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


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Free Our Data response to the DCLG consultation on OS Free

Friday, February 26th, 2010

We’ve written up our response to the DCLG consultation, and emailed it over this afternoon. Make sure you respond too! Deadline is 17 March – a Wednesday, for no obvious reason.

Feel free to crib from this or build on it. Your comments welcome (though of course they’ll only be useful after the fact…)


Response to Ordnance Survey consultation from the Free Our Data campaign, 25 February 2010

Introduction
The Free Our Data campaign was co-founded in March 2006 by Charles Arthur and Michael Cross with the aim of persuading government that non-personal datasets created by government-owned agencies and companies and organisations should be made available for free reuse without licence restrictions.

The rationale for this approach is that citizens have already funded the existence and collection of these agencies through taxes paid over past years. (This includes historical data; Ordnance Survey, for example, has been a trading fund for some time but on its incarnation as a trading fund immediately used data previously collected at public expense.) Furthermore, the private and non-profit sector can imagine better ways of using data than government can because they have a direct interest in using it – but price and licensing are significant barriers to the development of those applications.

The campaign is apolitical. It is not aligned, associated with or funded by any political party or outside group; its (very small) costs are paid by the co-founders out of pocket.

We are delighted that government has chosen to accept the rationale behind the campaign’s logic with its plans to create the OS Free products. Our only caution is that it must ensure that the model used to fund it can be widely applied to other non-personal datasets within government. OS Free should not be a one-off, but instead should be the basis for a wider sharing of data.

One final, general point: the Free Our Data campaign believes that Ordnance Survey provides an excellent map-generating service and must remain a government-owned asset whose public task includes the continual mapping of the UK’s geography and built environment. Any moves to privatise any part of its operation would be retrograde and threaten both OS’s future usefulness and the UK’s economy. We would oppose such moves.

Question 1:What are your views or comments on the policy drivers for this consultation?
The need to reduce overt government spending, allied to the growth in personal computing power owned and controlled by the public at large, creates an entirely new opportunity to let citizens analyse, understand and benefit from the data that the government collects on their behalf. This is a two-way process.

Clearly the UK government is rapidly recognising the benefits of transparency – that actions are not just seen to be done, but that the reasoning for the actions can also be interrogated and understood. This is one key policy driver. (Hereafter PD1.)

There is a second policy driver (hereafter PD2): the need to reduce the public sector deficit in coming years. This is best done through a reduction in public spending and an increase in tax revenue from the private sector.

There is also an untapped private-sector entrepreneurial market whose entire existence depends on the successful implementation of this consultation and future ones like it. When government-collected data is treated as a limited asset which must be priced to create an artificial shortage, government constrains the private sector which generated the taxes used by the government to create the data. Clearly, that then constrains the tax base, because not all companies (extant or proposed) can afford to buy the data. Therefore total taxes are lowered by pricing data. This is inefficient, and constrains entrepreneurship based around the effective use of data.

Therefore making government-owned data like this free for reuse (including commercial reuse) will bring in larger tax revenues as long as HMRC is vigilant in collection of owed taxes from individuals and companies.

How the consultation will reduce public sector spending in the context of the Ordnance Survey’s financial model (as a trading fund) is less obvious, but still exists. The consultation iterates costs of making these mapping data free. However, it does not iterate the potential benefits through reduced costs to local councils, police forces and local health authorities, for example, of being able to provide map-linked data on public websites, without paying, at the Landranger and Explorer scale; this has been a consistent bugbear to local councils, to police forces and public health observatories which want to share their work with the public.

Making such data free also obviates the legal examination of any instance in which those bodies wish to share their work – a cost which is also unpriced in the consultation document. While these costs may not match the millions of pounds directly attributable in lost revenue from sales of Explorer and Landranger-scale data, they are significant in the cultural sense too – because they enable those bodies to operate in a more transparent manner as well, satisfying PD1 above.

Question 2: What are your views on how the market for geographic information has evolved recently and is likely to develop over the next 5-10 years?
The geographic information market has been completely transformed in the past 10 years by
-the opening of GPS (Global Positioning System) data to the world by the US military (an excellent example of treating “information as infrastructure”, in which the US government bears the cost of supplying, in effect, location data to non-US-taxpaying people in the UK and elsewhere); and
-the ability to create “crowdsourced” maps, such as OpenStreetMap (OSM), which are accessible via the internet without copyright restriction for consultation, addition or editing.

In the future the GI market will be further transformed by
-the growing number of smartphones with built-in GPS
-the falling cost of mapping large areas with great precision due to improving satellite photography systems
-mapping information, including road and route data, becoming a commodity, where only value-added forms can be effectively charged for.

Sales of satnav devices provide a clear indication that “knowing where you are” is a key piece of information for people: estimates suggest that between 4 million and 7.5m such devices have been sold in the past 10 years in the UK alone.

