Free Our Data: the blog

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OS chairman’s speech: internal study shows “free” OS would cost government 500m-1bn pounds – but won’t publish

The following is the text – as captured in shorthand contemporaneously – of a speech by Sir Rob Margetts, chairman of Ordnance Survey on Tuesday May 12. It is not complete but does capture the major themes and quotations.

The context is that Sir Rob was explaining to an invited audience, including many existing customers of OS, how the new “hybrid” strategy had been determined as the best one for its future development. He took some pains to emphasise that the “free data” model had not been rejected out of hand; but that instead a special study had been commissioned to investigate it.

This is my shorthand notes of what was said. My own comments are at the end.

There were major issues affecting the sustainability of OS as it goes through its proposed strategy.

We examined the complete range of options very impartially and objectively. That includes the free data, utility model where you would make data available to anybody [for free]. We examined the fully commercial model.. and alternatives within that range.

Our study of the utility [free data] model was done because some hold that that is a good strategy, and some of us weren’t indifferent to it. Some [of the study team] going in thought it could be interesting.

The study was fully costed for the government, calculating the costs of change to the residual value.

We came to conclusion that the cost to government in the first five years would be between £500m and £1 billion. That wasn’t the only reason that we discarded it. We did, with outside help, a review of equivalent organisations around the world.

We wanted sustainability and high [data] quality and came to the conclusion that at nearly every organisation that had gone to free data model, the quality had declined and that users and customers were increasingly dissatisfied with the product.

And the attractiveness to staff and recruitment and retention had also reduced. We found no evidence that this model actually worked elsewhere.

Those that work had a user-pays model. We tried to understand and explain why. Think that comes to the responsiveness to needs of the organisation. [ie: the responsiveness of the organisation to needs.]

If customers are required to pay then they specify needs very clearly and give feedback on whether they have got value [for money].

Customer stimulation is a vital part of any organisation because it’s sustainable.

And of course [there’s] recruiting and retaining quality staff.. they want to work for a qulity organisation and respond to real customer needs.

That’s why we didn’t pursue [the free data model] but can affirm that we looked at it in detail.

We also looked at a fully commercial model but weren’t satisfied it would fulfil the fundamental strategy [for OS].

We believe use [of geographical data] has expanded dramatically and changed.. but that potential is still considerably underexploited.

Our No. 1 aim is to improve capacity of OS to assist the exploitation of geographic information and be one of fundamental enablers of that [exploitation] in the UK for social and individual benefit.

With the proviso that by doing that we have to keep a sustainable organisation that not only covers its costs but also has enough left over… about £20m per annum.. to invest in the products that the market needs for customers, whether private individuals or business enterprises.

Commentary: Well, we’re fascinated to learn that OS found that there’s absolutely nobody out there who is making a free data model work. We have already emailed the South African mapping organisation, about which we wrote in 2007, to find out whether they were contacted by OS, and if so what they told them.

We will also pursue Freedom Of Information enquiries to find out which organisations OS spoke to and what their responses were. Since these are all free data models, there can’t be any commercial confidentiality for the foreign organisations, can there?

The “£500m – £1bn” range is extremely wide, and we’d like to see the detailed working. I asked the minister with responsibility for OS, Iain Wright, who was there, if he would order OS to release its full study. He said that if there weren’t any commercial-in-confidence implications… I wonder if we’ll see it? Again, we’ll ready some FOI requests.

There were questions at the end, and one interesting one came from Bob Barr, who pointed out that there is always the possibility of “pay to change” – that when you have a database of 460m features with (to give the statistics that Vanessa Lawrence, OS’s chief executive, read) 5,000 changes daily, why not charge those who are changing it? (We’ve looked at that model before, though I would like to see some more recent Land Registry figures.)

Here’s the question as I recorded it.

Robert Barr: “this hybrid financing.. it seems to be today that payment will be at the point of use. Usually [in other online systems] there’s a model where you pay to change the database. Doesn’t it make sense for data to be paid for where you change it?”

Peter ter Harr of OS: “This is a model we have been looking at. There are advantages and disadvantages. It’s not always the user who pays [in the current model]. There are many OS products which are free at the point of use. It’s the information provider who puts it online who pays. We have been looking at the model in various other countries. It works well in cases where it’s part of the statutory process.”

And that’s it? We really, really need to see that OS internal study, as it contradicts pretty much every study that’s been published. It’s going to be fascinating tracking it down.

One other thing: the cost to the government isn’t quite the same as the benefit to the economy, nor the eventual benefit to the government through taxation. It was the latter (actually, both) that the Cambridge study looked at. We are perfectly happy to generate tweaked versions of the “free data” model that could keep OS charging for some products (such as MasterMap) while freeing other data sets. Now that would be a truly hybrid model.

If anyone has had sight of that OS study, or any part of it, do please drop me an email at Or upload it to Wikileaks and let us know. We think it’s so important it ought to be out there, not locked away in an OS cupboard.

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