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


Archive for the 'Government reports' Category

If you get free data, what will you do with it?

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Our challenge to you: if you get free data, what will you do with it?

The question has some urgency because if you can think of what you’d like to do with data from the Land Registry, Companies House or the Met Office, then you could be in line to be the first to benefit from it – and show the benefits of making more data free.

The Cambridge report noted three sets of data that could be made free with minimal revenue impact: Land Registry, Companies House, and Met Office.

Let’s revisit them, so you can think what to do with them.

For Land Registry, the analysis only looks at “Property Data Services” – which are the ‘Property Price Data’ and ‘Polygons’, whose respective revenues were £893k, the majority of which was from a bulk form of the product, and £405k. (That compares to Land Registry’s total revenues of XXX, 86% of which comes from compulsory registrations.)

Those, it should be noted, are tiny compared to its revenues. Land Registry’s fee income in 2006/7 was £474million (in 2005/6, £395m). Its costs are very high, but it still had an operating surplus of £96m – nearly as large as Ordnance Survey’s entire revenues.

The reason: you’re obliged to tell LR when you buy or sell land or put a charge (such as a mortgage) on registered land.

The property data could surely be used for some imaginative analysis – though note that Land Registry bans the use of its data for unsolicited mailshots. (An interesting question is how, if one moved to a free data model, one would spot uses which broke rules like that. Would you drop the rule, or include intentionally fake data which would tip you off if you received a mailshot addresses to it?)

Companies House is next: £72m revenue, again almost all from obligatory registrations. (Although search is the most profitable area – as you’d expect: it’s easier to search data than to accept and check it.) Unfortunately most of the data there is marked confidential in the analysis – but again, one can imagine that it might be useful to find people who are persistent directors of companies that aren’t acting lawfully…

Finally there’s the Met Office. Can anyone think what you’d do with a lot of weather data?

More analysis and suggestions of how to use these three organisations’ output data – if it were free – are welcome.

Cambridge economics report (briefly) debated in Parliament

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

We note (via theyworkforyou’s excellent email alerts system) that the issue of trading funds – and specifically, the Ordnance Survey model – was briefly debated in the Commons yesterday.

The main protagonists: Iain Wright, who says he is

the Minister for Ordnance Survey responsible for the shareholder relationship between the Department and the agency, dealing with strategic and day-to-day issues arising in connection with its activities, particularly in terms of financial and Government matters. My ministerial colleague the noble Baroness Andrews leads for the Department on issues relating to the purchase of Ordnance Survey products and services.

Robert Key (Con, Salisbury) asks:

there is continuing confusion between [OS’s] public duty and the private competition that it has to have as a trading fund. The pan-government agreement, which regulates how different Government Departments and agencies use Ordnance Survey, came to an end yesterday. We have no news of what is going to be put in its place, so will he tell us? When will the regulatory framework be updated and amended to bring an end to all this confusion, which is getting in the way of Ordnance Survey’s excellent work?

The reply:

In respect of his important point about the pan-government agreement, that was established, as he is aware, to ensure that the Government have access to mapping data in order to develop and implement policy at a reasonable price. We are looking into that, and I will update the House accordingly.

Then more interestingly from David Taylor (Lab, NW Leicestershire):

There is an argument that [OS] information should be made more freely available, free of charge. Has he read the book which was published alongside the Budget, “Models of Public Sector Information via Trading Funds”—quite a racy read—and which rebuts the claim that a move to free data would damage the work of Ordnance Survey? It should be made freely available to citizens of this country, and that can be done in a way that produces funds rather than absorbs them.

The minister’s reply:

As a fellow accountant, I can imagine that I would find it racy as well. [Ah, Parliamentary humour – CA] My hon. Friend raises an important point about the provision of data. He said that Ordnance Survey breaks even as a trading fund. In fact, it provides about £6.2 million in surplus that is then passed back to the public purse via dividends. That is to be encouraged. The business model, with changing market conditions and technology, is being considered and, as Minister with responsibility for Ordnance Survey, I will continue to do so. [Emphasis added – CA]

Interesting: that the Cambridge report is now getting debate time, that the free data model is being considered, and that the minister responsible is considering the business model “with changing market conditions”.