The commoditisation of route and road information, which has previously been supplied only by Ordnance Survey, will continue. If satnav makers decided that the OSM mapping was good enough, and that the pricing model it offers (of zero cost), they might choose to use its database (or even to improve its database while using it) and neglect the OS version. Under the present OS funding model, the only way for OS to recover its costs would be to raise costs to its existing clients, including the public sector – which would not fit PD2.

Therefore it is essential that OS does provide the OS Free data to encourage the growth of the UK geographical information sector, and develops its own high-quality mapping as part of the public task for which it exists.

Question 3: What are your views on the appropriate pricing model for Ordnance Survey products and services?
Given the name of the campaign, our obvious answer would be “all should be free”. But we recognise that there are pragmatic and political problems with this.

The question assumes a great deal about OS products and services, and its charging regimen. However as noted in the consultation OS has consistently declined to separate out the costs and revenues and profits of its “raw” and “value-added” products and services, which makes it difficult to take anything but a Gordian Knot approach to finding appropriate models.

The question would be better framed as “which products and services should OS produce, and what should it charge for, and how should the charging regime be set?”

The more logical approach is to ask what OS’s public task should be, what products and services flow from that, how far those should be self-financing (using, say, a trading fund method) and what other products and services are seen as a public good which should be funded out of general taxation.

OS’s public task is clearly to map the geography of the UK; arguably this also includes the built environment. MasterMap provides an appropriate starting point for the public task, comprising a detailed scale of the UK.

For the moment we find the proposed model – with MasterMap and non-OS Free products’ prices aligned for the public and private sectors – to be equable. However as costs of updating maps and built environment detail falls (due to pervasive GPS feedback systems such as smartphones and cheaper satellite imagery allied to automated updating of map databases) this may need review to see whether more detailed scale products closer to MasterMap level can also be offered free.

Question 4: What are your views and comments on public sector information regulation and policy, and the concepts of public task and good governance as they apply to Ordnance Survey?
PSI regulation and policy suffers from the problem that where public organisations decline to comply with it, neither method of enforcement is satisfactory.
-If OPSI or other organisations demand compliance using non-legal recourse (e.g. asking for “good practice”), the non-complying organisation can ignore it; or
-if OPSI or other organisations seek legal recourse for compliance, the exercise is extremely costly for all concerned and is concluded so slowly due to legal process that private organisations in particular are at risk of going out of business first. (The instance of Getmapping’s complaint against OS in the early 2000s is illustrative.)

It is absurd that OS has written its own definition of its public task – with or without the consent of its minister in DCLG. With the release of OS Free, it is time for the job of defining OS’s public task, which impinges on huge parts of British life and the economy, to be put in the hands of a body entirely outside OS.

Question 5: What are your views on and comments on the products under consideration for release for free re-use and the rationale for their inclusion?
It is essential that there should be both raster graphics and vector graphics. The former allow easy use on websites to create Google Maps-style interfaces (where the map can be “dragged” to a location). The latter allow dynamic scaling. Though no rationale has been offered for their inclusion, they seem to fit the “mid-scale” requirement.

The inclusion of Code-Point and Boundary-Line datasets, with licences that allow free reuse (including commercial reuse) is essential to the creation of useful, effective and profit-generation applications.

Question 6: How much do you think government should commit to funding the free product set? How might this be achieved?
This is a key question – and how the government chooses to implement this will demonstrate whether it is truly committed to the idea that “information is infrastructure” by creating a model of funding that will be applicable to other data-collecting trading funds and parts of citizen-funded government, or if it is simply choosing a short-term fix for the problem of the desperate need for free access to OS data.

It is easiest to start by indicating what the government should not do.

– It should not raise prices within government for the non-free OS datasets above those charged to commercial organisations outside government. This would create tensions under which government organisations would naturally seek third-party solutions to reduce their costs (because of PD2). That would undermine income for OS and jeopardise the quality of all its data. In extreme cases, price rises might deter local authorities and other public bodies from using high quality geographic information to deploy their resources more efficiently and end up costing the public purse more in the long term.

– It should not raise prices for commercial organisations above those charged to government for the same datasets. This too will tend to exacerbate any drift to third-party solutions for high-value datasets. (Although it should be expected that these will occur naturally due to new entrants in the market.)

Therefore government should commit exactly the “funding gap” that making the datasets mentioned free will cause – apart from the paper maps. OS will presumably continue to sell paper maps, and will be able to rely on its brand to benefit from their sales and consequent profits. Therefore Treasury should fund the “gap” in revenues out of general tax funding, rather than by levying greater charges for OS data from other public sector sources.

