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ESRI to government: aren’t you being a little hasty in making this OS data free?

ESRI has sent an open letter to government – with a number of co-signatories who are in effect competitors – fretting about the proposal (commitment really) to make a number of OS datasets free.

Below is the letter, which I’ve blockquoted to make it clear what’s the letter and what’s not. I’ve inserted some comments, based on my personal knowledge; and of course some of this is coloured by my advocacy of the Free Our Data campaign.

Dear Sir,

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement on November 17th 2009 which set out his vision for Making Public Data Public, a consultation has been taking place on three options for making certain Ordnance Survey datasets available for free with no restrictions on re-use. Submissions to the consultation must be received by March 17th.

We the undersigned, represent companies who employ 630 staff in the UK GIS industry. We represent over 50% of this market and as such are effectively competitors. Whilst each of our companies has submitted an individual response to the consultation, we are writing this letter to express our shared, serious concerns about both the manner in which this consultation is being undertaken and the potential negative impacts that could result, not for our companies, but for the Ordnance Survey and for the UK economy.

Before saying anything else, we wish to record our full support for the role of the Ordnance Survey as a world leader in the collection, maintenance and distribution of the highest quality geographic information and mapping.

CA: That’s in common with the Free Our Data campaign, which has always praised the OS’s work in collecting data and said that it should remain in government ownership.

The Government press release entitled “Re-mapping the future for Ordnance Survey – making public data public” stated that “…any change would be implemented from April 2010.” We insist that following the close of the consultation on 17th March, adequate time be allowed for a full analysis of the submissions, prior to any decision being taken. We are very concerned that the decision to release a selection of mid- and small- scale products for free appears to have already been made by the Prime Minister’s office.

CA: Actually, it was made before the consultation – he announced it back in November. The consultation was in effect asking if more should be done, or if there might be some overwhelming reason why the old OS model should be retained, with all the fun of derived data restrictions and so on that have given us so much enjoyment over the years.

The consultation document states that were this decision to be taken, it would “drive improved transparency and accountability of government and, by facilitating greater innovation, create new economic and social value”. Whilst this may drive transparency and create social value, we do not consider that any significant economic value would result.

CA: This is an interesting assertion, but it’s not backed up by any evidence. It was trivial for us to show that it costs more to restrict the use of the CodePoint database by JobCentreProPlus than it actually benefits the economy (because the fees paid to lawyers are greater than the cost of the database licence, and of the benefits that would be paid to someone who can’t find a job). As for mid-scale data, it’s similarly easy to show that people who are put off by (a) licence prices and (b) derived data rules will embrace the economic possibilities of free data.

Another question might be: what’s the specific difference between social value and economic value?

We work on a daily basis with a very wide range of public and private sector customers who need large scale Ordnance Survey data in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their organisations. Currently the cost of this data puts it beyond the reach of many organisations, particularly in the private sector. If we are to create real economic value for the UK, it is the availability of large scale datasets, at reasonable prices, that needs to be addressed, rather than releasing mid- and small- scale datasets for free.

CA: the consultation does point out that the public sector has been getting its data cheap, and the private sector in effect overcharged. That’s likely to be realigned – but equally, some public sector organisations may opt out of some OS products.

The consultation document says very little about the revenue impact on the Ordnance Survey of releasing datasets for free. The Ordnance Survey is a Trading Fund which is completely self-funded from the revenues it receives from licensing its datasets. If any of these datasets were to be made freely available, this lost revenue would need to be replaced. We would be extremely concerned if this were achieved by increasing the charges for large scale datasets to either the public or private sector or both.

CA: basically, the concern is that prices of the large-scale [MasterMap level] data will be increased to pay for the free stuff.

We cannot see how any decision to release Ordnance Survey datasets for free can be made without putting the necessary changes in place to compensate the Ordnance Survey for this lost revenue. In the present economic climate we cannot see the Government or Ordnance Survey public sector customers making up this short-fall and our experience tells us that the private sector will not pay more. Furthermore it is already evident that as a result of this proposed change, Ordnance Survey is feeling considerable pressure to generate additional revenue streams, through the rapid introduction of additional innovative and/or automated product lines. These pressures may encourage Ordnance Survey to risk its long term strategies of high quality geospatical data production for the sake of short term revenue gains.

