Free Our Data: the blog

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


Archive for the 'Trading Funds review' 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.

Free Our Data response to the DCLG consultation on OS Free

Friday, February 26th, 2010

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Arthur & Michael Cross, 26 February 2010.

Fun facts from the DCLG / OS consultation

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

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

Impact assessment:

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

Impact assessment:

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

Impact assessment:

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

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

Impact assessment:

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

More as we come across them…

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

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

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

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

From the document (on the impact assessment page):

ANNUAL COSTS

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

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

One-off (Transition) Yrs: £ tbc

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

Total Cost (PV) £391-482m

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

ANNUAL BENEFITS

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

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

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

Total Benefit (PV) £391-482m

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

And finally:

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

Price Base Year 2009

Time Period Years 10

Net Benefit Range (NPV) –

NET BENEFIT (NPV Best estimate) £0

Hurrah! Ordnance Survey consultation is live!

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

As ever, let us know your thoughts.

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

Tim Berners-Lee to help UK government build single data access point

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Computer Weekly reports that Tim Berners-Lee has been asked by the government to develop a single point of access for public data – as Stephen Timms, who has taken over where Tom Watson left off in the Cabinet Office, reports progress in “making public data public” (a concept that, when you think about it, seems a bit strange – as in “shouldn’t that have been done from the outset?”).

According to Computer Weekly, Timms told an RSA/Intellect event that

information is the “essential raw material” of a new digital society. “Government must play its part by setting a framework for new approaches to using data and ‘mashing’ data from different sources to provide new services which enhance our lives. In particular, we want government information to be accessible and useful for the widest possible spectrum of people.”

Well, minister, if that’s truly what you want, then you’ll make it free of charge, and free of copyright restrictions. It’s as simple as that. Could we suggest something like Creative Commons? The US government seems to find it amenable. .

Timms said, “We are supporting Sir Tim in a major new project, aiming for a single online point of contact for government data, and to extend access to data from the wider public sector. We want this project for ‘Making Public Data Public’ to put UK businesses and other organisations at the forefront of the new semantic web, and to be a platform for developing new technologies and new services.”

Fine words. We’d like some actions to go with them. We’re hearing plenty of sticks being wielded over how people use the net – Lord Mandelson’s threats to file-sharers, for example – but the carrots for companies to build on something that really would benefit Britain, by using British data, seems to be stuck on a really slow train.

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s almost impossible to put a figure on how opportunity cost is lost through the lack of access to this data – whereas the music industry can much more easily point to figures it’s produced (though you may argue about their provenance) to suggest precisely how much harm it’s suffering through untrammelled downloading.

Interesting to contrast, though, that when we asked the Royal Mail to specify precisely how much harm it was suffering through the use by ernestmarples.com of the postcode to lat/long conversion, it robustly declined to say.

Of course there is the Cambridge trading funds report, with its analysis of the opportunity cost of the trading funds regime. But this goes much wider – the Cambridge analysis didn’t look at the Royal Mail and postcodes, for example, which have become embedded into many systems’ location processing.

Computer Weekly again:

So far, 1,300 people have signed up to the developer forum and contributed to the discussion board on what the data could be used for. The Cabinet Office also held a developers’ camp where ideas were shared.

We’ll have more about the devcamp in a future post.

International man/woman of mystery is: international; from an NMA

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The OS has responded to our latest FOI request to try to establish more details about its international expert. And what do you know, they really are international.

And they used to work for a national mapping association (but not OS.)

Keep your ideas coming….

1) Is the “internationally recognised expert (a) British or (b) a foreign national?
A foreign national.

2) Is he or she a (a) currently employed in a UK academic institution, or (b) employed in the UK, or (c) employed in a UK government department, or (d) a UK government agency or trading fund.
No.

3) If so, which institution, business/fund or arm of Government?
Not applicable.

4) Has the person retired from any of those listed in (2)?
Not applicable.

5) Has the person ever been employed by the Ordnance Survey and if so on what basis (eg full-time, continuous part-time, etc)?
No.

6) Has the person ever been employed by a foreign National Mapping Association, and if so on what basis (eg full-time, continuous part-time, etc)?
Yes; full-time.

(This would be why Ed Parsons – well, we had to ask – and Dave Lovell, executive director of Eurogeographics, have turned out not to be the person. Only 5,750m people to go then…)

..but we’re just as quick: more questions re the international man (or woman) of mystery

Friday, July 31st, 2009

We’ve taken on Nicholas Verge’s suggestion and sent another FOI request to OS about the international expert.

So once more unto the breach:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Thank you for your previous reply re the international expert who reviewed OS’s internal study on International Funding Models.

I note that the person does not wish to be named. I would like to request further details about the person, none of which I believe will require their identity to be revealed:

1) is the “internationally recognised expert (a) British or (b) a foreign national?

2) Is he or she a (a) currently employed in a UK academic institution, or (b) employed in the UK, or (c) employed in a UK government department, or (d) a UK government agency or trading fund.

3) If so, which institution, business/fund or arm of Government?

4) Has the person retired from any of those listed in (2)?

5) Has the person ever been employed by the Ordnance Survey and if so on what basis (eg full-time, continuous part-time, etc)?

