Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for October, 2007

Ordnance Survey reviewing paper map licences – with a view to removing them?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

You think you’ve got something good going, and then it gets pulled away.

We’ve seen a letter from the OS to someone considering a paper map licence – which, as noted earlier, can save thousands of pounds over the “web-based” licences, by allowing you to put scans of maps online.

At the time we queried whether the Paper Map Copying Licence (PMCL), which costs about £50 per year, could possibly be cost-efficient, since it would surely cost more than that just to administer.

Possibly someone heard us in OS. The latter from its licensing department reads, in part (emphasis added, by us):

We should let you know that the PMCL is currently undergoing an internal review. It was originally created a number of years ago and the intention behind the display and promotion rights was only to permit some very limited uses, such as a business showing their location to customers. With time, we understand that these rights could be interpreted more widely than was intended and overlap with other ways in which we license businesses to use our data.

Should you now choose to take out a PMCL, it will remain valid under those terms (subject to termination in accordance with its provisions) for 12 months. After that time, depending on the outcome of our review, we may need to inform you that other licence terms will cover your use. Of course, we will give you as much notice of this as possible.

Ordnance Survey does endeavour to achieve consistency in its licensing terms so that comparable uses are licensed on comparable terms. However, the number of uses to which our data are put – which are continually growing – sometimes means that there is unintended and unanticipated overlap between licences.

Translation: this seems to be a loophole, so we’re going to try to close it. Lots of administrative effort and pencil-sucking meetings and civil service – sorry, trading fund – biscuits will be expended on trying to find legal wordings which preclude you from putting stuff on the web (where so much of business now happens) without paying us lots of cash.

I’m giving a presentation to EPSI Plus next week, about the Free Our Data campaign. I’m toying with the idea of showing how Google would look if it implemented OS licensing on IP.

Parliamentary question reveals Cambridge University doing trading fund study

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

From theyworkforyou:

Mark Todd: “To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the application of the Office of Fair Trading report on Commercial Use of Public Sector Information to the UK Hydrographic Office.”

Derek Twigg, the minister responsible for the Hydrographic Office replied: “I expect the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to participate fully in the further work identified in the Government response. This includes the provision of information to HM Treasury’s economic study. The study, which is being conducted by Cambridge University, aims to provide cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. The completed study is due to be submitted to Government in mid November 2007.

“The UKHO will also, if requested by DBERR [Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – formerly DTI] and HMT [Treasury], provide input to their work on the economics of information pricing.

“The recommendations included in the market study report will be used to inform licensing policy following completion of the review of the UKHO’s structure and ownership. I expect to announce the outcome of the review early in 2008.”

(It is quite interesting how many questions Mark Todd has been asking about CUPI. We really must follow him up…)

Terms of reference for government study into Trading Funds: read (and/or download) them here

Monday, October 15th, 2007

The UK government, as you may know, has commissioned a study into trading funds – those organisations like the Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office, Land Registry, Met Office, Driving Standards Agency, Central Office of Information, Patents Offfice, and others, which cover their costs by charging for data and services which they sell inside and outside government.

It hasn’t made the terms of reference public. Obviously, it would be useful to know what the TORs are, since that will affect how they are evaluated – rather as the questions asked in a survey affects its outcome. (“Do you think Gordon Brown makes a good prime minister?” gets different results from the same set of people as “Do you think Gordon Brown makes a bad prime minister?”)

Happily, we can help the government out with its oversight, and make available the PDF of the terms of reference for download. [URL fixed – CA.]

Some notable highlights:

* the timeframe means that the successful bidder should have been told in “late July”. There are then two discussion sessions, on 20 August and 22 October (next Monday), followed by “submission of completed study” on 22 November (a Thursday – gives the civil service and ministers something to read from their red box over the weekend).

* organisations which tender for the business are meant to keep that fact confidential.

