Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for the 'Media coverage' Category

Goodbye Gordon Brown: but thanks for the data … and the campaign goes on

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Gordon Brown’s stint as prime minister is over. But we can thank him for one thing he left behind: the commitment by the Treasury to fund free data from the Ordnance Survey (by my understanding, for at least five years – which I think is at least what it will take for really useful commercial applications to emerge from the availability of the data).

That’s a huge step. When Mike Cross and I started the Free Our Data campaign in March 2006, Tony Blair was prime minister. We knew that there was a strong reason for it, but it took time to get traction. Our first meeting with a minister was with Baroness (Cathy) Ashton at the Ministry of Justice; she didn’t seem too interested.

Once Gordon Brown came into office and there was a change at ministerial level, things changed dramatically. We got audiences and found ministers who were largely sympathetic. Brown too understood the idea – which simply took off when he found himself sitting beside Tim Berners-Lee at a dinner and started making conversation.

Brown asked: “What’s the most important technology right now? How should the UK make the best use of the internet?”

To which the invigorated Berners-Lee replied: “Just put all the government’s data on it.”

To his surprise, Brown simply said “OK, let’s do it.”

Now the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in power. The Conservative manifesto contains a pledge to access to government data:

Drawing inspiration from administrations around the world which have shown that being transparent can transform the effectiveness of government, we will create a powerful new right to government data, enabling the public to request – and receive – government datasets in an open and standardised format. independent estimates suggest this could provide a £6 billion boost to the UK economy. We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online, saving costs and increasing transparency.

That £6bn number comes, I believe, from the Cambridge study – though that included making OS Mastermap data free. I don’t think that that will be done, given the commitment to extra public spending it would involve in the short term and the long-term payback it would need.

I also think that while it’s nice to publish central government jobs online, there will be problems in how you slice it so that people can find the jobs they want. You might find that it’ll become something that other sites – and of course businesses – will exploit as a raw data feed and sell access to, or improve. (Yes, I know it’s also a scheme which is about chopping the funding of the Guardian’s public-sector jobs supplement off at the knees; there have been elements within the Tory party which have wanted to do this for years.)

In short: the campaign continues, but the Con-Lib coalition has indicated that it has a lot of the right instincts. Once we know which ministers we need to lobby – and once they know what their viewpoints are – we’ll be pushing the campaign again. There’s still so much data in there which needs to be freed.

What should be done with Royal Mail’s PAF? (From 1999)

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

This letter first appeared in the Financial Times on Friday July 30 1999. (You can see it at http://twitpic.com/z7y0m – which we can’t embed it for technical reasons.) We’re using it here because it’s rather interesting historically – especially for the signatories, and particularly one of them. You’ll notice, of course, that it didn’t work out like they asked….


Sir
The financial and commercial freedom that plc status will confer on the Post Office may be a welcome contribution to national competitiveness. However, one Post Office asset, namely the Postcode Address File (PAF), a computerised and maintained list of all postal delivery addresses and their postcodes, is too important a part of the national information infrastructure to be handed over without safeguards.

At present the Post Office receives new address information from local authorities, attaches additional information to optimise the address for postal delivery and allocates a postcode. This information is compiled into the PAF, which is copyrighted and published by the Post Office. IT is also made available through a number of Value Added Resellers (VAR). These data are used by thousands of commercial enterprises, large and small, for the maintenance of customer records and for a wide range of marketing and logistical purposes.

As a public corporation the Post Office has handled its monopoly position, as the national compiler of postal addresses, responsible. However, some have questioned the price of the information and the control the Post Office has exercised over its reuse and resale. Once the Post Office is a plc, directors tasked with maximising shareholder value could be tempted to extract further advantage from the PAF by restricting competitors’ access to the data, placing constraints on the operations of VARs, or charging royalty payments for the use of addresses in other contexts.

