Free Our Data: the blog

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

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

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.

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