Land Registry surcharge could fund free OS data surprisingly cheaply

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

Sold signs outside houseOne suggestion that has been made by Robert Barr (of Manchester Geomatics) and echoed recently by Ed Parsons on his blog (though I think Ed came up with it independently) is that Ordnance Survey’s non-refined data (that is, the stuff it does as part of its public task, which the Cambridge economics study of trading funds interpreted to be its MasterMap and Large Scale Topo) could be made available for free by making up any funding shortfall from a surcharge on Land Registry transactions.

The reasoning: most LR transactions involve OS mapping.

According to the study, that would cost between £12m and £30m in foregone revenue.

So how much would you have to add to Land Registry transactions to make up that amount? It sounds like an awful lot of money to generate.

Here are the figures I’ve culled from the Land Registry’s performance data for the past three years on the number of transactions.

Number of registrations 2004/5 2005/6 2006/7 Mean 04-06 As % of total
first registrations 297,405 309,609 304,391 303,802 4.3
discharges 2,486,875 2,502,318 2,605,620 2,531,604 35.8
mortgages 2,680,128 2,627,999 2,723,530 2,677,219 37.9
transfers for value 1,378,200 1,270,867 1,480,819 1,376,629 19.5
leases 167,234 173,610 197,546 179,463 2.5
Total 7,009,842 6,884,403 7,311,906 7,068,717 100
Total w/o discharges 4,522,967 4,382,085 4,706,286 4,537,113 64.2

With millions of transactions, it looks like raising £12m – £30m wouldn’t actually be too hard. “Discharges” are the ending of a claim to a legal title – generally, though not always, the end of a mortgage. They attract no fee at present. Other LR charges range from £2 (for a search) to £700 (for first non-voluntary registration of a pricey parcel of land). Most of the charges, though, are £20 – £40 and upwards.

So to find the £12m that the trading funds report suggests OS would lose solely from non-discharge transactions would mean adding £2.65 to the cost of each LR transaction.

If we take the loss in revenue to OS as £30m, then it means adding £6.61 to each transaction. It’s not more than the cost of any transaction (except searches – which aren’t the same as the “searches” one does when buying a house; those go through your local authority), and compared to the cost of the typical transaction – say, the average £180,000 house purchase – it’s peanuts.

Right – that’s the analysis done. Now we just need to find a minister who is in charge of Land Registry and Ordnance Survey and can tweak the legislation (it doesn’t need primary legislation, surely?) to make these changes. And we’re done.

This analysis also appears (without the fun table) in today’s Guardian: Land Registry holds key to free OS.

Trading Funds report: final totals: economy +£179m, gov’t -15.4m

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

So here are the tallies, according to the Trading Funds report, of how making bulk data free would benefit the economy, and how much it would cost the government. (You can find the figures in Chapter 7 of the report.)

Name Product Gross benefit (£m) Net cost to government (£m) Net gain (£m) Ratio of return on investment (net gain/net cost)
Ordnance Survey Large Scale Topo 168 12 156 13
DVLA Anonymised Bulk & Mileage data 4.3 0.582 3.7 6.36
Companies House Bulk Data and Image 2.6 0.681 1.9 2.79
Land Registry Property Price, Polygon GIS 2.3 1.1 1.2 1.09
Met Office wholesale data 1.2 0.260 1.03 3.96
UK Hydrographic Office Digital UK Charts & Publications 1.08 0.744 0.338 0.45
Total 179.48m 15.37m 164.2m 10.68
source: models of PSI provision by Trading Funds report, DBERR

The figure for Ordnance Survey is dramatic, but understandable: as it says itself, it underpins huge amounts of economic activity. The point that this study makes is that making its raw data free would allow even more economic activity – creative, useful, beneficial, taxable – to occur.

(The UKHO is unlike the other trading funds, as the report points out, because it takes in raw data from outside organisations, which it may not be allowed to make available royalty- or payment-free. Which goes some way to explaining the answer to the question I was asked earlier.)

Trading Funds report: is PSI the new electricity and roads?

Friday, March 14th, 2008

Still chugging through the Trading Funds report (because it is 154 pages, after all): here we are at chapter 6.

Where we find (PDF p107-108):

With the development of the ‘knowledge’ economy, driven in large part by improvements in digital technology, the supply of data by trading funds can be seen as an analogous activity in ‘information’ sector to the supply of physical infrastructure in the form of power and electricity, transport (roads, trains etc), and telecommunications. This comparison is illuminating in a variety of ways.

