Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for the 'Foreign examples' Category

How GIS reveals discrimination in urban planning

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Does this sound at all familiar?

Not all local governments appreciate the rise of GIS-driven advocacy, especially when their own data is used as a hammer against them, and they have begun to restrict public access. Some have pulled data off the Web in the alleged interest of national security; others charge exorbitant fees to produce it or deliver jumbled masses of data that are difficult to manage or decipher.

Turns out though that it’s not from the UK, but the US, from a fascinating article about how GIS helps to demonstrate discrimination being practised by towns and cities – and how when that is revealed by mapping, the reaction tends not to be to get rid of the discrimination, but to get rid of the troublesome access to the data that reveals it. After all, it’s so much cheaper to do the one than the other:

Mebane, the Cedar Grove Institute’s first case study of municipal discrimination, passed an Infrastructure Information Security Policy shortly after the study was published; the policy limited infrastructure data access to qualified engineering firms and town agencies. The city of Modesto, Calif., locked in a legal underbounding battle, pulled its infrastructure data off the Internet after the lawsuit was filed, citing national security grounds. “There’s no conceivable national security interest in where the traffic lights are in Modesto,” scoffs Ben Marsh, the institute’s chief mapmaker. A recent appellate ruling in California rejected a similar national-security rationale, as well as a copyright argument by Santa Clara County, but whether that opinion stands as precedent remains to be seen.


Though restrictions on access to government data could prove troublesome, advocacy groups that use GIS have already been finding data sources outside of government. In particular, data collected by community residents have become an effective supplement to the “official story,” as University of Washington professor Sarah Elwood calls government data.

Elwood has used GIS not only to map problems but to build the capacity of underserved and disadvantaged communities to advocate on their own behalf. Simple walking surveys that catalogue infrastructural deficiencies — potholes in sidewalks, missing stop signs, burned-out streetlights — fill gaps in the public record that mask actual conditions on the ground. With locally produced data, Elwood says, “You can tell a very detailed and very current, compelling story about neighborhood needs.”

If that reminds you at all of fixmystreet, it ought to – that’s precisely the sort of idea it sprang from.

Outrageous. Incredible. International expert was spoken word only even within OS

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Let’s just remind ourselves what it was that Sir Rob Margetts, chair of Ordnance Survey, said at the launch of OS’s proposed new strategy (which is now in little pieces all over the floor since Gordon Brown and Tim Berners-Lee announced the end of derived data and the freeing up of mid-scale mapping, but anyway) back in April:

“We came to conclusion that the cost to government in the first five years [of a free data model] 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.“

Who, I then asked, was the “outside help”? OS responded:

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.

This latter bit intrigued us. An “internationally recognised expert”, eh? Except it turned out that he or she did not want to be identified, although he or she works or has worked full-time for a foreign mapping agency, and read the study for free. And that OS transacted everything with the expert by spoken word:

A copy of the report was provided to the person concerned and engagement on this matter was conducted orally with no permanent record made of these conversations.

And now in response to my latest Freedom of Information request for

copies of all emails and/or documents internally relating to the decision to choose this person – for example, discussion of who would be suitable candidates or who would not be suitable candidates to carry out the review of the report

OS replies:

There was no decision process in place to find suitable candidates. An opportunity presented itself to request the opinion of a global expert in this field which was undertaken orally. The resultant opinion was expressed orally and there was no permanent record made of these conversations.

So here’s what happens. You have a report. You happen to bump into an old mate. “Hey, want to read my report?” you say. “Sure,” they say. They read it. “Seems OK,” they say. You go back to your office and tell people “I met X who says it’s fine.” Even though the report is a thrown-together farrago of disconnected information about various national mapping agencies and their charging methods, combined with an unrelated chunk of poorly displayed data about national GDP versus national R&D expenditure, which cannot by any reasonable measure be claimed to justify anything about any charging model.

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

If there is anyone at Ordnance Survey who is prepared to defend this course of events, could they please get in touch? Or even the international expert, who is very welcome to comment anonymously to explain whether they think OS’s representation of their opinion is justified. Comments are open.

Text of Norwegian mapping service announcement, in English

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Here’s the best shot that Google Translate has come up with in translating the web page at the Norwegian mapping service announcing its forthcoming free map service. There are some important extra points which might be worth noting – such as that it’s going to be for an experimental period of six months in the first instance. (And you’ll have to allow for the fact that it’s not quite been translated into English.)

Free map services [Published: 12.11.09, Updated: 12.11.09]

Now everyone can access the latest maps around the clock. Together with our partners we are releasing through the Norwegian Mapping Authority a number of their map services – by Mapping Manager Anne Cathrine Frøstrup

From 1 December, you can click on the state map sites and get direct access to digital map services – absolutely free.

