Free Our Data: the blog

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


Will the government try to privatise the UK Hydrographic Office?

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.

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