Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for 2009

Digital engagement, widening and public data getting analysed… in private

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Stephen Timms reports that there’s been good progress in Making Public Data Public.

As the Digital Engagement blog notes:

So far our request for developers to “get excited and make things” has so far exceeded our initial expectations. Not only is the number of people signing up to the developer forum higher (currently more than 1,300), but also the discussion board is very active with a healthy list of ideas for the site and, perhaps most excitingly, a few applications are beginning to see the light of day.

And also:

Working in partnership with Guardian Professional, we held 3 developer days hosted at The Guardian‘s Kings Place offices in central London on the 14th-16th September. As an organisation they were best placed to help us undertake this task, having built a community of talented developers and opened up their API. You can have a look here at the excellent postcode paper concept and the rather wonderful traffic data visualisations here, which were just two of the many ideas for applications that emerged over the course of the camp. Ideas about their priorities for further data releases (to add to the 1,100 datasets currently on the site) were shared and important foundations for further iterations of the HMG Data site were laid.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the sessions at the Guardian were held under such secrecy that I didn’t find out about them until the week after. More posts on that later…

Tim Berners-Lee to help UK government build single data access point

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Computer Weekly reports that Tim Berners-Lee has been asked by the government to develop a single point of access for public data – as Stephen Timms, who has taken over where Tom Watson left off in the Cabinet Office, reports progress in “making public data public” (a concept that, when you think about it, seems a bit strange – as in “shouldn’t that have been done from the outset?”).

According to Computer Weekly, Timms told an RSA/Intellect event that

information is the “essential raw material” of a new digital society. “Government must play its part by setting a framework for new approaches to using data and ‘mashing’ data from different sources to provide new services which enhance our lives. In particular, we want government information to be accessible and useful for the widest possible spectrum of people.”

Well, minister, if that’s truly what you want, then you’ll make it free of charge, and free of copyright restrictions. It’s as simple as that. Could we suggest something like Creative Commons? The US government seems to find it amenable. .

Timms said, “We are supporting Sir Tim in a major new project, aiming for a single online point of contact for government data, and to extend access to data from the wider public sector. We want this project for ‘Making Public Data Public’ to put UK businesses and other organisations at the forefront of the new semantic web, and to be a platform for developing new technologies and new services.”

Fine words. We’d like some actions to go with them. We’re hearing plenty of sticks being wielded over how people use the net – Lord Mandelson’s threats to file-sharers, for example – but the carrots for companies to build on something that really would benefit Britain, by using British data, seems to be stuck on a really slow train.

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s almost impossible to put a figure on how opportunity cost is lost through the lack of access to this data – whereas the music industry can much more easily point to figures it’s produced (though you may argue about their provenance) to suggest precisely how much harm it’s suffering through untrammelled downloading.

Interesting to contrast, though, that when we asked the Royal Mail to specify precisely how much harm it was suffering through the use by of the postcode to lat/long conversion, it robustly declined to say.

Of course there is the Cambridge trading funds report, with its analysis of the opportunity cost of the trading funds regime. But this goes much wider – the Cambridge analysis didn’t look at the Royal Mail and postcodes, for example, which have become embedded into many systems’ location processing.

Computer Weekly again:

So far, 1,300 people have signed up to the developer forum and contributed to the discussion board on what the data could be used for. The Cabinet Office also held a developers’ camp where ideas were shared.

We’ll have more about the devcamp in a future post.

Deleting users, for security

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

As this site has been the target of some hackers (who were being paid by a Canadian pharmaceutical seller), I’m having to delete user registration here.

Sorry about that. Being hacked was a byproduct of having user registration, so one or the other has to go…

On the plus side, you do now get spiffy icons that will indicate whether you’re really the same person as when you last commented. So, not such a loss.

My thanks to Stefan Pause for his help and advice on securing the site.

And on the plus side, I’ve taken his advice and updated the permalink structure, which means you now get meaningful (if long) URLs. Win-win, I think. Plus I’ve got some fascinating hacker scripts to deconstruct.

Kent County Council wants you to recycle its data

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Have a look at

Pic and Mix aims to increase public access to Kent-related datasets including those generated by Kent County Council (KCC). For the purposes of the pilot, we have brought together a sample of the most useful information. Where possible, it’s been provided in a format that allows it to be ‘mashed’ and customised. Please help us shape this initiative by suggesting additional data and ways in which we can improve this site. And if you do anything clever with the data, we’d like you to share that with us too!