CA: well, this may be one of those extremely rare times where being a journalist, with the access it sometimes provides to decision-makers, is more useful than being in business. From speaking to ministers and the people who are working on making the data free, I’m confident that the Treasury has accepted the idea that it needs to fund the shortfall. (But there’s also an interesting question to be posed to ESRI: if OS data is so price-inelastic – that is, people will pay anything for them – and the GIS data so useful, then why can’t ESRI and the others contemplate a rise in OS pricing? After all, they’d all be using the same datasets, have the same prices, and so be able to pass them on to customers equally, because the usefulness of the datasets would have the same price inelasticity. I suspect ESRI’s sources on this are within Ordnance Survey. Mine are within Whitehall. Whitehall is where the money lives.

If the Government is serious about making Government geospatial data more readily available, it also needs to look beyond the Ordnance Survey. Current restrictions on the availability of postal address file data from The Royal Mail and Communities and Local Government identifiers for properties and streets need to be removed. Making all such data more readily available would lead to greater innovation and play an important role in placing the UK at the forefront of the knowledge economy in the twenty-first century.

CA: that sounds like a complaint about derived data, but it’s not quite clear what “restrictions… need to be removed” actually means.

We appear to be moving towards a decision to release a selection of mid- and small- scale Ordnance Survey products for free, without due regard being given to the future funding of the Ordnance Survey or whether this will drive real economic growth for the UK. This gives us serious cause for concern.

Dr Richard Waite, managing director, ESRI (UK) Ltd; Howard Papworth, executive director SG&I Western Europe, Intergraph; Dr Michael Sanderson, executive chairman, 1Spatial Group Ltd; Mike O’Neill, managing director, Cadcorp Ltd.

CA: what’s interesting about this is the lack of numbers. I’d have thought there was enough detail in the consultation that these companies could have set out their worries in financial terms – especially with a budget coming. I find the lack of hard numbers intriguing.

9 Responses to “ESRI to government: aren’t you being a little hasty in making this OS data free?”

  1. Craig Loftus Says:

    CA: that sounds like a complaint about derived data, but it’s not quite clear what “restrictions… need to be removed” actually means.

    If you include the next 2 words, “on availability”, doesn’t it become more clear; they want PAF to be free? They follow with “Making all such data more readily available…”.

    It is just possible that they may be making a statement that isn’t entirely contrary to your own position. Something that I admit is hard to believe given the general tenor of the letter.

    Personally the OS maps becoming freely available can’t happen soon enough. I want it to be rushed through before anyone can spoil the fun.

  2. Charles Arthur Says:

    Craig – in my original draft my comment was “so it’s OK for other data to be free as long as it’s not data that you’re selling?” But I thought that might be a misrepresentation, which is why it’s not in the final one.

    There is a whiff though of “make the other stuff free, but not the stuff we resell.”

  3. Kennedy Campbell Says:

    Charles, GIS companies do not resell OS large scale data – they are concerned that OS will have to make up the shortfall caused by freeing up the smaller scale datasets. OS large scale data is prohibitively expensive for SME sized companies, and further increases will simply lock out innovative companies seeking to create new products and services. Also another valid point made in the letter is that the PAF product, and street and property referencing datasets should also be made available for free – if this were to happen then we would certainly see substantial economic benefit from new and innovative applications (and iwhich would also increase demand for the GIS vendors products!)

  4. Charles Arthur Says:

    @Kennedy – my understanding is that the Treasury is going to make up the shortfall. Hence the quote from Rob Margetts in the DCLG press release back in January about “commitments to make up the difference”.

    It’s intriguing that OS doesn’t know about how the funding shortfall from OS Free is going to be made up – or perhaps it just hasn’t been promulgating it enough.

