Free Our Data: the blog

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


Outrageous. Incredible. International expert was spoken word only even within OS

Let’s just remind ourselves what it was that Sir Rob Margetts, chair of Ordnance Survey, said at the launch of OS’s proposed new strategy (which is now in little pieces all over the floor since Gordon Brown and Tim Berners-Lee announced the end of derived data and the freeing up of mid-scale mapping, but anyway) back in April:

“We came to conclusion that the cost to government in the first five years [of a free data model] 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.“

Who, I then asked, was the “outside help”? OS responded:

With regard to the International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models Study, outside help was provided by senior officials of those Institutions contacted.

In the case of the United States of America, as senior officials of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) were unavailable, Mr. David Cowen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, kindly provided us with an in-depth overview of the state of public sector GI data in the United States, including USGS. Mr Cowan is a former chair of the Mapping Science Committee of the United States National Research Council and is chair of the National Research Council’s Committee for the study of Land Parcel Databases.

The document was also reviewed by an internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping who agreed with the analysis and conclusions.

This latter bit intrigued us. An “internationally recognised expert”, eh? Except it turned out that he or she did not want to be identified, although he or she works or has worked full-time for a foreign mapping agency, and read the study for free. And that OS transacted everything with the expert by spoken word:

A copy of the report was provided to the person concerned and engagement on this matter was conducted orally with no permanent record made of these conversations.

And now in response to my latest Freedom of Information request for

copies of all emails and/or documents internally relating to the decision to choose this person – for example, discussion of who would be suitable candidates or who would not be suitable candidates to carry out the review of the report

OS replies:

There was no decision process in place to find suitable candidates. An opportunity presented itself to request the opinion of a global expert in this field which was undertaken orally. The resultant opinion was expressed orally and there was no permanent record made of these conversations.

So here’s what happens. You have a report. You happen to bump into an old mate. “Hey, want to read my report?” you say. “Sure,” they say. They read it. “Seems OK,” they say. You go back to your office and tell people “I met X who says it’s fine.” Even though the report is a thrown-together farrago of disconnected information about various national mapping agencies and their charging methods, combined with an unrelated chunk of poorly displayed data about national GDP versus national R&D expenditure, which cannot by any reasonable measure be claimed to justify anything about any charging model.

This then becomes “The document was also reviewed by an internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping who agreed with the analysis and conclusions.”

If there is anyone at Ordnance Survey who is prepared to defend this course of events, could they please get in touch? Or even the international expert, who is very welcome to comment anonymously to explain whether they think OS’s representation of their opinion is justified. Comments are open.

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