Free Our Data: the blog

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


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

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.

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David Cameron gives speech suggesting “setting data free”

June 25th, 2009

David Cameron has given a keynote speech which continues to edge the Conservative party towards something that might look like the glimmer of the beginnings of the outline of the rough shape of a manifesto.

Part of it was to do with what he called “Setting data free”. See what you make of it.

In Britain today, there are over 100,000 public bodies producing a huge amount of information.

This ranges from school league tables to train timetables; from health outcomes to public sector job vacancies. Most of this information is kept locked up by the state. And what is published is mostly released in formats that mean the information can’t be searched or used with other applications, like online maps. his stands in the way of accountability.

(snip..)

… what about patient outcomes in the NHS? Some of the most important information you’ll ever need to know, how long your Dad will survive if he gets cancer, your chances of a good life if you have a stroke, all this is out of your hands.

Now, again, imagine if this information was in your hands. You’d be able to compare your local hospital with others, and do something about it if it wasn’t good enough. Choose another hospital. Voice your complaint to a patient group. Make change happen.

All this data which would help people in this country hold the powerful to account – it’s all locked away in some vault. And it’s only getting worse.


We’re going to set this data free. In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it.

This information will be published proactively and regularly – and in a standardised format so that it can be ‘mashed up’ and interacted with.

What’s more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new ‘right to data’ so that further datasets can be requested by the public.

By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account.

And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.

If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.

The suggestion that councils will be obliged to publish data in a common format is one that Cameron has made before; and it’s something that Adrian Short’s mashthestate has been pushing (and successfully) without any political party.

The idea though of the “right to data” and the assumption that data should be available is interesting. Allied to Sir Tim Berners-Lee suggesting ways to get the data out there, it looks like all the political parties think that making data free – in the sense of untrammelled, if not yet in the sense of not-charged – is an idea whose time has come.

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Using Gapminder to compare the countries studied by OS: how did they choose?

June 24th, 2009



See this screenshot on Flickr

Interesting to look at the countries which Ordnance Survey studied for its, er, study. Note that the study – which one would have hoped might be at least exhaustive, since it’s a one-off chance to really show things – excluded South Africa because it doesn’t have a comparable GDP per capita to the UK. Apparently comparable GDP was a specific measure used to decide who to examine.

Well, Gapminder offers the chance to analyse countries’ GDP per capita.

OK. So OS looked at Australia, Canada, France, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, and the US – which, as Gapminder shows, do indeed have comparable GDP per capita. (This link may give you the graph – though you might have to click on the “map” link, and then go back to the “graph” link and play the runthrough.

But wait, what’s this? If you look at the graph, there are all sorts of other countries in there with comparable GDP/capita.

Even between New Zealand (the lowest) and Norway (the highest – didn’t expect that, eh?) there are loads of countries.

To wit: Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Cyprus; Japan, Hong Kong. Monaco, Isle of Man, New Caledonia; Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Sweden; Germany, Austria, Spain, Switzerland.

Anyone want to suggest any reasons for ignoring those? And what the business models are for their mapping agencies?

And it doesn’t make much sense if you compare GDP/capita against land area either.

Here’s the picture. Go analyse yourself – please. I’m too puzzled.

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Ordnance Survey provides redacted version of its study into its financial organisation

June 24th, 2009

Ordnance Survey responded to our FOI request for publication of its study into itself and the best financial organisation for itself.

And in these times when MPs’ expenses are redacted, of course OS isn’t going to let us see everything.

That’s why the document, which I’ve uploaded as a PDF (though it’s originally a TIFF – apparently a scan of the paper document once the black marker pen had been wielded), is full of lacunae.

After some struggles (apologies) it’s now available as a PDF (3.7MB).

Have a look for yourself and see what strikes you as interesting.

This isn’t the final version of what we’ll get, however. In its response to me, OS says

Please see attached a redacted version of the International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models – Study report (ref: 71171). The report was commissioned by the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Iain Wright MP, formed part of an input to the Trading Funds Assessment undertaken by the Shareholder Executive on behalf of HM Treasury and the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (now Business, Innovation and Skills).