To ensure that the Post Office cannot succumb to such temptations as a plc, we would propose that the production, maintenance and placement of the PAF in the public domain should become a regulatory requirement for the Post Office in exchange for the privilege of retaining monopoly rights for the delivery of letters. This would ensure that the national address file becomes a public good to be used for the benefit of all, rather than an unregulated private asset.

Robert Barr, sr lecturer, school of geography, University of Manchester
Keith Dugmore, managing director, Demographic Decisions
Philip Good, managing director, Hopewiser
Robert James, independent consultant
Vanessa Lawrence, chair, Association for Geographic Information
Christopher Roper, director, Landmark Information Group
Richard Webber, director, Experian

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.

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.

Postcodes to be free? But which ones?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

The BBC has a piece saying that “postcodes” will be free from 2010:

Currently organisations that want access to datasets that tie postcodes to physical locations cannot do so without incurring a charge.

Following a brief consultation, the postcode information is set to be freed in April 2010.

….

The dataset that is likely to be freed is that which ties postcodes to geographic locations. Many more commercial organisations use the Postcode Address File (PAF) that ties post codes to addresses. Currently access to either data set incurs a charge.

In October 2009 the Royal Mail took legal action that cut off the access many websites had to PAF data.

(You might remember that one.)(

Sites that used the postcode feed included Job Centre Pro Plus, HealthWare (locates nearby pharmacies and hospitals), Planning alerts.com (monitors planning applications), Straight Choice (finds out who sent political leaflets).

That’s quickly contradicted however by the email that came around from the Royal Mail, noted by Steve Feldman, coming from Giles Finnemore, Head of Marketing at the Address Management Unit of the Royal Mail:

You may be aware of a story on the BBC website today that Government is planning to give anyone free access to postcode data.

Access to postcodes is already, and will continue to be, free to every citizen via www.royalmail.com/postcodes4free.

(Which is a nonsense. It’s true, but it’s also nonsensical, because the postcodes4free page requires registration and will only give you a limited number of postcode lookups in a 24-hour period. Which, if you think about it, is absurd: why does the Royal Mail want to make it difficult to address letters? You need to have an address list if you want to generate postcodes; if you didn’t have the postcodes, where did you get the addresses?)

For the avoidance of doubt PAF(r), the Postcode Address File, remains the intellectual property of Royal Mail and is supplied and used under licence. The new and recently published licences come into effect from April 2010. There are no plans for that to change.

Maintaining a world class postal address file requires significant ongoing investment and it is right that organisations who obtain value from using the file pay to do so.

We are aware of no plans for Government to pay Royal Mail for businesses and organisations to use our address file.

And it’s also contradicted by the Royal Mail’s press release page, which at present (December 9) has nothing about postcodes.

However, it may well be that the PostZon file – or more precisely, the long/lat lookups for every postcode – will be available for free next April.

Daily Telegraph: making stuff free can create revenues

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Hey, look, even the Daily Telegraph – hardly a home of the idea of the free lunch – is reprinting Breaking Views pieces which point out that making data free brings bigger benefits.

UK map giveaway throws bread upon the waters pretty much sings from our songbook:

The Met Office and the Ordnance Survey are unlikely candidates to stimulate another revolution. The weather forecasts may be accurate (sometimes) and the maps beautiful, but as businesses, neither is going anywhere. This is no surprise, since neither is really suited to becoming a proper commercial enterprise.

Yet the data they own is, literally, invaluable. Made freely available, all sorts of would-be entrepreneurs could exploit it to build businesses beyond the dreams of the public sector. The slightly geeky approach needed to be a successful internet entrepreneur is commonplace among mapaholics and weather nuts. Given the raw material, they could make a thousand businesses bloom.

The proposal unveiled this week is vague – a consultation document is promised later this month. The ability of the civil servants to emasculate any good idea should never be underestimated. But this is one whose time has come.

Given their tiny profits, selling off the Ordnance Survey and Met Office would raise minimal amounts. Giving away the data will undermine profits, but the benefits in terms of corporate taxes should be much larger.

