All pages updated to demonstrate this site is now clean.
Free Our Data

Free Our Data: Articles: the Ordnance Survey official response

The Ordnance Survey’s official response to “Give us back our crown jewels”

The following is a detailed response from the Ordnance Survey to the original article that appeared in the Guardian on March 9 2006. It appears here, with the OS’s agreement, unedited (apart from minor stylistic points eg “taxpayer” rather than "tax-payer"). Please comment on the blog.

The Guardian says... The Ordnance Survey replies...
Imagine you had bought this newspaper for a friend. Imagine you asked them to tell you what’s in the TV listings - and they demanded cash before they would tell you. Outrageous? Certainly. Yet that is what a number of government agencies are doing with the data that we, as taxpayers, pay to have collected on our behalf. You have to pay to get a useful version of that data. Ordnance Survey is financed through data licensing rather than direct funding from the taxpayer. Yes, we collected data before we became a Trading Fund which was paid for through direct taxation (although from the 1970s the organisation was set ever increasing cost recovery targets). However, since April 1999, we have relied entirely from receipts from the licensing of our data for our trading revenue. Out-of-date map data is no use for today’s business and government activities. Maintenance is a vital issue, yet it is one that the article completely overlooks. We make an average of 5,000 changes every working day to our large-scale map data of Great Britain, but the taxpayer does not pay anything for the maintenance of our products.
Think of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) mapping data: useful to any business that wanted to provide a service in the UK, yet out of reach of startup companies without deep pockets. It is not out of reach of start-up companies. This takes no account of either the role of our partners or our network of specialist retail agents, OS Options, in delivering affordable, large-scale mapping to the citizen and small and medium sized businesses. Like other customers and partners of Ordnance Survey, start-up companies are benefiting from easier licensing terms and value for money pricing. Any organisation can copy its Ordnance Survey data holdings for internal business uses — such as producing leaflets for shareholders or showing the location of a branch network on a company website — from as little as 47.50 a year plus VAT, less than 1 a week. The costs of licensing small and medium scale data are far less than for the topologically structured national large-scale data which tends to be used only by national infrastructure organisations. Start-up companies who wish to build products and services based on our data can join a developer programme in which they can access more than 40,000 worth of data in return for a small administration fee of 500. Many of these developers have gone on to pursue successful businesses as full licensed partners of Ordnance Survey.
This situation prevails across a number of government agencies. Its effects are all bad. It stifles innovation, enterprise and the creativity that should be the lifeblood of new business. And that is why Guardian Technology today launches a campaign — Free Our Data. The aim is simple: to persuade the government to abandon copyright on essential national data, making it freely available to anyone, while keeping the crucial task of collecting that data in the hands of taxpayer-funded agencies. We have more than 500 commercial partners, many of whom have joined our partner programme in the past five years. There is no such thing as free data. Someone has to pay for it. Collecting, maintaining and distributing data cost Ordnance Survey 105.7m in 2004-05. It is very unlikely that the Treasury would bear the cost of this. There is no political will from any of the mainstream political parties to return to funding national geographic data collection and maintenance from the Exchequer. History shows that data quality suffers for lack of investment. The rise in popularity of Ordnance Survey maps in the inter-war period masked severe reductions in staff numbers and widened the time-lag between revisions of essential large-scale mapping. It took many years to rectify this and bring the mapping back up to date. In recent years we have been able to deliver extensive investment to ensure that data quality is maintained along with many other innovations based directly on customer need.
One government makes the data it collects available free to all: the United States. It is no accident that it is also the country that has seen the rise of multiple mapping services (such as Google Maps, Microsoft’s MapPoint and Yahoo Maps) and other services — “mashups” — that mesh government-generated data with information created by the companies. The US takes the attitude that data collected using taxpayers’ money should be provided to taxpayers free. And a detailed study shows that the UK's closed attitude to its data means we lose out on commercial opportunities, and even hold back scientific research in fields such as climate change.