As you are aware this is an interim report while we wait for approval from the countries/agencies, who took part in the study, to release information related to them. The extension date for the next version of the report is 23 July 2009.

We’ll compare the two, of course. But it’s likely there will still be stuff cut out because it’s too sensitive for us poor souls.

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OS first response to FOI questions: who did it talk to, and who helped? (Updated)

June 23rd, 2009

Ordnance Survey responded today to our FOI request. The redacted financial study is expected later today, but first here are the organisations that it talked to in deciding whose model to adopt. Or not adopt.

Here’s the text of the FOI response.

The report about which these question were raised, was commissioned by the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Iain Wright MP, and formed part of an input to the Trading Funds Assessment undertaken by the Shareholder Executive and HM Treasury.

1. Who or what was the “outside help”?

With regard to the International Comparison of Geographical Information Trading Models Study, outside help was provided by senior officials of those Institutions contacted.

In the case of the United States of America, as senior officials of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) were unavailable, Mr. David Cowen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, kindly provided us with an in-depth overview of the state of public sector GI data in the United States, including USGS. Mr Cowan is a former chair of the Mapping Science Committee of the United States National Research Council and is chair of the National Research Council’s Committee for the study of Land Parcel Databases.

The document was also reviewed by an internationally recognised expert in Geographical Information and National Mapping who agreed with the analysis and conclusions.

2. Which “equivalent organisations” were examined for the study?

There are no wholly equivalent organisations to Ordnance Survey, given its range of scales of mapping and other activities. Hence a representative sample of eight National Mapping Agencies or their closest equivalents were examined during the study. The sample included organisations with a wide range of data pricing policies: free, partial cost recovery (recovery of data dissemination costs), total cost recovery (recovery of data collection plus dissemination costs) and market price (cost recovery plus trading margin).

The overseas examples studied were:

Australia PSMA (Public Sector Mapping Agencies)
Canada Natural Resources Canada
France: IGN (Institut Geographique National)
Netherlands Kadaster
Norway Statens Kartverk
New Zealand LINZ (Land Information New Zealand)
Sweden Landmäteriet
United States USGS (United States Geological Survey) – via Mr David Cowan.

3. Which agencies did OS examine for the study?

IGN, Kadaster, Statens Kartverk and Landmäteriet have Agency status within their respective Governments.

4. Which agencies did the “outside help” examine for the study?

As indicated above, the outside help for the International Comparisons Study was provided by senior officials from the National Mapping Agencies examined in the Study, together with Mr Cowan and the internationally recognised expert.

And finally…

Please note that your enquiry has been processed to Freedom of Information guidelines. To the extent that the public interest (section 17) applies, we have determined that in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest has been met with the full provision of all information in this instance.

Update: Steven Feldman, who has been consulting for OS on how to get wider adoption of its OpenSpace API on its GeoVation initiative. Quoth Feldman (in the comments below): “We expect to go public on what we have planned for GeoVation in the next couple of weeks, watch my blog or mail me if you want to get a mail from me when we kick off.” (We apologise for the earlier error.)

, says he is not the “internationally recognised expert” mentioned by OS. We were going to ask but he beat us to it. The search goes on…

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Reorganising this blog: different category suggestions

June 19th, 2009

Speaking to someone this morning about the Free Our Data campaign, I found that I was constantly saying “Oh, we wrote about X on the blog…” (where X could be the Postcode Address File, or the proposal to charge for changes in the Land Registry, or whatever) – but then realised it’s very hard to find anything by that label here. Search is nice, but it’s not enough.

Therefore I’m proposing to update the “categories” here into a number of new ones, principally with the names of organisations – eg Ordnance Survey, Post Office, Hydrographic Office, Land Registry – that would be affected or included in the post.