Thanks. We knew you couldn’t keep a good idea down.

Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt on the benefits of open data

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

TBL and Nigel Shadbolt, who are together pushing along the open data idea in government, have an article in the Times (London) of November 18 about the benefits of free data, following on from the announcement yesterday:

Data has a particular value in that you can combine it with other data to discover new things. When in 1854 John Snow took the deaths from a cholera outbreak in London and plotted them on a map, he was able to illustrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera — the world changed. In March the Department for Transport released three years’ worth of data about the location of accidents involving cyclists. Within 24 hours someone had converted this data to create cycle-accident route planners that avoid the black spots.

Government data is a valuable resource that we have already paid for. We are not talking about personal data but data that tells us, for example, about the amount and type of traffic on our roads, where the accidents are, how much is spent on areas where these accidents occur. This is data that has already been collected and paid for by the taxpayer, and the internet allows it to be distributed much more cheaply than before. Governments can unlock its value by simply letting people use it. This is beginning to happen in a number of countries, notably in the US under the Obama Administration, and in June Gordon Brown asked us to advise the Government on how to make rapid progress here.

(The fun thing here being that OS would argue that its data has not been collected and paid for by the taxpayer because it’s a trading fund. Unfortunately this doesn’t hold up in front of the point that (a) almost all of its data was collected while it was not a trading fund (b) half its revenues do come from the taxpayer, in the form of licences from public organisations.)

As all of this data becomes available, we have to look for the joins between it. A new set of standards for the web is emerging that allows us to link data from different sources. Everyone knows that web pages have addresses that identify them, allowing you to navigate around and find what you want. To make the web of linked open data work we also need to give identifying addresses to the objects and properties that make up the basic information in pages, spreadsheets or databases.

Think about the practical applications. If Companies House referred to companies using these new open, uniform identifiers, then other people who needed to talk about companies could use these whenever they referred to a company. If all websites that make data available about companies point to the same identifier for a company, then it’s possible to pull that data together very easily — whether its data about stock price, a product or a director. This is one of the core principles at the heart of the web of linked data.

None of this works unless the data is there in the first place. But when it is, innovation flourishes. Maybe someone uses the web to show schools close to you and their Ofsted reports, or the planning applications that might affect you, or the allotments available to use, or the crime rates in your area. Data is beginning to drive the Government’s websites. But without a consistent policy to make it available to others, without the use of open standards and unrestrictive licences for reuse, information stays compartmentalised and its full value is lost.

So there you have it: the free data concept is right there at the heart of government, with extra semantic web power from the person who invented it. That’s good. That’s very good.

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

Friday, October 30th, 2009

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

As the Digital Engagement blog notes:

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

And also:

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

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

Michael Cross: setting data free is an easy promise when in opposition – so would a Tory government do it?

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Michael Cross, co-founder of this campaign, has an article at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site on the Conservative pledges on data made on Thursday by David Cameron. Of note:

The three-year-old Free Our Data campaign – founded by myself and the Guardian’s technology editor Charles Arthur – will welcome Cameron’s re-stated promise to publish every item of government spending over £25,000 and raw data to allow communities to build their own crime maps and councils’ performance data in a standard format.

We will cheer most loudly at the plan to create a new right to data and proactively to identify the 20 most useful data sets on public services and make them available for web mash-ups.

But, he points out, there are warnings to be heeded.

To judge by Cameron’s speech, which makes no mention of the government’s single largest data business [Ordnance Survey], the Conservatives share this aversion to reform. The suspicion must be that the Tory solution is to try and sell off the mapping agency lock stock and barrel. Yet locational information is an essential component of nearly every public data set. To commercialise its supply would be to move in the very opposite direction of setting our data free.

It certainly is important for the Conservatives to set out clearly what their intention is with regard to OS before the election. A manifesto commitment not to sell it off would be a good idea.

Read the whole article for the wider points. Steven Feldman likes it – and adds

My one question is if the treasury are unable or unwilling to go down the centrally funded route what would you prefer – privatisation or trying to get the best out of the current model. I know which one I would choose.