The About page has more:

Last year, Kent County Council won Innovate08! Our idea had three elements:

  • To make publicly available information – things like crime statistics, employment information, business information – more
  • We also wanted to provide tools that would enable people to ‘pic and mix’ data to create customised information.
  • And last but not least, we wanted to provide a platform where people could share this information and discuss ways in which it could be used.

Winning Innovate08 meant we were given funding for a pilot project to see how people in Kent would respond to a resource of this kind. Our pilot project was intially launched with 25 small Kent-based businesses. With this new site we  hope to get the wider community involved.

So, how could Pic and Mix benefit you? Well, there’s a lot of information out there in a lot of different places. Rather than spend ages tracking down the information you need, we want you to come to a single place – For example, you may be looking for a care home for an elderly relative. You might want to mix this information with GP locations and bus routes. By plotting this information on a map you will be able to see which care homes are close to a GP surgery, and the bus routes. Another example might be a security company deciding where to focus its marketing efforts. They may want to mix office premises with crime statistics and use the information to plan a campaign.

Fascinating. We await developments – and news of same

Costing ernestmarples (and free data) vs paid-for

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Somewhat late, but better than..

In the Guardian on Thursday, we have the cost-benefit analysis – if somewhat cursory – of having Royal Mail charge for its PostZon database (as used by ernestmarples, though indirectly) and having it available for free. So, for example, did RM lose out through ernestmarples? Or did we taxpayers benefit?

In Who would really benefit if postcode data were free, we add it up.

Royal Mail claimed that Richard Pope and Harry Metcalfe, the duo behind the site, had caused it “loss”. As the PostZon database being accessed via – named after the man who introduced postcodes to the UK – costs about £4,000 a year to license, could it be right?

Some simple calculations show that in fact everyone else, including the government that owns Royal Mail, and perhaps even Royal Mail itself, would benefit from the data being free.

Pope and Metcalfe point out that, which queried other websites that provide PostZon data for its postcode-location conversions, fed a number of their other websites – including Job Centre Pro Plus (which used a postcode lookup to find jobs near you), Planning Alerts (which alerts you to new planning applications in your area) and The Straight Choice (used to file election leaflets by area).

Job Centre Pro Plus had 437,354 searches for jobs since March this year, according to Metcalfe. If only 0.001% of those led to someone finding employment and saved £100 in benefit payments, then has, overall, saved the government money.

And Pope points out that professional property developers used PlanningAlerts “since it allows them to look for opportunities/competition”.

If that led them to work worth more than £20,000, the 25% corporate tax rate means the government has received more in tax revenue than it has lost from Pope and Metcalfe’s non-licensing of PostZon. Pope also notes that “few councils were using the PlanningAlerts API [programming interface] since it was easier and cheaper than paying external consultants to hack they achingly bad internal systems.” He points to Lincoln City Council, where PlanningAlerts was used to generate the RSS feed and map for planning. Would it cost more than £4,000 for Lincoln to build a system to do the job PlanningAlerts enabled?

Furthermore, “I was told by someone at the Electoral Commission that they used the Straight Choice during the Euro elections to monitor parties,” Pope said. “The alternative would be paying for hundreds of field agents (which they can’t afford).”

Rufus Pollock, a Cambridge economist who co-wrote a study for the government on the economic benefit of making trading funds’ data free, calculates that making PostZon free would bring an economic benefit 50% greater than Royal Mail’s present revenues.

Subequently it’s been suggested to me that the cost of licensing is more like £1,200 rather than £4,000 – which makes the case for benefit from free data even greater.

Royal Mail threat likely to close

Monday, October 5th, 2009

The Royal Mail has sent cease-and-desist orders (via its lawyers) to Richard Pope and Harry Metcalfe, the web developers behind (which we’ve referred to before).

Basically, they’re saying that ernestmarples is accessing the RM’s postcodes-to-coordinates database without permission, and that their clients are suffering loss as a result, and so they should stop.

Read it all (including the letter) at

Two immediate questions:
1) how can it be unauthorised to access a database that is publicly accessible through others? Though of course there may be lots of fine print in white on a white background in which you “agree” not to reuse the information for anything actually useful anywhere.

2) precisely how much, and where, is the loss that Royal Mail has suffered? Ernestmarples would never have bought a licence. The services that they scraped for it (which RM’s lawyers have demanded a list of) are free to the public.