Your suggestions welcome for how, for example, we should deal with the “Cambridge report” or the Trading Funds review. And for any other organisational change to the categorisation on this blog for posts that would make your use of it easier.

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FOI request for OS to publish study delivered: the clock is ticking..

May 25th, 2009

Thanks to whatdotheyknow – the very public site where you can make Freedom of Information requests, assisted by MySociety (which previously brought you theyworkforyou and publicwhip, which track what Parliamentarians do in their work) – we have now filed our FOI request for the publication of the study that led OS to conclude that free data models don’t work.

The page is at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/request_for_publication_of_study and the request – which has to be answered by June 23 – is as follows:

On May 12 2009 Sir Rob Margetts, chairman of OS, said in a public
speech that “We did, with outside help, a review of equivalent
organisations around the world” in determining the effects of a
free-data model, mixed model or private model on OS’s future
strategy.

I request the publication of all parts of the review that do not
contain commercial-in-confidence data, and the separate publication
of a full version of the review with commercial-in-confidence data
redacted.

Very much looking forward to this.

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Which foreign map organisations did OS visit last year for its study?

May 23rd, 2009

An interesting question by Caroline Spelman: where did Ordnance Survey staff go in 2008?

Why might that be interesting? Because OS did a study of free data and other funding models last year as part of the preparation of its own internal study on which model would be best for the future. Would it be a free data model, would it be full private, would it be pretty much like the one it has? You may be able to guess. (Or read Sir Rob Margett’s speech as I recorded it. Or watch the OS version of it – they chopped out the detail of his speech and his assertions about cost to the government.)

(Apparently there was a “brisk” question-and-answer session. My question about derived data didn’t make it into the video.)

Now here’s the document answering Ms Spelman’s question. I’ve highlighted a few answers in bold. Can you guess why?

And does anyone know what funding models the mapping agencies of Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Estonia (Estonia??) operate?

Plus – have I missed any? There is of course one country missing from that list which should have been visited but wasn’t. Interesting to know why…

Countries visited by Ordnance Survey staff in 2008 (original: http://www.parliament.uk/deposits/depositedpapers/2009/DEP2009-0350.doc)

Country

Destination

Purpose

Australia

Melbourne

Representing Ordnance Survey and United Kingdom at an international conference on geographic information

Austria

Graz

Participation in a technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive

Vienna

Participation in technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive

Vienna

UK Delegate to International Cartographic Association Conference

Vienna

Technical participation in Semantic Technology Conference

Vienna

Technical participation in European Semantic Technology Conference 2008

Bahrain

Bahrain

Keynote speech by Director General, representing UK at Middle East Survey Technology Conference

Belgium

Brussels

Participation in Geographic Information awareness event in the European Parliament

Brussels

Technical participation in Mercator print equipment User Group Conference, sharing best practice

Brussels

Technical participation on behalf of UK in European Parliament meeting on Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES)

Brussels

Technical meeting with European Commission

Brussels

Technical meeting with European Commission (Directorate on General Information Society and Media)

Brussels

Representing Ordnance Survey at European Centre for Public Affairs conference

Brussels

Technical meeting with team drafting the implementing rule for European Commission on the INSPIRE Directive

Brussels

Technical meeting with the UK Permanent Representation Team

Brussels

Technical meeting on the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS)

Brussels

Participation in EuroGeographics management meeting

Brussels

Technical participation in European Reference Framework Conference (EUREF) 2008

Brussels

Participation in European Public Sector Information (ePSI) conference

Canada

Toronto

Technical meeting with National Resources Canada

Vancouver

Technical meeting of Geographic Information Web Networks (Geoweb)

China

Beijing

UK Delegate to the International Society for Photogrammetric and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) conference.

Croatia

Dubrovnik

UK Representation (including presentation by Director General) at EuroGeographics General Assembly 2007

Denmark

Copenhagen

Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Copenhagen

Technical participation in meeting of the International Standards Organisation Technical Committee (ISO TC211)

Eire

Dublin

Client visit Korec – supplier of surveying equipment

Dublin

Attendance at Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) conference

Shannon

Transit departure airport for return from Dublin conference

Estonia

Tallinn

Technical meeting with National Land Board ‚ exchanging best practice and fact finding.