First, existing utilities often have similar cost structures where large fixed costs are combined with low marginal costs. Related to this, many of them, at least in some areas of their activities, have ‘natural’ monopolies just as trading funds may do in some areas of their business. Utilities are usually providing ‘essential’ infrastructure which, if not directly essential to government, are essential to the general economy – this could be seen as similar to the ‘public task’ of trading funds.

For a combination of these reasons many of these utilities are regulated and have been now for some time and one might think that these regulatory experiences would have something to offer when considering the situation of trading funds (few, if any, of which have any independent regulation at the present time).

This is an interesting point. It’s been clear for a long time that trading funds tend to be natural monopolies (it would make no sense – as we have pointed out – to have two competing national mapping agencies, nor to privatise Ordnance Survey, because the latter would create the situation where mapping would be a cherry-picking exercise).

Two things: first, which trading funds are tightly regulated? One does hear the phrase of “capture”, in which a trading fund is able to persuade its controlling minister that it’s doing everything just right, and because it’s handing over the money every year the minister doesn’t have any cause to come down heavily on it – quite the opposite: don’t annoy the Treasury is one of the first rules of Being A Government Minister.

Of course, utilities – certainly electricity and gas, and increasingly roads and rail – aren’t free. But then again, it costs money to generate and distribute electricity and gas, or build roads and rail. By contrast, the cost of running online distribution is falling all the time; the amount of data that the Met Office distributes every day – a few gigabytes, it told the report’s authors – would cost a few pounds per day to distribute if held on Amazon’s S3 system. That’s pretty cheap.

Trading Funds report: how trading fund prices don’t account for wider economic benefits

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

We’ve reached page 22 of the 154-page PDF, and alight on this piece of economic analysis, looking at how the demand curve for a trading fund may misrepresent the wider demand out there. Stay with it: it’s interesting.

…imagine there are a large number of downstream firms [from the trading fund] each demanding one unit of the product but each with different fixed costs. The trading fund’s demand curve [for its product, determining the price it sets for the product] then arises from aggregating across all these downstream firms.

Pick a point on the trading fund’s demand curve (p, q) say, and consider an increase of δp in the price charged, resulting in some reduction δq in purchases. Now this reduction in demand corresponds to some number of downstream firms who cease to purchase (and hence cease production).

Consider one of these firms and let initial revenue be R, and C their total costs (excluding the payment for data).

Then one must have R − C ≈ p (since R − C < p + δp and R − C ≥ p). What about the surplus generated by this firm? Its producer surplus is zero (R − C − p = 0) but consumer surplus, denoted CS, is almost certainly not zero.

Thus, from the point of view of society current total surplus produced by this firm is p + CS.

However using the demand curve of the trading fund all that would be recorded is the p coming from the payment for data.

Academic? Not at all – you could imagine the firm that ceases production at the δq rise in the cost of using, say, a map is the same as one which never starts because the startup costs of licensing the data are too high.

We can think of an example. Actually, here’s another. See? Economics isn’t all about imaginary five-pound notes on the ground after all.

The summary of the section (p23):

if users of a trading fund’s information products are not end consumers but other firms, then there is good reason to think that the demand curve seen by the trading fund will significantly underestimate the welfare benefits (costs) of lower(higher) prices.

Trading Funds report says: marginal cost is a good thing

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The executive summary of the Trading Funds report says, after some preamble about the challenges of doing it, that

the analysis has generally been confined to comparing the existing average cost (cost-recovery) regime with marginal cost.

Performing this comparison on the subset of products suitable for analysis, it was found that, in most cases, a marginal cost regime would be welfare improving – that is, the benefits to society of moving to a marginal cost regime outweighed the costs.

And as they also note, for a digital product, the marginal cost is close enough to zero that there’s no difference between a zero-cost regime and a marginal cost regime.

In other words, the Free Our Data campaign is right, at least as regards raw [non-personal] data from the public sector.

Let’s continue with the executive summary:

For registration based trading funds (DVLA, Companies House and the Land Registry) it likely that this change in charging policy could be made without the need for government to provide additional funds as any shortfall could be made up from the registration side of their activities. For the other trading funds some direct assistance, beyond that already provided, would be required.

