Free Our Data: the blog

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


Environment Agency gives its reasons for stopping flood data being used

Today’s Guardian Technology includes “Rising tide of frustration at flood maps’ restrictions“, following on from the Environment Agency (for England and Wales) decision to forbid OnOneMap republishing a scraped version of its flood map data.. which is the sort of data that one would like to have at the moment when considering where to buy or rent next.

Interestingly, OnOneMap had also – it tells us – scraped the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency’s data for maps (which doesn’t use the same criteria as the E&W one; some joined-up thinking needed?) but hadn’t started using it.

So why is the flood map data not available beyond the EA site? The EA says it is – but at a price. “The charge for commercial use of the whole Flood Map dataset for England and Wales starts at £4,000 per year. We will charge a royalty fee on those companies that sell the information on,” the agency said.

“More than 50 commercial companies are licensed to use the flood map and/or our other flood risk data. Hundreds more commercial licences are issued for use of flood risk data for local studies. However, some do not pay because they are statutory customers, such as gas and electricity companies and utilities.” The data has been available since 2001.

Philip Sheldrake, managing director of the OnOneMap site, thinks it’s daft.

One irony Sheldrake points out is that the SEPA data is held in a different format – meaning that OnOneMap was the first service that pulled all this information together in one place (although it had not started offering the Scottish flood data when the EA complained).

“We have not applied for a licence [from the EA] as we believe the data should be in the public domain and moreover they have advised us that their licence terms still would not permit us to provide the data to the public via a website!” Sheldrake says.

Flood data? Although it could be done with an XML feed for all (guaranteeing it would be up to date) and thus displayed on any map outlay people wanted, we’re stuck – at present – with one pasted on Ordnance Survey bitmaps. Is this really the best we can do?

14 Responses to “Environment Agency gives its reasons for stopping flood data being used”

  1. Peter Whitehouse Says:

    Are Local Authorities use of height data still restricted for use making the public aware of flooding under the Mapping Services Agreement?

    “2.5 The Authority shall not be permitted to distribute or promote Flood Hazard Maps derived from the Mapping Products and/or Data.”

  2. Richard Woods Says:

    The point surely is that the data is freely available – to the public who paid for it. I have used it. I am a taxpayer and expect it to be free to me. What is not freely available is the database itself which is what Ononemap wanted so they could run a commercial enterprise based on it. Not wishing to comment on a process which lifted the data via 5.8 separate actions and reassembled it into a new database, I would only say that I approve of taxpayer funded data being available for entrepreneurs to base new businesses on. I just expect them to pay for the privilege and the maintenance of the data. Just as I fervently hope they will not dodge their taxes or become offshore based.

  3. Michael Cross Says:

    Richard, I’m pretty sure that if you asked people in the street whether businesses should pay for government data, nine out of 10 would agree that they should.

    A couple of years ago, I would have agreed, too. What changed my mind was a suspicion that income from such charges is exceeded by the costs of maintaining them – costs of administration, to other public sector bodies needing to pay for data, to the wider economy by stunting the growth of new knowledge businesses. Our campaign is based upon this premise.

    Is it valid? As the UK government concedes (see its response to the Power of Information report), nobody knows.

    As a first step, the Free our Data campaign would like to see some authoritative research on the costs and benefits of the current model.

    While we’re collecting such evidence, would it not seem reasonable as a matter of principle to set the default position as far as possible to “free” rather than “pay”? Especially when imaginative dissemination of the data is such an obvious public good?

  4. Charles Arthur Says:

    Richard, as I said in reply to your email on this topic to the Guardian (which you sent as a letter, so I feel it’s OK to mention) – giving commercial enterprises access to the database would mean they could do imaginative things with it, mashing it with all sorts of other information. Even just the XML feed would do the trick.

    You’re suggesting that instead of calculators, we should use government pencil and paper; instead of computers, log tables. It’s constricting, Plus we paid for the development of that database.

    OnOneMap would employ people in Britain; it would be a British company. Small-to-medium sized enterprises rarely have the nous to dodge taxes (or be bought by private equity).

    And even if it was offshore and employed no Britons, there’s a benefit in more people knowing which places are at risk of flooding, isn’t there? A social benefit which is hard to quantify but must exist – else why make the flood data available at all?