Finland

Helsinki

Technical participation in meeting of the Business Interoperability Group of EuroGeographics

Helsinki

Technical meeting with Finnish Land Survey‚ exchanging best practice and fact finding.

Juankoski

Visit to supplier to discuss paper stocks for printing paper maps.

France

Paris

Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting

Paris

Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Paris

Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting

Montpellier

UK Delegate to the International Cartographic Association Workshop on Generalisation and Multiple Representation, and the Spatial Data Handling (SDH) Conference.

Nice

Business and sales attendance at the International property trade Conference.

Germany

Berlin

Technical meeting with CityGML ‚ regarding the production of 3D City Models

Frankfurt

Technical participation in a EuroGeographics Business Interoperability Group meeting

Frankfurt

Sales attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Hanover

Technical attendance at CeBit Conference – Information and Digital Technology

Friberg

Technical participation in the Spatial Cognition 2008 conference, including participation in a workshop designing maps for orientation.

Bonn

Technical and Business participation in an Open Geospatial Consortium meeting.

Bonn

Technical participation at a 3D Special Interest Group meeting at University of Bonn, supporting Ordnance Survey’s contribution to the creation of the CityGML data format.

Bremen

Technical participation in the Spatial Cognition 08 conference

Dusseldorf

Technical visit to the DRUPA printing equipment exhibition ‚ for fact finding.

Hamburg

Pan-European conference on Geographical Information related matters.

Stuttgart

Technical participation in a meeting of the pan-European EuroRoadS Project Management Board.

Hungary

Budapest

Technical attendance at international technology analysis “Canalys” Conference

India

Delhi

Technical visit to Supplier

Chennai

Technical visit to Supplier

Italy

Milan

Technical and business participation in a meeting of Open Geospatial Consortium Technical Committee

Catania

Technical participation in a working group on TRI-Partite multimedia Object Description (TRIPOD) at Cantinetta

Technical participation in International conference on knowledge engineering – EKAW

Japan

Tokyo

Technical presentation to the European / Japanese Conference on Information Modelling and knowledge bases

Latvia

Riga

Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD

Libya

Tripoli

UK Delegate and presentation by Director General on “Perspectives on the challenges facing the geospatial industry; a view from a National Mapping Agency”.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg

Technical meeting with the European Commission (Directorate on General Information Society and Media on public sector information)

Luxembourg

Technical participation in a meeting of the European Commission on Geographic Information Systems

Luxembourg

Technical and sales participation in the “Apply Serious Gaming Conference” related to the use of high specification geographic information by the gaming industry.

Luxembourg

Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD

Luxembourg

Technical participation in an Ontology Web Language Experiences and Directions workshop

Malta

Valetta

Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting

Netherlands

Amsterdam

Technical participation in Urban Land Institute housing affordability seminar

Amsterdam

Representing the Ordnance Survey and the UK the Director General gave a keynote speech at GIN Congress

Amsterdam

Technical participation in Workflow and Production Management Technology Conference 08

Amsterdam

Airport for technical meeting on the development of the INSPIRE Directive at Hague

Delft

Technical participation at the 3d GeoInfo 2007 conference. Furthering expertise and knowledge of 3D data collection and systems.

Delft

Technical meeting on the INSPIRE Directive

Enschede

Technical participation in Data Quality Workshop at ITC, Enschede

Rotterdam

Research meeting with AND (Automotive Navigation Design) on use of Ordnance Survey data in navigation solutions.

New Zealand

Auckland

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey at an international conference on conceptual modelling and to visit LINZ (Land Information New Zealand), the national mapping and cadastre agency of New Zealand.