Tom Watson is ever so slightly incandescent about this; if he were a light bulb you probably wouldn’t be able to buy him in the shops.

This is stupid: as Tom Watson points out, closing this service will also affect other services that are being offered. Not clever.

Time for local government to think harder about opening its data

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Chris Taggart gave a presentation earlier this month to APPSI – the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information – about opening up local government data.

Even without the actual talk (is it online anywhere in some form?), the slides make compelling reading. Local government, of course, can sometimes be just as bad as central government (or indeed trading funds) about hanging grimly on to its data, enforcing dubious or unnecessary copyright, and basically making peoples’ lives hard when it should be making it easier.

You can also read my thoughts on how local government could open itself up in an article for Society Guardian here, which has attracted some useful comments – and links to interesting sites.

But now, here’s the lecture. Flash required, of course.

Do you know where your postboxes are?

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

As an example of how getting data out there can just be plain useful, let’s return to one of the winners of the Show Us A Better Way competition (remember that?).

Prizewinner: postbox locations.

Obstacle: Royal Mail wouldn’t release the data of the location of its 116,000 postboxes.

Solution: Freedom of Information request.

Obstacle: incomplete geographic information in the response (a postcode, not long/lat, plus a mystical Royal Mail reference per box); no collection times.

Solution: FOI request for the collection times and a bit of data marriage.

Obstacle: still don’t know where the postboxes actually are.

Solution: crowdsource it! Get people to pinpoint the locations of what they think are the postboxes onto an OpenStreetMap map. So far about 26,000 have been done – have you done the ones near you?

Obstacle: Royal Mail says it still holds all the rights to the locations of the postboxes.

Solution: actually, you don’t really need a solution. Toothpaste is notoriously hard to put back into the tube.

And as Matthew Somerville pointed out to us, knowing the locations of the postboxes means that one might be able to do “travelling salesman” analyses on the routes – which could have huge potential savings for the Royal Mail. How much does it spend on fuel and time doing collections every day? How much might it save with a proper analysis? Who knows? We won’t until we see all the postboxes put in their place.

And that’s why it’s better to rely on making government data available – free, in both senses of the word – than to try to create artificial “value” from it by charging.

Price does two things: it implies that what you are pricing has value; and it puts a barrier between the thing being “sold” and its potential users. If the users don’t want it enough, they won’t ever go across the barrier. If you take down the barrier, then you get every user you could ever get. And some of them will do really useful things with your product – that’s possible if it’s data.

Sounds like a good idea: Sir Tim Berners-Lee goes to Downing Street to talk open data

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Well, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (he invented the web, you know) seems to be getting stuck in. He has gone to Downing Street along with Nigel Shadbolt (whose name always reminds of a Harry Potter character – apologies: he’s actually professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton) to talk to Gordon Brown.

About what?

Mr Berners-Lee and Mr Shadbolt presented an update to Cabinet on their work advising the Government on how to make data more accessible to the public.

Gordon Brown has already spoken publicly about his aim of making the UK a world leader in opening up government information on the internet, an important element of Building Britain’s Future.

He could have asked us. We’d have told him back in 2006. Or 2007. Or 2008.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told Cabinet about the goal of delivering a single online access point to Government information, similar to the one introduced by the Obama administration in the US.

Don’t we sort of have that already through the work of OPSI and its data portal? Sometimes it seems like the work of Carol Tullo and John Sheridan et al has just been swept down a plughole – or perhaps memory hole, a la 1984.

He also spoke about proposals to extend the “open data” approach, ensuring greater transparency in government and improving the efficiency of public services.

It would be interesting if the “efficiency of public services” meant “to stop different bits of government squabbling over the data they collect like children in a playground and instead start to share it freely, rather as we adults advise children to do so they can discover the benefits of sharing”.

But there’s a suspicion it’s really code for “cut public services while saying what’s being cut will be replaced by something else at some time in the future”.

The Government hopes the data project will benefit the UK by creating jobs, driving new economic growth and allowing the re-use of government data to encourage the development of new, innovative information-based businesses and services.

Hold on just a moment there. The government hopes all these things, does it? Is that because it’s taking the Cambridge study seriously, and looking at its potential benefits to the economy? So we’re not going to see terrible approximations like the OS’s “hybrid” strategy, then?

It is also expected to help increase the transparency of government and empower citizens to get more out of public service by tailoring it to their needs.

