Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for November, 2006

How the Danes get it right with address data

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

In today’s Guardian, Mike Cross writes about how Denmark has shown that pooling public data can be done – easily:

The server’s owner, the National Agency for Enterprise and Construction, also licenses bulk data to commercial re-users, such as estate agents and finance businesses.

About 15 commercial users pay an annual subscription of about £5,000 and then about 10p per megabyte, which the government says is the marginal cost of connecting them and supplying data.

Before 2003, commercial users had to request individual property details, at a fee of about 50p each. Under the new arrangements, demand for data has soared, says Ulrik Roehl of the agency.

“When we started, we thought there might be around 10 distributors, but we exceeded that in two years,” he says. The distributors download about 65m property details a month.

Reducing charges encourages takeup? Simple supply and demand, of course. And within government, there are no charges.

We’re looking for more foreign examples so we can begin to make the point to government. Anyone else pitch in on how other countries do it?

How does Australia charge for government data?

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

We’re intrigued by a comment on Ed Parsons’ blog (where he is talking about the model used by the island of Jersey, which is part, sort of, of the UK; he notes that “In contrast to the rest of the UK, Jersey with a single layer of government, has just got on a built a single land and property address database which is widely adopted and has become the standard for government use… Half of the possible 8000 government employees access the sole corporate geospatial Intranet and on the sister Island of Guernsey the utilities companies are beginning to publish their assets to single password protected website.”)

In the discussion that follows (which we have weighed in to), there’s a comment that

The model use in Jersey is similar to the models that now dominate in Australia. The heavy cost recovery models of the 1990s are now giving way to more sensible and effective understanding on pricing and access to spatial data. In most Australian states web portals provide citizens with free access to basic spatial information (either at state of local government level). The cross charging across government and to the public is declining as it was shown that it cause dysfunctional behaviour and held back the potential of SI. Commercial users are required to pay licence fees but at reasonable pricing levels which will still stimulates economic growth.

Can anyone point us to more detail about how Australia implements its charging models?

How the Inspire directive was watered down

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

This week’s Guardian Technology looks at the lobbying that led to the Inspire directive moving from one which would have mandated free data access between governments (and users?) in Europe, to one which allows organisations that charge for data to continue to do so.

Read Britain poised for victory in Brussels (which due to deadlines had to be completed before the vote and text was completely finalised).

However, the reaction has been mixed. Ed Parsons, chief technology officer of Ordnance Survey, writes on his personal blog (which reflects his views, not necessarily those of OS):

I would caution anyone reading too much into these early reports, the devil will be in the detail here.. and we should also not forget that INSPIRE is about a lot more than the licensing regime.

From now on the technical experts can get on with drafting the principles around which the infra-structural components that will allow spatial data to be shared can be built – in my mind the really important part of INSPIRE

the creation of metadata; the technology of interoperability; the development of data services; mechanisms to promote national co-ordination.

We’ll have to see quite what shape of devil is in those details. By the way, does anyone know of any bloggers within other relevant organisations, such as UK Hydrographic Office?

Inspire decision

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006


The European parliament and council of ministers have finally agreed a compromise wording to the Inspire directive designed to harmonise spatial information around Europe. The directive had become a cause celebre in the movement to make public sector data freely available. Broadly, the European parliament backed our position, while the council of ministers was opposed.

Here’s today’s announcement of the compromise, hammered out on Tuesday night (after this week’s Technology Guardian went to press).

“The European Parliament and Council reached agreement last night on the contents of the proposed INSPIRE Directive, which aims to harmonise spatial information across Europe.

“Key points resolved during the final stages of the discussions between the institutions included the principles according to which citizens should be allowed to examine the official maps and other spatial data covered by the directive, and rules for granting authorities access to data held by other authorities. Copyright issues were also dicussed in detail.