The government’s own argument that “information is infrastructure” should be applied here. Roads, for example, are physical infrastructure. Government sees their provision as a public good and commits to fund their building from general taxation. It does not charge higher road tax prices to government-owned vehicles to offset the fact that government has built the roads and provides free access to them. (Nor is road tax hypothecated towards road-building.)

In the same way, other public sector organisations that use OS data should not be charged over the amount that private sector groups would be, and their payments should not be hypothecated towards any “funding gap”. The amounts being discussed – ¬£19-¬£24m pa – are comparatively small when set against overall public spending.

The benefits, admittedly, are difficult to enumerate. It is possible that, as with GPS, the benefits will not be immediately visible, and may not appear in the same place as the investment. It would therefore be sensible for government to commission regular studies to evaluate the growth of business predicated on use of the OS Free products.

By adopting a “non-hypothecation” approach to funding OS Free, government will be greatly simplifying the process required for the subsequent release of other datasets from other government-owned bodies. The pressure to release OS Free arose because the trading fund model is too restrictive: it cannot prime the market.

To draw an analogy, the search engine Google could not be profitable if it were to use Microsoft’s Windows to power its multiple thousands of servers that store its index of the internet. It would have to pay a Windows licence on each of those servers, and for each additional one. The cost would outweigh its profits. Instead, Google uses the free Linux operating system for those servers. We are suggesting that using the OS trading fund model for products is akin to licensing Windows: it limits the size of the market for their use, and the speed with which companies can grow while using those products.

Question 7: What are your views on how free data from Ordnance Survey should be delivered?
The key to the datasets being useful will be (a) availability (b) reliability ( c) accessibility.
Availability: where are the datasets stored? If OS hosts the files, it will need to create an entirely new system to support hundreds or thousands of concurrent accesses. That is inefficient, and outside OS’s remit. It would be more sensible for the datasets to be uploaded to a cloud facility such as Amazon’s S3 storage or Google’s cloud facility where copies could be downloaded. This is a comparatively low-cost solution where OS would only have to pay for downloads, rather than setting up its own hosting service.

Furthermore, it is clear that the datasets will be subject to change over time. It would be inefficient to upload a complete set every day, for example. A more effective method would be to upload a “diff” file of differences from the previous full upload every so often (daily, weekly, monthly). This would reduce the total amount that would be needed to for an up-to-date download and simultaneously create new opportunities for applications showing what has changed on a map or dataset over time. A full dataset incorporating the diffs from the last full upload could be provided every, say, six months.

Reliability: so users can be confident that the files come from OS, they should be cryptographically signed.

Accessibility: the files should be made available in formats that are readable using open-source software: that will ensure that they will be usable by the widest possible range of users and applications.

Question 8: What are your views on the impact Ordnance Survey Free will have on the market?
Resellers of OS data will not be pleased. But this will force them to focus on value-added services rather than promulgating a system which perpetuates the extension of copyright limitations that are not sustainable in the age of the internet.

Some map providers have already cut their prices in response to the expectation of OS Free. As in Canada (in the example cited in the consultation) we should expect that mapmakers will take the opportunity to create specialised maps for different niche groups (climbers, walkers, and other outdoors pursuits are likely to be the first to take advantage of this).

The provision of CodePoint will galvanise a market that has been held back by the problems of creating fast, cheap and legal lookups for geocodes. Although organisations such as Yahoo offer them, using those leaves providers dependent on outside groups, when they would prefer to do their own lookup. CodePoint is an essential part of the package.

The provision of Boundary-Line will be highly important in the forthcoming election. It will also be important for online organisations which depend on mapping electoral constituencies.

Question 9: What are your comments on the proposal for a single National Address Register and suggestions for mechanisms to deliver it?
The absence of a working National Address Register (due mainly to intellectual property claims by publicly owned bodies) has created the absurd situation of the Office for National Statistics being forced to spend millions of pounds creating a one-off register for use in the 2011 census and then discarding it afterwards.

Government should retain the ONS census for future reuse and treat it as a resource with huge ability to create value for the economy.

Question 10: What are your views on the options outlined in this consultation?
Option 1 – allowing OS to continue with its planned “hybrid” strategy – is deeply unsatisfying. The strategy proposal has received no proper oversight; it has not been debated in Parliament; its financial assumptions are at best weak and at worst flawed; and the creation of an “attached” private company that would sell OS-branded goods is anticompetitive because it offers no transparency on pricing, while having sole advantage of the OS brand.

Option 2 – releasing large-scale data for free reuse – would cross a Rubicon. Although the Free Our Data campaign would support this, we are concerned that government and Treasury has not shown sufficient commitment to the idea of vote-funded data collection and parsing by OS, and that this strategy could endanger the long-term future of OS. Furthermore, it could undermine would-be commercial competitors, and would create substantial upheaval in the geographic information market. Change is good, but too much change can be unpalatable.