* “This work is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and any information submitted to the review may be subject to disclosure to a third party. You should identify any information included in your submission that you consider exempted from disclosure under the Act.” Sharpen your FOI requests.

The study, it says, is

It is aimed at providing cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. It does not cover policy advice, on Trading Fund structure or other matters.

And what should it do? Here’s the heart:

The study should analyse the costs and benefits of existing and alternative models for public sector information provision by Trading Funds. Pricing strategies covered should include market price; full cost recovery; marginal cost of distribution; and free.

The study should estimate for each model:

– economic costs and benefits to both the producer and consumers

– fiscal costs and benefits. This is likely to include:

  • the impact on Trading Funds’ revenue, costs and return to the exchequer; taking account of the impact on their business model, and investment requirements
  • any direct government spending required to support current levels of data collection, maintenance and production and to finance future investment and product development
  • tax revenues generated to the UK by the use of public sector information by businesses and consumers.

Estimate the impact, in costs and benefits, for the information market, specifically:

  • Any changes to data quality
  • Future information collection / production costs not picked up above
  • Levels of competition in the market
  • Expected level of innovation

Costs and benefits should be split between those that are one-off adjustment costs and benefits, and those expected to continue for a longer period. Suitable discounting of one-off and future costs and benefit flows should be presented.

That is going to be *really* difficult to do. Case studies for the costs and particularly the benefits of free data are extremely hard to come by – as we’ve discovered over the past 18 months.

But there’s more:

The modelling should also estimate the impact of changing from the current data distinctions of raw / value added to unrefined / refined as recommended by the OFT. These terms are described in the background section below. The researchers may also consider other data distinctions if they consider this valuable.

For context, some consideration should be given to the experience of other countries and a wider perspective of the challenges in markets trading digital information goods.

Well, we can at least help with the experience of other countries – we’ve pointed to New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Norway as countries which have made geographical data free to a greater or lesser extent, in government- (or regional government-) mandated changes.

The key Trading Funds and the Shareholder Executive should be consulted in developing the estimates of the costs and benefits of models. Researchers would be assisted in obtaining relevant data from those trading funds. Annual reports and Accounts will also provide an important source of information for the researchers.

Now we do hope that all the trading funds will be as helpful as they possibly can about this, and will consider seriously the possibility of making their “unrefined” data available for free, or at least providing some sort of costing scenario for it.

The rules add that “the following are outside the scope of the study”:

  • implications for other public sector information holders
  • regulation of sector (ie roles, functions and funding of Office of Public Sector Information)
  • any changes to the legal status of public sector information Trading Funds
  • The basic thinking is that the trading fund model, at least for those which the sale of data (rather than services) is a key element of their funding, may be outdated and needs to be rethought. For now, we’ll remain optimistic about how widely whoever has been hired (and we’ll listen for that news with interest; you can comment anonymously below) will look for evidence to support all three models.

    Though of course if the consultants want to talk to us, we’re always on the end of a phone or email.

    |In Thursday’s Guardian: want to know where post offices are? Sorry, we can’t (or won’t) tell yoyu

    Saturday, October 13th, 2007

    The latest edition of Guardian Technology looks at the peculiar question of the locations of post offices, in “Want to know where the UK’s post offices are? Sorry, you can’t“.

    It’s the by-now familiar story: you can get a little data free (the ten nearest post offices to a particular postcode), but the whole lot – no.

    Demographer Keith Dugmore has been trying for the past couple of years to get hold of such a list. He runs the Demographics User Group, made up of people who use information such as census returns to make business decisions. A list of post office locations would be of great interest to other retailers, he says. It might also be of use to people publishing online guides, or to campaigners against the current programme to cut the network by 2,500 branches.

    As a state-owned company (a subsidiary of Royal Mail), Post Office Ltd is in theory subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “I made a freedom of information request to the Post Office asking if they would be able to supply a single file of all post office addresses in the UK,” Mr Dugmore said.

