Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for August, 2008

Ordnance Survey’s lobbying, part 2

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

In Guardian Technology of August 21 we reported on Ordnance Survey’s hiring of a lobbying company called Mandate, and how it had kept watch on MPs and organisations which seemed to be interested in the whole “free data” concept.

Ordnance Survey responded to the story: this is a reprint in full of its letter. Following this, how a story in today’s Guardian Technology examines the contradictions between what OS says it does (and what its minister, Iain Wright, responded in his original Parliamentary answer – that it’s “consultancy and advice on Corporate Communications and Public Affairs”) and what the email track seems to suggest.

First, the letter:
“We are more than happy that the Guardian has shown this interest in the way that Ordnance Survey communicates about the important work that we do.
“Ordnance Survey data helps underpin life in Britain. It is relied on by business and society, from battling the effects of climate change to the sat nav in millions of cars. Our data is mapped down to the nearest few centimeters and updated up to 5000 times a day. It is this consistent level of quality, currency and detail that makes it so vital for public services, ranging from emergency planning to the delivery of everyday services on the ground.
“It is because Ordnance Survey data is so vital that parliamentarians and other important stakeholders expect us to communicate with them about our work. That is why we engage with politicians from all parties who care about the services that we provide. We have a duty to inform them on our role collecting the data needed to map every feature on the landscape, and how we intend to maintain the quality of this sophisticated data going forward.
“We’re committed to the best possible communications with all our stakeholders, now and in the future.
“Nicole Perry head of public affairs, Ordnance Survey”

And so to today’s story, Ordnance Survey defends its use of lobbying company:

The Free Our Data campaign agrees with Perry that the need to educate opinion-makers about geographical data in the digital age is an important part of its public task. However, a study of the 361 printed pages of correspondence between OS and Mandate, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests that its publicity campaign strays into broader areas of government policy. In particular, on the question of whether it and other information agencies should continue to be run as trading funds, required to cover their costs by charging for access to data. (The Free Our Data campaign argues that this policy hampers state and community initiatives to make better use of data.)

Among the papers we received is an account of a seminar on trading funds, organised on April 29 by Locus, an industry body which represents users of public sector information (and which retains its own lobbyist, a firm called Quintus Public Affairs). In an email to Perry, a Mandate executive reveals that she attended the seminar, accompanied by a colleague “Eleanor”, and reports back “on comments from the meeting that you should be aware of”. These include the views of Locus’s chairman, “Bryan Carlsberg” (sic – his name is Carsberg) that member companies should talk to the Conservative party on this issue “as they are currently looking for proposals for their manifesto”.

We’re just trying to square that with Iain Wright’s suggestion that this is “consultancy and advice on Corporate Communications and Public Affairs”. It seems very like, well, straying into areas of policy.

And there’s also the question of quite what is recommended.

On April 24 this year, Mandate alerted Perry that a Conservative MP, Greg Clark, had tabled a question about the relationship with Mandate. The email urged Perry to “please rest assured” that Clark had asked many such questions, and that the information needed in response is “minimal”. We will see whether Ordnance Survey’s minister follows that advice.

I had always thought that it was the responsibility of departments and government agencies to seek to answer Parliamentary Questions as fully as possible; if this is not done and the minister answering is not sufficiently briefed, it can be extremely embarrassing, initially for the minister. Is “minimal” advice sufficient? And overall, has Mandate really been good value for money?

One other thing we’ve heard:

Ordnance Survey’s use of a lobby firm to engage in the free data debate is likely to be on the agenda at the next meeting of the government’s Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information next month.

We’ll look forward to the minutes of that meeting.

Ordnance Survey’s lobbying, part 1

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Coming late to posting this (I blame holidays), but Mike Cross entered an FOI request after we noticed in May that it had paid a lobbying company called Mandate about £49,000 for “consultancy and advice on Corporate Communications and Public Affairs”.

Except that that description seems rather askew from what we found in the emails (released on paper, and redacted – you know, blanked out – to protect the names of individuals in Mandate and Ordnance Survey). Our thanks by the way to Greg Wright, then shadow minister for the Cabinet Office and MP for Tunbridge Wells, who asked the question (not on our behalf; we’ve no idea why he asked it, though it seems to have been well-informed). Iain Wright of DCLG answered it.

And so to our first story on the topic, which appeared in Technology Guardian under the headline “Ordnance Survey hires PR company to lobby politicians” (can you tell our lawyers checked it first?):

The correspondence reveals that Ordnance Survey (OS) is targeting MPs from Westminster and devolved assemblies, civil servants and leading figures in the free data debate. The agency openly attends party conferences and other political events to promote the value of geographical data. However, earlier this year a Parliamentary question revealed that it had paid a company called Mandate £42,076.20 plus VAT since August 2007.

However, it refused to release emails on backup tapes on the grounds of cost, £11,250. The correspondence released – mainly between Nicole Perry, head of public affairs, and Mandate executives whose names have been blanked out – reveals a busy programme of meetings with politicians, especially those who have asked questions in Parliament about OS’s corporate affairs, or about free data.

Among MPs named are Labour’s David Taylor – “you might recall that he’d (sic) raised the issue of free data” – Conservatives Anne McIntosh and Paul Beresford, and several Welsh Assembly members. According to Mandate, Robert Kee (Conservative, Salisbury) “is a big supporter of OS, so I don’t think this [a Parliamentary question] is anything to worry about”.

