Free Our Data: the blog

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

OS: ‘we can’t give away these maps’

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 Out-of-date or poor-quality data is useless.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.

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