    Next week we’ll have an example of a country which has decided to make more of its data free, rather than paid-for. The examples so far suggest that you get much wider takeup and that the costs aren’t excessive, but you save a hell of a lot of administrative costs for licensing etc.

  5. Richard Woods Says:

    As I said, if we can be sure the nation gets the benefits then there may well be a case for freeing up the data source. As Charles makes clear he sees this as about British companies benefitting Britain. Its a bit wide of my poloitics to take such a nationalistic stance but it must be valid in this case. The point about needing to know risk of flooding is valid and covered by our ability now to check on the EA site (and locally too) for our own home, future home or friend’s homes. Again I see a commercial use of the service differently from a public information use. Mind you wouldn’t it be nice if they stopped building new in flood plains!
    In fact this debate supports the Guardian general point but begs the question – do we really understand the issue yet and have we figures on which to base the benefits of totally free access compared with “free to public and licenced to commerce”? Maybe that’s the point – we need to know.
    By the way I also suspect that some of these issues raise more cash than we are being told about – but until we can prove it we are better off surely dealing with the issue we can identify?
    Ome last worry – if Government agencies are only generators of free information will future politicians be willing to stump up the origination costs? I frankly doubt it. Of course maybe hypothecation of the economic benefit would help but the cost of such data mining could be prohibitive. This boat may be at risk of rocking?

  6. Charles Arthur Says:

    Richard, the government has acknowledged in its response to the Power of Information that it ought to do a financial study of the costs and benefits of the trading fund system. See the previous post (Catching up: government responds to OFT and Power of Information reports).

    We’re talking about government agencies that collect information that needs to be collected for government purposes, and which is essential as an important natural monopoly. Flood data has a national benefit, but is the EA best at using it? Map data is really important – but while the OS is brilliant at collecting it, is it really the best at exploiting it, and does charging make the difference between wide and effective use, or what?

  7. Philip Sheldrake Says:

    Richard,

    May I direct you to the comments left by tax-paying home-owners and home-hunters on our blog. They speak more loudly than I can do justice here.

    http://www.ononeblog.com/?p=28

    Regards, Philip.

  8. MJR/blog: environment Says:

    [...] 2007-07-24 (Permalink): Although a small puddle formed uphill of our house, it soon soaked away, so I thought we’d got away without any problems from the unexpected Summer Rain [niq's soapbox] around here, but it seems I was wrong… Walking along Kewstoke Road yesterday, I was surprised to see sandbags outside one house. When I mentioned it in the greengrocer’s, Nicky (excuse any misspelling) said they’d been sweeping the water flowing down the hill away from the shop door, as it would kill the wood floor and the electrics beneath if they didn’t. It seems the other side of the hill also had some flash floods, reported in The Weston Mercury – News: The day the rains came down. Even so, it was much less than up-river in Gloucestershire and across in Oxfordshire, where Midcounties Co-op has mobilised its resources to combat flood chaos [coop news] by distributing essentials like water. It seems finding out whether you’re in a flood risk area is unnecessarily difficult because the Environment Agency gives its reasons for stopping flood data being used [Free Our Data] – in short, they want to sell us our data a second time! In the longer term, it looks like things may change drastically around here if an entrepreneur from Burnham-on-Sea succeeds in his plan to wall in Weston-super-Mare with Severn Lake succeeds. (tip WWN ) What would that do to floods? [...]

  9. Homes in Thame Says:

    Last summer we had water shortages and the water providers were telling us not to use our hoses unless really necessary and this summer we have too much of it! I wonder how the house prices will be affected by this flooding?

  10. Steve Says:

    To be honest, I find the Flood Maps quite inaccurate, so I don’t see what the fuss is about. My nephew lives in Kidderminster and his house is on a slope about a flat valley. The Flood Map shows his house to be just within the flood risk area and his insurance costs reflects this! However, I was able to show, by using height data from several sources that his house is twenty feet above the height of a nearby flood barrier and at no risk whatsoever. and this was borne out by the recent flooding in the area when the waters did not reach the fence at the bottom of his garden but did reach close to the top of the flood barrier.

