Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for February, 2007

Hospital health mapping project blocked.. yes, Ordnance Survey again, this time vs Department of Health

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Yes, you’d rather read about how successfully we’re being in getting the government to listen to this campaign. (Well, we hope to have some more news on that later this week.)

Meanwhile, you can read about how the North East Patient Health Observatory (Nepho) wanted to map data such as life expectancy, mortality and so on by local authority.

Sorry, said the Ordnance Survey, but no. Hence the announcement:

This service is currently suspended at the request of Ordnance Survey until an agreement for the use of certain data files and software has been reached between OS and the Department of Health. We regret we are unable to provide this service at this time.

So have we got this right? One arm of government needs permission from another (very much smaller) arm of government to create maps of data that would help the very much bigger arm of government – and the taxpayers wanting to know what’s happened to their taxes in the bigger government department – find out what’s happening.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems daft.

Update 1 March: Ordnance Survey’s PR has got in touch, and sends this response:

NEPHO chose to withdraw from the pan-government agreement for mapping data when the Department for Communities asked them to pay a contribution like everyone else. They withdrew but continued to use unlicensed data. That situation is unfair to the other members of the agreement and we were required to ask them to stop. In order to find a solution we are actively working with NEPHO and advising them that they can access the data they need under the agreement as a contractor for the Department for Health. It is not a matter of us versus the Dept for Health as you claim in the headline.

We’ll see if we can get some clarification from NEPHO.

Phone mast data: it’s free, and out there

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Interesting: ononemap, a property search company, has grabbed the data about mobile phone mast locations from Ofcom’s site and put it onto its own, along all the property ones.

Free data; commercial organisation using it. Will this be an example of the effect of using free data in the private sector?

It’s a very interesting application of (inevitably?) Google Maps, but the mashup – which as well as (obviously) properties for sale by area also optionally shows properties that have already sold, secondary schools, supermarkets and, now, mobile phone masts – which the sites notes at

© Ofcom: Information reproduced accurately and in context from the Mobile Phone Base Station Database and with adherence to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. OnOneMap displays the mast information as per the aforementioned database as of December 2006.

.

Is it bringing more visitors to ononemap? Is it helping house sales? (We feel obliged to point out that there is no evidence that phone masts have any effect on your health – though of course you might be able to bargain down a seller if you could point out there was one nearby…)

Who owns Scotland? Now without maps!

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

The owner of the Who Owns Scotland site, which aims to document the ownership of the land in Scotland (durr), gets in touch to tell us about how the Ordnance Survey (sorry, yes, them again) kept switching its position on whether and how or even if he could use its maps on his site.

As this page he outlines his problems:

All Ordnance Survey (OS) digital mapping was removed from this website on 23 February 2007. This was due to the unilateral termination of my contract by OS in October 2005 and my unwillingness to accept the new terms that were being proposed by them due to excessive costs, continuing contractual uncertainty and a breakdown of trust.

The problem arose because depending who he spoke to in OS, he either was allowed or wasn’t allowed to use their maps on his site. Eventually, just as he was trying to decide whether to renew his licence (he was paying, like a good protesting but law-abiding citizen) to use the maps, the OS told him that it had summarily ended the contract about six months earlier.

It was recently established that OS has “no more than sewven lawyers, amounting to 6.2 full-time equivalents”. One feels that they’re spending time undoing each others’ work. Now, if there weren’t any copyright issues…

In the Guardian: how Ordnance Survey keeps election boundaries to itself

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

In this week’s Guardian Technology, we look at the peculiar way that the Ordnance Survey treats the information collected by the Boundary Commission of England, under orders from the Electoral Commission (pay attention at the back..) when it’s drawing up constituency boundaries.

Obviously the boundaries’ locations affects who might win elections in marginal seats; they’re being redrawn right now, in fact. Academics are interested to know how they’ve changed, in as much detail as possible, because they tell you interesting things about society, and so on.

Turns out though that the Boundary Commission collects the geographic data and then puts its copyright on it. You can probably guess the rest of the story: those who want to use it for anything other than academic, educational or political purposes has to pay. Parties are banned from reusing the data (which OS makes available, for free viewing but no re-use, at election-maps.co.uk.

However there’s an interesting – if limited – development:

Last year, OS gave Professor Richard Topf, director for the Centre for Comparative European Survey Data based at London Metropolitan University, permission to show Westminster parliamentary boundaries for each election since 1983 (besis.org). Furthermore, it provided the data at no charge, encouraged its development and links to the resulting site from the Election Maps site. Topf says the reason the maps go back only to 1983 is simply because they are not available in digital form before then.