Who are the culprits? Besides OS, with its vast and valuable map data, there are the UK Hydrographic Office (which collects tidal and naval navigational data), the Highways Agency (which collects traffic data) and even the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting.
There is no uniformly consistent large-scale mapping of the USA. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) — Ordnance Survey's equivalent body in the USA - does not in fact make large-scale map data available free and the quality of the largest federal scale, 1: 24,000 - similar to the level of detail in OS Explorer maps - is widely recognised as variable because of funding issues. Much of the data, as reported by USGS officials themselves, has in circulation for more than 30 years since it was last revised. Much of the reason the USA has a large commercial map sector is due to the variable quality of central government mapping. However the private sector in the USA has no obligation to map either to consistent national standards, consistent currency or even to provide complete coverage.
Britain’s public sector information is held by some 400 government departments, agencies and local authorities. Assets range from wills dating back to 1858, house values recorded in the Land Registry, maps and the risk of flooding to individual homes. Much is of great commercial interest, especially when it can be presented on innovative websites such as These sets of data are the modern crown jewels - but instead of treating them as a resource to boost national wealth, the government locks them up, restricting access to those who pay. More organisations are using more geographic information in more ways than ever before, and that is largely due to the success of Ordnance Survey as a trading fund. We are providing a platform for a growing number of small businesses to make money by exploiting our data as partners. Like other public sector bodies, we comply with the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005. As a trading fund with delegations from the Controller of HMSO to manage the licensing of Crown copyright, Ordnance Survey is also a member of OPSI's Information Fair Trader Scheme. This independently verified scheme ensures that we meet certain standards of openness, fairness and transparency, but in fact, we go beyond this in many ways. For example, we make available a free OS Explorer Map for every 11-year-old in Britain. In the past four years, more than three million free maps have been made available through this initiative. In addition, anyone can download free extracts of small-scale mapping direct from the Get-a-map facility on our website —
The heart of our argument is twofold. First, the government should not run businesses. The civil service is too inflexible to cope with the speed of change in the commercial sector. If a company like Microsoft finds it difficult to adjust to a world of online applications, how much harder is it for a government department rooted in paper-based processes? Ordnance Survey is a leading edge, technologically driven organisation and a world leader in the national mapping agency sector. We were early pioneers of digital technology, beginning the digitising of Britain's large-scale map data as long ago as 1971. We now create and maintain one of the world's largest geospatial databases. In all aspects of our work, from data collection to product management, we champion innovation in what we do. Our field staff, for example, have built Britain's largest civilian network of GPS correction stations, generating centimetre level positioning and dramatic operational efficiencies. Our data contains better currency and accuracy. Our delivery systems are more technologically driven than ever before and most of these investments have come since trading fund status while during the 1990s we were under funded and could not invest in a timely way.
Second, the government should be charged with collecting the best data. The Office for National Statistics labours to collect the most accurate depiction of Britain’s society and economy. No private organisation has the resources, time or breadth of approach. By contrast, commercial companies ignore less profitable sectors: we can't trust data collected by banks about spending habits because they ignore people who cannot afford to open accounts. Similarly, few companies make detailed maps of Britain; they concentrate on the areas with the best returns. We agree government is best placed to capture and maintain the comprehensive mapping data for Britain. Under the trading fund model, the government recognises that there is a need for public accountability of the core activity but shows no inclination to fund it from the Exchequer. Neither do the other political parties.
In a seminal piece of research into the real cost of charging for access to public data, the late Peter Weiss, of the US National Weather Service, compared open and closed economic models for public sector data. His paper, Borders in Cyberspace: Conflicting Public Sector Information Policies and their Economic Impact (374KB PDF), is online. He quoted a 2000 study for the European Commission carried out by Pira International, which noted that "the concept of commercial companies being able to acquire, at very low cost, quantities of public sector information and resell it for a variety of unregulated purposes to make a profit is one that policymakers in the EU find uncomfortable." But why?