Norway

Oslo

Technical Participation in meeting of Euro Spatial Data Research (SDR)

Poland

Warsaw

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General gave a keynote speech on geographic information and national decision making at Elblag Conference

Portugal

Lisbon

Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting

Romania

Bucharest

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General gave a keynote speech at EuroGeographics meeting

Sibiu

Representing Ordnance Survey at business Meeting

Slovenia

Maribor

Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE Directive

Spain

Barcelona

Technical and business participation in Barcelona Euro SDR meeting

Barcelona

Technical participation and sharing of best practice in Photogrammetric Digital Camera user forum

Barcelona

Technical participation at 3GSM Congress

Madrid

Technical participation at meeting of ORCHESTRA – European collaborative research project on spatial data infrastructure

Madrid

A four month secondment to the Instituto Geogr√°fico Nacional (IGN) Spain to gain a better understanding of how Spatial Data Infrastructures can be implemented, both organisationally and technically. This was in return for a secondment of an IGN expert to Ordnance Survey in 2007.

Sweden

Norrköping

Technical participation in pan European technical project work associated with INSPIRE legislation

Norrköping

Technical participation in Mercator print equipment User Group Conference, sharing best practice

Stockholm

Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE directive

Stockholm

UK delegate at Federation International des Geometries (FIG) Conference

Stockholm

Technical participation at Tobii Conference

Switzerland

Heerburg

Technical and business visit to Leica Geosystems

Zurich

Two visits to ETH Zurich University, one regarding the quality assurance of 3D buildings and attendance of a conference at ETH presenting Ordnance Survey work and best practice on the capture of 3D buildings.

USA

Baltimore

Technical participation and representation of Ordnance Survey at the Usability Professionals Association Conference

Boston

Technical participation at Vital Vision Conference

Chicago

Technical participation and sharing of best practice at Association for Manufacturing Excellence Conference

Denver

Technical participation at GI Science conference

Detroit

Technical participation in international conference in geographic information

Orlando

Sharing of best practice at Conference on SAP systems in Human Resource models

Salt Lake City

Technical participation in conference and workshops at GIScience 2008 ‚ sharing expertise of geographic information science and geographic information systems.

San Diego

Representing Ordnance Survey at BAE System user conference

San Diego

Technical participation at the ESRI conference on GIS and mapping software

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at the Oracle user conference

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Workshop

San Francisco

Technical and business participation at Where 2.0 Conference.

Savannah

Technical participation in discussions at ION GNSS 2008

Seattle

Technical meeting with Microsoft on the use of Ordnance Survey data.

St. Louis

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey at Open Geospatial Consortium meeting

St. Louis

Representing the UK and Ordnance Survey, the Director General held a technical meeting with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

Washington

Technical participation in OWLED / Washington Workshop

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OS chairman’s speech: internal study shows “free” OS would cost government 500m-1bn pounds – but won’t publish

May 14th, 2009

The following is the text – as captured in shorthand contemporaneously – of a speech by Sir Rob Margetts, chairman of Ordnance Survey on Tuesday May 12. It is not complete but does capture the major themes and quotations.

The context is that Sir Rob was explaining to an invited audience, including many existing customers of OS, how the new “hybrid” strategy had been determined as the best one for its future development. He took some pains to emphasise that the “free data” model had not been rejected out of hand; but that instead a special study had been commissioned to investigate it.

This is my shorthand notes of what was said. My own comments are at the end.

There were major issues affecting the sustainability of OS as it goes through its proposed strategy.

We examined the complete range of options very impartially and objectively. That includes the free data, utility model where you would make data available to anybody [for free]. We examined the fully commercial model.. and alternatives within that range.

Our study of the utility [free data] model was done because some hold that that is a good strategy, and some of us weren’t indifferent to it. Some [of the study team] going in thought it could be interesting.

The study was fully costed for the government, calculating the costs of change to the residual value.

We came to conclusion that the cost to government in the first five years would be between £500m and £1 billion. That wasn’t the only reason that we discarded it. We did, with outside help, a review of equivalent organisations around the world.

