Free Our Data: the blog

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

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

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.

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