Option 3 – releasing “mid-scale” data as suggested, and considering a transition to further release – seems to offer a path towards the long-term future of OS while providing the opportunity to prove the benefit that would accrue to the private sector, and thus the Treasury through tax receipts, of freeing data. We find this the most pragmatic approach – but reiterate that the government’s aim should be to pursue a path where it releases data for the use of citizens without cost impairment.

Question 11: For local authorities: What will be the balance of impact of these proposals on your costs and revenues?
N/A.

Question 12: Will these proposals have any impact on race, gender or disability equalities?
We see no impact on those inequalities.

Charles Arthur & Michael Cross, 26 February 2010.

A new No.10 petition: free PostZon

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Mark Goodge added this as a comment to the data.gov.uk post, but it seems worth making more visible. So here it is:

“While the launch of data.gov.uk is a big step in the right direction, the government’s response to the petition inspired by the forced closure of ernestmarples.com has been pathetic. As a consequence, I’ve created a new petition which seeks to focus more tightly on the Postzon data (the data use by ernestmarples in their API). This can be found at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/geopostcode/.”

That’s one that’s definitely worth getting behind. Head over there and …do whatever the verb is for petitioning someone. Is it petition?

Data.gov.uk: now that’s what we call a result

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The official launch yesterday of data.gov.uk, with an index of 2,500 datasets provided by government departments, is fantastic news – and a significant milestone for the Free Our Data campaign.

It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come since 9 March 2006, when we kicked off the campaign in Guardian Technology with Give us back our crown jewels:

Imagine you had bought this newspaper for a friend. Imagine you asked them to tell you what’s in the TV listings – and they demanded cash before they would tell you. Outrageous? Certainly. Yet that is what a number of government agencies are doing with the data that we, as taxpayers, pay to have collected on our behalf. You have to pay to get a useful version of that data. Think of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) mapping data: useful to any business that wanted to provide a service in the UK, yet out of reach of startup companies without deep pockets.

This situation prevails across a number of government agencies. Its effects are all bad. It stifles innovation, enterprise and the creativity that should be the lifeblood of new business. And that is why Guardian Technology today launches a campaign – Free Our Data. The aim is simple: to persuade the government to abandon copyright on essential national data, making it freely available to anyone, while keeping the crucial task of collecting that data in the hands of taxpayer-funded agencies.

And further on:

[The consultancy] Pira [carrying out a study for the EU] pointed out that the US’s approach brings enormous economic benefits. The US and EU are comparable in size and population; but while the EU spent €9.5bn (£6.51bn) on gathering public sector data, and collected €68bn selling and licensing it, the US spent €19bn – twice as much – and realised €750bn – over 10 times more. [Peter] Weiss [who wrote a study comparing the US and UK] pointed out: “Governments realise two kinds of financial gain when they drop charges: higher indirect tax revenue from higher sales of the products that incorporate the … information; and higher income tax revenue and lower social welfare payments from net gains in employment.”

Happily, that argument has been driven through Whitehall by the efforts of Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. I interviewed Berners-Lee for the Guardian: see the video or read my account of how they did it.

So is that it? Is the campaign over? No, not at all. There are plenty of holdouts: UK Hydrographic Office is complicated (because it buys in third-party data which it then resells), yet even so one would think there should be information that it collects about British coastal waters which could be released as having public benefit.

Similarly postcodes, where there is some notable opposition to making any of the datasets free. The easiest one would be PostZon, which simply holds geolocations for each postcode plus data about which health and administrative boundary it lies inside; that’s nothing like as extensive (or valuable) as the full Postcode Address File (PAF).

But there’s really strong resistance against making anything from the Royal Mail available for free, and one detects Lord Mandelson’s hand in this.

If you haven’t yet had your say on the OS consultation, Harry Metcalfe has created a terrific tool for doing precisely that at osconsult.ernestmarples.com. Go along and make your views heard.

Fun facts from the DCLG / OS consultation

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

A few things that strike us as we read through the consultation and impact assessment (links in previous posts).

Impact assessment:

Ordnance Survey generates most of its revenue from business and the public sector; in 2008/9 they each accounted for 46 per cent of the organisation’s total revenue. Consumers, through the sale of paper maps in retailing channels, accounted for the remaining 8 per cent of sales.

Impact assessment:

Ordnance Survey generates revenues from its products through licensing arrangements either directly with customers, or indirectly through licensed partners and through retail distributors. The direct customer channel accounts for two-thirds of Ordnance Survey’s trading revenue and includes various collective purchase agreements and major private sector users such as the utility companies. Approximately 25 per cent of Ordnance Survey’s trading revenue is generated though the indirect partner channel.