    Also, the point made in the consultation is that large-scale data is underpriced to the public sector, not the private one, so prices in the latter are unlikely to change.

    As to PAF – sure, I like the idea of PAF being free. But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, why do ESRI et al not like the idea of OS data going free, but do like the idea of PAF data going free? How exactly would they want that funded? Higher costs in the rest of Royal Mail? Or subsidy from the Treasury? The choice one makes there is telling. They don’t seem to suggest how it should be done.

    But as I say in the main post, it’s not clear what they really want in respect of PAF data. Free? Or just differently licensed? “Readily available” is horrendously vague. It’s like they’re politicians or something.

  5. Links 26/3/2010: BPhone Debuts, Free Software in Jordanian Schools | Boycott Novell Says:

    [...] ESRI to government: aren’t you being a little hasty in making this OS data free? ESRI has sent an open letter to government – with a number of co-signatories who are in effect competitors – fretting about the proposal (commitment really) to make a number of OS datasets free. [...]

  6. Christopher Roper Says:

    What stands out about the letter from ESRI et al is that none of the signatories is a publisher of spatially-based information services, dependent on adding value to the raw data. They are essentially contractors, selling software and services, competing for business from Ordnance Survey among others.

    Ordnance Survey has been fighting a desperate rearguard action against the Prime Minister’s initiative, calling for support from some quite unlikely quarters. I read the letter in that context.

    However, the signatories are quite correct in saying that the maps on their own change very little. We need the reference data that give meaning to the maps; the political, administrative and property boundaries; the postcodes and street names.

    OS Mapping had become the visible symbol of the Government’s resistance to substantive change.

  7. Kennedy Campbell Says:

    Charles, I think that what the vendors are saying is that they _do_ want the OS data to be free – that in fact, they would like the large scale data to be free as well as the smaller scale datasets. But they are justifiably worried that OS will increase the cost of the large scale datasets to cover the ’shortfall’.

    I agree with Chris Roper – the reference data such as PAF, and the NPLG/NSG reference geographies (which are created from the public purse just like OS data) should also be free, and this was also what the vendors were getting at (if not as robustly worded – ie it should be free)!

  8. David Hastings Says:

    As a fan of OS data, I am fascinated by the potential parallel legal decision that led to the creation of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority. Read through the pub found here:
    especially on pages 13-17. In short, it appears that a monopoly which results in increased costs can be interpreted as interfering with freedom of expression – at least in the documented case. Imagine being in a room discussing costs and constraints on public data (including derived works) after a presentation of the situation encapsulated in this and other parts of the ECTEL report. What might be the freedom of (social, economic, environmental, intellectual) expression issues of restricting public data/information?

  9. Kristin Says:

    I refer you to the following from the DfT website which shows that unless we can filter change through this sort of thing also, then we will have to continue to buy mastermap, no matter how much the price is “balanced” between public and private sectors! Level 1 is basically useless as it only show the start and end of the street, so you don’t know which road bends where so cannot pinpoint any section of that road for works notices and coordination.

    Q – When the new noticing system comes into force will it be compulsory for utilities to use a level three gazetteer / ITN?

    A – Yes. It will be compulsorily to use a level three gazetteer with the new noticing system. In addition if utilities use a level one gazetteer they may be using out of date information which could make them liable for an FPN.

    Under the terms of the LGIH Mapping Services Agreement, data sharing between Local authorities and statutory undertakers can only be undertaken when both parties hold the appropriate product licenses from which the level 3 data was created / based upon. Statutory undertakers can obtain level 3 from the creating authority (local authority) under the Mapping Services Agreement (MSA), but a Utility cannot receive Level 3 from the NSG hub (unless the hub is acting as a contractor to each Authority). This is only valid as long as the Utility has the correct geographical coverage of ITN or OSCAR. If a Utility doesn’t have ITN/OSCAR they are still able to get Level 1 NSG under statute as Local Authorities can pass Level 1 gazetteers to other statutory undertakers in fulfilment of the statute under the New Roads and Street Works Act (NRSWA)

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