“We have the best and freshest maps foundation in Norway, and now we share this with everyone. This shows that cartography is visibly for the benefit of society, and is entirely in line with government policy of more openness,” said Hydrographic chief Anne Cathrine Frøstrup.

Map Services released, covering both sea and land, and regularly updated. They should meet the needs of the vast majority of us.

Hoping for creativity: It is free to develop their own functions related to the maps, and in the long run, this can provide a range of new opportunities.

“Be creative and use our maps to develop new exciting additional services,” said Frøstrup.

With the release of the maps she hopes that creativity will flourish. Inventive souls can tie together maps and other map information in new and clever ways.

Availability cookbook: with some computer knowledge, it is possible to use the new map services. On the website of the Norwegian Mapping Authority, you will find a basic cookbook that gives you the recipe for how to integrate the various solutions.

The links to the services will operate from 1 December.

In the first instance we are talking about a test period of six months. The scheme will be constantly evaluated and improved. Works and services so we have planned, will the offer be made permanent. [Not sure how this last sentence should be interpreted.]

Norwegian mapping authority frees up maps

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Oh, those crazy Norwegians. They’re giving away maps for free. Within limits – it’s limited to “individuals and non-profit associations”. So that’s half a step towards free data.

Interesting that this is also including maritime information – the stuff that the UK Hydrographic Office sort-of provides; it’s rumoured to be on the list for privatisation, however.

And of course Norway was one of the countries in the OS’s woeful International Comparison report. Apparently it gets an unknown amount of government grant, but operates a “full cost recovery” system (6.1.4 in the report).

Arguably this is similar to the OS’s OpenSpace project, which is free-ish availability of data for individuals and non-profits… as long as they don’t get too big. What’s not clear in the Norwegian example is what its rules on “derived data” are. That would be interesting to know from any Norwegians.

From this Google translation page of the Associated Press story in Norwegian:

(AP) Soon, you can use much of the information at the Norwegian Mapping Authority on your private website, and take up battle with Google Maps.

From 1 December this year, you can retrieve detailed information from the Norwegian Mapping Authority, and bake it into your own web pages. Totally free, if you are an individual or operate a non-profit association.

It follows the Norwegian Mapping Authority in the footsteps of Google and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, who shares the information it holds on to the free public use.

There is talk of detailed maps and geographic information that the Norwegian Mapping Authority has been sitting for a long time, and that until now only been available for those willing to pay.

“The data has been available through the programs that we manage, but now it will therefore be direct access to the service,” explains Erland Røed the Norwegian Mapping Authority to VG Nett.

Like for example, Google’s maps will be extended the opportunity to mix together information from several sources, and then add this on top of the map from the Norwegian Mapping Authority.

You should read the whole page (so I’m not going to copy it all here). But it does sound like the Norwegian Authority is getting with the program in a big way.

….At the State Map Verks web pages, users can decide how utstnittet of the map should look like, the layers of information to be included and finally get a clip of code.

…The system located at the bottom of the State Map Verks solutions [is] also at the forefront of the development of open software.

“Operating systems and databases we use are free software, so this is done by the book. It’s gone out 80 million map images of this year, says Røed. “The public and private individuals who have gone on our site has generated a lot of use before it is released freely, “he says.

By releasing data free on the way the Norwegian Mapping Authority do hope that the users themselves to come up with good solutions. A few examples of how users can generate more information from the maps of the Norwegian Mapping Authority is sports.

See chart to the Norwegian Mapping Authority, for example, be used as background during a real-time tracking of Færderseilasen with all available information as a true marine gear.

Such tracking is technically possible even with the Google service Google Maps, but without details that a real chart can offer.At the State Map Verks map is the depth measurements, lighthouses, beacons and all the relevant information for sailors, where Google Maps only shows the blue sea.

Similarly shows the topographical maps of the Norwegian Mapping Authority highly detailed rendering of the terrain, long more accurate than Google Maps.

There is also a reader discussion of site boundaries, which has a translation too.

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 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.”


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.

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

Saturday, 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:






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



Participation in a technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive


Participation in technical working group on the INSPIRE Directive


UK Delegate to International Cartographic Association Conference


Technical participation in Semantic Technology Conference


Technical participation in European Semantic Technology Conference 2008



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



Participation in Geographic Information awareness event in the European Parliament


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


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


Technical meeting with European Commission


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


Representing Ordnance Survey at European Centre for Public Affairs conference


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


Technical meeting with the UK Permanent Representation Team


Technical meeting on the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS)


Participation in EuroGeographics management meeting


Technical participation in European Reference Framework Conference (EUREF) 2008


Participation in European Public Sector Information (ePSI) conference



Technical meeting with National Resources Canada


Technical meeting of Geographic Information Web Networks (Geoweb)



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



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



Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive


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



Client visit Korec – supplier of surveying equipment


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


Transit departure airport for return from Dublin conference



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



Technical participation in meeting of the Business Interoperability Group of EuroGeographics


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


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



Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting


Technical participation in meeting on the INSPIRE Directive


Representing Ordnance Survey at a EuroGeographics business meeting


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


Business and sales attendance at the International property trade Conference.



