Free Our Data: the blog

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


Questions arising from a talk to Kingston University: UKHO and politicians

I gave a talk on Wednesday to some students at Kingston University as part of their course on “Contemporary Issues in GIS”. They’ve got quite a speaker list – next week it’s Ed Parsons (ex-Ordnance Survey, now Google) and in June they’ve got Vanessa Lawrence OBE, chief executive of Ordnance Survey. Previous to me they had heard from Surrey Satellites (which is interested, of course, in the possibility of Galileo getting the go-ahead). Big Wave : Porthcurno(photo from Flickr by wurz)

Anyhow, the video of the talk may be available at some time in the future. But for now, there were two questions that came up, one hard, one easy, which I thought summed up the present position.

The hard question: if you make UK Hydrographic Office’s marine data free, won’t you get all the foreign organisations who used to pay for those charts taking a free ride, at the expense of the UK taxpayer?

(A part-answer I didn’t think of at the time is that we’re only talking about making the electronic data free; paper charts would still be charged for, at cost.)

Which raises a question I don’t know the answer to: what proportion of UKHO’s revenues comes from sales of its data to overseas organisations? And what proportion of the mapping it does is of waters outside UK territorial waters?

The easy question: what’s the main obstacle to moving to a free data model? Simple – politics. There isn’t the political will there at the moment, and everyone’s reluctant to be the one who might subsequently be regarded as the person who broke this nice system.

Except that didn’t exactly hold anyone back over railway privatisation or the poll tax, nor even the privatisation of Qinetiq, did it?

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