Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for the 'Ordnance Survey' Category

Ordnance Survey’s lobbying, part 1

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Coming late to posting this (I blame holidays), but Mike Cross entered an FOI request after we noticed in May that it had paid a lobbying company called Mandate about £49,000 for “consultancy and advice on Corporate Communications and Public Affairs”.

Except that that description seems rather askew from what we found in the emails (released on paper, and redacted – you know, blanked out – to protect the names of individuals in Mandate and Ordnance Survey). Our thanks by the way to Greg Wright, then shadow minister for the Cabinet Office and MP for Tunbridge Wells, who asked the question (not on our behalf; we’ve no idea why he asked it, though it seems to have been well-informed). Iain Wright of DCLG answered it.

And so to our first story on the topic, which appeared in Technology Guardian under the headline “Ordnance Survey hires PR company to lobby politicians” (can you tell our lawyers checked it first?):

The correspondence reveals that Ordnance Survey (OS) is targeting MPs from Westminster and devolved assemblies, civil servants and leading figures in the free data debate. The agency openly attends party conferences and other political events to promote the value of geographical data. However, earlier this year a Parliamentary question revealed that it had paid a company called Mandate £42,076.20 plus VAT since August 2007.

However, it refused to release emails on backup tapes on the grounds of cost, £11,250. The correspondence released – mainly between Nicole Perry, head of public affairs, and Mandate executives whose names have been blanked out – reveals a busy programme of meetings with politicians, especially those who have asked questions in Parliament about OS’s corporate affairs, or about free data.

Among MPs named are Labour’s David Taylor – “you might recall that he’d (sic) raised the issue of free data” – Conservatives Anne McIntosh and Paul Beresford, and several Welsh Assembly members. According to Mandate, Robert Kee (Conservative, Salisbury) “is a big supporter of OS, so I don’t think this [a Parliamentary question] is anything to worry about”.

This story (of which that’s only part; go to the story itself to read in full) generated a response from OS, which will be dealt with (and we’ll publish the letter in full) in the next post up.

Ordnance Survey appoints first (non-exec) chair: Sir Rob Margetts

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

So, what does anyone out there know about Sir Rob Margetts’s web 2.0 credentials? Because that’s what he’s going to have to show now that he’s going to be the Ordnance Survey’s new, first non-executive chair, as announced in a formal press release today.

Sir Rob, it says, is a CBE, Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineers and FIChemE (institute of chemical engineers). The appointment is initially for three years.


Sir Rob began his career with the ICI Group in 1969, progressing through a number of appointments within the group prior to joining the Board in 1992 and being Vice-Chairman from 1998-2000. Since 2000 he has been Chairman of Legal & General Group plc and in 2006 also became Chairman of Ensus Ltd.

(In case you’re wondering, Ensus aims “to become a leading provider of bioethanol to the European transport fuels market. Made from natural products such as wheat and sugar beet, bioethanol offers a renewable and environmentally friendly alternative to oil for petrol driven vehicles.”)

He is also a non-executive director of Anglo American plc and Chairman of the Energy Technologies Institute. In addition, Sir Rob was Chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) from 2001-06.

To be honest, on first glance it’s hard to see precisely what he’s bringing to this party. After all, what OS needs now is someone who can chart a course through the new web 2.0 world, where what matters is being able to see the best ways to exploit (in the most general sense) its intellectual property, amidst a changing political (small p), economic and online climate.

But back to the press release:

Of his appointment, Sir Rob comments: “I am delighted to have been invited to chair Ordnance Survey. It is a great privilege to join this organisation, which provides so much benefit to its users and enjoys an excellent reputation. I much look forward to working with Vanessa and Board colleagues as well as staff, business partners and customers.”

Vanessa Lawrence, who remains Ordnance Survey’s Accounting Officer and continues to report directly to the Minister, welcomes the appointment, saying: “I am delighted that Sir Rob will be joining us in the new role of Non-Executive Chair. With his outstanding record of business leadership and organisational development, I know that his knowledge, skills and expertise will be invaluable as we move forward in the coming years.”