Pira pointed out that the US's approach brings enormous economic benefits. The US and EU are comparable in size and population; but while the EU spent 9.5bn (6.51bn) on gathering public sector data, and collected 68bn selling and licensing it, the US spent 19bn - twice as much - and realised 750bn - over 10 times more. Weiss pointed out: "Governments realise two kinds of financial gain when they drop charges: higher indirect tax revenue from higher sales of the products that incorporate the ... information; and higher income tax revenue and lower social welfare payments from net gains in employment."
The applications for public sector data are infinite, but here are two real-world ones that affect ordinary businesses. Many of Britain's best rock-climbing venues are on sea cliffs, and hence affected by the tides. For climbers planning a trip - and surely spending money in local shops - it helps to know if the tides will be favourable. But websites that try to offer British tide data have been told by the UK Hydrographic Office they must pay for it - a cost most are unwilling to endure. So sites have no tides, climbers make the safer choice, and shops miss out.
Take traffic data. The Highways Agency has set up an exclusive deal with TrafficTV to send video details from motorway cameras to your mobile. But if the data were free, any company could offer well-organised maps and drive down the price while increasing the numbers who would have better access to traffic data. That would reduce congestion and pollution.
How did we get into this mess? The problem stems from the days of the Conservative government, which created “trading funds”. These government-owned bodies - including OS, Companies House, the Driving Standards Agency, HM Land Registry, the Patent Office and the Royal Mint - have to sell to other parts of the government and private customers. Every year they have a “revenue target” that must be paid to the Treasury; but the only way to earn those revenues is through commercial activity - creating the ludicrous spectacle of government-approved monopolies making the market buy data at their rates. A growing number of experts say the loss to the economy outweighs "gains" through lowered taxes. "The amount of money made is trivial," says Keith Dugmore of the Demographics User Group, which represents commercial users of government information. The aim of the revenue target is to provide a sharper focus on achieving value for money and providing key services and supplies more effectively. We are more customer-focused, and our products more closely aligned to user needs than ever before.
But the stifling of competition is most serious. Sometimes, the conflicts are surreal. The supply of postal addresses is an example. Three publicly owned agencies - the Post Office, OS and a consortium of local authorities - run lists of addresses. Because they are forced to put a “value” on the lists, they have been unable to agree a way of creating a single database. The cost of licensing addresses was one reason why returns from the 2001 census were so poor from several fast-changing metropolitan areas, such as Manchester. Ordnance Survey remains committed to improving the quality of spatial address data for the nation. Indeed we are making a series of enhancements to our most highly detailed address data specifically in response to customer need. We did not have the funds to do this under the last years of vote funding.
A local authority such as Swindon has to pay OS 38,000 a year to use its addresses and geographical data. It also has to pay the Royal Mail 3,000 for every website that includes the facility for people to look up their postcodes. Yet it was local authorities, which have a statutory duty to collect street addresses, that collected much of this data. Kristin Woodland, who chairs the local authorities’ street gazetteer group, says: “The taxpayer pays for us to create the data, then has to pay us to use the data.” The agreement through which local authorities pay for mapping services is the responsibility of Local Government Information House, acting on behalf of local government. Local government has no statutory duty to “collect street addresses”. Some local authorities are the street naming and numbering authority ie they allocate names and numbers but that is not the same thing. Local government clearly has a role in the address naming process but an expression like “10 High Street” is of no use to emergency services or postal deliveries without knowing its location. There are different elements involved in the notion of an address such as the Royal Mail postcode and the grid reference. Ordnance Survey adds immense value by referencing the address to a specific location on a nationally consistent basis. As we are not tax-funded, we pay for the investment in our address data entirely through receipts from licensing.
The conflict between a trading fund’s traditional role and its new commercial activities is most intense in mapping. “Technology has left the licensing model far behind,” says Dugmore. Particular controversy surrounds the role of OS, founded to prepare the British army for a French invasion and now a household name that sees itself at the forefront of geographical information systems. OS has a monopoly on centuries’ worth of data thanks to taxpayer funding. Without that head start, it would be in the same position as any other startup today: facing the choice of creating a brand-new dataset, or finding someone who had collected it and licensing it from them. The article again fails to consider the crucial issue of maintenance. The taxpayer did fund map-making in the past but the costs now lie in capturing, maintaining and distributing up-to-date data. We make an average of 5,000 changes every day to our largest-scale mapping of Britain. The history of cost recovery goes back over 60 years with the proportion of costs recovered steadily increasingly, particularly from the 1970s onwards — in 1946 it was 12.5 %; 1969 — 30%; 1980 — 40%; Therefore, the portion of useful information in our databases [since WWII, and so for almost all of what is currently used data] has been paid for by user fees is substantial.