What I don’t like here is the description of it as a “data project” as though it were something that sat apart from what should actually be a process – and a core process at that. It shouldn’t be “what part of this data shall we release” but “is there any of this that shouldn’t be released?”

After the update from Sir Tim and Professor Shadbolt, The Prime Minister confirmed his full support for the next phase of their work.

It would be nice to know what that next phase included. Anyone seen a copy of the timetable?

Transport for London really doesn’t like Ordnance Survey: response to consultation

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Good grief, the people at Transport for London (TfL) really aren’t happy with Ordnance Survey, or with its consultation or plans.

Thanks to the efforts of Christopher Osborne – see the thread where he gets OS to release this, the response from TfL to the OS’s “strategy consultation” via Freedom of Information requests at, and marvel at OS’s ability to try to keep stuff secret – we can now see that TfL really wants to do more with map data, but feels that OS is standing in the way.

We wonder how this is being received in Southampton.

We’ve taken the PDF and rendered it as a table, but you can download it here or view it as (possibly better formatted) HTML here..

I’ve added emphasis to some of the tastier responses..

Response from Transport for London to the OS Business Strategy Consultation

TFL: We are generally disappointed in the scope of this consultation and regret that it is not more wide ranging TfL has major concerns with the issues of Derived Data which over-ride many of the items of this consultation We do not think that OS has paid sufficient attention to its many Government customers and their Public Task We regret the enormous cost in both time and resources that Government bodies have to spend on procurring OS data.