5) Has the person ever been employed by a foreign National Mapping Association, and if so on what basis (eg full-time, continuous part-time, etc)?

Editing error: there are two questions 5. Let’s hope this doesn’t somehow invalidate the whole thing…

(I’m considering setting up a separate category for the IM/WOM. Any thoughts?)

Update: and just for completeness, we have asked Ed Parsons – formerly of OS, now of Google – whether he is the IM/WOM.

He responds, emphatically, that he is not. One less person…

Well, that was quick: OS responds to FOI re international expert; mystery deepens (if that’s possible)

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Following yesterday’s – yesterday’s! – questions to the Ordnance Survey about the identity of the international expert, we’ve had a response.

Here it is (emphasis added):

Thank you for your email dated 30 July 2009 requesting: the following information regarding the internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping, which I believe does not identify them personally.

We are pleased to provide you with the following information with regard to your request.

1) Does the “internationally recognised expert” work in a full-time or continuous part-time capacity for Ordnance Survey? – No.

2) If the answer to (1) is no, was the person formally commissioned on a contract basis by OS to review its study? – No.

3) If the answer to (1) and (2) is no, on what remunerative basis did the person review the study? – None.

So the international expert isn’t employed on any basis by OS, and reviewed the study for free.

Now I’m really fascinated. Who is this person? Why would they review this study for nothing? (Remember, we’ve ruled out Steven Feldman, Max Craglia and Robin McLaren.

Remember the definition: an “internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping”. More candidates, please. Or suggestions on how we can narrow their identity down further – while noting that they don’t want to be identified.

OS publishes almost unredacted version of international study

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

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

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

Mm.

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

That international consultant and man of mystery is… (updated)

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

…is still a mystery. Ordnance Survey today responded at 18.18 BST (by my computer’s timestamp) to my request for the name of the international consultant who looked over the OS’s study justifying its own findings.

And the outcome:

I can confirm that Ordnance Survey does hold this information

I suppose it might have been done by anonymous peer review, but it’s unlikely..

however I regret to inform you that your request falls within the ‘Personal information’ exemption under section 40 (2) (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). We believe this exemption applies because having contacted the person concerned Ordnance Survey has been requested to withhold their name in this instance, therefore we will not be releasing this information to you.

This person is turning in to some kind of remarkable beast. Let’s just remind ourselves of what we wanted to know: who is it that OS described as an “internationally recognised expert in geographical information and national mapping” who OS said had reviewed its study into how it should organise and charge for its service, and who “agreed with the analysis and conclusions”.

And now this person turns out to be such a shrinking violet that they don’t want to have their names in the papers and on the web?

This “internationally recognised expert” doesn’t want to be named? Doesn’t want to be named on a strategic study into one of the most important mapping agencies in the world?

This is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

We will now begin making representations to the minister ostensibly in charge of OS, Iain Wright.

And we haven’t even looked at the latest version of the study itself that arrived by email. Wonder what non-gems are buried in that.

Meanwhile, the search for Spartacus goes on…

Update: First: OS points out that since a recent reshuffle, Iain Wright is no longer the minister responsible; it’s now Ian Austin.

Second: following comments, I have put the question directly to Robin McLaren of Know Edge (mentioned in the comments below as a possible International Consultant and Man of Mystery). His reply, besides that in the comments below where he says Know Edge was not retained, is:

No, I have not been involved in the creation or review of the Ordnance Survey study. Like you, I am mystified as to who this ‘International Consultant’ may be.

OS expert isn’t Max Craglia either… so who is it?

Friday, July 10th, 2009

You’ll recall the famous scene in the film Spartacus (directed of course by the same man who went on to direct 2001: A Space Odyssey) in which the Roman troops have captured the rebel slaves, and are trying to find out which of them is Spartacus, their leader.

At which one man stands up and says “I’m Spartacus!” And another, and another…

Well, the search for the identity of Ordnance Survey’s “internationally recognised expert” who looked over its calculations for its international comparison of mapping agency funding models is like that. Only in reverse. “I’m not Spartacus!” seems to be what people are saying.

In response to a suggestion in the comments that the person in question might be Dr Max Craglia, of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, a specialist in geographic information policies. So we sent off a quick email to him, asking if he was the one. (Don’t know who he is? main profile, another profile.)

“I regret I am not the expert you are looking for,” he responded, sounding more like Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars than Spartacus.

We’ve noted this in a roundup of what also happened at the Activate 09 summit, organised by the Guardian and part-sponsored by Ordnance Survey.

Among the other issues there were whether OS’s maps are fit for 21st-century digital economy purpose (Tom Watson MP, formerly of the Cabinet Office, thinks not) and also whether National Rail – the company owned by the train operating companies, rather than the nationalised success to Network Rail – should make its train running times available for free. Since it’s private-sector data, it doesn’t fall under the FOD campaign’s “government-owned or -generated non-personal data” umbrella.

Then again, the reaction on Twitter also suggests that with so many government billions being poured into the private rail sector, it would make sense to demand the data for free as a quid pro quo. It’s an argument that does have merits.

So in the meantime does anyone have any more (realistic) suggestions for who OS’s Spartacus is?