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.

In the Guardian: Ordnance Survey’s future awaits budget; Peoples’ Map launches

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

In the Guardian, Michael Cross notes that Ordnance Survey’s future is quite possibly going to be determined by the Budget.

In Ordnance Survey’s future to be mapped out on budget day, he notes that

The future of British government’s largest digital data business, the mapping agency Ordnance Survey, looks set to enter the mainstream political agenda for the first time in a decade. On budget day, 22 April, the Treasury is expected to release the broad findings of the Shareholder Executive’s review of the “trading fund” model of funding agencies such as Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry.

This is of course the review that Adam Afriyie of the Conservatives demanded the government should publish. A little tardy, one might argue. Why not publish the review when it’s ready, rather than amidst the Budget, when there are a million other things that need far closer examination?

The review is likely to shine a spotlight on anomalies created when government bodies function as businesses in the digital economy. It will present ministers with three choices – outright privatisation, a move to supplying data at marginal cost (”free data”) or splitting the organisation up.

However…

Whatever the findings of the Shareholder Executive’s review, Ordnance Survey is likely to use its ability to generate cash returns as an argument for continuing as a trading fund. However, the agency’s apparent profitability will encourage calls for outright privatisation.

We also note the launch of the Peoples’ Map, which

allows users to create their own maps by drawing over aerial photographs. Getmapping, the company behind the venture, described the product as “the democratisation of the mapping process”.

It’s an intriguing idea, though personally I can’t quite see where its utility comes in; OpenStreetMap already offers an extremely detailed map for all sorts of parts of the world; the Guardian is using OSM to some extent, and some local councils are using it to map their footpaths.

Still, for Peoples’ Map,

A big selling point is simple licensing terms. The company says that maps generated on the system will be free for private non-commercial use apart from a delivery charge of £25. Commercial users will have “fair perpetual licensing arrangements … and entirely free of third party copyright” – a reference to the byzantine intellectual property regime surrounding many products containing OS-derived data.

Ah, yes, OS-derived IP rules. It’s a fascinating subject to which we will return.

In the Guardian: what happens to the Postcode Address File in a Royal Mail split ownership?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

With Lord Vold… Mandelson looking to persuade a private partner, likely TNT, to take a minority shareholding in the Royal Mail, the interesting question arises of what happens to the ownership of the intellectual property of the Postcode Address File (PAF).

After all, if you buy into a company, you’d probably want to see more efficient use of its assets. (That’s part of the plan in the shareholding selloff.) Would that mean that TNT or similar would start trying to “sweat the assets” of the PAF?

In What does the Royal Mail sell-off mean for postcodes data we investigate this briefly. The problem is that nobody – including the Turner Report into the future of the Royal Mail – seems to have considered this. Neither PAF nor intellectual property nor postcodes are mentioned at all in the Turner report.

PAF is profitable –

in August 2007 the postal regulator Postcomm revealed that PAF operations made a profit of £1.58m on revenues of £18.36m, all but £4m from resellers.

However marketing organisations, which use PAF, don’t like the idea of those assets being sweated.

“The reason for getting the private sector involved [in the Royal Mail] is to improve efficiency,” said Robert Keitch, director of media channel development at the Direct Marketing Association. Raising PAF prices would make it harder to check addresses and increase the need for manual checks by postal staff, he suggested.

Our opinion?

The Free Our Data campaign has consistently suggested that the PAF – linked to map data – should be made available for free, without copyright restrictions, due to its growing importance for location-based services. The comparatively small cost of running it, especially without the costs of administering its sales and checking for violations of licences, could perhaps be borne through a levy on address or name changes, or simply through the tax revenues that could be gained from new companies set up to take advantage of the datasets. However, it is unknown whether Mandelson will recommend that.

We await developments.

