Free Our Data: the blog

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

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

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.

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