Part of the problem is that government — and the Treasury — is blinded by its internal commercial targets, and unable to see the damage its policies do. Thus within government, OS is widely seen as an example of a venerable public body transforming itself into a dynamic commercial enterprise. Last year it had a surplus of 9.2m, though only part was returned to the Treasury. But the bulk of its revenues come from the public sector, partly through a payment called the National Interest Mapping Services (Nims), worth 13m a year, and partly from deals with government bodies. The latest of the deals is under negotiation. There is separate, transparent accounting for the National Interest Mapping Services Agreement (NIMSA) put in place at the start of the Trading Fund. This is not trading revenue but a government contract to help fund some of the costs of specific activities that are vital to the national interest but which cannot be justified on purely commercial grounds.
Yesterday, the government was due to receive bids for a 20m contract to provide geographical information to Whitehall bodies. In theory, it is an open competition. In practice, the largest part of the contract, for “large scale data”, is unlikely to go to anyone else: the contract specifies that the winner must have large-scale maps in place within six weeks of the start of a five-year deal. We cannot find any other reference in the public domain to the six-week specification. However, on the IGGI web site, the ODPM posted a response to a market sounding question discussing the tender. An unnamed organisation said: “The procurement must allow enough time between contract award and provision date to allow the cartographic work to be completed.” The ODPM responded: “We seek to balance the benefits of competition in the marketplace with the need to ensure continuity of data supply to PGA members. Any realistic timeframes will be considered as part of the tender evaluation.”
The OS told the Guardian: "We are bidding for pan-government agreement and we operate in fair competition under heavy scrutiny. The only monopoly we have is in the mapping of uneconomic areas." In 2004-05, 47.5% of its 100.4m trading revenue came from government (which allows it to claim that it is not government funded). Ordnance Survey is no more government funded than many large IT suppliers and other companies who provide services to government customers. In many cases, the development of core software in the private sector is aided considerably by long-term development contracts with government.
[OS] says Nims is not a subsidy: "This is a contribution to the cost of mapping uneconomic areas." That makes sense - if you consider the geography of the United Kingdom to be a profit centre. But if you view it instead as belonging to its taxpayers, and meriting rigorous mapping for their benefit, there are no "uneconomic areas" - only places that people haven't started to use yet. The private sector would not map the country as rigorously as Ordnance Survey. NIMSA covers tasks such as keeping the most detailed mapping of remote areas up-to-date - areas where such mapping is needed for public administration, including the delivering of emergency responses, but where there is little other demand. This work is carried out on a not-for-profit basis and is offering government increasingly good value for money due to cost efficiencies at Ordnance Survey.
Happily, the practice of state-owned monopolies competing in markets dependent on their information is under attack from several quarters. A new trade association, Locus, is calling for the government to enforce a level playing field in the market in public sector information.
And some of the most copyright-mad government organisations have relented. Hansard, the record of proceedings in parliament, was once a paper product that had to be bought from Her Majesty's Stationery Office. Now it is online, for free, so that sites like can generate useful data about individual MPs' voting and attendance.
The Office of Fair Trading is preparing a report on public sector information, due this summer, which will "look at whether or not the way in which public sector information holders (PSIH) supply information works well for businesses. It will examine whether PSIHs have an unfair advantage selling on information in competition with companies who are reliant on the PSIH for that raw data in the first place."
Though it may already be shooting for an open goal, we urge the OFT to compare the UK with the US; read Peter Weiss's paper; and then, finally, to free our data.

You can discuss this article and the responses on the campaign blog.