Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for 2007

OBE for Robert Barr, free data campaigner

Monday, December 31st, 2007

We don’t want to be too bold in claiming influence in high places, but we’re delighted to record that one of the inspirational figures behind this campaign has picked up a gong in the New Year’s honours list.

Congratulations go to Dr Robert Barr, of Manchester Geomatics and Manchester University, on his OBE for services to geography. Among his many other activities, Bob is a passionate campaigner for a saner approach to the management of public sector information, in particular address databases. We hope he won’t mind being counted as a (sometimes critical) friend.

Perhaps he’ll put in a word for free data when he drops in at SW1A 1AA…

Is OS’s OpenSpace all it’s cracked up to be?

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

Merry Christmas to our dedicated readers; and apologies for not updating more often – I did blog the launch of Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace on the Guardian Technology blog, and thought it had been quite well covered. But we could have done it here too..

Anyway, people have had time to (as they say in the US) kick the tyres of OpenSpace. What do they think?

Ogleearth is not impressed because of the restrictions on volume. The OpenSpace FAQ says:

1.4 How much data am I allowed to use?OS OpenSpace allows your API key to access up to 30 000 tiles of data and up to 1 000 place name look-ups per day for free.

5.4 My site gets a lot of traffic, what can I do?Congratulations :! Contact us to talk about the different possibilities we may be able to offer you. If you are interested in commercialising your application, take a look at point 6.2 of the FAQs.

To OgleEarth, which is a well-read blog, that means that

So let’s say I add an embedded OpenSpace map to a blog post on Ogle Earth that shows 9 tiles. That should last me about the first 12 hours of every day. Sorry late-rising Californians, my quota is up! Should I add two such maps within 15 posts of each other, so that the front page of the blog displays a total of 18 squares, then Europe is out of luck too. Translation from OSese: Feel free to have a website that uses our maps, as long as it is obscure and unpopular.

Mm. And it adds:

this is so stupid and tone-deaf to the realities of Web 2.0 that I’m practically sputtering into my Malay gin & tonic. Pages and websites are artificial constructs in Web 2.0, as we’ve now all moved on to services aggregated from wherever they may originate. Do I really have to set up an ad-free www.NotOgleEarth.com and link to maps served from there as popups or iframes every time I want to use OpenSpace? Is OS not aware that advertising such as Google ads is ubiquitous on the blogs and hobby sites that the OpenSpace API is ostensibly for? For the overwhelming majority of bloggers — certainly those for whom 30,000 tiles per day is plenty — the ads at most help defray hosting costs, or else they are injected by web hosters to pay for free hosting services.

That’s not really a great vote of confidence. What do other people say? A Technorati search brings up a long list of results – with people who are happy that OS has done this.

The OpenStreetMap crowd (that’s a compliment – eyes, bugs, shallow) analysed the licence and found that if you generate something new, using information from the OS, which is “a severable improvement” (as in, you can separate it from the map, and it’s better), then it’s your data. A small win…

TechCrunch UK wasn’t impressed, because it doesn’t go far enough for them:

However, it is not great news for startups. The OS has “almost? come to its senses because there remains the issue that startups will not be able to create commercial businesses out of this data from the word go. Even though these are businesses from which the government could potentially extract tax revenues, again.

That’s straight out of the Free Our Data playbook, though we have to say we’ve not been in touch with TCUK. (Maybe we should.)

Blacksworld notes that the OS cartography has far more detail, which is a very pertinent point – and the one which is behind us pushing for this data to be more easily usable.

As its author notes:

The license is a license, so some people and going to love it, some will hate it and most will just get on with hacking. One thing that the guys from the OS were emphasising yesterday, was that they really want people to consult with them. That’s why we were there yesterday – so that the people who made OpenSpace could see what we thought. I think the desire of the OpenSpace team to listen to people’s feedback and act on it is a genuine one, so maybe we could all try some constructive criticism before trashing it. But hey, this is the internet.

It’s a good point. The OpenSpace API could be better; it could be unlimited; but then again, the OS has to pay for its data costs somehow. While it’s a trading fund, it can’t just give away the use of its data centres. We’ll have to wait for a more enlightened regime, perhaps.

UKHO decision: no selloff; and a year on from CUPI, are we any further ahead?