Love the bit pointing out that Vanessa Lawrence continues to report directly to Ian Wright at DCLG. Why was that felt necessary? In case the media got the “wrong” idea about what this appointment means, one must presume. But then what’s the point of a chair over whose head the chief exec can appeal, since both are appointed by the same person?

Sir Rob will report to Shareholder Executive, the body that advises Ministers and senior officials on the government’s “shareholding” in organisations like Ordnance Survey. His appointment brings Ordnance Survey in line with other Trading Funds with Non-Executive Chairs who have already modernised their governance structures, such as the Met Office and UK Hydrographic Office.

Make no mistake: this is a shakeup of how OS functions. It’s a political (small p) shock to its system, but what will be interesting will be to see precisely how that plays out.

Anyone got any more information about Sir Rob Margetts, and in particular his approach to online intellectual property, business models and the web?

Ordnance Survey seeks a chairman/woman. But why?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

How interesting: we note from the EPSIPlus blog (a bit late – since the job application has long since closed, so if you were wanting to do this, you’ve missed the boat) that Ordnance Survey is seeking a non-executive chair.

How intriguing. I think I’m right in saying that none of the other trading funds is chaired; and as the advert itself says, “It is within the plan to modernise the governance of Ordnance Survey; as a result Ordnance Survey are seeking to appoint the first Non-executive Chair in the organisations’ [sic] 217-year history.”

We hear that the appointee will probably be chosen sometime this month.

So what sort of person are they looking for?

The ideal candidate will be an experienced Chair who understands how to build commercial opportunities in the public sector and who has the intellect to take forward a challenging debate about Ordnance Survey’s future strategy. S/he will have experience of change.

Of change? Change, at OS? Why? How utterly fascinating.

The ad itself (click for larger version) says the role requires that they “develop and champion a clear and compelling strategy to a broad range of stakeholders; ensure the board is effective in delivering a strategy balancing the nation’s interest with commercial imperatives [emphasis added – CA]; scrutinise performance and governance structures in line with owner’s objectives. Evaluate board skills mix and performance.”

As if that wasn’t interesting enough..

Here are the “key responsibilities” laid out in the document:

The key responsibilities are to:

  • Ensure that the Board as a whole is effective in developing a strategy and corporate business plans for Ordnance Survey, scrutinising its performance against the endorsed plans and acting in the best interests of the Department for Communities and Local Government as shareholder, while balancing the need for Ordnance Survey to act in the nation’s interest within in a commercially competitive environment;
  • Ensure that the shareholder receives full and timely feedback on the organisation’s business performance, its progress against plans, the future development of the Corporate Plan, and any other issues requiring attention;
  • Ensure the maintenance of an effective board, with an appropriate balance of skills and experience, including key appointments as required. The Chair will be part of the selection panel for the recruitment of any new Chief Executive and Non-executive Directors;
  • Ensure appropriate governance arrangements are established and implemented in line with best practice and the requirements of a public body;
  • Actively contribute to the management of relationships with Ordnance Survey’s stakeholders both in Whitehall, the devolved administrations and beyond, and represent Ordnance Survey as appropriate with customers and industry players;
  • Acts as a source of advice and support on business issues to the Chief Executive and other Executives as necessary.
  • The Chair is responsible for upholding good governance at Ordnance Survey. S/he will ensure appropriate and effective Board sub-committees exist and will, in consultation with the Chief Executive, determine Board meeting frequency and agenda. A key role is to ensure that all Non-executive Directors are effective in the support and challenge they provide to the Executive team.

The Shareholder Executive, working for the Department for Communities and Local Government, takes a close interest in the performance management of Ordnance Survey. The Chair is expected to work constructively with senior Shareholder Executive officials.

The candidate is expected to have the usual abilities concomitant with these jobs – bulging address book, Cabinet ministers and heads of industry mobile numbers on speed dial, ability to leap tall buildings and to cure sick animals with their magic touch, that sort of thing.

On its face, it doesn’t look like the successful candidate will die from overwork: three or four days a month, which earns an annual remuneration of £40,000 – £50,000. But of course that would be to ignore how important this job will be. We’re looking forward to seeing who it is.

Obviously, if you’ve applied, do feel free to share the experience..

So here’s the Ordnance Survey’s public task, for the record

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Since we asked where the Ordnance Survey (OS) public task is, we’ve been pointed to it. (Thanks again, Dan.)