In the Guardian: the mystery of the vanishing addresses

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Thursday’s Guardian Technology looks at the mysterious ways in which addresses within some postcodes are simply vanishing from the Postcode Address File (PAF) – that enormously useful index of places in the UK which can receive mail. A new Highland clearance? Well, sort of.

In January 2008, the picturesque west Highland village of Applecross contained 32 buildings with postal addresses. A year on, it has only 24. This is not the result of some new Highland clearance, but an absurd consequence of UK government bodies treating data collected in the course of their work as a commercial asset rather than a national resource to be shared.

It’s not that the houses are going away; they’re very much still there. And they’re still owned by people. But Royal Mail, in attempting to maximise the value of the PAF, is removing them because that makes PAF more valuable to direct marketing companies – even while it reduces its utility to local authorities, which initially gave Royal Mail the details of the addresses, because they need to know about habitable locations in order to do things like emergency planning and other local services (dustbin/recycling runs, anyone?).

Royal Mail says it has a policy of removing addresses from the database when houses are unoccupied. “If the postie can no longer reach the delivery point, or if a house is obviously completely unoccupied, the postie informs us and the address is removed from the PAF. If it later becomes occupied, it would be put back on.”

And then…

Turf wars between Royal Mail, local authorities and Ordnance Survey over the ownership of postal addresses have a long history, imperilling everything from emergency services to the national census. Local authorities are particularly bitter about the current state of affairs because they have the statutory job of creating addresses in the first place. As one council specialist put it: “Local authorities create addresses, Royal Mail adds the postcode – then this data is sold back to us by Royal Mail and Ordnance Survey.”

Any other examples of this that anyone has come across?

Why privatising Ordnance Survey (and other trading funds) would be the worst possible outcome (updated)

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

A story in today’s Sunday Times, ahead of Monday’s Pre-Budget Report, suggests that Ordnance Survey, the Forestry Commission, Land Registry and some other trading funds will be privatised:

A string of state-owned household names including the Met Office, mapmaker Ordnance Survey and the Forestry Commission, are being prepared for sale by the government in the next two years to raise cash for the stretched public purse.

Alistair Darling, the chancellor, is thought to have drawn up a list of 10 companies to offload, including the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. He will outline the programme in the prebudget report tomorrow alongside details of a Whitehall efficiency drive.

I’m inclined not to believe this report – sunday newspaper journalism is not always what it appears to be; the phrase “managing expectations” has to be borne in mind (talk up a scary prospect; something less scary but still surprising then seems acceptable). But let’s treat it as correct on its face.

The Free Our Data campaign has always opposed privatisation of any of the government’s data collection agencies. We have said consistently that we admire the OS’s ability as a data collection agency; our argument is with its fiscal model.

If we begin with the Ordnance Survey, here are the reasons why a privatised OS would be far worse than the current one.

  1. as a commercial enterprise, it would not have the commitment to map all of the UK that the national mapping agency must have. If that commitment is forced on it by its articles of association, it would be less competitive than rivals, meaning it would be less competitive and so be vulnerable to takeover or worse
  2. valuing the asset would be almost impossible: what’s the value of the MasterMap and its geographic data? OS has consistently refused to put a price on this*, which has led to its accounts not being accepted by the National Audit Office. What you can’t value, you can’t sell
  3. OS presently updates its database with data provided for free by local authorities and others. This is causing some friction. If OS were a private company, it would have to pay a “market rate” for that data. The arguments about what that rates was would make everything that’s going on now look like a tea party
  4. OS does important defence-related work; are you going to give that to a private company whose shareholders you don’t know about (even if government keeps a golden share)?
  5. privatisations of government properties don’t get good value: the instance of DERA (now Qinetiq) was found to be exceptionally bad value to government, though those who completed it did OK
  6. any asset sale now will not realise the sort of value that might expected: this is a terrible climate in which to try to float a company
  7. financial advisers will tell you anything at present to try to get a selloff – but that doesn’t mean they’re right: look how well they did with mortgage securitisation
  8. most of all, OS doesn’t cost the Treasury anything. It generates a 5% return on its revenues – which is better than you’d get from a bank.