In the case of the UKHO and the Met Office the sums involved would be limited (around £1m) but in the case of Ordnance Survey would be substantially larger (though the benefits in this case would be commensurably bigger).

It does note that

A change in charging regime should not have a detrimental impact on the performance of trading funds in terms of efficiency or data quality, providing a suitable governance and regulatory regime is put in place (and this is desirable in any case).

This is of course the tricky thing to get right, and the authors add that

having an adequate governance/regulatory regime in place is absolutely central to realizing the potential benefits from change (and also for delivering value for money even under the present charging arrangements). Thus, getting this right should be one of the first items for consideration whether or not any restructuring does take place (and will be essential if additional subsidies are required under a move to marginal cost pricing).

More once we’ve digested further.

Trading Funds report first glance: economists, start here

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

As the report was written by two economists (Professor David Newbery and Rufus Pollock) and a professor of law (Lionel Bently), all of Cambridge University, it’s not surprising that it contains a lot of economic calculations – the sort that require at least A-level maths to feel comfortable with. (Do we all still feel comfortable? Good.)

We like the start:

The contents of this document may be reproduced free of charge in any format or medium provided that it is reproduced accurately and not used in a misleading context. The material must be acknowledged as Crown Copyright and the title of the document given.

So, just to be clear, the 154-page report is called “Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds”. (Please note: page numbers given here refer to those in the PDF, which often differ from the printed form.)

We began at the end, with the appendix “A General Argument for Selling Public Sector Products at Marginal Cost”. This is a pretty important part of the argument: why should the government give away stuff rather than selling it for a profit?

A crux point from the appendix which looks at pricing at marginal cost (p139):

taxing public production (by the difference between price and marginal cost) is inefficient if the production is an input into production, and unlikely to be part of an optimal commodity tax system when sold as a final good.

That is (to simplify again from the economics) if the public data get used to generate something else that is then used in the private sector, charging for them isn’t the most efficient way of growing tax revenue.

They add (p139):

Certainly it is hard to believe that taxing any PSI products would increase consumers willingness to undertake taxed labour activities, or that reducing their price would lead to an increase in leisure at the expense of paid employment.

As shown by the government’s 2003 Green Book, the authors say, (p140)

The UK Government attaches importance to the distributional consequences of its actions, many of which are justified by the beneficial impact they have on distributional outcomes.

A key question then becomes the “marginal cost of public funds” – how much it costs the private economy to spend £1 in the public sector. A 1992 study noted that (p146)

‘The MC(P)F ultimately depends not just on the tax, but also on the nature of the government expenditure under consideration.’ This is a particularly salient point in the case of government revenue subsidising trading funds in order to offer below average cost pricing. As an example, the lower cost of trading fund data may lead to greater innovation.

Which would mean? (p146-7)

On the one hand this could result in higher corporate incomes, which would contribute to subsequent higher

government revenues and hence a lower MCPF.

(This is the Free Our Data argument.)

On the other hand the lower costs of trading fund data may be passed onto lower final goods prices. This case would leave the public with more income to spend on other goods and services, and could weaken incentives to supply labour. This time the lower government revenue would raise the MCPF.

(I have to admit I don’t follow the logic of the second sentence, unless it is that extra income to spend on other goods and services does not lead to extra government income because the same amount of money is being spent – all you’ve done is shift some spending from trading funds goods to other goods, without expanding the economy.)

Ignore the Budget – get the trading funds report

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The trading funds report that Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo recommended should be carried out (in the Power Of Information report for the government) has just been published, while Alastair Darling has been giving his budget.

Download it from DBERR (584KB PDF). For future reference, the file is at http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file45136.pdf.

We’ll host the file here presently. That is, once we’ve read it!

So that trading fund report.. where is it? Because David Cameron might get there first

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

The government commissioned a trading fund report last year. We told you about its terms of reference; and it was delivered (we trust) towards the end of last year.

And since then? Not a peep. The Treasury, which is the lead department looking after the study, told me last week that the report will be published “shortly”.

How long – or short – is “shortly”, I asked? “Shortly,” the spokesman replied. Pieces of string have been more precise.

Now, though, David Cameron may be parking his tanks on the government’s lawns. In a speech on Friday, he noted how American local government and central government organisations make data more easily available:

The second announcement I want to make today is about information. For decades, information, power and control have been monopolised by well meaning public officials. Now, because of the internet and dynamic change in our broader culture, we can consign this top-down model to history.

