Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for May, 2007

If councils move to Google Maps does that help or hinder Ordnance Survey?

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Today’s Guardian Technology looks at how a number of councils, notably including the London Borough of Brent, and even some central government organisations, are moving to use Google Maps for their consumer-facing displays of map data.

In Councils bypass Ordnance Survey for Google Maps, Heather Brooke looks at the shift, which councils are making because in the first instance, Google Maps is free and comparatively easy both to program and use:

Traditional geographical information systems provide “complex data, complex systems”, said Dane Wright, IT service manager at Brent council in north London, at the annual conference of GIS in the Public Sector earlier this month. Google Maps, by contrast, provides “complex data, simple systems”.

Wright told the conference: “What we are doing is moving to Google Maps as the primary interface for casual use by public users. This will leave the GIS system for more specialist users. The reason for doing this is to provide a better user experience – familiar interface, easy to use, integrated aerial imagery, attractive, no need for training or large manuals.”

But, you say, OS is the source for pretty much all of Google Maps data – and where it isn’t then the company that is sources that from OS.

That’s true – but it does mean that OS becomes vulnerable if Google decides that it would like to shift to someone else for its mapping data. And without knowing the precise details of the Google Maps licence with OS – does it pay per map displayed, per frame downloaded, or is it a lump sum? – one has to wonder what the effect will be.

Meanwhile, even the government’s Directgov system for finding a school in a locality uses Google Maps (although a number of other Directgov systems don’t). Other examples of Google Maps (or indeed Yahoo! Maps or Live Local Maps) being used rather than OS for customer-facing products are welcome. Seen any?

Postcodes: local authorities vs Royal Mail still arguing; want to sign a petition?

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

We’ve got intellectual property rows, petition and a question you might be able to answer this time.

This week’s Guardian returns, in Royal Mail fails to address database issue, to the vexed question of whether RM will let local authorities retain some intellectual property in the addresses they provide to it, as well as paying them for it – neither of which happens at present.

According to leaked letters we’ve seen, RM isn’t in favour. But the authorities are. Impasse. And as the article points out,

The saga provides a graphic example of an issue at the heart of Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign – the bureaucracy and waste that ensue when state bodies treat vital data as an asset that must be made directly profitable.

The addresses go into the Postcode Address File, which unlike thousands of post offices

is profitable, making £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m in 2005-06 (Royal Mail’s postcode database reveals its profitable side, April 26). Councils in England and Wales spend about £2.5m a year on postcodes (paid to Ordnance Survey and commercial businesses, as well as Royal Mail).

After protests last year over price rises, Royal Mail said that it would consider “reasonable remuneration” to local authorities supplying data on new addresses. But negotiations on the terms have foundered over intellectual property rights.

This one could run and run – and already has.

This ludicrous position is a result of conflicting responsibilities placed on state-owned bodies. As a commercial (albeit state-owned) enterprise, Royal Mail has to make its assets pay, and that includes a national resource such as postcodes. Local authorities are being squeezed by council-tax caps and efficiency targets; selling data is thus a rare new source of income. The agency, meanwhile, wants to ensure the future of the National Land and Property Gazetteer, which it sees as a vital tool for modernisation. Its commercial contractor, Intelligent Addressing, is embroiled in a separate dispute with Ordnance Survey over addressing data.

The Free Our Data campaign proposes that all public bodies to free up their address databases, funded from central taxation. We’re not alone. A petition at urging the prime minister “to end the address dispute between local government, Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey” has 370 signatures.

In case you haven’t been to see (or sign) it, here’s the address mess petition. (It was started by Robert Kimber of Luton council; he’s been quoted here earlier.) We found it via the NLPG’s April e-zine – which is itself an interesting byway. The NLPG, of course, is the one which handles all the addresses (except for Birmingham’s. Why doesn’t Birmingham belong to the NLPG? Answers in a comment, please.)

Environment Agency charges for data that were free – creating risk to water

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

In “Free groundwater information dries up“, today’s Guardian looks at the example that was passed to us of the Environment Agency, which 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.

One-third of the water Britons drink comes from the ground; in dry and crowded south-east England that proportion rises to three-quarters. But groundwater is a limited resource and vulnerable to pollution. Contaminants can be diffi cult to detect until it is too late. According to the Environment Agency, the main danger comes from constant small leaks of sewage, agricultural chemicals and oil.

The first step to safeguarding our hidden groundwater is to tell people where it is. For this purpose, the agency has identified some 2,000 “source protection zones” around wells, boreholes and springs supplying public drinking water. These zones cover the total area of land needed to support removal of water from a source. They identify places where there is a risk of contamination and allow the authorities to monitor and control polluting activities.

Those data used to be available free as a download from its website; consultants and others considering where and what to do in places they suspect might be SPZs could consult them. Government-collected data, available for free, with a public benefit in its being free.