Similar arguments apply to all the other trading funds, at a rough guess. Even the Forestry Commission probably has a valid reason for being part of government.

We’ll wait to see what’s really in the Pre-Budget Report, though.

Update: the PBR gives absolutely no indication of privatisation – quite the opposite, in fact.

* from the latest accounts for 2007/8:

The geographic data (‘the data’ – referred to as the National Geographic Database in previous financial statements) is the term used to describe the suite of geographic datasets that Ordnance Survey collects, develops and maintains to represent as digital and paper products which generate revenue.

The data is an internally generated intangible asset per Financial Reporting Standard 10 and as such can only be capitalised where there is a readily ascertainable market value evidenced by an active market for similar assets. Since the data is unique and has never changed ownership, we consider that no market value can be attached.

(back to text)

Show Us A Better Way winner: Can I Recycle It?

Monday, November 10th, 2008

The overall winner of the government’s Show Us A Better Way competition is Can I Recycle It, which (inter alia) “will tell people what the recycling facilities are in their area, based on their postcode.”

Congratulations to Adam Temple, 26, from London. He explained his project to the Cabinet Office, which awarded his prize: “Each area has a different recycling scheme with different capabilities, so it is not surprising that households are unsure what can be recycled. Local information may be of some use, but there are a million and one things that people want to know about recycling.

“Having put in their postcode, the householder will get an easy-to-read version of what is recyclable and what is not in their area. After that, they could type in keywords for the specific piece of rubbish that they are concerned about. If it is in the database, the householder would get an immediate answer.

“If not, the question could be forwarded to the appropriate person in the local council. That person could then amend the database, and that way the website would gradually get more useful.”

(I’ll vouch for it: my local council only recycles plastics 1, 2 and 3 – though actually what would really help would be if manufacturers of packaging were obliged to print in large diagrams which of the many recyclable plastics theirs were. It gets kind of boring holding packaging up to a 100W light to try to discern whether the number two millimetres high inside the recycling logo is a 3, 5 or 6.)

Show Us A Better Way attracted more than 450 entries from around the world, with around 70,000 people visiting the website over the summer. The total prize fund was worth £80,000.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson, who spearheaded the competition, said (to quote the Cabinet Office press release):

“This is a world-leading competition that has attracted entries and praise from as far away as Australia, India and the USA. Show Us A Better Way has really captured the imagination of people in their own communities. This is about taking service design out of Whitehall and to the people who use it.

“By trusting the public and throwing it open to them to put forward their ideas, the solutions are of real, practical use. Ultimately, this is about building something from the bottom up rather than having Whitehall dictate from the centre.”

Watson also said: “This ingenious idea is a simple map showing you where recycling facilities are and what they will accept, so you can quickly and easily find out where to take your rubbish.”

And there’s even a quote from Hazel Blears, who we hadn’t noticed being entirely in favour of these bottom-up things recently: “The positive response to this competition rightly highlights the power and benefits when local people have their say, have access to good information and have the enthusiasm and the chance to make a difference locally. I am pleased that extra funding from CLG will help take some of these creative ideas forward and help encourage the use of new technologies and community media. Access to information – which these awards aim to promote – is an important part of empowering communities.”

Michael Wills – who has been an important driver of more open access from within the Ministry of Justice, and who would have helped raise prizemoney for the competition – said: ““The Government is committed to encouraging people to get involved in civic activities within their communities and across the country. Show Us A Better Way highlights the innovative ways in which people can do this.”

Just as important, SUABW seems to have inspired a similar project in the US – where there’s now a competition called Apps for Democracy running in Washington, DC, soon to be the home of that Obama fellow – who might have some people on his staff who will take note. Only $20,000 prizemoney, but it’s a start.

And congratulations to everyone again who entered SUABW – it has inspired a lot of thought within government about what can and could be done with data once it’s made available.