So we thought that, since it seems elusive elsewhere on the web, we’d put it here for the record. And for the record, this is extracted directly from the report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. No doubt there’s some copyright issue, but we can’t quite see why acknowledging a source and repeating it correctly, in brief, is a problem, especially with an organisation that we (as citizens) own.

So here’s the PDF of the Ordnance Survey public task; and below, the HTML. If you spot any errors, please tell us and we’ll aim to correct them.

(From the written evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, Fifth report of session 2007-8, printed January 21 2008)

Ordnance Survey’s Public Task is to:

— Collect and maintain uniform datasets with national coverage forming the official record of the natural and built environment of Great Britain, containing:

— detailed mapping of the built and natural landscape (topography);86

— high resolution address data;

— transport networks (including road, rail, waterways, tracks and paths);

— terrain and height data;

— administrative and electoral boundary information; and

— geographical names (including features with imprecise extents such as “Dartmoor”, “The Cotswolds”, “Forest of Bowland”, “South Downs” etc).

— Provide a nationally consistent cartographic portrayal of the topography of Great Britain at various scales including large scales.

— Maintain a definitive three-dimensional satellite-based geodetic87 reference framework of Great Britain that underpins the national datasets and facilitates the integration and analysis of location-based information from many sources.

— Make the content of the datasets widely available in forms that are accessible to customers of all types for wider benefit. This will be in the form of products which are the direct output of those datasets. As part of its Public Task and in order to fulfil its trading fund obligations, Ordnance Survey will charge all customers for the licensing and use of its products.

— Conduct its activities efficiently and effectively to maximise the broader economic value of its data, whilst complying with trading fund requirements.

— Ensure that its data is capable of supporting the principles underlying the Digital National Framework in underpinning the association and integration of third party geospatial information.

In order to fulfil its Public Task, Ordnance Survey is required to collect and maintain topographic data at the following scales:

— High Change Geographies88: 1:1250

— Rural Areas89: 1:2500

— National cover: 1:10000, 1:25000, 1:50000, 1:250000

The above datasets are required to fulfil Ordnance Survey’s Public Task to ensure that a comprehensive, nationally consistent version of each exists in the public interest.

Annex 1A sets out:

— Ordnance Survey’s datasets which fulfil its Public Task;

— the products that are currently the direct output of those datasets; and

— the rationale for including the various data within the Public Task.

The minimum levels of accuracy and revision required for those datasets are at Annex 1B.

The referencing systems and data collected and maintained by Ordnance Survey contribute to the development and integration of geographic and location based information collected and used by government, business and individuals.

As the National Mapping Agency of Great Britain, Ordnance Survey represents Great Britain overseas as experts on Survey, Mapping and Geographic Information. It provides a focus for the provision of public sector information into pan-European and international collaboration by National Mapping Agencies and the European Directive on the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE).

In discharging its Public Task, Ordnance Survey:

— Seeks to maximise both the accessibility of, and the broader economic benefit arising from the use of the data. It therefore creates products directly from these datasets and makes them available, including through commercial licensing, to government and business customers and consumers.

— Takes into account the views of customers (as well as, inter alia, technological changes and its trading fund requirements) to ensure that the range and content of these products meets their changing needs, and makes changes to content, accuracy and revision policies as may be necessary to ensure that the datasets and products remain fit for purpose. This may result in adding or withdrawing products from availability from time to time, as well as enhancing content andfunctionality.


86 Topography: Including defining the surface shape and composition of the landscape, comprising both natural and artificial features.

87 Geodetic: Relating to the scientific discipline that deals with the precise measurement and representation of the earth, its gravitational field, and other related phenomena. Within Ordnance Survey geodetic-quality information forms the high precision framework that ensures the correct positioning of all mapping and other data against the National Grid.

88 Predominantly urban areas and areas of significant development.

89 Predominantly rural settlements and developed agricultural land.

Where is Ordnance Survey’s public task set out, exactly? And why is it paying an external PR company? (updated)

Monday, May 12th, 2008

As Mike Cross has posted, there is some interesting triangulation going on through Parliamentary questions on how the Ordnance Survey’s public task was determined. (There seems to be a groundswell of questions from Conservative MPs inquiring into it.) These are generally batted away with standard civil service responses – basically saying “well, we did it how we did it.”