OS: Goal 1: Promote innovation for economic benefit and social engagement TFL response
OS: Supporting Government’s objectives to make data more accessible and to encourage innovation by individuals and commercial companies, Ordnance Survey will promote the innovative use of geographic information and its potential application. TFL: OS appears to wish to promote innovation by launching such services in house, experience suggests that this is not the best way and that they should concentrate on making their data freely available and allow the market to innovate.
OS: Ordnance Survey will provide support to all of its users in their use of geographic information so that they in turn can support their customers and the wider public. TFL: We question whether OS is prepared to listen to their users to determine what support is needed, and fear that it imagines that one size will fit all.
OS: Key components of this goal are: TFL: Many Govt bodies could contribute to this Goal if they were not inhibited by the onerous and restrictive licence conditions imposed on their use of derived data
OS: An extended OS OpenSpace service
OS: This will provide additional data and usage rights to support the creation of any new publicly accessible application. It will provide greater access to free use of a number of Ordnance Survey products from 1:10,000 scale through to 1:1 million scale. It will also include official boundaries information. TFL: Provision of OS data on OpenSpace does not make it freely available. Users require access to boundaries in all formats and applications. The derived data issue is a continuing problem, even on the OpenSpace website gallery, demonstration users warn users not to create derived data on the site. There seems to be considerable interest in the BoundaryLine data from other respondents to this consultation. BoundaryLine has been frequently quoted as the “definitive” boundary dataset for UK, why then are the boundaries not coincident with the Boundaries shown on the OS MasterMap product.
OS: This service will benefit individual developers and organisations such as commercial companies, local community groups, national special interest groups and smaller charities that will be able to develop applications as long as there is no direct commercial gain from the specific application itself. Advertising and sponsorship alongside the application will be encouraged. TFL: In the OpenSpace FAQs it is stated that Govt bodies may use the API but it doesn’t seem to be encouraged, given the OS advice on the use Google maps by OS licensees we would suggest that this should be a priority.
OS: There will be limits within the system to ensure that the new OS OpenSpace service has a minimal impact on existing commercial users of the data but these limits will be applied in a more collaborative way. TFL: Govt bodies interested in using the OpenSpace Service would need greater assurance on the use of limits
OS: An upgrade path from innovation through to commercial services
OS: Through the creation of an innovation ladder Ordnance Survey will provide a clear path for those that wish to progress their ideas from early-stage right through to commercial development. The existing developer programme will be opened up to a wider developer community and financial entry barriers will be significantly reduced. TFL: Can the OS appoint an independent body (AGI?) to create the “innovation ladder” so that the disincentives that are built into the current usage of OS data are not carried forward? Can the OS then use the lessons learnt to overhaul their existing licensing terms and conditions?
OS: Removing minimum royalty charges for partner licenses
OS: For organisations licensing data as value-added resellers new or existing – there will be NO minimum royalty for the first year and a minimum royalty of only 1,000 per year thereafter. Where Ordnance Survey is providing a national dataset of its most valuable data (OS MasterMap Topography Layer) the minimum royalty of 1,000 will apply from year one in order to cover the additional costs of supplying that data. TFL: The partnership licenses appear to be wholly geared towards the commercial sector and seem to be completely inappropriate for the use by Govt bodies which is sometimes required. They certainly do not feel like partnership agreements as all the terms are in favour of the OS.
OS: Develop the Ordnance Survey Innovation Network
OS: Ordnance Survey wishes to create a friendly on-line community of commercial and non-commercial developers, partners and resellers who can share ideas about innovative uses of Ordnance Survey data and other data. The network will help individuals as well as small and large organisations to develop ideas, deliver projects and even commercialise their ideas, through making connections with other network members who can help them with the development of technology, services, products or seed financial funding. TFL: Can the OS look at the lessons that could be learnt from previous projects such as CODES, the Collection of Data from External Sources? In this project external bodies were requested to provide OS with data that could be incorporated into OS products. Data was supplied free of charge, OS required assurances and warranties that the data was supplied free of any external IPR etc, and that they were granted a non exclusive royalty free, irrevocable, licence to copy, sell, adapt, distribute etc etc. OS then went on to try to sell the data back to the organisations that supplied it. The whole experience did not seem very friendly and took a very long time to bear any fruit.
OS: Goal 2 Increase the use of Ordnance Survey data
OS: It is recognised that the framework under which Ordnance Survey prices and licenses its data and services has become complex and unwieldy. Working with Shareholder Executive and OPSI, this is being comprehensively reviewed as part of the drive to improve focus on the customer. TFL: TfL would be slightly reassured that this review by the Shareholder Executive and OPSI would lead to a desirable outcome if the OS included its customers in this review
[CA: woooah!]
OS: The overall aim of the work is to make data more easily available and encourage innovation and competition in the market. TFL: The OS has frequently in the past used the ‘level Playing Field’ argument to inhibit any negotiation on their terms and conditions of contract. Clear, concise and transparent terms and conditions would assist here. Innovation has been stifled in the past by OS insisting that any use of there data must fit into one of their existing contracts.
OS: Under the new framework, Ordnance Survey will continue to license its data both indirectly and directly to end customers. Partners will continue to have appropriate licences so that the price they pay reflects the market value of their end product. However, Ordnance Survey wishes to re-examine the boundary between the different licensing routes to check they best support the current market and rationalise the suite of licences available to partners. TFL: Many users of OS data, and derived data wish to make their information available free of charge. If OS wish to licence their data so that the price paid by the user reflects the market value of the end product, does that mean that the OS data will also be free of charge?
OS: In particular, Ordnance Survey expects over time to offer many more products to commercial partners so that they can distribute them to end customers in parallel to Ordnance Survey itself. It is also examining how to give greater flexibility over the rights customers have to use data internally in their own business and better facilitate the use of data within the public sector that contains shared public sector intellectual property. TFL: We can see no advantage in the OS competing with the private sector for the distribution of mapping products, because on a level playing field they will lose, and if it is not level everyone will cry foul. OS should concentrate on the collection of data and leave the distribution to the private sector. In the public sector there should be total freedom for Govt bodies to define and complete their public role.
OS: Ordnance Survey is also reviewing all of its licence documents with the aim of making them shorter and easier to understand. TFL: The OS should appoint an independent body to review their licence documents and pay them based on the number of words deleted.