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


Technical participation in a EuroGeographics Business Interoperability Group meeting


Sales attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair


Technical attendance at CeBit Conference – Information and Digital Technology


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


Technical and Business participation in an Open Geospatial Consortium meeting.


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.


Technical participation in the Spatial Cognition 08 conference


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


Pan-European conference on Geographical Information related matters.


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



Technical attendance at international technology analysis “Canalys” Conference



Technical visit to Supplier


Technical visit to Supplier



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


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

Technical participation in International conference on knowledge engineering – EKAW



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



Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD



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



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


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


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


Technical participation in a meeting on TRIPOD


Technical participation in an Ontology Web Language Experiences and Directions workshop



Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting



Technical participation in Urban Land Institute housing affordability seminar


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


Technical participation in Workflow and Production Management Technology Conference 08


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


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


Technical meeting on the INSPIRE Directive


Technical participation in Data Quality Workshop at ITC, Enschede


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

New Zealand


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.



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



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



Representing Ordnance Survey at EuroGeographics business meeting



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


Representing Ordnance Survey at business Meeting



Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE Directive



Technical and business participation in Barcelona Euro SDR meeting


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


Technical participation at 3GSM Congress


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


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.



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


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


Technical participation at conference on the INSPIRE directive


UK delegate at Federation International des Geometries (FIG) Conference


Technical participation at Tobii Conference



Technical and business visit to Leica Geosystems


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.



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


Technical participation at Vital Vision Conference


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


Technical participation at GI Science conference


Technical participation in international conference in geographic information


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.


Technical participation in discussions at ION GNSS 2008


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


Technical participation in OWLED / Washington Workshop

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this data for the UK?

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

The Guardian has pulled together a collection of datasets drawn from the US:

Simon Rogers gathered this information and shared the raw data via Google Spreadsheets for anyone to use. This means that people can grab the data in whatever format is most desirable including text, .csv, .xls, and .pdf.

Since access is open on each spreadsheet, it also means that developers can write client applications that interact directly with the data. Developers can access the same source data as either XML or JSON.

Fantastic stuff. Now, wouldn’t it be marvellous if we could find the same datasets for the UK and know that we could all share it for people to build on?

If you do know of any copyright- or charge-free (or both) sources for these for the UK, then please leave us a note in the comments.

BBC’s iPM looks at crime mapping in Chicago

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

The BBC’s iPM – the radio programme whose topics are suggested (though “chosen” would be overstating it) by its listeners – has looked at the topic of crime mapping, investigating how it’s done in Chicago.

There are two pieces: talking to Everyblock, the followup to chicagocrime,.org (which did the original crime mapping idea, building on the release by the Chicago police of the crime location data); and then talking to Jonathan Lewin, information services division commander in the Chicago police’s official crime mapping effort, and its GIS manager Joseph Kezon. You’ll have to visit the page to get the audio.

Notable points from the blog post:

Not everyone, of course, is happy with crime mapping. On the programme this weekend we’ll hear from groups who worry that crime-mapping could be counter-productive, affecting house prices, increasing fear of crime, and leading to areas being stigmatized.

Ah yes, the fear of knowing too much. Why don’t we just buy houses without ever seeing them? Why do we bother getting them surveyed? If house prices are affected, might it not also push up prices in places that don’t have crime? I’d have thought that more places would show low crime than will show high crime (because crime tends to cluster, for reasons that in hindsight are generally obvious), so that’s a net benefit for house prices; not that those should be the start or end of any conversation. (Please.)

Also amused by one of the comments:

I live in Surrey and we only have 10 police officers and all the police stations have been closed. They appear once a year for a major event and then we don’t see them again for 12 months. We do have a helicopter, loads of speed cameras, town centre cameras and a new video speed check van.

I think the police had a choice of more police on the beat or the helicopter and they decided that the helicopter looked like more fun. It hasn’t caught any criminals yet but they will produce statistics at the drop of a hat to assure you it is essential to crime busting.

The helicopter is very annoying and it would be useful to know the areas where it flies so potential house purchasers could avoid these areas. It flies around and around in pointless circles until residents are forced to report crimes in the next district so that it will fly away.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want more police on the beat. I want them to sell the helicopter and give me my money back.