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Today’s Guardian notes that we’re a year on from the OFT report on the Commercial Use of Public Information, but that government still hasn’t come up with a coherent response that covers what’s suggested.

So far, the main government response has been to ask for more information. It commissioned the Power of Information investigation, which recommended that the government do more to encourage the re-use of public sector information. It, in turn, called for studies on the effect that changes in pricing would have on trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and the UK Hydrographic Office. In response, the government commissioned a study of the trading fund model. That is due to be submitted by the end of the year. This month, the MoD is due to decide on whether the UK Hydrographic Office will continue as a trading fund or become a private company.

The UKHO decision has been reached: it’s not being sold off. Instead, it will remain a trading fund.

That has to be good news for the possibility of a free data model (or even a reduced cost of data, or free unrefined data model).

The MOD press release:

The UK Hydrographic Office will remain a Trading Fund of the Ministry of Defence, after a review of the business and its future.

Defence Minister, Derek Twigg announced to Parliament today that the business will remain as an arm of the MoD and will continue to be located in Taunton, but that major changes needed to be made.

The review included a detailed restructuring programme to ensure the business and its personnel are best equipped to meet the needs of the 21st century mariner in an increasingly competitive environment.

In an overhaul of the business by the Ministry of Defence and the UKHO, proposals have been developed for a reduction of between 250 and 300 permanent posts over a period of up to 5 years.

That’s quite a cut, even if it leaves 800 staff still there. Prepare for heavy seas in the UKHO’s constituency when the next election or byelection comes.

Free O’Data: Ireland makes (some) data free

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Apologies for the headline, but then again, it was inescapable.

But: Ireland’s geographical agency, the GSI, has made a number of its datasets about boreholes available for free online.

Announced by the minister, the web page itself is a bit spartan: “Minister Ryan launches Spatial Data Projects to allow free online access to Deptarmental data. GSI, along with PAD, EMD and Enginerring Divisions of DCENR, all contributed data to these series of web map viewers, data download pages and GIS web services. Click on www.dcenr.gov.ie/spatial+pages [Note: this isn’t a valid page, or at least not to me on my Mac] or http://www.gsi.ie/mapping for further details.”

The more useful data is at this page, which explains that it’s access to the borehole database:

Dr. Ronnie Creighton, Senior Geologist at GSI, explains that engineers regularly consult the database during the desk study stage in site selection and the planning of ground investigation design. “The data are used to create subsurface maps of the depth to bedrock for Dublin city centre, for instance, as well as 3D visualisation of the subsurface bedrock topography. These are vital tools in construction and major infrastructure planning,? he said.

Access to the database is free and is now online, via a specially designed web map viewer, accessible from the following GSI web page www.gsi.ie/Mapping.html The map viewer currently provides public and professional users free access to over 12,200 digitised boreholes and trial pits from the database via an easy to use map-based interface.

An interesting contrast with the Environment Agency for England and Wales, which as we pointed out in May, is trying to charge people for details about water extraction locations:

[the] Environment Agency… used to make available the data about the location of “source protection zones? – essentially, areas around groundwater sources which must be protected from pollution to avoid contamination of drinking water supplies.

We’d be interested to hear though from anyone who could tell us precisely how useful these new Irish data are. Even so, datasets online for no price? Sounds good to us.

Does this sound familiar? Virtual London removed from Second Life – at Ordnance Survey request

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

The Virtual London project has once again fallen afoul of Ordnance Survey, which this time has spread its domain of dominion into virtual worlds that have no physical existence.

So, the virtual London that the UCL team had built in Second Life has had to be un-built. The team explains:

Our Virtual London model in Second Life has been removed from the collaborative environment at the request of the Ordnance Survey.

The research is currently ‘pending license clearance’ as the Ordnance Survey are ‘uncomfortable’ with the use of the data.

Details on the work currently unavailable are in the post below, we are reserving comment at request on this one, but i guess you know our views…

Three Dimensional Collaborative Geographic Information Systems (3DC/GIS) are in their infancy, Google Earth opened up the concept of three dimensions to the mainstream but issues with data copyright, the inability to effectively tag data to buildings and the asynchronous nature of the platform have limited developments.

