Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for March, 2009

Islington: you want a map? You’ll have to pay

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

An intriguing move by Islington Council, which now demands that if you want to download something that has a map in, you pay. At least if that something is part of a planning proposal.

From its Planning Policy page:

Islington’s planning policies are set out in our Unitary Development Plan (UDP) – which was agreed in June 2002. The UDP provides the basis for all the council’s planning decisions. It contains broad strategic policies in part one of the plan, and more detailed policies in part two.

There is also a proposals map which shows areas where specific policies and proposals apply. You can see the text of the UDP on this site, but if you require the proposals map you will have to purchase a copy. [Emphasis added – CA.]

So why has Islington introduced this? (We may have been a little remiss in noticing this – the page says it was last updated on 31 October 2008.)

Could it be because of that famous Ordnance Survey warning of last year, made around that time? Is the council prohibited from providing any sort of map, or perhaps charged each time someone downloads a map? And if the latter is the case, is it making a profit, breaking even, or loss on the transaction?

(The page for the proposals map is confusing too. “click on ‘Interactive Maps’ on the top right hand side of the screen. A new window will open up.” it instructs. However, on my browser – a Firefox clone on a Mac – I don’t get any such “interactive maps” link. Is this a PC-only thing, or has that page just not been updated to keep tabs with the pricier new world? Its last update is the same as the parent page, so it surely can’t be…)

Treasury tightens the screws on OS: will job losses follow?

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Always useful to monitor the written and spoken questions in Parliament: if you use (and who wouldn’t?) you can set up an alert each time a phrase is used in Parliament (either house), or an MP appears, and get taken to the relevant page.

The latest interesting fact to emerge is that Ordnance Survey is expected, for the financial year just ended, to up its return on capital employed (ROCE) from the usual 5.5% to 6%:

Adam Afriyie (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Windsor, Conservative): To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what financial return on ordinary activities was expected from Ordnance Survey in the year ending July 2008.

Iain Wright (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government; Hartlepool, Labour): The financial target for the year ended 31 March 2008 was derived from the three-year target for 2004-05 to 2007-08 set down in the Ordnance Survey Framework Document 2004. This target was to achieve no less than 5.5 per cent. per annum return on capital employed (“ROCE”), averaged over a three-year period, with the return defined as surplus on ordinary activities before interest and dividends.

The target figure for ROCE for the year ended 31 March 2009 was increased to a return of not less than 6 per cent.

(Emphasis added)

That’s interesting, and if we get a moment it might be useful to see what that sort of increase in ROCE means for the OS’s profits and especially costs: we have heard that Vanessa Lawrence, OS’s chief, has warned staff that there might be redundancies in the coming year.

It might seem perverse to you – it does to me – to increase the ROCE demanded from an organisation that relies on third-party sales of its products as a recession bites, which would tend to mean that (a) those third parties are going to have less money to spend (b) some of those third parties might go out of business. “Capital employed” tends to be a fixed number (staff aren’t capital, they’re operating costs), and is hard to change.

In the Guardian: one-off census address database cost rises 20% to 12m pounds

Monday, March 9th, 2009

In The Guardian, we’ve followed up on the question put by the Tories’ social affairs minister (if I recall correctly) Eric Pickles, who asked about the price of the one-off census address database for 2011.

It turns out it has risen from £10 million to £12m in the space of just a few short months. Hasn’t anyone told them there’s a deflationary recession on?

As a reminder: the need for this database has grown from the fact that the Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and local authorities can’t agree on how to build an address database that the Office for National Statistics can agree will be definitive for carrying out the 2011 census.

Well, fair enough, you might say. The ONS’s requirements differ subtly from OS, RM and local authorities. It’s possible that their interests and plans won’t be entirely congruent.

What’s mind-boggling, and completely idiotic, is that ONS is going to build this database for itself (must already be in the process, since it doesn’t have long to do it) and then is going to destroy it. Because nobody could agree to let such a thing exist independently.

It’s an egregrious waste of money – first the building, which is madness, given that the data already exists; and then the destruction. Occam’s Razor of datasets: don’t let entities multiply needlessly. And the first law of not wasting things: don’t destroy hard-won datasets needlessly.

In the Guardian: what happens to the Postcode Address File in a Royal Mail split ownership?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

With Lord Vold… Mandelson looking to persuade a private partner, likely TNT, to take a minority shareholding in the Royal Mail, the interesting question arises of what happens to the ownership of the intellectual property of the Postcode Address File (PAF).

After all, if you buy into a company, you’d probably want to see more efficient use of its assets. (That’s part of the plan in the shareholding selloff.) Would that mean that TNT or similar would start trying to “sweat the assets” of the PAF?

In What does the Royal Mail sell-off mean for postcodes data we investigate this briefly. The problem is that nobody – including the Turner Report into the future of the Royal Mail – seems to have considered this. Neither PAF nor intellectual property nor postcodes are mentioned at all in the Turner report.

PAF is profitable –

in August 2007 the postal regulator Postcomm revealed that PAF operations made a profit of £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m, all but £4m from resellers.

However marketing organisations, which use PAF, don’t like the idea of those assets being sweated.

“The reason for getting the private sector involved [in the Royal Mail] is to improve efficiency,” said Robert Keitch, director of media channel development at the Direct Marketing Association. Raising PAF prices would make it harder to check addresses and increase the need for manual checks by postal staff, he suggested.

Our opinion?

The Free Our Data campaign has consistently suggested that the PAF – linked to map data – should be made available for free, without copyright restrictions, due to its growing importance for location-based services. The comparatively small cost of running it, especially without the costs of administering its sales and checking for violations of licences, could perhaps be borne through a levy on address or name changes, or simply through the tax revenues that could be gained from new companies set up to take advantage of the datasets. However, it is unknown whether Mandelson will recommend that.

We await developments.