“The directive will oblige EU member states to improve the administration of their map services and other spatial data services according to common principles. This will give Europe’s citizens better opportunities to find useful information about the environment and other issues from the internet. It will also enable the authorities to benefit more from information compiled by other official organisations.

“Data search services designed for the public will generally be free of charge, although the directive allows fees to be charged for access to data that has to be updated frequently, such as weather reports.”

Looking from a parochial point of view, the compromise seems to satisfy the UK government’s two objections to amendments voted through by the parliament last summer: that they would compromise national security and put trading funds such as Ordnance Survey out of business.

Satu Hassi, a Green MEP from Finland who was closely involved with the negotiations, told me this morning that while she was not 100% satisfied with the outcome, the compromise at least puts some limits on data charges. In particular, it prohibits what she calls “arbitrary charging” – a finance ministry cannot suddenly decide to double the price of an information asset. 

One disappointment was the loss of an amendment that would have forced governments to make available data about radioactivity. Sounds like a worthy target for the Free our Data campaign. 

To sum up? Well, obviously the outcome isn’t what we’d have hoped for. Inspire isn’t going to end the absurd practice of public bodies spending time and effort negotiating rights and paying royalties for using data already owned by the taxpayer. (In Hassi’s words: “a ridiculous zero-sum game”.)

We’re not downhearted, however. Thanks to Inspire, the argument for freeing public sector information has been made at ministerial level in every government in Europe. It is on the mainstream agenda.

And, strongly as we feel about free data, let’s not lose sight of the main story. Inspire is about building new tools for understanding continent-wide impacts of climate change and pollution.  That seems like a good idea, even if some of the nuts and bolts aren’t the ones we’d have chosen ourselves.

There’s more in tomorrow’s Technology section. Feedback welcome, as always.


Postcode charges threatens split between councils and Post Office

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Worryingly, the government’s insistence that every chunk of data somehow be turned into an asset in itself – rather than an asset to whoever uses it – is creating fissures between councils, which generate addresses, and the Post Office, which charges them for using postcodes.

Read more at A one-way street to postcode madness in today’s Guardian:

Councils say they provide lists of street names and numbers for free – but Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail treat their data as a commercial asset and charge other public bodies to make it available to the wider public.

…Royal Mail says that the sums are tiny: authorities pay 0.5p a click, or a flat fee per domain. However, councils, under constant pressure to meet new centrally set financial targets, have little slack in their budgets. The final straw is that from October next year, the charge will double. Jennie Longden, head of address management at Royal Mail, says that these are the first price increases since 1995.

The result, though, could be a grassroots rebellion. David Heyes, address manager at Wigan metropolitan borough council, Greater Manchester, says he is “very uncomfortable” with the click fee.

….Datastandard, a web community for professionals, has suggested charging Royal Mail between £250 and £1,000 for notifications of changes to local gazetteers. “I suggest Royal Mail pass on some of their costs to Ordnance Survey, but that’s for them to sort out,” said Robert Kimber, of Luton council.

Would that be good for free data? No – it’s moving in the opposite direction. What’s needed is a minister or two to bang some heads together. Unfortunately it seems the heads that need banging are within government – possibly inside the Treasury – to stop this madness.

Inspire countdown

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

November looks like crunch month for the European Inspire directive, which in the form voted by the European Parliament earlier this year would mandate a “free data” regime. Here’s the latest compromise proposal, from the excellent

We’ll be monitoring developments, and especially the UK government’s positon, here.

Should Ordnance Survey be split into two?

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

Following our earlier post about the Ordnance Survey losing the NIMSA contract, this week’s Guardian Technology investigates: Survey subsidy wiped off the map – and talks about the death of NIMSA to a number of people. Robert Barr of the University of Manchester mentions some possibilities:

Ending subsidies to Ordnance Survey raises another possibility: that a future government might consider outright privatisation – an option considered and rejected in the 1990s. This would be a disaster for free data. Barr suggests an alternative approach: splitting the organisation into two. One division would operate a national geospatial database, funded by the taxpayer and made available to all, while the other would compete freely in the marketplace for maps and other “value added” products.