OS: The pricing structure that accompanies the new licensing framework will be transparent and reflect the work that is being undertaken to reduce costs across the organisation.
Ordnance Survey recognises that there is a desire for rapid change to the current system. However, it wants to ensure that it takes decisions about its pricing and licensing model with a thorough understanding of the impact it will have on customers, Ordnance Survey and others in the market. For that reason, comments are very welcome here on how the licensing framework should be reformed as part of the new strategy.
TFL: One of the major problems for users is the derived data issue which both restricts what the user can do with the derived data but also requires that the OS data and the derived data are deleted at the end of the licence term. One way to overcome this would be to make licences perpetual, so that having “purchased” the OS data the user can keep it, and any derived data for ever. OS needs to differentiate between a commercially derived product such as Geographers A-Z map and a Govt body’s derived data which may consist of discrete points lines or polygons describing their area of interest. It must be recognised that the current rules on derived data make OS map data legally unusable for many Govt bodies and they have to resort to increasingly complex and costly methods to avoid creating an OS derived data issue in completing their public task.
OS: It is expected that work on a new pricing and licensing framework and the plan for its rollout will be complete by October 2009. Ordnance Survey has asked the Office of Public Sector Information, together with Shareholder Executive, to be involved in the work from today to ensure that its thinking is independently challenged.
OS: GOAL 3: Support the sharing of information across the whole of the public sector
OS: Accurate and high-quality geographic information is playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of better public services and ensuring the Government is held to account by citizens. The public sector at both a national and a local level is an important part of Ordnance Survey’s customer base and it is committed to ensuring they receive data and services that best meet their requirements. TFL: The Public Sector would be best served by open competition in the supply of mapping data services, but all previous procurement have been skewed by the near monopoly situation of OS. The Public Sector has to go through lengthy and costly procurement processes to access their data.
OS: In particular, it is recognised that public sector bodies need to be able to share data including data with shared intellectual property (IP) with each other in support of the development of policy and its implementation at national and local level. TFL: The Public Sector also need to share data with the public, who ultimately pay for all this, and with the commercial sector, who will also pay if we can get through the minefield of licensing.
OS: The Pan-Government and One Scotland agreements for the provision of geographic information to central Government in England and Wales and central and local Government in Scotland came into force on 1st April 2009. Ordnance Survey is delighted to be part of both of these agreements that will better enable the delivery of public services.
Ordnance Survey recognises that it will face increasing competition from commercial rivals to deliver geographical information services to the public sector and others. Ordnance Survey welcomes this and aims to continually improve its offering to provide the best value-for-money for all its customers.
TFL: By competing with commercial rivals to deliver GI products, OS can no longer maintain its UK definitive role. For example in the Address field there are now two competing products both effectively paid for by the public purse and neither definitive, such that for the 2011 census additional public funds will be spent harmonising and incorporating other data to produce a comprehensive address list, which is a plain waste of public money and resources. Surely a better strategy would be for one public body, such as the OS, to collect GI data, using the commercial sector as appropriate. The data should then be made freely available to the Public Sector and marketed through commercial partners who create GI products.
OS: Following the success of bringing the public sector, including the NHS and Emergency Services, into a single agreement in Scotland (One Scotland Agreement) Ordnance Survey is now in discussion with central and local Government in England and Wales to determine how the new Ordnance Survey business strategy might support a similar goal. This would provide a common platform for use in delivering core public services using geographic information from Ordnance Survey and its competitors. TFL: The Ordnance Survey always insists that their agreements are “commercial confidential to the parties”, therefore other Govt bodies are unable to compare the success or benefits of one form of agreement with another. Greater openness and transparency would assist here.
OS: As part of this work, Ordnance Survey will also be discussing with Local Authorities, Land Registry, Royal Mail and others how it can align its methods of data capture and provision to ensure efficiency for the public purse.
OS: Goal 5 Enhance value through the creation of an innovative trading entity
OS: The geographic information market is undergoing huge change as a result of advances in technology. There is less and less distinction between viewing data on a computer, via the internet or on a mobile phone. Data collection methods are also changing radically, with technology driving costs down and users increasingly making their own contributions back to the original source data. TFL: Data collection methods are changing rapidly and driving costs down, but we question whether they are driving standards up. OS maps of London 100 plus years ago show street furniture, drainage gullies, lamp post, the internal building layouts of public buildings, all features long gone from their latest offerings. While the overall accuracy may have improved, the quality provided is actually quite low and worse than previously claimed.
OS: If it is to thrive in this market and continue to fulfil its core public duties, Ordnance Survey must adapt to this, just as it did 30 years ago in the move from paper to digitally-based information.
It is believed that there are greater opportunities for the Ordnance Survey brand particularly in the consumer marketplace. To explore and grow these opportunities in a transparent and timely manner, Ordnance Survey will establish a wholly-owned subsidiary company. This subsidiary will further Ordnance Survey’s ability to offer new and innovative services to government, business and individual customers alike.
The new company will initially explore the development of an enhanced brand presence through an extended consumer leisure portal. Research has strongly suggested that a richer website operating under the Ordnance Survey Company name and brand, will attract a far larger proportion of leisure enthusiasts. It is envisaged that this company will explore the opportunities afforded by the use of the Ordnance Survey brand for affiliate merchandising.
The new subsidiary is part of the drive to ensure that Ordnance Survey is sustainable for the medium-term and value is generated for the taxpayer. It will operate on the same terms in relation to Ordnance Survey data as any commercial rival.
TFL: As a large user of OS mapping in the public sector TfL suffers significant restrictions on its use of OS data because it is not licensed to engage in activities that are regarded as “competing activities” with OS’s commercial rivals. We are concerned as to how this will develop if OS is going to enter the market with this new trading company. There are a series of complex competition issues which arise from monopolistic or dominant undertakings seeking to enter a downstream market on a commercial basis. TfL is extremely concerned by this prospect and questions whether effective arms’ length arrangements will really be put in place. At a wider level, we also question whether this is really the most effective strategy for deriving overall public benefit.