Second Life however provides a synchronous platform with the ability to tie information, actions and rules to objects opening the possibility of a true multi-user geographical information system. It has been notoriously difficult to import 3D data into the Second Life but at CASA we have managed to import our Virtual London model of 3 million plus buildings into a scrolling map. The map is built from prims that ‘res’ our of a central point to build accurate models based on Ordnance Survey MasterMap with height data supplied by InfoTerra.

We’re very interested by the concept that you can infringe copyright with data in a virtual world. Then again, maps are the original virtual worlds, aren’t they?

Free Our Data mentioned in Parliament. It’s a start…

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

We’re gradually trying to get the Free Our Data campaign moved up the agenda: ministerial meetings, civil servants, European comparisons.

But we have to thank Mark Todd MP (see right) for at last mentioning the campaign in the House of Commons, during an adjournment debate on Monday night on the topic of “Public Information (Commercial Use)“.

Even if it was only to dismiss our precept… he said:

I should like briefly to comment on the free our data campaign [our emphasis], which has suggested that the correct path is to distribute Government data virtually for free, or at cost. The difficulty of that model, which relies on the argument that that would generate substantial economic growth and tax revenues that would easily repay the amount lost in revenues directly associated with the sales, is that I am afraid it places a substantial reliance on any Government—not just this one—to continue to fund the development and maintenance of the quality of data in those organisations. At the moment, the organisations have revenue streams on which they can rely to invest into the future. Simply relying on the Treasury to bury its hand into its pocket periodically to develop data into the future is wishful thinking. That is not the path down which we should be treading.

He makes a good point, but then, the Office of National Statistics faces much the same problem. Somehow that can be relied on to be independent

It is well worth reading the debate, even though the only participants (perhaps the only people who were present?) appear to be Mr Todd and Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development. As Mr Todd notes, it’s shaming enough that in trying to get a government minister to respond to PSI questions, nobody seems to be in charge:

One of the difficulties is that a variety of Departments have a role to play; there is no clear, coherent leadership, as was evidenced in the preparations for responding to this debate. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has been passed the parcel of answering at 10.15 or thereabouts, but to be honest the task could have gone to a number of other Ministers. Indeed, I was asked which Minister I thought it appropriate should answer the debate. There is a lack of clarity at that level that needs to be resolved.

His cause is to point out that there’s enormous value locked up in public sector information which ought to be made more visible. We agree; we only differ about the charging methodology.

Then again, the answer from Gareth Thomas does contain something that we find less encouraging:

Given that the trading fund model is well established, the Government believe that we should take the time to look at the issues in some detail. We must ensure that high-quality data continue to be produced, and public sector tasks fulfilled, at the same time as opportunities for the wider economy are maximised. It would be entirely premature to abandon what has been a high-quality data production model without fully exploring the consequences. As my hon. Friend said, the UK has world-class agencies, including Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry. I shall take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the professionalism, expertise and talent that is housed in each of those offices. We should be careful to avoid destabilising those excellent agencies.

Yes, but we’d hate to think he’s prejudging the outcome of the trading funds study, which will report on November 22.

(Mr Todd’s interest stems from the fact that before becoming an MP he worked for Pearson, and considered or may have set up companies which would have used data – some of it sourced from the public sector. As he says on his biography,

I spent 20 years in the publishing industry starting as an editor of school history books and leaving when I was running the warehouse, customer service and information systems of the UK business of Addison Wesley Longman. Through most of my business career my task was the transformation of previously unprofitable businesses or service functions which were too costly and failing to deliver.

Nice use of Google Maps on his site, by the way… the only pity is that he’s standing down at the next election. Then again, that could be some time away.)

Still, we’ll drop him a line to say thanks. And point out the ONS…

And an extra note for Steve Feldman: we didn’t lobby him..

APPSI chief comes out swinging against lack of government information/data policy

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Richard Susskind, head of the government’s Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, has been rather critical of government’s lack of strategy over PSI. We’ll have a longer interview with him in the paper on Thursday, but meanwhile here’s some extracts from a position paper (or lack of position paper?) that he has just completed. You can find it on the APPSI’s “Papers for Ministers” slot, or linked below here on the site.

“This paper is written primarily for Ministers who have a direct interest in or responsibility for the re-use of public sector information. It considers why and how the Government should formulate an explicit strategy for the re-use of PSI”

, it begins.

and continues:

“There has been growing recognition in recent years that this information (for example, geographical, meteorological and statistical information) constitutes a resource of great potential value; that public information is an asset, an intellectual asset, that should not be seen as usable for one purpose only. Instead, it is argued, this information can and should be made available for re-use (a recycling of sorts).”