  11. Charles Arthur Says:

    @Steve – your point backs up our campaign. If we all had access to the OS data, then it’s a certainty that someone would build a much better flood map system. Hell, we might be able to derive our own flood maps individually for each house. Now that would be something for HIPS, wouldn’t it?

  12. Free Our Data: the blog » Blog Archive » Government seeks input on flooding review: got an opinion? Says:

    [...] We’ve already commented on how the Environment Agency restricts access to its flood data – a fact that is complicated, we now learn, by the fact that although the EA is a government-appointed agency, its data is not crown copyright (because it may have to sue government departments, which are “owned” by the Crown, and the monarch can’t sue him/herself. Follow that?) So not only would the Free Our Data campaign have to get trading funds reversed, it would have to get agencies paid by government to put their data under crown copyright. Honestly, it’s one step forward and one back. [...]

  13. Weetwood Says:

    The previous version of the flood maps were quite rightly referred to as ‘indicative’. They gave a good indication of areas that where flood risk should be considered. Given the difficulties of modelling the whole of the country, then assumption have had to be made, including an assumption as to the ‘bankfull’ capacity of the river channels as the remotely sensed DTM can’t pick up the detail for accurate modelling of in-channel flows.

    However, I agree with previous bloggers that we should be able to get the water surface elevation off the model so that a further level of analysis can be provided. But, this isn’t the only data that could be provided by the EA to improve the information on the flood zone maps. Flood defences are marked ont eh maps, but it is difficult to find out the height of the defences, even if a direct request is made to the EA.

    Once you’ve handed over your money (by cheque, which has to clear before you get anything!), frequently all you get is the ’standard’ of defence provided, referenced as a return period or percentage annual probability. The problem with this is that it normally included a ‘freeboard’ or safety margin that the EA build in to their standard level of defence.

    For example, I was looking at some coastal defences for a project. From topo survey, the height of the defences was equal to the quoted 1 in 200-year flood level. However, the EA quoted the standard of the defences as 1 in 7-years because they’d allowed a freeboard of 600mm. Needless to say this caused quite a bit of confusion for a non-technical third party!

    But back to charging for data and the EA. Here are a couple of examples where the EA has wanted to charge for information and it hasn’t seemed appropriate:

    1. For a flood risk assessment (FRA), I calculated flows for an urban watercourse using a current standard method. In responding to the FRA, the EA disagreed with my flow calculations and said that they had more appropriate figures for which we would have to pay. Not wishing to spend client’s money unnessarily, I spoke to the EA on the phone to find out whether or not their figures were current and appropriate. However, I was told that they couldn’t even tell me which method had been used to calculate the flows until we had paid for the information. Now I understand from other EA staff that this response was wholly wrong and inappropriate, but it happened!

    2. For another FRA, a colleague built a 2D hydraulic model that was submitted to the EA. As the EA office in question didn’t have the technical expertise to audit the model, they sent it to another firm of consultants for auditing. The auditors produced a report that raised a few questions about our model. The EA then told us we would have to pay to get a copy of the auditors report in order to find out (and answer) their questions. Fortunately, the lunacy of this was resolved and we were provided with the report free of charge, but it happened.

    While I would prefer free access to EA data, including real time and archived river level & flow records, there are many areas that they could improve their current service. Theya re trying to be commercial, but don’t provide the customer service to match. They’re data provision needs to be automated as does the payment procedure so that we don’t have to wait ‘up to 20 working days’. Automating the service could also free up staff resources to improve the quality of the data, rather than playing pass the parcel with cheques and data request.

  14. Matt Says:

    Weetwood, I agree it would be nice to be able to pick up water surface elevation from the floodmap, however the broad scale DTM used (5m) would not provide accurate enough data.

    I think this would cause more panic.

    To get a true representation of water level you must have a hydraulic model, HEC-RAS or JFLOW are recommended, however, as you well know, all of these require ground level data. LiDAR data is appropriate for modelling JFLOW, the only other thing you need is a hydrograph, which can be generated from HEC-RAS unsteady modelling or the ReFH method.

    I dont think the EA has any right to charge for data, they have also recently brought in this ‘freedom of information’ charge of ¬£100!

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