International man/woman of mystery: the silent, uncommunicative type, apparently

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

The tale of the International Man/Woman of Mystery – who “approved” the Ordnance Survey’s international comparisons study (which personally I thought was woeful) – just gets more and more incredible, or less and less credible.

Two more FOI responses came back today. You’ll recall that we previously established that the IM/WOM works, or has worked, for a foreign mapping organisation, and is a foreign national.

So we asked: Please could you provide the following information, none of which identifies the person:

1) which NMA employed or employs them, and is the employment ongoing?

2) if the employment is no longer ongoing, when did it end?

3) Is the person male or female?

To which the response came back:

I can confirm that Ordnance Survey does hold this information, however I regret to inform you that your request falls within the Personal information exemption under section 40 (2) (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). We believe this exemption applies because in our reasonable opinion the provision of the information requested would prejudice the anonymity of the individual and would serve to substantively assist in identifying them and remove their anonymity. As has been pointed out previously the individual does not wish their identity to be disclosed, therefore we will not be releasing this information to you. With regard to this matter, we will also take the same approach with any further requests that, in our opinion, prejudice the anonymity of, or substantively assist in identifying the individual concerned.

Possibly to be expected, but any one of the answers would arguably not have identified the person, and have been useful.

And so we tried a different tack. There must have been some discussion with this person setting up their examination of the study, right? So we asked for internal emails and other communication with them. (It would be redacted, of course…)

Back comes the reply:

Thank you for your email dated 5 August 2009 requesting: copies of all OS emails, letters and notes from any telephone conversations to or from the internationally recognised expert that were made in relation to their review of this study (for example approaching them to carry out the review, sending them the review, receiving their comments on the review).

I regret to inform you that Ordnance Survey is unable to help you with your enquiry as we do not hold this information. 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. [Emphasis added – CA]

So basically they called a Good Friend up and asked them to cast an eye over it. No emails to or from? No phone conversations or letters? No written or emailed comments?

Is it just me, or is that incredible for a study that’s being prepared for the minister in order to consider the best method of funding the national mapping agency of Great Britain?

There are some other areas that we can probe. But this is just amazing. A study best described as sloppy, and a review that can only be described as secretive. And this is the new model for Ordnance Survey?

Wikileaks produces OS confidential briefing to ministers

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Well, well. Wikileaks, the organisation that has leaked details about Daniel Arap Moi’s finances and UBS’s dealings, has provided something altogether more interesting than the identity of the international man or woman of mystery.

It’s a confidential briefing document by Sir Rob Margetts, chair of Ordnance Survey, Vanessa Lawrence, chief exec of OS, and Charlie Villar (who Google tells us is a member of the Shareholder Executive) to “the minister” – hard to know who but since it talks about various options such as the OpenSpace concept, which was unveiled earlier this year, we assume the minister in question was Iain Wright – else this would hardly be confidential information, would it?

The document – a 22-page PDF – is available from

One very interesting page is p9, which seems to offer a comparison of the “current” trading fund model, the “utility” – is that “free data”? – model, and the “hybrid” model, though not much is made clear about what the hybrid model actually involves. Except that moving to it doesn’t involve any restructuring costs, which seems incredible.

Your opinions welcome: what does it mean? Can this report somehow be the source of Sir Rob’s mysterious “cost the government £500m to £1bn to shift to a free data model” claim? And does that claim – and this briefing – actually stand up to public scrutiny, rather than the minister’s private office?

You’re the public. What do you think?

You cannot charge for property searches, councils told, and you might have to pay some back

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Interesting decision by the Information Commissioner: property searches are environmental data, and as such should be made available to councils under Freedom of Information regulations.

This is pretty big – particularly for estate agents.