Under current obstacles, he identifies

  • disagreement over the value of reuse (“APPSI strongly and confidently challenges the OFT”): Susskind says that “APPSI argues that the impact of the re-use of PSI is very significantly understated in that document and is better understood not by calculating the revenue generated by licensing PSI but by identifying the extent to which businesses and institutions rely on PSI.”
  • unclear government priorities: does it want to cash in on PSI to reduce the net public expenditure, or strengthen UK industry’s competitiveness?
  • There has been no single focal point for PSI, at Ministerial level, to ensure coherence across the public sector.” (This was one of the remarks made – with some amazement – by Derek Wyatt at the RSA/Free Our Data debate in summer 2006.)
  • The rapid growth of the Internet and emerging online developments may render current policy out of date.” (Already has, we would argue: the internet tends to make available any data and information resource that is reliable and free and elevate them above paid-for resources.)
  • There is significant disagreement over charging policy.” That is: “Some support trading funds and their sale of PSI in the manner of private sector businesses. Others argue for making PSI available at no cost or marginal cost. And still others make a case between these two poles.” Could he possibly mean us?
  • most damning, “There has been, until recently, little interest in the re-use of PSI amongst most Ministers and senior officials.” Although, he adds approvingly, “Recent ministerial interest suggests this may be a problem of the past.” Certainly if the response from Michael Wills is anything to go by.

The question of privatising some of the trading funds (first in line might be UK Hydrographic Office) is moot, he says, “in the absence of clearer underpinning policy” [on PSI]. That is, if you don’t know quite how valuable your PSI is – and what UKHO generates is definitely public-, not private-sector information – then you can’t make an informed decision about whether the taxpayer (who is the present shareholder in UKHO) will benefit from privatising it. If you reduce the shareholding to those who buy the shares in the privatised company, does that benefit the people who used to own it (us) by more than we lose?

His short-term list of jobs for the government is that within a year, the Government should:

  1. undertake or commission a robust analysis of the actual and potential impact

of PSI re-use on the UK economy and society, supported by plausible

valuations;

  • prioritise clearly which classes of re-user should be the prime beneficiaries
  • and identify what tangible benefits it expects to accrue;

  • nominate a senior Minister to champion the systematic and coherent re-use of PSI across the public sector;
  • assess the impact on PSI re-use of existing and emerging Internet-based technologies, especially Web 2.0;
  • revisit charging policy in relation to the licensing of PSI with particular
  • reference to trading funds 6; [already being done; report due November 22 – CA]

  • increase awareness of the impact and value of PSI within and beyond the
  • public sector.

    As I said, we’ll have a longer interview with Richard Susskind in Thursday’s issue. Meanwhile, you can read the document from here on the site.

    Ordnance Survey reviewing paper map licences – with a view to removing them?

    Thursday, October 18th, 2007

    You think you’ve got something good going, and then it gets pulled away.

    We’ve seen a letter from the OS to someone considering a paper map licence – which, as noted earlier, can save thousands of pounds over the “web-based” licences, by allowing you to put scans of maps online.

    At the time we queried whether the Paper Map Copying Licence (PMCL), which costs about £50 per year, could possibly be cost-efficient, since it would surely cost more than that just to administer.

    Possibly someone heard us in OS. The latter from its licensing department reads, in part (emphasis added, by us):

    We should let you know that the PMCL is currently undergoing an internal review. It was originally created a number of years ago and the intention behind the display and promotion rights was only to permit some very limited uses, such as a business showing their location to customers. With time, we understand that these rights could be interpreted more widely than was intended and overlap with other ways in which we license businesses to use our data.

    Should you now choose to take out a PMCL, it will remain valid under those terms (subject to termination in accordance with its provisions) for 12 months. After that time, depending on the outcome of our review, we may need to inform you that other licence terms will cover your use. Of course, we will give you as much notice of this as possible.

    Ordnance Survey does endeavour to achieve consistency in its licensing terms so that comparable uses are licensed on comparable terms. However, the number of uses to which our data are put – which are continually growing – sometimes means that there is unintended and unanticipated overlap between licences.