But the site uses outlines of whole constituencies, rather than high-resolution mapping. Topf says OS required that high-resolution data could not be extracted from the site as a condition of its use: “It took several months, but that was because they wanted to know a lot about the technical construction of the files,” he says.

OS says that agreements outside Edina have to be considered to ensure that material is used only for the purposes granted, and if it is for display use only, OS may require technical safeguards so data cannot be extracted for commercial use.

Dr Southall says such agreements can be hard to come by: “The academic liaison side [of OS] is very, very helpful, but as soon as you say ‘copyright’, the whole organisation freezes,” he says.

We heartily recommend besis, which is very interesting to play around with – though as the article points out, the detail is limited.

But as for copyright freezing everything, see our post about whoownsscotland.

Will the government try to privatise the UK Hydrographic Office?

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

In this week’s Technology Guardian, we look at the options being examined – and one important option not being examined – for the future of the UK Hydrographic Office.

In UK Hydrographic Office runs into dangerous waters, Mike Cross notes that two options – making UKHO a private company fully-owned by the Ministry of Defence (which is a first step to privatisation) and remaining as a trading fund – are being considered.

Worryingly, the review announcement lists only two “principal options” for the office: to maintain it as a trading fund, or to convert it into a company owned in whole or in part by the Ministry of Defence. As the review coincides with a squeeze in spending, ministers may be tempted by any injection of cash that could be raised by a share sale.

For free data, this could be an even worse outcome than the present state of affairs. The perils of creating a jointly owned company were illustrated last week by the Department of Health, which found itself criticised by auditors over the way it set up a joint venture with a commercial business, Dr Foster.

Kablenet reports on the NAO’s kicking of NHS:

The report notes that government is increasing its use of joint ventures, but concludes that, in the absence of a fair competitive tender process, the Information Centre had no fair comparisons or benchmarks to demonstrate this was the best structure to meet its needs, or that it represented good value for money.

Back to the UKHO: the FOD campaign believes

that the Hydrographic Office review should include at least one further option: that of direct government funding for the collection of raw hydrographic data, which should be freely available to all comers. At a time when information about coastlines and seabeds is of vital environmental importance, this would be in keeping with the spirit of the European Inspire directive on the exchange of geophysical information. It would also maintain a British tradition of international cooperation, regardless of politics, in matters of maritime safety.

But there’s always a kicker. And in the case of an MoD-owned or operated organisation, it’s this:

One objection, of course, is that this policy would force the Ministry of Defence to choose between funding hydrographic surveys and giving soldiers on the front line decent body armour. It would be a courageous minister who favoured the former.

One could argue, of course, about the wisdom of needing to make the choice; on whether better intelligence can be gathered by more free access; and so on. But politics is the art of the possible. The government review is a worrying development, because it implies that everything must have a price – no matter what the economics might show.

Do ministers listen to advisory panels? The one on public sector information (PSI) isn’t so sure

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

The Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI) has just issued its third annual report, and it’s a mixed bag, at least in terms of how it sees ministers reacting to it. Mostly, it seems, they don’t – or they don’t take the value in PSI seriously.

In Yes, minister, it’s time for the data debate, Michael Cross points out how the APPSI has struggled with what could be interpreted as indifference:

The advisory panel’s report suggests that current policy – torn between the demands of data protection, freedom of information and earning a commercial return – is in a mess. The report reveals a tale of frustrated attempts to try to interest ministers in public sector information – which one expert member describes as “the main asset of government”.

And:

Throughout the report, there is frustration at the low priority given by ministers to questions of public sector information. Members of the panel “have been disappointed in the past year with our inability to stimulate and secure ministerial interest”, the report reveals.

And as the article also points out, we know how it feels. Guardian Technology has for the past month repeatedly requested an interview with Baroness Ashton, the minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs with responsibility for information rights. Her office has not responded. (Her theyworkforyou page includes the interesting note “never rebels against her party in Parliament”. Well, ministers tend not to, of course.)

We might start a timer to see how long it’s been since we requested the interview to date.

Internal transfer pricing: the justification for OS charging. But is it right?

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Steven Feldman has put up a new post at his Giscussions blog, where he’s pulling together a series of comments he and I left about the FOD concept, and particularly the Ordnance Survey role in it.

As he notes, some good economists would be useful. You can comment here or there.