So we wondered: where can the OS’s public task document be found?

Not on the OS website, where you simply find

For the purposes of the PSI regulations, Ordnance Survey’s Public Task is defined as embracing everything we do from time to time to fulfil our obligations under the Ordnance Survey Trading Fund Order 1999 (SI 99/965) and the Ordnance Survey Framework Document 2004.

This is akin to saying “whatever we do, it’s a public task, because we do it.”

Nor on the Shareholder Executive site (the SE is the government arm which determines what its trading fund should do), where the relevant page says:

Ordnance Survey’s objective is to deliver its Public Task. This can be summarised [emphasis added – CA] as to:

  • collect and maintain uniform geographic datasets with national coverage, and provide nationally-consistent mapping

  • maintain a definitive three-dimensional satellite-based geodetic reference framework to enable correct positioning of mapping and other data against the National Grid
  • ensure that its data is capable of supporting the principles underlying the Digital National Framework, to allow integration and association with other geospatial information
  • make the content of its datasets widely available in forms that are accessible to all customers for wider benefit, and charge its customers for the licensing and use of its products
  • conduct its activities efficiently and effectively to maximise the broader economic value of its data, while complying with trading fund requirements and creating long-term shareholder value.
  • Yes, that’s an improvement, but we don’t want summarised – we want full. Where is it? Anyone?

    (Bonus link: OS has paid an organisation called Mandate £42,076.20 + VAT (that’s £49.400) since August 2007 for “consultancy and advice on Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.” Interesting to see that Mandate says that its skills in public affairs includes “Winning over the decision makers who matter”.

    Wonder why OS would think it needs those services?)

    Update: Dan MacDonald has provided a pointer to the OS’s public task in the comments – but he points out that “it’s only available if you trawl thru’ the pdf version of the evidence given at“. Thanks, Dan.

    Could a surcharge on planning applications fund free data from Ordnance Survey?

    Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

    Since we’re playing with hypothecated taxes – which we should point out is not a central tenet of the Free Our Data campaign; we think governmnent should fund this centrally, but recognise that in tight economic times it’s hard to persuade government to spend more rather than doing revenue-neutral “experiments” – let’s examine the suggestion (made elsewhere) that OS’s free data should be funded by a surcharge on planning applications.

    After all, the logic goes, planning applications are voluntary; and they require OS detail. (One has to submit a number of copies of OS maps of the area the application applies to.)

    [A disclosure up front: I have a planning application in process. However, the following simply emerges directly from the available statistics.]

    Let’s recall the amount that needs to be raised, according to the Cambridge study, to compensate OS for the loss of revenues from selling its “raw” or “public task” data: £12m – £30m.

    Now, how many planning applications were there for the UK? For England and Wales, the total applications received looks like this:

    This is only for England and Wales, of course, but shows that planning applications, even at their busiest, are an order of magnitude less than Land Registry transactions. True, this excludes Scotland, but even if that has as many planning applications as England and Wales (which seems unlikely), that would only be a total of about 1.3m applications in the busiest time.

    That in turn would imply a surcharge per application received of roughly £10 to £30. Whether that’s small or large compared to the cost of the overall transaction (which might be putting up an extension on a house or a change in use, requiring no actual building) isn’t clear.

    (Locally, making an application costs between £135 – £265. It may vary in other locations. The surcharge would also have to be collected from multiple councils, which would impose an administrative overhead; by comparison, there’s only one Land Registry.)

    But as an actual amount per transaction, it’s comparatively large, meaning it would be very sensitive to variations in the number of applications. The figures there vary from 501,000 to 689,000 – a 28% or 37% variation, depending which you take as your numerator.

    Why might this be? Perhaps Land Registry transactions include commercial purchases, which occur more frequently. And also that people buy and sell houses more frequently than they do things to them. Either way, it’s doesn’t look like the optimum way forward. It’s certainly a lot more expensive – per transaction – than a Land Reggistry surcharge.

    Year or Quarter

    received (,000)





















    * provisional. Source: DCLG

    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.