    Translation: this seems to be a loophole, so we’re going to try to close it. Lots of administrative effort and pencil-sucking meetings and civil service – sorry, trading fund – biscuits will be expended on trying to find legal wordings which preclude you from putting stuff on the web (where so much of business now happens) without paying us lots of cash.

    I’m giving a presentation to EPSI Plus next week, about the Free Our Data campaign. I’m toying with the idea of showing how Google would look if it implemented OS licensing on IP.

    Parliamentary question reveals Cambridge University doing trading fund study

    Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

    From theyworkforyou:

    Mark Todd: “To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the application of the Office of Fair Trading report on Commercial Use of Public Sector Information to the UK Hydrographic Office.”

    Derek Twigg, the minister responsible for the Hydrographic Office replied: “I expect the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to participate fully in the further work identified in the Government response. This includes the provision of information to HM Treasury’s economic study. The study, which is being conducted by Cambridge University, aims to provide cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. The completed study is due to be submitted to Government in mid November 2007.

    “The UKHO will also, if requested by DBERR [Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – formerly DTI] and HMT [Treasury], provide input to their work on the economics of information pricing.

    “The recommendations included in the market study report will be used to inform licensing policy following completion of the review of the UKHO’s structure and ownership. I expect to announce the outcome of the review early in 2008.”

    (It is quite interesting how many questions Mark Todd has been asking about CUPI. We really must follow him up…)

    Terms of reference for government study into Trading Funds: read (and/or download) them here

    Monday, October 15th, 2007

    The UK government, as you may know, has commissioned a study into trading funds – those organisations like the Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office, Land Registry, Met Office, Driving Standards Agency, Central Office of Information, Patents Offfice, and others, which cover their costs by charging for data and services which they sell inside and outside government.

    It hasn’t made the terms of reference public. Obviously, it would be useful to know what the TORs are, since that will affect how they are evaluated – rather as the questions asked in a survey affects its outcome. (“Do you think Gordon Brown makes a good prime minister?” gets different results from the same set of people as “Do you think Gordon Brown makes a bad prime minister?”)

    Happily, we can help the government out with its oversight, and make available the PDF of the terms of reference for download. [URL fixed – CA.]

    Some notable highlights:

    * the timeframe means that the successful bidder should have been told in “late July”. There are then two discussion sessions, on 20 August and 22 October (next Monday), followed by “submission of completed study” on 22 November (a Thursday – gives the civil service and ministers something to read from their red box over the weekend).

    * organisations which tender for the business are meant to keep that fact confidential.

    * “This work is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and any information submitted to the review may be subject to disclosure to a third party. You should identify any information included in your submission that you consider exempted from disclosure under the Act.” Sharpen your FOI requests.

    The study, it says, is

    It is aimed at providing cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. It does not cover policy advice, on Trading Fund structure or other matters.

    And what should it do? Here’s the heart:

    The study should analyse the costs and benefits of existing and alternative models for public sector information provision by Trading Funds. Pricing strategies covered should include market price; full cost recovery; marginal cost of distribution; and free.

    The study should estimate for each model:

    – economic costs and benefits to both the producer and consumers

    – fiscal costs and benefits. This is likely to include:

    • the impact on Trading Funds’ revenue, costs and return to the exchequer; taking account of the impact on their business model, and investment requirements
    • any direct government spending required to support current levels of data collection, maintenance and production and to finance future investment and product development
    • tax revenues generated to the UK by the use of public sector information by businesses and consumers.

    Estimate the impact, in costs and benefits, for the information market, specifically:

    • Any changes to data quality
    • Future information collection / production costs not picked up above
    • Levels of competition in the market
    • Expected level of innovation

    Costs and benefits should be split between those that are one-off adjustment costs and benefits, and those expected to continue for a longer period. Suitable discounting of one-off and future costs and benefit flows should be presented.

    That is going to be *really* difficult to do. Case studies for the costs and particularly the benefits of free data are extremely hard to come by – as we’ve discovered over the past 18 months.

    But there’s more:

    The modelling should also estimate the impact of changing from the current data distinctions of raw / value added to unrefined / refined as recommended by the OFT. These terms are described in the background section below. The researchers may also consider other data distinctions if they consider this valuable.

    For context, some consideration should be given to the experience of other countries and a wider perspective of the challenges in markets trading digital information goods.