Steven writes, at his blog:

Lots of organisations in the commercial sector use internal transfer pricing mechanisms between divisions. Sometimes this is to allocate revenue between tax jurisdictions (can be tax avoidance but can be legitimate and reasonable) and in other circumstances transfer pricing ensures sensible investment and commercial strategies, good rates of return and avoids waste and inefficiency. OS charging public sector clients for the use of its data is just a form of transfer pricing within the public sector, there are loads of other examples. Describing it as a money-go-round is overly simplifying the topic.

In theory (and I stress the word theory) the endeavour to establish a market price for the supply and maintenance of the national map will help to ensure that the public sector achieves best value from its expenditure. With the private sector snapping at OS heels there will be some limited pressure on pricing although I recognise that scale prevents any serious competition at the moment. Perhaps some company will decide to take OS on head to head, then we might see an interesting tussle – but no free data.

As Pete commented the concept of treasury funding to OS took a bit of a bashing with the withdrawal of the NIMSA. I cannot see how anyone who cares about the quality and currency of the national map could advocate placing the whole lot at the whim of a treasury mandarin in a budget crisis.

Are we talking our way into a sell off? Would that matter?

In order, my responses: internal transfer pricing can be justified as “putting a commercial value on something internal”. That’s what the BBC did with “Producer Choice”. It wasn’t popular, but equally some of the things it did – like getting internal BBC divisions to compete directly against outside ones – did focus the mind. OS though is intimately tied to the public sector. Are there many other organisations out there offering what it does? Does the MOD call up Google or TeleAtlas for some maps?

Placing OS at the whim of a Treasury mandarin – well, that’s the point about ring-fencing. I’m sure it’s how we’ve ended up with the situation we have at present, where OS is a trading fund so that it very specifically doesn’t trouble the Treasury when spending rounds come, er, around. And OS works very hard – driven by Vanessa Lawrence, who saw all this rapidly on joining (to give her her due: she’s evidently an able political animal, in the best sense) – to stay out of the Treasury’s way.

But while that’s convenient for the Treasury, and for Gordon Brown in the short term, it’s not to everyone’s benefit overall. It’s rather like health insurance vs universal health care. Why don’t we pay directly for health care, as in the US? Because we’ve judged that it actually has effects we don’t like.

As for talking our way into a selloff – I think Vanessa Lawrence would lobby very hard against that, and would probably get backing in that view from DCA (Dept for Constitutional Affairs), which wouldn’t want the vast hassle and distraction of readying a privatisation. Notice how OS didn’t put the National Geographic Database into the National Asset Register that Treasury has just drawn up. Nice way to stay out of the spotlight, again. (Of course, the NGD doesn’t appear in the OS accounts, so it’s the most intangible of intangible assets.)

Equally I think there is some gradual movement within government towards cheaper data. Quite how one squares that circle with the OS being a self-sufficient body is tough. I agree. There aren’t easy answers. But there are better ones.

The money-go-round, and the truth about Ordnance Survey funding

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Wonderful what a bit of careful watching of the theyworkforyou site (which slices and dices the doings of Parliament into usable form) can do.

For instance, revealed through a series of questions posed by Derek Wyatt (who chaired the RSA’s Free Our Data debate) is the fact that more than half of the Ordnance Survey’s funding for the financial year 2004-5 came from the public sector, because while it’s happy to say its figures are only 47%, that doesn’t include NIMSA funding.

In fact, Nimsa contributed £13.2m to OS that year while “turnover from operating activities” was £114.7m. Nimsa was thus more than 10% of OS revenues that year. (The reports don’t seem to distinguish between NIMSA revenue and trading revenue.)

Here’s the question.

In Bureaucratic nonsense of the government’s money-go-round we point out that a lot of the Ordnance Survey’s revenues are part of a carousel – upheld by lawyers (it’s got six, and spent more than half a million on outside legal fees) – in which money travels around the public sector.

And it’s not the only one:

Meanwhile, defence minister Derek Twigg shed some light on the extent to which another successful trading fund depends on government support. Answering a question from Conservative MP Mark Lancaster, Twigg said that of the Meteorological Office’s revenues of £170m in 2005-06, 36% came from central and local government. The scale of such payments being made between different arms of the state calls into question the government’s claim that its mapping and meteorological agencies operate on a commercial basis.

The issue of freeing data, and whether it’s a good idea or a middling one or a bad one, or even a good one that would be confounded by a Treasury keen to cut funding for any agency, is one I’ve been discussing quietly with Steven Feldman (who often contributes in the comments here) over at his Giscussions blog. You’re welcome to comment here or there.

But a key point is this: the Treasury hasn’t looked into the cost/benefit of making more data free of charges and of copyright restrictions. The Office of Fair Trading has at least made a beginning. We think it looks better than the Treasury allows.