Now the EA is charging companies for the data:

One consultant says he has been quoted £750 for an annual licence to access data on source protection zones. The agency confirmed that it charges business users. The policy began “a couple of years ago”, it added.

Strangely, it seems to say that individuals can get it for free. (How about self-employed ones?) To which consultants reply that this will probably lead to companies taking the cheaper way out – use the old datasets. But because SPZs can change, that implies a risk to groundwater.

From the article:

Technology Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, which argues that all impersonal electronic data collected by the government in the course of its public duties be made available free to all comers, agrees. Apart from the direct risks arising from data not being available, there is also a chilling eff ect to the wider knowledge economy: innovative ways of disseminating these data may never be developed if it remains controlled by government.

There is also a practical issue: does the revenue from licensing to conscientious professionals (for unscrupulous ones may find their own sources) really outweigh the cost of administering and policing the charging regime? And is there an overall benefit beyond any (undemonstrated) financial one? With data held on a web server, issues of scarcity do not exist; unlike a well, a server will never run dry of the necessary 0s and 1s to make a copy of a dataset. Yet the Environment Agency is seeking to impose an artifi cial constraint on the supply of this data without any evidence that such a constraint is necessary.

Note: this is, as so many of the examples in this campaign are, an example of charging for data that arguably would be better free sent in by a reader. We’re always grateful for these, and fascinated by how wide and deep your experience goes. Please do let us know, either by leaving a comment here or emailing me ( works well) about other examples of data being charged for that should be free. The government is beginning to listen, we think.

How home information packs give local government a pricey monopoly

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

In today’s Guardian, “Government ducks the issue on property search data” looks at how the arrival of home information packs will give local councils a monopoly in land searches for properties. Trouble is, it’s not one that they’re entirely happy having because it ends up costing them.

However, local authorities can be sticky about releasing “unrefined” information. Nearly two years ago an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that one in 10 authorities provided no access to records of Town and Country Planning Act notices – even though by law this information should be openly available for free. A personal search company told the office that one third of local authorities do not provide information on highway developments.

Councils argue that they are in a cleft stick. The fee levels set by central government for access to certain items of unrefined data do not cover the cost of dealing with personal search companies. On average, each request takes council staff 70 minutes. They therefore have to subsidise this service out of fees charged for compiled searches. Charges range from £55 to £269, with an average cost of £119.

What’s the problem?

This is another example of what happens when a public body with a monopoly in raw data tries to sell products compiled from that data.

Couldn’t the government do something definitive?

The government responded this month with a consultation document on “Good Practice Guidance” that urges councils to play fair. One key concern of the OFT – price transparency – is ducked entirely. This will be subject to “a further consultation exercise later this year”.

It’s almost strange how the government keeps putting off big decisions like this. It’s almost as if they were waiting for someone important to leave, or someone important to take on a new job so that things could settle down.

Meanwhile we’re expecting the DTI response to the OFT report on public sector information to be released any day now. Let’s hope it’s not bad news – it might get buried.

APPSI comes out in favour of Ordnance Survey on addressing – but it’s two-edged

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Deep waters here: this is a case where what goes on in public is more subtle than at first appears. Read on, and you’ll find – we think – that the government is being forced to define precisely where the Ordnance Survey’s “national obligation” ends and its “commercial” (that is, optional, non-core) activities begin…

Today in The Guardian we report on how the Advisory Panel for Public Sector Information has determined in favour of Ordnance Survey in the row between OS and Intelligent Addressing, which runs the National Land and Property Gazeteer (NLPG).

The APPSI said that it couldn’t really rule on the matter – which drew what could be seen as an affronted response from the Office of Public Sector Information, which said that APPSI was making a “literal interpretation” of the rules governing PSI.

As the article explains,

Intelligent Addressing, which operates a gazetteer compiled and run by local councils, complained in February 2006 about the way Ordnance Survey licenses its address database, called AddressPoint.

Intelligent Addressing complained to OPSI, formerly Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, which oversees two compliance mechanisms: the public sector information regulations and a “fair trader” scheme. In July, OPSI’s report backed some of the firm’s complaints. Both sides then asked the APPSI, an expert group responsible to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to review the findings.

In a 17-page report published on Monday, the advisory panel says that Ordnance Survey’s AddressPoint product is not part of the mapping agency’s “public task”. As such, it cannot breach regulations covering the supply of public sector information. The APPSI recommends that the company take any further complaints to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Here’s the interesting point. If AddressPoint isn’t something that OS needs to do (because it’s not “public task”), then that must be something that lies on the commercial, not PSI, side of its operations. In which case there must be other data that needs to be defined as being the public task.

But equally, one would expect that like the Met Office, which has to charge itself fairly for the data it collects and then resells, this will prevent the OS cross-subsidising itself. In effect, it would strip back what the OS does to a “public task” bone.

Richard Susskind, the head of APPSI, may have made a clever move by palming this off. It in effect forces OPSI to determine what OS’s public task is, and what the limits of PSI are.

We’ll watch with interest.