We’re entering a post-bureaucratic age, where true freedom of information is making possible a new world of people power, responsibility, citizenship, choice and local control. One of the best examples is crime mapping. In cities all over America, police forces regularly publish information about crimes in their area. What type of crime, when it happened, and where.

Anyone can take this information and overlay it on an online map. This gives the public unprecedented information about crimes in their local area. And it gives social entrepreneurs, drugs charities, and a whole host of organisations to pick out hotspots, see what needs doing and transform neighbourhoods.

(You’ll have heard of chicagocrime.org – now renamed as Everyblock Chicago – which is clearly what he’s referring to there.)

And he continues:

But look at our Government at home. It’s still bureaucratic, still top-down and still old-world. It still thinks it knows best and that it should keep all the information. If you don’t believe me, try getting a supposed freedom of information request on important issues like exactly how taxpayers’ money is being spent. It’s next to impossible. This is bad for democratic accountability. And it stifles the sort of social innovation that we see happening in America.

We Conservatives must be different. Indeed, because of our instinctive scepticism of bureaucracies and our belief in human potential, we are different. That’s why we have introduced a House of Commons bill that will require the government to publish – online and accessible to all – every single item of expenditure over £25,000.

It already happens in the US. They call it “Googling Your Tax Dollars”. And it’s already strengthening democratic accountability and promoting government transparency.

Today, I want to set out for the first time how I want to extend this approach to local government. At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. Sure enough – you all do this.

But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. Some councils use adverts in newspapers. Others use their own magazines. And others publish the information on their website. Because you all present your information differently, it’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account.

That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account. Best Value. Comprehensive Performance Assessments. Comprehensive Area Assessments. We will turn that approach on its head.

We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups. And this move will be accompanied by relaxing controls which force councils to pay to publish statutory notices.

OK – this is very interesting. It’s not quite embracing the whole of the Free Our Data concept, but it’s going some way down the road. At least standardising council output is a step forward. But here’s the interesting bit: he thinks it will make a difference to costs.

That way, we will actually reduce local government costs. I don’t expect this to happen overnight. It will take time to implement all the standardisation and bring everything online. But it is so important that it does happen – because it will make you more accountable to your residents.

He’s clearly read The Power Of Information report (or at least his speechwriters have, and given him the brief version; the clue is the mention of mumsnet below):

But the benefits of setting local government data free go far beyond democratic accountability.

By standardising this data, it can be used by anyone’s website, anytime, anyplace to flag up the services you are putting on and get that information to the people who most need it.

Let me give you some examples. Take the young kid looking for something to do at the weekend. By standardising this information online, it will be for companies or charities to build Facebook or Bebo widgets that keep them updated on when the leisure centre or local swimming pool is open or when the youth centre is holding a special night. Or what about the pensioner looking to join an adult learning course? They won’t have to go to individual websites and find out what’s going on.

By standardising this information, it’s possible for the websites like Saga to collate the information from individual councils and make it all available in one place. The same is true for a young parent looking for local crèche facilities. This information revolution will allow websites like mumsnet.com to flag up what is available, where and at what time and save people the bother of trawling individual websites.

Making councils more accountable by giving your residents greater power. But allowing you to get the information out there quickly and effectively.

Setting local information free really is the future.

It’s a start. The Free Our Data campaign is definitively non-political (we just want it done); but there’s a danger for the government of appearing to dither if it sits on this report. David Cameron is only talking about local government data, and not linked to mapped data (though to some extent, service measurement must be linked to location). But starting with more information from local government, free and standardised, for free reuse, is a big step.

Over to the Treasury. Who’s in charge there, then?

Yes, why minister?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

An interesting question by the Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey to the defence minister Derek Twigg:

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence why the his Department’s review of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office does not incorporate any of the recommendations made in the 2006 Office of Fair Trading report—The Commercial Use of Public Sector Information.

Interesting question, since you could look at the executive summary on this site and not see much consideration of CUPI – only of the threat to UKHO by digitisation. (Personally I’m reminded of the music industry seeing MP3 being introduced and thinking it might be useful for sound in games…)

The reply from Derek Twigg:

The Government published a response to the Office of Fair Trade report, Commercial Use of Public Sector Information, in June 2007. The recommendation for the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office to remain an Executive Agency financed through a Trading Fund took the response by Government fully into account.