    Advance notice: Mike Cross talking to BCS on April 2 in London

    Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

    Just in case you’ve got a slot in your diary: Michael Cross, the co-founder of the Free Our Data campaign, will be talking at the British Computer Society’s Geospatial Specialist Group on Wednesday April 2 at 6.20pm in London.

    As the page says, “Michael will be explaining the rationale behind, and taking questions about, the sometimes controversial campaign, now in its third year.”

    Better to be sometimes controversial than always bland, though, that’s what we say.

    The page says that “NB This event is free, but registration is required. If you would like to attend this event please register by sending an email to”. It’s not clear if you need to be a member of the BCS or its Geospatial Specialist Group to come along – but presumably the registration email will tell you.

    We suspect that Mike will talk a little about the strength of the official reports that have all, so far, backed more or less the campaign’s standpoint; none has demonstrated that the wider economy would lose out by adopting our system.

    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

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

    OS makes OpenSpace open to all. However..

    Thursday, January 31st, 2008

    Having had a closed “alpha” session of its OpenSpace mapping API (application programming interface), Ordnance Survey is now opening it up to everyone – well, everyone who’s not going to use it commercially.

    From today, anyone who registers at the OS OpenSpace website can access up to 30,000 “tiles” or extracts of data and up to 1,000 placename lookups a day. Users can add markers, lines and polygons on top of Ordnance Survey mapping, search for place names with a gazetteer and display other location data from elsewhere on the Web.

    The platform is a JavaScript API that uses “slippy map” technology, so users can grab and move images in different directions. As well as the API itself, OS OpenSpace will include a community website so developers can discuss, review and collaborate on projects.

    You can register as an OpenSpace developer at

    The problem is of course that those 1,000 placename lookups and 30,000 tiles will get used up pretty quickly for any successful site. The irony is that any site where OpenSpace has a big impact won’t be able to use it as the success grows – as was pointed out previosuly.

    Also: no ads (so what about Google’s AdSense or Yahoo’s ad network?). And of course the copyright in any product you create remains partly (perhaps wholly..) with OS.

    So far and yet so.. not far.

    GreenAmps fights OS and HMSO over use of map data

    Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

    More from The Guardian: GreenAmps, a renewable energy company, has been taken to court by Ordnance Survey and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office over its use of OS data sourced from an academic licence for making applications to councils.

    The core of the argument was that GreenAmps said that using OS data was imperative for making its applications – but that it is a monopoly supplier, and that that couldn’t be right.

    [Nick] Brown [chief executive of GreenAmps] says that OS maps are in practice an indispensible component of planning applications for wind turbines. He admits obtaining sets of mapping data “from academic sources” and using them to develop a software tool for streamlining planning applications, initially just for his company’s use. “Early on, though, we decided that this was too important to stay in house.” He says that the government, in the shape of the Department of Trade and Industry, asked him to make the software available to “all and sundry”.

    OS and HMSO argued that the data is Crown copyright and so could be sold and priced as they see fit.

    In 2006, Brown says, he tried to negotiate a non commercial licence for the data. OS said that, as a commercial firm, Green Amps should pay a commercial licence fee, of £16,000. Last year, OS and HMSO, the formal holder of copyright, took action in the High Court.

    Brown says the court action was out of proportion to the size of loss faced by OS; for its part, OS says it has a duty to safeguard the public purse.

    OS said that it went to

    “a great deal of effort to offer [Brown] a licensing situation that would work for him,” including its developer programme for start-ups. “He simply refused all suggestions.”

    But as the article points out, while we can’t condone the theft of (intellectual) property, the case shows an interesting policy issue:

    This is the question of whether the practice of managing government information through trading funds like Ordnance Survey is compatible with European regulations requiring essential public information to be made freely available.

    Brown says he will base his appeal on the claim that maps are an essential component of planning applications, a quasi judicial process. Last month, he published a survey of planning officers concluding that, while in theory maps could come from anywhere, in practice local authorities look askance at applications not supported with OS data. “It appears that no viable alternative to OS exists on the market.”

    On that basis, he says, charges for the use of such essential data are a breach of human rights, as well as against the spirit of the EU Inspire directive, passed last year to enable the free exchange of data for the purposes of environmental protection. We await the appeal with interest.