    Well, we can at least help with the experience of other countries – we’ve pointed to New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Norway as countries which have made geographical data free to a greater or lesser extent, in government- (or regional government-) mandated changes.

    The key Trading Funds and the Shareholder Executive should be consulted in developing the estimates of the costs and benefits of models. Researchers would be assisted in obtaining relevant data from those trading funds. Annual reports and Accounts will also provide an important source of information for the researchers.

    Now we do hope that all the trading funds will be as helpful as they possibly can about this, and will consider seriously the possibility of making their “unrefined” data available for free, or at least providing some sort of costing scenario for it.

    The rules add that “the following are outside the scope of the study”:

  • implications for other public sector information holders
  • regulation of sector (ie roles, functions and funding of Office of Public Sector Information)
  • any changes to the legal status of public sector information Trading Funds
  • The basic thinking is that the trading fund model, at least for those which the sale of data (rather than services) is a key element of their funding, may be outdated and needs to be rethought. For now, we’ll remain optimistic about how widely whoever has been hired (and we’ll listen for that news with interest; you can comment anonymously below) will look for evidence to support all three models.

    Though of course if the consultants want to talk to us, we’re always on the end of a phone or email.

    |In Thursday’s Guardian: want to know where post offices are? Sorry, we can’t (or won’t) tell yoyu

    Saturday, October 13th, 2007

    The latest edition of Guardian Technology looks at the peculiar question of the locations of post offices, in “Want to know where the UK’s post offices are? Sorry, you can’t“.

    It’s the by-now familiar story: you can get a little data free (the ten nearest post offices to a particular postcode), but the whole lot – no.

    Demographer Keith Dugmore has been trying for the past couple of years to get hold of such a list. He runs the Demographics User Group, made up of people who use information such as census returns to make business decisions. A list of post office locations would be of great interest to other retailers, he says. It might also be of use to people publishing online guides, or to campaigners against the current programme to cut the network by 2,500 branches.

    As a state-owned company (a subsidiary of Royal Mail), Post Office Ltd is in theory subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “I made a freedom of information request to the Post Office asking if they would be able to supply a single file of all post office addresses in the UK,” Mr Dugmore said.

    The answer was no: first because it might have value to competitors; secondly because such a file would have commercial value in itself. He is now considering his next move. He could either appeal to the information commissioner or create his own list by “scraping” data from the Post Office website.

    But as the article points out, you could ask now for that dataset from OPSI through the Re-use request service forum – the web channel that has been set up precisely for requests like this. Use it early, use it often. We ought to know what datasets government departments have.

    Power of Information authors rebuff Ordnance Survey over “free maps” article

    Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

    Today’s Guardian carries a letter from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information report, responding to the “response” article in the Guardian last week by Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, which was headlined “These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.” (We’ve done our own analysis of it.)

    The letter is short and worth quoting in full:

    Scott Sinclair’s defence against the Guardian’s Free Our Data Campaign (Response, October 4) frames the debate about public-sector information in a wilfully misleading way.

    The Ordnance Survey is a public body, and some public bodies do, on the orders of politicians, give things away “for free”. The NHS provides services in the order of £100bn, and does indeed give them away mostly free of charge.

    The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

    As a body committed to the public good, we hope the the board of the Ordnance Survey will soon take up a more constructive approach than this article written on its behalf.

    Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo

    Authors, Power of Information review

    A couple of points to note:

    • I didn’t solicit this letter – I wasn’t aware it was going to be published. Which made it a nice breakfast surprise;
    • rather than the £110m that OS quotes for its required costs, this suggests £60m as the real “cost” – the extra taxpayer funding that would be needed (£110m to run OS, but a saving of £50m on licences within government);
    • they refer to the trading fund review, which we hear is being carried out by Rufus Pollock – but we don’t know what the terms of reference are. If anyone does know, we’d be interested to hear.

    OS: ‘we can’t give away these maps’

    Thursday, October 4th, 2007

    In today’s Guardian, in the “Response” column – where people or organisations can respond, unedited, to pieces that have appeared in the paper which they feel misrepresent them – Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, has written a piece that has been headlined These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.

    The crux of the argument: that “giving away” the OS’s data (as this campaign is pushing for) would mean a decline in the quality of OS data.

    But in repeatedly calling for our core information to be given away, the campaign ignores the fact that someone still has to collect supposedly “free” data, and that it needs to be supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Out-of-date or poor-quality data is useless.