Impact assessment:

Separately, there are imbalances in Ordnance Survey’s current pricing model which may be causing inefficient allocation of resources. Firstly, Ordnance Survey currently charges private sector customers of its large-scale products significantly more than comparable government customers. The higher prices being paid by the private sector may potentially have restricted consumption to the less price sensitive users, impacting the economic benefit to the economy. Secondly, the payment allocation mechanism employed by government generates a weak price signal to Ordnance Survey from individual government users within the collective agreements.

Now that’s a really interesting one. Private sector pays more than government? I hadn’t heard that before. Payment mechanism generates a weak price signal?

Impact assessment:

[OS] already has a cost reduction programme underway as part of its existing business strategy, but any long-term strategic option would seek to introduce a framework that enhances cost transparency and provides incentives to pursue further efficiency gains.

More as we come across them…

Impact assessment of making OS ‘mid-scale’ data free puts cost at 47m-58m pounds

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

What interesting reading the impact assessment of the DCLG consultation on making OS data free is. Clearly some arms have been twisted in the Treasury to make it happen – Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury, almost surely in the driving seat there.

On the option being chosen (which is explicitly not the one that was examined in the “Cambridge study”, which looked at the benefits of releasing large-scale data, not the “mid-scale” data being proposed) the cost seems to be that government costs rise somewhat, while costs to the commercial sector fall.

From the document (on the impact assessment page):

ANNUAL COSTS

Lost OS revenue from OS Free data being made free: £19-24m (govt would fund this on a cost plus basis, amounting to £6-9m).

Increased government charges for large-scale data: £28-34m (price rebalancing based on number of datasets used by public and private sector).

One-off (Transition) Yrs: £ tbc

Average Annual Cost (excluding one-off): £47-58m

Total Cost (PV) £391-482m

Other key non-monetised costs by ‘main affected groups’ Transition costs to Ordnance Survey, government departments and businesses of moving to new model. There would be impacts on third party providers (see Competition Assessment, Annex 1).

ANNUAL BENEFITS

Description and scale of key monetised benefits by ‘main affected groups’: gain to business and consumers from OS large-scale data being made cheaper: £28-34m if assume price rebalancing is revenue neutral.

Gain from OS Free data being made available: £19-24m.

Average Annual Benefit (excluding one-off) £47-58m

Total Benefit (PV) £391-482m

Other key non-monetised benefits by ‘main affected groups’: The lower charges to businesses and consumers for large-scale data, and the free data should increase demand and hence welfare. Entry and innovation should occur in the market for geographical information. These welfare benefits have not been quantified (Pollock report focuses on releasing large-scale data).

And finally:

Key Assumptions/Sensitivities/Risk: Modelling assumptions: some substitution from paid-for to free data; lost revenue by OS due to competition from new derived products. Not yet determined how the revenue shortfall will be covered from government (i.e. who will pay and how). So for now assume no change in demand, but will estimate this for the final IA.

Price Base Year 2009

Time Period Years 10

Net Benefit Range (NPV) –

NET BENEFIT (NPV Best estimate) £0

Hurrah! Ordnance Survey consultation is live!

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Thanks to a little bird at an interested organisation, we now know that the DCLG has opened its consultation on OS data.

It’s at http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/corporate/ordnancesurveyconsultation, where we learn that the closing date is 17 March 2010 (and the opening date is today, 23 December 2009).

Consultation paper on the Government’s proposal to open up Ordnance Survey’s data relating to electoral and local authority boundaries, postcode areas and mid scale mapping information.

The consultation document itself weighs in at 2.2MB of PDF and 91 pages.

As ever, let us know your thoughts.

Update: and don’t miss the Impact Assessment paper – here’s the PDF of the Impact Assessment – which for some strange reason isn’t linked from the main page.

Consultation update: still invisible, but asked in Parliament

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Ordnance Survey says it’s for the Department of Communities and Local Government that’s in charge of the consultation over making its data free….

According to this Parliamentary answer, DCLG thinks so too:

The question:

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government with reference to the announcement of 17 November 2009 on the Making Public Data Public initiative, when he expects to begin the consultation regarding access to Ordnance Survey data.

The answer from the DCLG minister responsible:

Ian Austin (Minister of State (the West Midlands), Regional Affairs; Dudley North, Labour)

We expect the consultation to be launched during the week beginning 14 December 2009.

That’s this week. This week is almost over. What, it takes a week to launch a consultation? There are international experts who can do it quicker. Meanwhile I tried phoning the DCLG press office (no reply on multiple lines) and emailing it (no response).

Helluva way to organise a consultation.

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?

OS publishes almost unredacted version of international study

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

The OS has at last, in response to my FOI request (thank you whatdotheyknow.com) published an almost unredacted version of its international study, fully known as ” International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models – Study report”.

You can download it from the OS’s page about it, which contains the interesting addition (or is it that we only just noticed it?) that this is a study “which was commissioned by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Iain Wright MP, and formed one input to the Trading Funds Assessment undertaken by the Shareholder Executive and HM Treasury.”

