Free Our Data: the blog

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

DCLG Select Committee snipes at Ordnance Survey; MoD says why not split it up?

The report from the Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government looking into Ordnance Survey’s licensing and business model – a followup from 2002 – is now published.

It’s an interesting read, not least for some of the implications of what is said, and also for the repeated refrain that runs underneath: the government’s created a bit of a monster; but it doesn’t have any adequate way to un-monster it, unless it does what the Ministry of Defence suggests in its written evidence, split it:

Perhaps it is time for OS to split in two to have a government funded national geographic database capability and a separate commercial arm which exploits that data, with the same licence conditions as applied to any other commercial user. As the MOD is not a commercial competitor it has not been affected by this aspect of the OS role.

Now what’s interesting about that, of course, is that the government-funded NGD organisation would be, well, government-funded. OK, so there’s not a “free data” exploitation, but it’s a start.

The committee does recommend that OS’s accounts be made more transparent, to show how much of its costs come from the NGD work, and how much from exploiting that work. OS says it’s discussing this with the Office of Fair Trading (whose CUPI report suggested a similar split, along the lines of “refined” and “unrefined” data – which OS says doesn’t apply to its work). But there’s no timetable for a change, nor yet an indication of whether OS will adopt either suggestion.

There’s a brief story in the Guardian’s Technology section – “MPs rap Ordnance Survey’s ‘complex and inflexible’ licences” – , but there wasn’t really space to go into the points made – particularly in the evidence – in any detail.

But the evidence is fascinating for the picture it gives. The private company Getmapping, for example, charges that

competing with the OS in the imagery market has been a dangerous, frustrating and uncertain process

and believes that

OS is competing unfairly in the imagery market. We think that OS can do this because the boundaries between its national interest and its commercial activities are not well defined and because there is no effective regulator to whom we can appeal for help. Had OS taken notice of the recommendations of the previous 2002 Select Committee report then we think that many of our current problems would have been avoided.

We’re now all agog for the trading funds report that was commissioned by the Ministry for Justice all those months ago, which some have suggested to us might be published in time for the Budget (March 12). However, since it’s highly unlikely – even if the report suggested that all trading funds should be put under a direct taxation model (or, insanely, privatise them all), there wouldn’t be time to act on them by the budget. So the timing of the budget probably isn’t going to change the timetable. We’re still in it for the long haul, but the committee’s report has turned up some interesting grumblings within government about the way that OS is forced to cover its costs.

Tell us: what aspects of the conclusions or evidence do you find most interesting?

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