If anyone could show us where the CUPI recommendations were taken fully into account in the UKHO consideration, we’d be grateful.

UK Hydrographic Office decision: executive summary (here)

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

We’ve got hold of the Ministry of Defence’s executive summary on why the UK HYdrographic Office is not being privatised, and essentially being left as a trading fund.

You can read or download the document from the Free Our Data site (http://www.freeourdata.org.uk/docs/UKHOexecsummary.pdf) – it’s 42KB, so not long.

The principal threat to UKHO’s current model, which is selling paper charts, is set out at the start..

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) are seeking to mandate digital navigation (an announcement is anticipated around 2010). The UKHO already produces a digital chart series for UK waters fulfilling immediate UK obligations. However, IMO mandation will ultimately cause significant reductions in revenue from its international paper chart series. Additionally the Royal Navy has started conversion to digital navigation, and seeks full coverage by 2011. To support the MOD requirement for international digital charts and ensure financial viability, UKHO must rapidly develop a capability to produce new digital products and services for the global market.

Interesting question: how rapidly can it do that with the limited capital available to a trading fund? Privatisation would give it a chunk of money – but lose the control that the MOD clearly thinks is important. Making it a free data provider (we’d suggest) would mean a bigger capital cost – but then you’d not have to prop it up.

As the final paragraph says…

If the margins and volumes available to the Trading Fund from the evolving digital market proved unsustainable, MOD would have to consider the options for central funding to discharge treaty obligations or in the extreme, transfer critical functions to Government departments. This could lead to UKHO becoming a drain on, rather than a contributor to, the UK Defence budget. Delivery of UKHO’s new digital products is critical to its future success.

The full report isn’t being released – which hasn’t pleased some. More in the Guardian’s Technology section this Thursday.

UKHO decision: no selloff; and a year on from CUPI, are we any further ahead?

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Today’s Guardian notes that we’re a year on from the OFT report on the Commercial Use of Public Information, but that government still hasn’t come up with a coherent response that covers what’s suggested.

So far, the main government response has been to ask for more information. It commissioned the Power of Information investigation, which recommended that the government do more to encourage the re-use of public sector information. It, in turn, called for studies on the effect that changes in pricing would have on trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and the UK Hydrographic Office. In response, the government commissioned a study of the trading fund model. That is due to be submitted by the end of the year. This month, the MoD is due to decide on whether the UK Hydrographic Office will continue as a trading fund or become a private company.

The UKHO decision has been reached: it’s not being sold off. Instead, it will remain a trading fund.

That has to be good news for the possibility of a free data model (or even a reduced cost of data, or free unrefined data model).

The MOD press release:

The UK Hydrographic Office will remain a Trading Fund of the Ministry of Defence, after a review of the business and its future.

Defence Minister, Derek Twigg announced to Parliament today that the business will remain as an arm of the MoD and will continue to be located in Taunton, but that major changes needed to be made.

The review included a detailed restructuring programme to ensure the business and its personnel are best equipped to meet the needs of the 21st century mariner in an increasingly competitive environment.

In an overhaul of the business by the Ministry of Defence and the UKHO, proposals have been developed for a reduction of between 250 and 300 permanent posts over a period of up to 5 years.

That’s quite a cut, even if it leaves 800 staff still there. Prepare for heavy seas in the UKHO’s constituency when the next election or byelection comes.

Parliamentary question reveals Cambridge University doing trading fund study

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

From theyworkforyou:

Mark Todd: “To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the application of the Office of Fair Trading report on Commercial Use of Public Sector Information to the UK Hydrographic Office.”

Derek Twigg, the minister responsible for the Hydrographic Office replied: “I expect the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to participate fully in the further work identified in the Government response. This includes the provision of information to HM Treasury’s economic study. The study, which is being conducted by Cambridge University, aims to provide cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. The completed study is due to be submitted to Government in mid November 2007.

“The UKHO will also, if requested by DBERR [Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – formerly DTI] and HMT [Treasury], provide input to their work on the economics of information pricing.

“The recommendations included in the market study report will be used to inform licensing policy following completion of the review of the UKHO’s structure and ownership. I expect to announce the outcome of the review early in 2008.”