Mm.

Anyhow, your opinions on what the study tells us – and especially whether it actually does manage to confirm any of the things that it was trying to confirm – are extremely welcome. Comments as ever are open.

Ordnance Survey provides redacted version of its study into its financial organisation

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Ordnance Survey responded to our FOI request for publication of its study into itself and the best financial organisation for itself.

And in these times when MPs’ expenses are redacted, of course OS isn’t going to let us see everything.

That’s why the document, which I’ve uploaded as a PDF (though it’s originally a TIFF – apparently a scan of the paper document once the black marker pen had been wielded), is full of lacunae.

After some struggles (apologies) it’s now available as a PDF (3.7MB).

Have a look for yourself and see what strikes you as interesting.

This isn’t the final version of what we’ll get, however. In its response to me, OS says

Please see attached a redacted version of the International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models – Study report (ref: 71171). The report was commissioned by the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Iain Wright MP, formed part of an input to the Trading Funds Assessment undertaken by the Shareholder Executive on behalf of HM Treasury and the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (now Business, Innovation and Skills).

As you are aware this is an interim report while we wait for approval from the countries/agencies, who took part in the study, to release information related to them. The extension date for the next version of the report is 23 July 2009.

We’ll compare the two, of course. But it’s likely there will still be stuff cut out because it’s too sensitive for us poor souls.

FOI request for OS to publish study delivered: the clock is ticking..

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Thanks to whatdotheyknow – the very public site where you can make Freedom of Information requests, assisted by MySociety (which previously brought you theyworkforyou and publicwhip, which track what Parliamentarians do in their work) – we have now filed our FOI request for the publication of the study that led OS to conclude that free data models don’t work.

The page is at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/request_for_publication_of_study and the request – which has to be answered by June 23 – is as follows:

On May 12 2009 Sir Rob Margetts, chairman of OS, said in a public
speech that “We did, with outside help, a review of equivalent
organisations around the world” in determining the effects of a
free-data model, mixed model or private model on OS’s future
strategy.

I request the publication of all parts of the review that do not
contain commercial-in-confidence data, and the separate publication
of a full version of the review with commercial-in-confidence data
redacted.

Very much looking forward to this.

Which foreign map organisations did OS visit last year for its study?

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

An interesting question by Caroline Spelman: where did Ordnance Survey staff go in 2008?

Why might that be interesting? Because OS did a study of free data and other funding models last year as part of the preparation of its own internal study on which model would be best for the future. Would it be a free data model, would it be full private, would it be pretty much like the one it has? You may be able to guess. (Or read Sir Rob Margett’s speech as I recorded it. Or watch the OS version of it – they chopped out the detail of his speech and his assertions about cost to the government.)

(Apparently there was a “brisk” question-and-answer session. My question about derived data didn’t make it into the video.)

Now here’s the document answering Ms Spelman’s question. I’ve highlighted a few answers in bold. Can you guess why?

And does anyone know what funding models the mapping agencies of Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Estonia (Estonia??) operate?

Plus – have I missed any? There is of course one country missing from that list which should have been visited but wasn’t. Interesting to know why…

Countries visited by Ordnance Survey staff in 2008 (original: http://www.parliament.uk/deposits/depositedpapers/2009/DEP2009-0350.doc)

Country

Destination

Purpose

Australia

Melbourne

Representing Ordnance Survey and United Kingdom at an international conference on geographic information

Austria

Graz

Participation in a technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive

Vienna

Participation in technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive

Vienna

UK Delegate to International Cartographic Association Conference

Vienna

Technical participation in Semantic Technology Conference

Vienna

Technical participation in European Semantic Technology Conference 2008

Bahrain

Bahrain

Keynote speech by Director General, representing UK at Middle East Survey Technology Conference

Belgium

Brussels

Participation in Geographic Information awareness event in the European Parliament

Brussels

Technical participation in Mercator print equipment User Group Conference, sharing best practice

Brussels

Technical participation on behalf of UK in European Parliament meeting on Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES)

Brussels

Technical meeting with European Commission

Brussels

Technical meeting with European Commission (Directorate on General Information Society and Media)

Brussels

Representing Ordnance Survey at European Centre for Public Affairs conference

Brussels

Technical meeting with team drafting the implementing rule for European Commission on the INSPIRE Directive

Brussels

Technical meeting with the UK Permanent Representation Team

Brussels

Technical meeting on the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS)

Brussels

Participation in EuroGeographics management meeting

Brussels

Technical participation in European Reference Framework Conference (EUREF) 2008

Brussels

Participation in European Public Sector Information (ePSI) conference

Canada

Toronto

Technical meeting with National Resources Canada

Vancouver

Technical meeting of Geographic Information Web Networks (Geoweb)

China

Beijing

UK Delegate to the International Society for Photogrammetric and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) conference.