    We agree about the need for quality data, though not the “ignores” bit. We have actually thought about this.

    It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

    This campaign doesn’t say (not even “often”) that OS is paid for by taxes. We repeatedly point to its trading fund model, and how we think that distorts the market. Though in the sense that just under half its revenue comes from government, which last time we looked was funded by our taxes, the OS does get taxation funding. It’s just indirect.

    Many local-authority websites and free-to-air services from private-sector companies embed Ordnance Survey information. We offer an emergency mapping service that helped in the response to the summer flooding. More than 30,000 university students and staff download free mapping from us.

    The students aren’t free to create commercial services with it, though; nor are the local authorities, of course, while the private sector companies often find that the costs of using OS data can be downright scary. If you’re not Google’s size, you’re not going to create your own system.

    Underpinning all of these examples is accurate and up-to-date information, which requires investment. Experience from around the world, and even from our own history between the world wars, shows that underinvestment can lead to a severe deterioration in quality.

    As we’ve said, here if not in print, there would need to be safeguards to make sure that OS got the funding it needed to meet its present targets (where something like 95% – or is it 99%? – of changes are put into MasterMap within 6 months of being captured).

    The key aim of the Free Our Data campaign is to force us to give everything away. We believe this would seriously threaten the quality of our information at a time when more people are relying on more of it in more ways than ever before.

    We believe it would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

    What’s interesting is that he references last week’s piece about Norway, which removed internal charging for its map data within government (though not externally) and has seen as a result that departments have leapt on the ability to create new systems and concepts as a result of not having to worry about cost or licences. Norway has only gone halfway – it still charges externally – but it shows what can happen.

    Information World Review points to benefits of “fair use’ on economy

    Thursday, September 20th, 2007

    Information World Review, which has joined the Free Our Data campaign, has pointed to a study comparing the economic benefits of industries which use copyright-controlled data, and those which use non-controlled data.

    The copyright-controlled side generates less economic benefit under the study (though we have to admit having seen a critique by Nick Carr, a columnist for Guardian Technology, pointing out that the study is amazingly wide-ranging – and includes entire industries which may lie on both sides of the “copyright/unrestricted” fence.

    It is difficult to do economic analyses of such things. For instance Google runs on the free Linux operating system. But you won’t find it giving out copies to Microsoft (even if Microsoft wanted it). Is that copyrighting, or unpaid use? The argument surely is that Linux *enables* Google to build a huge business which relies, internally, on all sorts of copyrighted, and closely-guarded details. In the same way, making government data free for the benefit of all citizens would give us the foundations for new businesses which could do remarkable things. GPS remains the classic example.

    OPSI opens web channel where you can ask for government data

    Thursday, September 20th, 2007

    One of the fruits of the Free Our Data campaign’s meeting with Michael Wills, the minister in charge (inter alia) of the Office of Public Sector Information, is that we’ve been consulted on the creation of a web channel where people can ask for datasets from government.

    That has now been set up.

    As OPSI put it in the official press release (on the National Archives page),

    The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI), part of The National Archives, has launched a new online forum to engage with anyone interested in the re-use of government information for commercial benefit.

    The channel will allow re-users of public sector information to request the release of government data that may have economic value.

    The initiative is one of the recommendations from the Power Of Information report. We have met OPSI to advise on content, format and layout of the chanel, which can be found at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/forums/forums/index.asp – more specifically, in the Re-use request service forum.

    In the welcome, John Sheridan of OPSI notes that the report says that

    Recommendation 8 from The Power of Information says “To improve government’s responsiveness to demand for public sector information, by July 2008 OPSI should create a web-based channel to gather and assess requests for publication of public sector information.”

    Good to see government beating a deadline.

    The government has accepted this recommendation and OPSI would like to engage with the re-user community with setting this new web-channel up. This is why we have set up this discussion forum, to hear your views and discuss our plans.

    So – what data would you like to see? Note of course that this doesn’t (necessarily) mean “free” data; there may well be a price on the data. But the question is, what do you think government has that you might want to see, and adapt, and turn into something? Never forget the power of mashing data – it could be that a few quite cheap data sources will reveal something very powerful.

    (We also spotted and notified OPSI of a security hole in the way the forums had been set up – now fixed. So that’s two ways we’ve been useful.)