    The answer was no: first because it might have value to competitors; secondly because such a file would have commercial value in itself. He is now considering his next move. He could either appeal to the information commissioner or create his own list by “scraping” data from the Post Office website.

    But as the article points out, you could ask now for that dataset from OPSI through the Re-use request service forum – the web channel that has been set up precisely for requests like this. Use it early, use it often. We ought to know what datasets government departments have.

    Power of Information authors rebuff Ordnance Survey over “free maps” article

    Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

    Today’s Guardian carries a letter from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information report, responding to the “response” article in the Guardian last week by Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, which was headlined “These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.” (We’ve done our own analysis of it.)

    The letter is short and worth quoting in full:

    Scott Sinclair’s defence against the Guardian’s Free Our Data Campaign (Response, October 4) frames the debate about public-sector information in a wilfully misleading way.

    The Ordnance Survey is a public body, and some public bodies do, on the orders of politicians, give things away “for free”. The NHS provides services in the order of £100bn, and does indeed give them away mostly free of charge.

    The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

    As a body committed to the public good, we hope the the board of the Ordnance Survey will soon take up a more constructive approach than this article written on its behalf.

    Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo

    Authors, Power of Information review

    A couple of points to note:

    • I didn’t solicit this letter – I wasn’t aware it was going to be published. Which made it a nice breakfast surprise;
    • rather than the £110m that OS quotes for its required costs, this suggests £60m as the real “cost” – the extra taxpayer funding that would be needed (£110m to run OS, but a saving of £50m on licences within government);
    • they refer to the trading fund review, which we hear is being carried out by Rufus Pollock – but we don’t know what the terms of reference are. If anyone does know, we’d be interested to hear.

    OS: ‘we can’t give away these maps’

    Thursday, October 4th, 2007

    In today’s Guardian, in the “Response” column – where people or organisations can respond, unedited, to pieces that have appeared in the paper which they feel misrepresent them – Scott Sinclair, head of PR for Ordnance Survey, has written a piece that has been headlined These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free.

    The crux of the argument: that “giving away” the OS’s data (as this campaign is pushing for) would mean a decline in the quality of OS data.

    But in repeatedly calling for our core information to be given away, the campaign ignores the fact that someone still has to collect supposedly “free” data, and that it needs to be supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Out-of-date or poor-quality data is useless.

    We agree about the need for quality data, though not the “ignores” bit. We have actually thought about this.

    It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

    This campaign doesn’t say (not even “often”) that OS is paid for by taxes. We repeatedly point to its trading fund model, and how we think that distorts the market. Though in the sense that just under half its revenue comes from government, which last time we looked was funded by our taxes, the OS does get taxation funding. It’s just indirect.

    Many local-authority websites and free-to-air services from private-sector companies embed Ordnance Survey information. We offer an emergency mapping service that helped in the response to the summer flooding. More than 30,000 university students and staff download free mapping from us.

    The students aren’t free to create commercial services with it, though; nor are the local authorities, of course, while the private sector companies often find that the costs of using OS data can be downright scary. If you’re not Google’s size, you’re not going to create your own system.

    Underpinning all of these examples is accurate and up-to-date information, which requires investment. Experience from around the world, and even from our own history between the world wars, shows that underinvestment can lead to a severe deterioration in quality.

    As we’ve said, here if not in print, there would need to be safeguards to make sure that OS got the funding it needed to meet its present targets (where something like 95% – or is it 99%? – of changes are put into MasterMap within 6 months of being captured).

    The key aim of the Free Our Data campaign is to force us to give everything away. We believe this would seriously threaten the quality of our information at a time when more people are relying on more of it in more ways than ever before.

    We believe it would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

    What’s interesting is that he references last week’s piece about Norway, which removed internal charging for its map data within government (though not externally) and has seen as a result that departments have leapt on the ability to create new systems and concepts as a result of not having to worry about cost or licences. Norway has only gone halfway – it still charges externally – but it shows what can happen.