,000 per year – a hundredfold less than we suggested.

Of course we should have checked and checked again. Yup. We were following mySociety’s expectation that if it cost £1,000 for a single user internally per year, that that would scale up scarily once you displayed the data online.

But the confusion is understandable. OS’s page on copyright licensing for internet use (at does not specify that internet users en masse only count as one; hence mySociety’s expectation that internet use would lead to an explosion in costs.

Not so, said OS. For a single scale mapping of the country – say, at 1:50,000 scale – including Code Point for finding postcodes (so you can get a map of a postcode’s location), the annual licence for a website serving 20,000 map images per day, every day, would be £18,200 per year.

To provide the mapping service most web users are used to, one would have to license several scales: we have grown used to being able to zoom in on a point.

Streetmap offers seven mapping scales; Multimap offers 13, though not all appear to come from OS. Using multiple scales will, of course, ramp up costs very quickly – as will being popular. But even licensing seven scales will only take your annual costs to around £100,000 – not into the millions. Unless, of course, you are wildly successful.

So, that’s corrected, we hope. But even so:

Tom Steinberg, mySociety’s director, says: “The price for these maps, which cover only a small chunk of the country, is way above affordability by most small and medium-sized enterprises, a group that employs more than half the UK workforce. Furthermore, it excludes the entire caste of internet-based enthusiasts who’ve produced about 80% of all the innovative mapping work in the world over the past couple of years.”

Even at the new lower price, we probably won’t be putting those maps on soon..

Mark the date: July 17 at the RSA, London, for the Free Our Data debate

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

There will be a public debate on July 17 at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA) in London on the issue of

  • Derek Wyatt MP, chairman of the all-party group on the internet, to chair the debate
  • Paul Crake, RSA programme director

  • Carol Tullo, director, Office of Public Sector Information, controller of HMSO, and Queen’s printer
  • Ed Parsons, chief technology officer, Ordnance Survey
  • David Vaver, director of the Oxford University Intellectual Property Research Centre
  • Charles Arthur, editor, Guardian Technology
  • Tickets are free. You can apply online at [link updated – thanks!] or phone the RSA lectures booking line on 020 7451 6868.

    See you there!

    How does Ordnance Survey justify its licensing costs when its accounts are disputed?

    Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

    In this week’s Guardian Technology supplement we have Time to account for travel maps’ costs, which looks at the costs of Ordnance Survey licences. If the organisation is right about the importance of its work (it claims to underpin £100 billion of economic activity), then – as Tom Steinberg of mySociety points out – even a slight error in overpricing the licence could mean a huge fall in tax revenues.

    That is illustrated by the cost of a licence for “time travel maps” that mySociety created. As the article points out,

    How much would it cost to put those maps on a webserver that anybody could access? MySociety asked Ordnance Survey’s licensing department. It calculated that displaying 16 “map tiles” with the relevant data would cost between £837.81 (for a 1:25,000 scale) or £1,032.71 (for a 1:250,000 scale).

    Does that sound good? Here’s the sting in the OS’s small print: “All prices for one user, one-year licence and exclude VAT. Terms of data use are internal business use, display and promotion as long as there is no financial gain.” So for a charity to put that on a webserver that might be used by hundreds of people (a typical server can handle 2,000) would cost millions of pounds annually.

    And here’s the other thing: the National Audit Office does not accept the OS’s accounts, and has not done since it became a trading fund in 1999, because OS treats the National Geographic Database (which originated with taxpayers’ money) as an intangible asset – but puts no value on it.

    That in turn means that the £9.2m surplus the OS shows was almost four times above its target return, of 5.5% on capital employed (tangible and intangible assets). Yet put in the NAO’s estimate of the NGD’s value, and you still get a rate of return that’s about double the 5.5%.

    What does that imply? To us, that OS licences are expensive – they’re generating too high a rate of return. Read and see what you think.

    OECD meeting on public sector information: now online

    Saturday, June 10th, 2006

    The OECD recently held a meeting in Paris on public sector information and charging models. We were represented (ably, by Mike Cross) but haven’t yet digested it in its fullness.

    However, you can find most of the presentations and topics at,2340,en_2649_34223_36860241_1_1_1_1,00.html. If you notice any particular elements that you think deserve to be highlighted, add them in the comments..

    Carol Tullo on free data: ‘what’s the point?’

    Thursday, June 8th, 2006

    Today’s Guardian has a piece in which the writer managed to corner Carol Tullo of the Office of Public Sector Information, to put the question: why not make data free?

    “Why should we be gatekeepers? We have enough to do in our day jobs than to worry about what the local economy may find interesting.”

    The default position of government should be to trade in information, Tullo said, adding that transparency and openness benefits government in many ways. She cited the non-political website – which repurposes data from Hansard online to let users find out about MPs’ voting records, attendance and even register of interests – as an example of how making government information available can benefit society.

    “The people at have said to me, ‘we shouldn’t be providing this [site]. This is something government should have been providing.’ Actually, no. This is a perfect example of entrepreneurial private-sector activity,” Tullo said.

    Except that the people at point out that they’re not private-sector; they’re activists, showing what ought to be done. And they had to break the law in order to set up the site.

    Read more at Make it work for us, Ms Tullo

    How the Met Office lost millions of pounds trying to compete with the private sector

    Thursday, June 1st, 2006

    One of the arguments of this campaign is that it’s a mistake for the public sector to get into fields where it is handicapped by the nature of its structure – that is, in selling data commercially. (The public sector is ideally placed to collect and collate data: it has laws and tax-raising powers, for example. And lots of time, often.)

    This week, an example of how the Met Office came unstuck in 2001 – and lost £4.5 million of our money doing it – in this week’s Technology Guardian, over the failure of WeatherXchange, a joint venture with private organisations.


    [The present Met Office chief executive Mark] Hutchinson told the Commons defence select committee on May 23 that his organisation was dominated by public-service civil servants, and will need to bring in relevant expertise in order to build its commercial activities. “We don’t have an awful lot of hard, private-sector commercial experience,” he said.

    The day before, Peter Ewins, the chief executive of the Met Office from 1997 to 2004, told the committee he did not believe other participants in WeatherXchange made initial investments but had instead provided credibility and expertise. “That sounds incredibly naive and amateurish,” said Kevan Jones, a Labour MP. “If you had done that in local government, you’d have been shot.”

    Ewins, who remained chairman of WeatherXchange after leaving the Met Office, says the joint-venture was hit by poor European growth in weather derivatives. But he added: “After I left the Met Office, there was in my view not the champion of that relationship that was so necessary to its success.”

    And here’s the kicker:

    According to [MP Kevan] Jones, “the reason why the relationship broke down was the fact that the Met Office realised how lucrative this venture was, and was selling information directly to the market, rather than going through WeatherXchange.”

    Responding, Ewins said: “You have pre-empted by about 10 seconds what I was going to go on to say.”

    Got that? The Met Office undermined the company it had invested in, because it could do better by selling data directly to the market. Sure, it shouldn’t have started the company. But the worrying thing is that if the company had been a success, then the Met Office would have preferred to supply that than other private-sector organisations – which would start to create a private monopoly where none existed. So in some ways, it’s a blessing that WeatherXchange failed. But really, it should never be public money involved in these ventures. Risking money in the private sector is the job of banks. Providing data is the job of the public sector. Perhaps some people will start to listen. Does anyone have Kevan Jones’s email?