This story (of which that’s only part; go to the story itself to read in full) generated a response from OS, which will be dealt with (and we’ll publish the letter in full) in the next post up.

Met Police put up first version of crime mapping system

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Apologies for coming late to this; I’ve been away (and Mike Cross has mislaid his passwords to the blog).

Anyway: the Met Police have made their first version of the much-promised crime mapping system available. It’s at http://maps.met.police.uk/ and says it has been developed “in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Mayor of London”.

And the test version does come with a sort of data health warning:

Please note, that whilst every effort is made to record the details of crime and its location as accurately as possible, there are occasions when victims are unable to provide the actual location of a crime. In these instances, the site will not be able to display all the crime reported to the police.

So we make that, since 5 May 2008 when Boris Johnson came to power promising crime mapping, a total of 101 days to get to a beta implementation. As political fulfilment goes, that’s really not bad.

There are observations and criticism: Simon Dickson is only half-surprised that it’s built on Google Maps, not Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace (“Here’s a extra-high-profile government mapping application, and they’ve made a conscious – and entirely predictable – decision not to build it using the tool provided by the government’s own mapping agency.”); though Tom Loosemore, writing in his personal capacity, comments that

The biggest missed opportunity is the lack of proper profile for your local coppers (aka your “Safe Neighbourhood Team”). The site should make it dead easy for your to contact them, and challenge/shape their priorities. After all, even coppers work for you…

True, though it’s still early days. My principal criticism is that it simply shows crimes against “average”. If you go for a postcode (the first half, eg SW12 is enough) then you get total figures for an area, but that too isn’t helpful – there’s no idea of whether that covers a large area (is Balham, where I used to live, larger than Wandsworth, which apparently has far more crime yet is still “average”?).

Basically, it’s still keeping the information inside the police station walls, and I don’t think that’s enough. This information doesn’t have to be personalised, but it does need to be localised – in fact, made precise.

Update: there’s a Guardian story which has some quotes from police people involved:

A Met spokesman emphasised that this version of the map is a test phase and will be subject to a technical review.

“The software development will enhance the service that we currently provide regarding the number, rate and geographical location of defined crime types within the capital,” the spokesman said.

Ordnance Survey appoints first (non-exec) chair: Sir Rob Margetts

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

So, what does anyone out there know about Sir Rob Margetts’s web 2.0 credentials? Because that’s what he’s going to have to show now that he’s going to be the Ordnance Survey’s new, first non-executive chair, as announced in a formal press release today.

Sir Rob, it says, is a CBE, Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineers and FIChemE (institute of chemical engineers). The appointment is initially for three years.

Biography:

Sir Rob began his career with the ICI Group in 1969, progressing through a number of appointments within the group prior to joining the Board in 1992 and being Vice-Chairman from 1998-2000. Since 2000 he has been Chairman of Legal & General Group plc and in 2006 also became Chairman of Ensus Ltd.

(In case you’re wondering, Ensus aims “to become a leading provider of bioethanol to the European transport fuels market. Made from natural products such as wheat and sugar beet, bioethanol offers a renewable and environmentally friendly alternative to oil for petrol driven vehicles.”)

He is also a non-executive director of Anglo American plc and Chairman of the Energy Technologies Institute. In addition, Sir Rob was Chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) from 2001-06.

To be honest, on first glance it’s hard to see precisely what he’s bringing to this party. After all, what OS needs now is someone who can chart a course through the new web 2.0 world, where what matters is being able to see the best ways to exploit (in the most general sense) its intellectual property, amidst a changing political (small p), economic and online climate.

But back to the press release:

Of his appointment, Sir Rob comments: “I am delighted to have been invited to chair Ordnance Survey. It is a great privilege to join this organisation, which provides so much benefit to its users and enjoys an excellent reputation. I much look forward to working with Vanessa and Board colleagues as well as staff, business partners and customers.”

Vanessa Lawrence, who remains Ordnance Survey’s Accounting Officer and continues to report directly to the Minister, welcomes the appointment, saying: “I am delighted that Sir Rob will be joining us in the new role of Non-Executive Chair. With his outstanding record of business leadership and organisational development, I know that his knowledge, skills and expertise will be invaluable as we move forward in the coming years.”

Love the bit pointing out that Vanessa Lawrence continues to report directly to Ian Wright at DCLG. Why was that felt necessary? In case the media got the “wrong” idea about what this appointment means, one must presume. But then what’s the point of a chair over whose head the chief exec can appeal, since both are appointed by the same person?

Sir Rob will report to Shareholder Executive, the body that advises Ministers and senior officials on the government’s “shareholding” in organisations like Ordnance Survey. His appointment brings Ordnance Survey in line with other Trading Funds with Non-Executive Chairs who have already modernised their governance structures, such as the Met Office and UK Hydrographic Office.

Make no mistake: this is a shakeup of how OS functions. It’s a political (small p) shock to its system, but what will be interesting will be to see precisely how that plays out.

Anyone got any more information about Sir Rob Margetts, and in particular his approach to online intellectual property, business models and the web?

Show Us A Better Way offers £20,000 for developing prototypes

Monday, August 4th, 2008

The (British) government’s Show Us A Better Way competition has added another £20,000 string to its bow: this time, the prize – in addition to the original one – is available for prototypes of ideas that have been made on the site.

It offers a number of sites which will help with mashups, and links to useful code resources. Well worth investigating, since you don’t have to be one of the people with the ideas in order to benefit greatly from them.