Thanks to EPSIPlus forum for the pointer:

As the head of the IPSA noted:

The ICO has published two section 50 rulings today against Local Authorities in England.

East Riding of Yorkshire – The ICO has ruled Building Control and Traffic data is EIR and the Local Authority must make the data available in 35 days.

Stoke City Council – The ICO has ruled Building Control and Traffic data is EIR and the Local Authority must make the data available in 35 days.

Failure to comply by either Local Authority may result in the ICO making written certification of this fact to the High Court (or the Court of Session in Scotland) pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court. Data must be made available under the pricing terms of EIR. The ICO is not satisfied by the ‘made available under another means’ (CON29R requests) and the payment of a full Local Authority fee. This is because the Charging Regulations (CPSR) acts as a barrier to the data.

The Property Search Industry will now seek reimbursement of fees paid under duress / under protest. (emphasis added).

Now, that could get rather interesting. And for cash-strapped councils, not being able to charge for property searches (or even parts of them, but particularly the environmental data side of them) is going to make a difference. If anyone knows how much councils make from those charges, we’d be very interested to know more.

Free our data, says Lords info committee

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Simon Dickson has picked up what we were remiss in missing: the Lords Information Committee. He describes it as Free our data, says Lords info committee.

He notes that its final report

couldn’t really have been more in favour of the free our bills [as pushed by They Work For You, which would show you details of bills in progress in committee] agenda.

A key recommendation, among those listed in its listed in the press release:

(I’ve copied and pasted these from All credit to Simon for what’s below, apart from any mistakes in the stuff in [italics], which are my additions

  • information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format (not pdf) that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data
  • the integration of information on Parliament’s website, eg biographical info on Members to be linked to their voting record, their register of interests, questions tabled, etc [basically, like They Work For You]
  • Bills should be presented on Parliament’s website in a way that makes the legislative process more transparent and easier to understand [=Free Our Bills]
  • an online system enabling people to sign up to receive electronic alerts and updates about particular Bills [rather like planningalerts, but for legislation]
  • a requirement on the Government to start producing Bills in an electronic format which both complies with “open standards” and is readily reusable [a bit like the Conservatives’ suggestions]
  • an online database to increase awareness of Members’ areas of expertise
  • an online debate to run in parallel with a debate in the Lords Chamber
  • greater access to Parliament for factual filming
  • a trial period during which voting in the Lords is filmed from within the voting lobbies
  • all public meetings of Lords committees to be webcast with video and audio
  • a review of the parliamentary language used in the House of Lords to make it easier for people outside the House to understand

Let’s see how it pans out. Is there time for this to be implemented before the election? Or would either of the main parties put it onto their agenda – or even manifesto?

UKHo selling off its SeaZone subsidiary: but why?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

The UK Hydrographic Office is selling off SeaZone Solutions – but hurry, hurry, the bids must be in by midday Friday.

What’s SeaZone?

SeaZone Solutions Limited (“SeaZone”) specialises in the market for Marine GIS data, software and services, and is the world leader in the provision of Marine datasets. The business supports numerous public and private sector organisations across a range of planning, regulatory, engineering and asset management activities. The business is primarily focused on the UK Marine GIS market, has turnover of c.£1.0m and employs approximately 20 people.

And why the sale?

Acting for the Secretary of State in his capacity as sole shareholder in Admiralty Holdings Limited (“AHL”), SeaZone’s parent, the UKHO invites applications from innovative organisations to develop opportunities in the Marine GIS market through the SeaZone business and brand. The UKHO is seeking a strategic partner which can provide commercial expertise, product development, market & sales channel capabilities and investment to capitalise on the market opportunities in the Marine GIS sector.

This will move through to a shortlist of proposals by September 21, with a plan to complete the transaction by October 2009.

You can also get the SeaZone financial statements for 2007 and 2008 (PDF).

Amidst all the talk of UKHO privatisation, it’s intriguing to see this happening. Why sell SeaZone? What can’t UKHO do with it?

It is expected that increased development activity in the energy sector and marine legislation will continue to drive the market for Marine GIS and provide the business with significant future opportunities in the UK and overseas.

Possibly it’s that “overseas” angle that UKHO doesn’t quite want to grapple with. Is this a sign of UKHO focussing more tightly on things, or is it just piecemeal privatisation? Your comments and guidance on how this fits into the wider matrix of things – and especially into the free data debate – are really welcome here.