(It is quite interesting how many questions Mark Todd has been asking about CUPI. We really must follow him up…)

Terms of reference for government study into Trading Funds: read (and/or download) them here

Monday, October 15th, 2007

The UK government, as you may know, has commissioned a study into trading funds – those organisations like the Ordnance Survey, UK Hydrographic Office, Land Registry, Met Office, Driving Standards Agency, Central Office of Information, Patents Offfice, and others, which cover their costs by charging for data and services which they sell inside and outside government.

It hasn’t made the terms of reference public. Obviously, it would be useful to know what the TORs are, since that will affect how they are evaluated – rather as the questions asked in a survey affects its outcome. (“Do you think Gordon Brown makes a good prime minister?” gets different results from the same set of people as “Do you think Gordon Brown makes a bad prime minister?”)

Happily, we can help the government out with its oversight, and make available the PDF of the terms of reference for download. [URL fixed – CA.]

Some notable highlights:

* the timeframe means that the successful bidder should have been told in “late July”. There are then two discussion sessions, on 20 August and 22 October (next Monday), followed by “submission of completed study” on 22 November (a Thursday – gives the civil service and ministers something to read from their red box over the weekend).

* organisations which tender for the business are meant to keep that fact confidential.

* “This work is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and any information submitted to the review may be subject to disclosure to a third party. You should identify any information included in your submission that you consider exempted from disclosure under the Act.” Sharpen your FOI requests.

The study, it says, is

It is aimed at providing cost and benefit information for possible alternative models of supply and charging for public sector information by Trading Funds. It does not cover policy advice, on Trading Fund structure or other matters.

And what should it do? Here’s the heart:

The study should analyse the costs and benefits of existing and alternative models for public sector information provision by Trading Funds. Pricing strategies covered should include market price; full cost recovery; marginal cost of distribution; and free.

The study should estimate for each model:

– economic costs and benefits to both the producer and consumers

– fiscal costs and benefits. This is likely to include:

  • the impact on Trading Funds’ revenue, costs and return to the exchequer; taking account of the impact on their business model, and investment requirements
  • any direct government spending required to support current levels of data collection, maintenance and production and to finance future investment and product development
  • tax revenues generated to the UK by the use of public sector information by businesses and consumers.

Estimate the impact, in costs and benefits, for the information market, specifically:

  • Any changes to data quality
  • Future information collection / production costs not picked up above
  • Levels of competition in the market
  • Expected level of innovation

Costs and benefits should be split between those that are one-off adjustment costs and benefits, and those expected to continue for a longer period. Suitable discounting of one-off and future costs and benefit flows should be presented.

That is going to be *really* difficult to do. Case studies for the costs and particularly the benefits of free data are extremely hard to come by – as we’ve discovered over the past 18 months.

But there’s more:

The modelling should also estimate the impact of changing from the current data distinctions of raw / value added to unrefined / refined as recommended by the OFT. These terms are described in the background section below. The researchers may also consider other data distinctions if they consider this valuable.

For context, some consideration should be given to the experience of other countries and a wider perspective of the challenges in markets trading digital information goods.

Well, we can at least help with the experience of other countries – we’ve pointed to New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Norway as countries which have made geographical data free to a greater or lesser extent, in government- (or regional government-) mandated changes.

The key Trading Funds and the Shareholder Executive should be consulted in developing the estimates of the costs and benefits of models. Researchers would be assisted in obtaining relevant data from those trading funds. Annual reports and Accounts will also provide an important source of information for the researchers.

Now we do hope that all the trading funds will be as helpful as they possibly can about this, and will consider seriously the possibility of making their “unrefined” data available for free, or at least providing some sort of costing scenario for it.

The rules add that “the following are outside the scope of the study”:

  • implications for other public sector information holders
  • regulation of sector (ie roles, functions and funding of Office of Public Sector Information)
  • any changes to the legal status of public sector information Trading Funds
  • The basic thinking is that the trading fund model, at least for those which the sale of data (rather than services) is a key element of their funding, may be outdated and needs to be rethought. For now, we’ll remain optimistic about how widely whoever has been hired (and we’ll listen for that news with interest; you can comment anonymously below) will look for evidence to support all three models.

    Though of course if the consultants want to talk to us, we’re always on the end of a phone or email.