Croatia

Dubrovnik

UK Representation (including presentation by Director General) at EuroGeographics General Assembly 2007

Denmark

Copenhagen

Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Copenhagen

Technical participation in meeting of the International Standards Organisation Technical Committee (ISO TC211)

Eire

Dublin

Client visit Korec – supplier of surveying equipment

Dublin

Attendance at Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) conference

Shannon

Transit departure airport for return from Dublin conference

Estonia

Tallinn

Technical meeting with National Land Board ‚ exchanging best practice and fact finding.

Finland

Helsinki

Technical participation in meeting of the Business Interoperability Group of EuroGeographics

Helsinki

Technical meeting with Finnish Land Survey‚ exchanging best practice and fact finding.

Juankoski

Visit to supplier to discuss paper stocks for printing paper maps.

France

Paris

Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting

Paris

Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Paris

Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting

Montpellier

UK Delegate to the International Cartographic Association Workshop on Generalisation and Multiple Representation, and the Spatial Data Handling (SDH) Conference.

Nice

Business and sales attendance at the International property trade Conference.

Germany

Berlin

Technical meeting with CityGML ‚ regarding the production of 3D City Models

Frankfurt

Technical participation in a EuroGeographics Business Interoperability Group meeting

Frankfurt

Sales attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Hanover

Technical attendance at CeBit Conference – Information and Digital Technology

Friberg

Technical participation in the Spatial Cognition 2008 conference, including participation in a workshop designing maps for orientation.

Bonn

Technical and Business participation in an Open Geospatial Consortium meeting.

Bonn

Technical participation at a 3D Special Interest Group meeting at University of Bonn, supporting Ordnance Survey’s contribution to the creation of the CityGML data format.

Bremen

Technical participation in the Spatial Cognition 08 conference

Dusseldorf

Technical visit to the DRUPA printing equipment exhibition ‚ for fact finding.

Hamburg

Pan-European conference on Geographical Information related matters.

Stuttgart

Technical participation in a meeting of the pan-European EuroRoadS Project Management Board.

Hungary

Budapest

Technical attendance at international technology analysis “Canalys” Conference

India

Delhi

Technical visit to Supplier

Chennai

Technical visit to Supplier

Italy

Milan

Technical and business participation in a meeting of Open Geospatial Consortium Technical Committee

Catania

Technical participation in a working group on TRI-Partite multimedia Object Description (TRIPOD) at Cantinetta

Technical participation in International conference on knowledge engineering – EKAW

Japan

Tokyo

Technical presentation to the European / Japanese Conference on Information Modelling and knowledge bases

Latvia

Riga

Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD

Libya

Tripoli

UK Delegate and presentation by Director General on “Perspectives on the challenges facing the geospatial industry; a view from a National Mapping Agency”.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg

Technical meeting with the European Commission (Directorate on General Information Society and Media on public sector information)

Luxembourg

Technical participation in a meeting of the European Commission on Geographic Information Systems

Luxembourg

Technical and sales participation in the “Apply Serious Gaming Conference” related to the use of high specification geographic information by the gaming industry.

Luxembourg

Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD

Luxembourg

Technical participation in an Ontology Web Language Experiences and Directions workshop

Malta

Valetta

Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting

Netherlands

Amsterdam

Technical participation in Urban Land Institute housing affordability seminar

Amsterdam

Representing the Ordnance Survey and the UK the Director General gave a keynote speech at GIN Congress

Amsterdam

Technical participation in Workflow and Production Management Technology Conference 08

Amsterdam

Airport for technical meeting on the development of the INSPIRE Directive at Hague

Delft

Technical participation at the 3d GeoInfo 2007 conference. Furthering expertise and knowledge of 3D data collection and systems.

Delft

Technical meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Enschede

Technical participation in Data Quality Workshop at ITC, Enschede

Rotterdam

Research meeting with AND (Automotive Navigation Design) on use of Ordnance Survey data in navigation solutions.

New Zealand

Auckland

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey at an international conference on conceptual modelling and to visit LINZ (Land Information New Zealand), the national mapping and cadastre agency of New Zealand.

Norway

Oslo

Technical Participation in meeting of Euro Spatial Data Research (SDR)

Poland

Warsaw

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General gave a keynote speech on geographic information and national decision making at Elblag Conference

Portugal

Lisbon

Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting

Romania

Bucharest

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General gave a keynote speech at EuroGeographics meeting

Sibiu

Representing Ordnance Survey at business Meeting

Slovenia

Maribor

Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE Directive

Spain

Barcelona

Technical and business participation in Barcelona Euro SDR meeting

Barcelona

Technical participation and sharing of best practice in Photogrammetric Digital Camera user forum

Barcelona

Technical participation at 3GSM Congress

Madrid

Technical participation at meeting of ORCHESTRA – European collaborative research project on spatial data infrastructure

Madrid

A four month secondment to the Instituto Geogr√°fico Nacional (IGN) Spain to gain a better understanding of how Spatial Data Infrastructures can be implemented, both organisationally and technically. This was in return for a secondment of an IGN expert to Ordnance Survey in 2007.

