Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for the 'Hydrographic Office' Category

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.

    Who’s who after the reshuffle

    Thursday, July 12th, 2007

    Today’s Guardian asks “Can the new ministers make a difference?” and looks at who is now who following the reshuffle by Gordon Brown.

    Key players now are:

    • Michael Wills (in charge of OPSI and the National Archives, and Freedom of Information)
    • Stephen Timms, now minister of state for competitiveness, will have a key role in setting the rules under which trading funds such as the Meteorological Office and Ordnance Survey operate in the information market
    • Derek Twigg at the MoD (which has some say over the UK Hydrographic Office and Met Office)
    • Lord (Jeff) Rooker at Defra, who will have to oversee the implementation of Inspire
    • Baroness Andrews at DCLG, which includes overseeing Ordnance Survey
    • Ed Miliband at Cabinet Office, who’ll have to look after the web 2.0 and the implementation of the ideas accepted from The Power Of Information report.

    We’ve linked to their Parliamentary profiles on TheyWorkForYou so you have some idea of what they’ve been interested in previously… though of course that’s not necessarily a guide to how they’ll act as ministers.

    We’ll have an announcement regarding Michael Wills in a later post.

    Will the government try to privatise the UK Hydrographic Office?

    Thursday, February 15th, 2007

    In this week’s Technology Guardian, we look at the options being examined – and one important option not being examined – for the future of the UK Hydrographic Office.

    In UK Hydrographic Office runs into dangerous waters, Mike Cross notes that two options – making UKHO a private company fully-owned by the Ministry of Defence (which is a first step to privatisation) and remaining as a trading fund – are being considered.

    Worryingly, the review announcement lists only two “principal options” for the office: to maintain it as a trading fund, or to convert it into a company owned in whole or in part by the Ministry of Defence. As the review coincides with a squeeze in spending, ministers may be tempted by any injection of cash that could be raised by a share sale.

    For free data, this could be an even worse outcome than the present state of affairs. The perils of creating a jointly owned company were illustrated last week by the Department of Health, which found itself criticised by auditors over the way it set up a joint venture with a commercial business, Dr Foster.

    Kablenet reports on the NAO’s kicking of NHS:

    The report notes that government is increasing its use of joint ventures, but concludes that, in the absence of a fair competitive tender process, the Information Centre had no fair comparisons or benchmarks to demonstrate this was the best structure to meet its needs, or that it represented good value for money.

    Back to the UKHO: the FOD campaign believes

    that the Hydrographic Office review should include at least one further option: that of direct government funding for the collection of raw hydrographic data, which should be freely available to all comers. At a time when information about coastlines and seabeds is of vital environmental importance, this would be in keeping with the spirit of the European Inspire directive on the exchange of geophysical information. It would also maintain a British tradition of international cooperation, regardless of politics, in matters of maritime safety.

    But there’s always a kicker. And in the case of an MoD-owned or operated organisation, it’s this:

    One objection, of course, is that this policy would force the Ministry of Defence to choose between funding hydrographic surveys and giving soldiers on the front line decent body armour. It would be a courageous minister who favoured the former.

    One could argue, of course, about the wisdom of needing to make the choice; on whether better intelligence can be gathered by more free access; and so on. But politics is the art of the possible. The government review is a worrying development, because it implies that everything must have a price – no matter what the economics might show.

    How the Inspire directive was watered down

    Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

    This week’s Guardian Technology looks at the lobbying that led to the Inspire directive moving from one which would have mandated free data access between governments (and users?) in Europe, to one which allows organisations that charge for data to continue to do so.

    Read Britain poised for victory in Brussels (which due to deadlines had to be completed before the vote and text was completely finalised).

    However, the reaction has been mixed. Ed Parsons, chief technology officer of Ordnance Survey, writes on his personal blog (which reflects his views, not necessarily those of OS):

    I would caution anyone reading too much into these early reports, the devil will be in the detail here.. and we should also not forget that INSPIRE is about a lot more than the licensing regime.

    From now on the technical experts can get on with drafting the principles around which the infra-structural components that will allow spatial data to be shared can be built – in my mind the really important part of INSPIRE

    the creation of metadata; the technology of interoperability; the development of data services; mechanisms to promote national co-ordination.

    We’ll have to see quite what shape of devil is in those details. By the way, does anyone know of any bloggers within other relevant organisations, such as UK Hydrographic Office?

    Times article echoes Free Our Data campaign

    Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

    The Times has printed an article by Gervase Markham of the Mozilla Foundation (which develops the Firefox browser, Thunderbird mail reader and a Sunbird calendar program) that makes exactly the points of the Free Our Data campaign.

    He writes:

    [a] double-charging scheme has been in place for years for government-collected data, such as maps, weather and hydrographics (rivers, tides and floods). After all, if our taxes paid for the collection, one would have thought that meant that we could have access to it. Right?

    Until 1999, the Ordnance Survey, the British Government’s mapping arm, was funded by the taxpayer to make detailed maps of the entire country. These days, they sell limited-use licences to this national asset on a “cost recovery” basis. So, having paid my taxes, when I buy an OS map to go walking in the Lakes, I have the privilege of paying again.

    Maps underpin many useful services we take advantage of today. From travel directions to house prices, much of the information we care about has a geospatial element. The effect of restrictions on mapping data availability are easily demonstrated.

    The OS has, naturally, risen to its defence in the comments. But it’s nice to see commenters pointing out the existence of this campaign, and wondering which MP one should prod to get action. (My own comment pointing to this blog and the existence of the Guardian campaign doesn’t seem to have got past the moderator – newspapers can be so territorial; it’s as if rivals never have any ideas).

    Certainly, the question of which governmental levers one should pull is uppermost in our minds right now, with Parliament about to come back. Who do you think we should try to interview to get the campaign more visible within government?

    Which organisations should we be chasing? Let’s make a list..

    Thursday, March 16th, 2006

    One thing that we haven’t done yet – at least, not in full – is to draw up a list of organisations that are government-owned (ie the government is the only shareholder) and which collect and then sell back our data. Often they use the excuse of being “trading funds” – ie told by the Treasury to go out and earn their keep – to claim that they’re not government-funded. But it’s rather like a child still living with its parents. If the trading funds went massively into debt, would the government – of any political colour – shut down Ordnance Survey or the UK Hydrographic Office? We think not. So, they’re really taxpayer-owned. That’s our data!

    So, who is there? Off the cuff we can think of the Ordnance Survey; UK Hydrographic Office; Highways Agency (does it have an equivalent in Scotland?); Post Office. Who else is there?

    Once we do that, we can begin to frame precisely what access we do want, and create a campaign statement that can be framed in precise terms. That’s the sort of thing that ministers, MPs and senior civil servants find compelling.

    Contributions welcome, as always.