Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for April, 2009

Government hits free data decision into the long grass

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

We have the inside track on what’s going to happen at Ordnance Survey – which will be formally announced this morning.

Today’s Guardian says, in Government ducks free data decision:

The government has kicked into touch a decision on the future of its largest state-owned digital information business. The Communities and Local Government department will today announce that the Ordnance Survey must make more of its data available to re-users – while apparently grooming part of the agency for future privatisation.

The new business strategy, published the day after the budget, follows a review by the Treasury’s Shareholder Executive. The headline finding is that “a model where a user pays a licence fee for OS data continues to be the most effective way of balancing the need to increase the availability of geographic information to the wider UK economy and society while maintaining the quality of OS data”.

But in a concession long called for by the Free Our Data campaign and others, boundaries information will be available for free as part of an extended “OS OpenSpace” service. Also available will be some OS products “from 1:10,000 scale through to 1:1 million scale”. The MasterMap database will remain proprietary.

Here’s what is going to happen: a new commercial arm of the OS (but without ownership, and having to pay just like its commercial rivals for OS data); and more emphasis on OpenSpace (but not so much that it would actually compete with any commercial versions).

Our opinion: a complete and utter shot into the long grass. Ducked the issue. Shied away at the last fence. Until we see clear evidence otherwise, it’s an indication that even though the government has made encouraging noises about seeing the value of making data free, and even though it has received a report that it commissioned which showed that making data free would bring huge economic benefits, it can’t quite make itself believe it. Better to bail out banks with tens of billions that you might never get back than spend a few millions stimulating commercial enterprises and encouraging entrepreneurship by giving people access to essential, business-valuable data.

We’ll have more analysis and reaction when all the documents are available.

In the Guardian: Ordnance Survey’s future awaits budget; Peoples’ Map launches

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

In the Guardian, Michael Cross notes that Ordnance Survey’s future is quite possibly going to be determined by the Budget.

In Ordnance Survey’s future to be mapped out on budget day, he notes that

The future of British government’s largest digital data business, the mapping agency Ordnance Survey, looks set to enter the mainstream political agenda for the first time in a decade. On budget day, 22 April, the Treasury is expected to release the broad findings of the Shareholder Executive’s review of the “trading fund” model of funding agencies such as Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry.

This is of course the review that Adam Afriyie of the Conservatives demanded the government should publish. A little tardy, one might argue. Why not publish the review when it’s ready, rather than amidst the Budget, when there are a million other things that need far closer examination?

The review is likely to shine a spotlight on anomalies created when government bodies function as businesses in the digital economy. It will present ministers with three choices – outright privatisation, a move to supplying data at marginal cost (“free data”) or splitting the organisation up.

However…

Whatever the findings of the Shareholder Executive’s review, Ordnance Survey is likely to use its ability to generate cash returns as an argument for continuing as a trading fund. However, the agency’s apparent profitability will encourage calls for outright privatisation.

We also note the launch of the Peoples’ Map, which

allows users to create their own maps by drawing over aerial photographs. Getmapping, the company behind the venture, described the product as “the democratisation of the mapping process”.

It’s an intriguing idea, though personally I can’t quite see where its utility comes in; OpenStreetMap already offers an extremely detailed map for all sorts of parts of the world; the Guardian is using OSM to some extent, and some local councils are using it to map their footpaths.

Still, for Peoples’ Map,

A big selling point is simple licensing terms. The company says that maps generated on the system will be free for private non-commercial use apart from a delivery charge of £25. Commercial users will have “fair perpetual licensing arrangements … and entirely free of third party copyright” – a reference to the byzantine intellectual property regime surrounding many products containing OS-derived data.

Ah, yes, OS-derived IP rules. It’s a fascinating subject to which we will return.