Sweden

Norrköping

Technical participation in pan European technical project work associated with INSPIRE legislation

Norrköping

Technical participation in Mercator print equipment User Group Conference, sharing best practice

Stockholm

Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE directive

Stockholm

UK delegate at Federation International des Geometries (FIG) Conference

Stockholm

Technical participation at Tobii Conference

Switzerland

Heerburg

Technical and business visit to Leica Geosystems

Zurich

Two visits to ETH Zurich University, one regarding the quality assurance of 3D buildings and attendance of a conference at ETH presenting Ordnance Survey work and best practice on the capture of 3D buildings.

USA

Baltimore

Technical participation and representation of Ordnance Survey at the Usability Professionals Association Conference

Boston

Technical participation at Vital Vision Conference

Chicago

Technical participation and sharing of best practice at Association for Manufacturing Excellence Conference

Denver

Technical participation at GI Science conference

Detroit

Technical participation in international conference in geographic information

Orlando

Sharing of best practice at Conference on SAP systems in Human Resource models

Salt Lake City

Technical participation in conference and workshops at GIScience 2008 ‚ sharing expertise of geographic information science and geographic information systems.

San Diego

Representing Ordnance Survey at BAE System user conference

San Diego

Technical participation at the ESRI conference on GIS and mapping software

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at the Oracle user conference

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Workshop

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at Where 2.0 Conference.

Savannah

Technical participation in discussions at ION GNSS 2008

Seattle

Technical meeting with Microsoft on the use of Ordnance Survey data.

St. Louis

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey at Open Geospatial Consortium meeting

St. Louis

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General held a technical meeting with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

Washington

Technical participation in OWLED / Washington Workshop

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.

Treasury tightens the screws on OS: will job losses follow?

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Always useful to monitor the written and spoken questions in Parliament: if you use theyworkforyou.com (and who wouldn’t?) you can set up an alert each time a phrase is used in Parliament (either house), or an MP appears, and get taken to the relevant page.

The latest interesting fact to emerge is that Ordnance Survey is expected, for the financial year just ended, to up its return on capital employed (ROCE) from the usual 5.5% to 6%:

Adam Afriyie (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Windsor, Conservative): To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what financial return on ordinary activities was expected from Ordnance Survey in the year ending July 2008.

Iain Wright (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government; Hartlepool, Labour): The financial target for the year ended 31 March 2008 was derived from the three-year target for 2004-05 to 2007-08 set down in the Ordnance Survey Framework Document 2004. This target was to achieve no less than 5.5 per cent. per annum return on capital employed (“ROCE”), averaged over a three-year period, with the return defined as surplus on ordinary activities before interest and dividends.

The target figure for ROCE for the year ended 31 March 2009 was increased to a return of not less than 6 per cent.

(Emphasis added)

That’s interesting, and if we get a moment it might be useful to see what that sort of increase in ROCE means for the OS’s profits and especially costs: we have heard that Vanessa Lawrence, OS’s chief, has warned staff that there might be redundancies in the coming year.

It might seem perverse to you – it does to me – to increase the ROCE demanded from an organisation that relies on third-party sales of its products as a recession bites, which would tend to mean that (a) those third parties are going to have less money to spend (b) some of those third parties might go out of business. “Capital employed” tends to be a fixed number (staff aren’t capital, they’re operating costs), and is hard to change.

In the Guardian: one-off census address database cost rises 20% to 12m pounds

Monday, March 9th, 2009

In The Guardian, we’ve followed up on the question put by the Tories’ social affairs minister (if I recall correctly) Eric Pickles, who asked about the price of the one-off census address database for 2011.

It turns out it has risen from £10 million to £12m in the space of just a few short months. Hasn’t anyone told them there’s a deflationary recession on?

As a reminder: the need for this database has grown from the fact that the Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and local authorities can’t agree on how to build an address database that the Office for National Statistics can agree will be definitive for carrying out the 2011 census.

Well, fair enough, you might say. The ONS’s requirements differ subtly from OS, RM and local authorities. It’s possible that their interests and plans won’t be entirely congruent.

What’s mind-boggling, and completely idiotic, is that ONS is going to build this database for itself (must already be in the process, since it doesn’t have long to do it) and then is going to destroy it. Because nobody could agree to let such a thing exist independently.

It’s an egregrious waste of money – first the building, which is madness, given that the data already exists; and then the destruction. Occam’s Razor of datasets: don’t let entities multiply needlessly. And the first law of not wasting things: don’t destroy hard-won datasets needlessly.