We wanted sustainability and high [data] quality and came to the conclusion that at nearly every organisation that had gone to free data model, the quality had declined and that users and customers were increasingly dissatisfied with the product.

And the attractiveness to staff and recruitment and retention had also reduced. We found no evidence that this model actually worked elsewhere.

Those that work had a user-pays model. We tried to understand and explain why. Think that comes to the responsiveness to needs of the organisation. [ie: the responsiveness of the organisation to needs.]

If customers are required to pay then they specify needs very clearly and give feedback on whether they have got value [for money].

Customer stimulation is a vital part of any organisation because it’s sustainable.

And of course [there’s] recruiting and retaining quality staff.. they want to work for a qulity organisation and respond to real customer needs.

That’s why we didn’t pursue [the free data model] but can affirm that we looked at it in detail.

We also looked at a fully commercial model but weren’t satisfied it would fulfil the fundamental strategy [for OS].

We believe use [of geographical data] has expanded dramatically and changed.. but that potential is still considerably underexploited.

Our No. 1 aim is to improve capacity of OS to assist the exploitation of geographic information and be one of fundamental enablers of that [exploitation] in the UK for social and individual benefit.

With the proviso that by doing that we have to keep a sustainable organisation that not only covers its costs but also has enough left over… about £20m per annum.. to invest in the products that the market needs for customers, whether private individuals or business enterprises.

Commentary: Well, we’re fascinated to learn that OS found that there’s absolutely nobody out there who is making a free data model work. We have already emailed the South African mapping organisation, about which we wrote in 2007, to find out whether they were contacted by OS, and if so what they told them.

We will also pursue Freedom Of Information enquiries to find out which organisations OS spoke to and what their responses were. Since these are all free data models, there can’t be any commercial confidentiality for the foreign organisations, can there?

The “£500m – £1bn” range is extremely wide, and we’d like to see the detailed working. I asked the minister with responsibility for OS, Iain Wright, who was there, if he would order OS to release its full study. He said that if there weren’t any commercial-in-confidence implications… I wonder if we’ll see it? Again, we’ll ready some FOI requests.

There were questions at the end, and one interesting one came from Bob Barr, who pointed out that there is always the possibility of “pay to change” – that when you have a database of 460m features with (to give the statistics that Vanessa Lawrence, OS’s chief executive, read) 5,000 changes daily, why not charge those who are changing it? (We’ve looked at that model before, though I would like to see some more recent Land Registry figures.)

Here’s the question as I recorded it.

Robert Barr: “this hybrid financing.. it seems to be today that payment will be at the point of use. Usually [in other online systems] there’s a model where you pay to change the database. Doesn’t it make sense for data to be paid for where you change it?”

Peter ter Harr of OS: “This is a model we have been looking at. There are advantages and disadvantages. It’s not always the user who pays [in the current model]. There are many OS products which are free at the point of use. It’s the information provider who puts it online who pays. We have been looking at the model in various other countries. It works well in cases where it’s part of the statutory process.”

And that’s it? We really, really need to see that OS internal study, as it contradicts pretty much every study that’s been published. It’s going to be fascinating tracking it down.

One other thing: the cost to the government isn’t quite the same as the benefit to the economy, nor the eventual benefit to the government through taxation. It was the latter (actually, both) that the Cambridge study looked at. We are perfectly happy to generate tweaked versions of the “free data” model that could keep OS charging for some products (such as MasterMap) while freeing other data sets. Now that would be a truly hybrid model.

If anyone has had sight of that OS study, or any part of it, do please drop me an email at charles.arthur@gmail.com. Or upload it to Wikileaks and let us know. We think it’s so important it ought to be out there, not locked away in an OS cupboard.

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Government hits free data decision into the long grass

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.

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

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.

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Islington: you want a map? You’ll have to pay

March 24th, 2009

An intriguing move by Islington Council, which now demands that if you want to download something that has a map in, you pay. At least if that something is part of a planning proposal.