Another model could be Canada’s Geobase project, where since 2001, mapping agencies at different levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – have agreed to share and make available geospatial data under so-called “copyleft” royalty-free licences. The database, available at the Geobase portal, includes administrative boundaries and height data, which have both been subjects of anguished controversy in Britain.

We repeat: we don’t think it would be at all good for Ordnance Survey to be privatised. For the free data model to work, you need a publicly-funded government agency.

NIMSA is dead: bad news for Ordnance Survey – and free data?

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

A terse announcement from the new Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) says that the National Interest Mapping Services Agreement (NIMSA), which “funds mapping services which are in the national interest, but would not otherwise be provided by the market as they are not economically viable”, is not going to be renewed when its seven-year term expires at the end of 2006.


DCLG considers that: (a) it is appropriate for some of the services which have been supported by NIMSA, to be procured directly by those public sector bodies who require them, either individually or collaboratively; and 

(b) it is appropriate for DCLG to continue supporting some national interest geographic activities but on a much smaller scale than previously.

And the effects on users?

Ordnance Survey has already indicated to DCLG that they are willing to continue to provide a ‘Mapping for Emergencies’ helpline service and national interest coastal survey work. Ordnance Survey will separately be advising users of any impacts of the decisions made by DCLG. 

We’d like to know what OS thinks those effects will be. (They’re welcome to say here in the comments, anonymously or not.) For OS, NIMSA might not have been a huge part of its income (anyone have a number?) but it did prove that it was worth having, because the market wouldn’t do it. (And we’ve heard a lot about market failure having extremely large knock-on effects recently.)

What’s faintly worrying about this is that it implies that DCLG doesn’t see OS as an important organisation. The Free Our Data contention is that OS is important, and that mapping everywhere, not just the bits that the market today thinks are important, matters. What we disagree about is the funding model.

Ordnance Survey gets its lobbying in against INSPIRE

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

A long interview in the Times details Vanessa Lawrence’s discomfort at the idea of INSPIRE, which would compel government organisations in Europe to swap their data for free – and in effect compel them to drop any system whereby they charge for intellectual property.

OS has been doing some subtle lobbying (read the long Daily Mail hagiography of the organisation here; interesting how it makes so much of the funding model “that means it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a thing”) recently.

INSPIRE, though, might be immune to lobbying. That hasn’t stopped a right-wing group called the Taxpayers’ Alliance from picking up the piece and suggesting that OS is talking the truth, and that it’s absurd to suggest that OS should be publicly funded, instead of taking funds from public organisations.

However, although the Taxpayers’ Alliance seems to fight rather shy of finding out what other taxpayers think (there’s no way to comment on its blog), Heather Brooke at Your Right To Know (who deals with Freedom of Information and related issues) spears it neatly in her own post on the YRTK blog:

Ordnance Survey is a monopoly, so claims about profitability, product quality, dividends and running costs are moot – we have nothing to compare them against. Would it be just as good value if the OS cost £200 million to run and paid a 8% dividend? Economic theory gives us a good idea of what actually to expect – price maximisation, inefficency and stagnation. It’s easy to turn a profit when you got your capital assets for free and can charge whatever you feel like.

Meanwhile, INSPIRE is going to be voted on November 21. Counting down..

In the Guardian: people are doing it for themselves

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

The availability of out-of-copyright Ordnance Survey maps has given some people a smart idea: collect postcodes from visitors to the site and link them to the map points. It’s cheaper than licensing it from the OS and Post Office, after all.

Try it yourself at There’s also, for those equipped with a GPS, the Freethepostcode site.

And a scheme to be launched next week will try to create an independent map of Britain’s roads, incrementally, from GPS systems in vehicles. But it would go beyond simple location data to include traffic flow data too.

Read about it at From postcodes to roads, we can collect it ourselves in today’s Guardian.