From its Planning Policy page:

Islington’s planning policies are set out in our Unitary Development Plan (UDP) – which was agreed in June 2002. The UDP provides the basis for all the council’s planning decisions. It contains broad strategic policies in part one of the plan, and more detailed policies in part two.

There is also a proposals map which shows areas where specific policies and proposals apply. You can see the text of the UDP on this site, but if you require the proposals map you will have to purchase a copy. [Emphasis added – CA.]

So why has Islington introduced this? (We may have been a little remiss in noticing this – the page says it was last updated on 31 October 2008.)

Could it be because of that famous Ordnance Survey warning of last year, made around that time? Is the council prohibited from providing any sort of map, or perhaps charged each time someone downloads a map? And if the latter is the case, is it making a profit, breaking even, or loss on the transaction?

(The page for the proposals map is confusing too. “click on ‘Interactive Maps’ on the top right hand side of the screen. A new window will open up.” it instructs. However, on my browser – a Firefox clone on a Mac – I don’t get any such “interactive maps” link. Is this a PC-only thing, or has that page just not been updated to keep tabs with the pricier new world? Its last update is the same as the parent page, so it surely can’t be…)

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Treasury tightens the screws on OS: will job losses follow?

March 16th, 2009

Always useful to monitor the written and spoken questions in Parliament: if you use theyworkforyou.com (and who wouldn’t?) you can set up an alert each time a phrase is used in Parliament (either house), or an MP appears, and get taken to the relevant page.

The latest interesting fact to emerge is that Ordnance Survey is expected, for the financial year just ended, to up its return on capital employed (ROCE) from the usual 5.5% to 6%:

Adam Afriyie (Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills; Windsor, Conservative): To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what financial return on ordinary activities was expected from Ordnance Survey in the year ending July 2008.

Iain Wright (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government; Hartlepool, Labour): The financial target for the year ended 31 March 2008 was derived from the three-year target for 2004-05 to 2007-08 set down in the Ordnance Survey Framework Document 2004. This target was to achieve no less than 5.5 per cent. per annum return on capital employed (“ROCE”), averaged over a three-year period, with the return defined as surplus on ordinary activities before interest and dividends.

The target figure for ROCE for the year ended 31 March 2009 was increased to a return of not less than 6 per cent.

(Emphasis added)

That’s interesting, and if we get a moment it might be useful to see what that sort of increase in ROCE means for the OS’s profits and especially costs: we have heard that Vanessa Lawrence, OS’s chief, has warned staff that there might be redundancies in the coming year.

It might seem perverse to you – it does to me – to increase the ROCE demanded from an organisation that relies on third-party sales of its products as a recession bites, which would tend to mean that (a) those third parties are going to have less money to spend (b) some of those third parties might go out of business. “Capital employed” tends to be a fixed number (staff aren’t capital, they’re operating costs), and is hard to change.

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In the Guardian: one-off census address database cost rises 20% to 12m pounds

March 9th, 2009

In The Guardian, we’ve followed up on the question put by the Tories’ social affairs minister (if I recall correctly) Eric Pickles, who asked about the price of the one-off census address database for 2011.

It turns out it has risen from £10 million to £12m in the space of just a few short months. Hasn’t anyone told them there’s a deflationary recession on?

As a reminder: the need for this database has grown from the fact that the Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and local authorities can’t agree on how to build an address database that the Office for National Statistics can agree will be definitive for carrying out the 2011 census.

Well, fair enough, you might say. The ONS’s requirements differ subtly from OS, RM and local authorities. It’s possible that their interests and plans won’t be entirely congruent.

What’s mind-boggling, and completely idiotic, is that ONS is going to build this database for itself (must already be in the process, since it doesn’t have long to do it) and then is going to destroy it. Because nobody could agree to let such a thing exist independently.

It’s an egregrious waste of money – first the building, which is madness, given that the data already exists; and then the destruction. Occam’s Razor of datasets: don’t let entities multiply needlessly. And the first law of not wasting things: don’t destroy hard-won datasets needlessly.

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

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.

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