Yup, helicopters are expensive to run. Maybe if there was a crime map you could decide where it should go more quickly..?

Australia moves to Creative Commons licensing for PSI; what chance for the UK?

Friday, February 15th, 2008

This week’s Guardian Technology looks at what’s happening in Australia, which started out with crown copyright but now…

When you’re dealing with a flooding emergency in the middle of the worst drought for many years, the last thing you need is barriers to the sharing of geographical and meteorological information.

Yet that’s the situation faced by Australia. The authorities’ response is to consider the widespread adoption of Creative Commons licences for public-sector information.

Last month, the government of Queensland approved the use of Creative Commons, which allows free re-use of copyright material subject to certain conditions, as part of a new licensing framework. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth (federal) government is expected to give the green light to creative commons in a new set of guidelines for the management of the government’s intellectual property.

The new Australian policy will be watched with interest by Britain’s free-data movement. Historically, Australia is a pioneer of free data: a 1968 law exempted most data produced by the federal government from copyright protection.

Of course, we haven’t gotten near to the latter here in the UK, 40 years later, but anything would be a start. Even CC licensing (most commonly seen today on the photography site Flickr).

However – as in the UK – [government] organisations can and do charge for certain kinds of data. Another complication is that licensing regimes vary from state to state.

One result, says Baden Appleyard, a lawyer and research fellow at Queensland University of Technology, is “confusion, lack of interoperability and unnecessary expense in the provision and re-use of public-sector information”.

Does that sound at all familiar? What’s encouraging about Australia is that it’s actually taking steps to do something about it, following a study that was carried out last year into the effectiveness of government policies on data licensing.

Here in the UK, there was a study carried out last year – which looked at the trading funds model. We’re still waiting for the Ministry of Justice to publish it…

Free O’Data: Ireland makes (some) data free

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Apologies for the headline, but then again, it was inescapable.

But: Ireland’s geographical agency, the GSI, has made a number of its datasets about boreholes available for free online.

Announced by the minister, the web page itself is a bit spartan: “Minister Ryan launches Spatial Data Projects to allow free online access to Deptarmental data. GSI, along with PAD, EMD and Enginerring Divisions of DCENR, all contributed data to these series of web map viewers, data download pages and GIS web services. Click on [Note: this isn’t a valid page, or at least not to me on my Mac] or for further details.”

The more useful data is at this page, which explains that it’s access to the borehole database:

Dr. Ronnie Creighton, Senior Geologist at GSI, explains that engineers regularly consult the database during the desk study stage in site selection and the planning of ground investigation design. “The data are used to create subsurface maps of the depth to bedrock for Dublin city centre, for instance, as well as 3D visualisation of the subsurface bedrock topography. These are vital tools in construction and major infrastructure planning,� he said.

Access to the database is free and is now online, via a specially designed web map viewer, accessible from the following GSI web page The map viewer currently provides public and professional users free access to over 12,200 digitised boreholes and trial pits from the database via an easy to use map-based interface.

An interesting contrast with the Environment Agency for England and Wales, which as we pointed out in May, is trying to charge people for details about water extraction locations:

[the] Environment Agency… used to make available the data about the location of “source protection zonesâ€? – essentially, areas around groundwater sources which must be protected from pollution to avoid contamination of drinking water supplies.

We’d be interested to hear though from anyone who could tell us precisely how useful these new Irish data are. Even so, datasets online for no price? Sounds good to us.

Late, but anyway: New Zealand makes (some) statistics free – but why?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Left over in the busy-ness last week was the piece in Guardian Technology about New Zealand’s government making a leap of faith and freeing a number of its statistical data that was previously charged-for.

In New Zealand puts its trust in statistics, I ask Statistics NZ and Business NZ (the trade body lobbying on behalf of business) what the economic justification for the move was. The answer: nobody seems to know. But it seemed like a good idea.

Europe’s Galileo satellite program faces more obstacles

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Following the debate in the House of Commons recently, in which it was pointed out – or at least alleged – that the US’s Global Positioning System (including a useful potted history) now underpins the entire US economy, but that nobody could come up with a convincing reason why we need Galileo too.

Owen Paterson, for the Tories, said:

Last week, I had meetings with representatives of Trafficmaster plc, a highly successful company selling navigation services to more than 100,000 vehicles in the UK. Its technical director, Christopher Barnes, said that

“the free to air GPS service is sufficient for vehicle navigation and therefore we are unlikely to be interested in paying (either voluntarily or through a compulsory tax) to use a European service, even if technically it would be better.”

There is extremely limited application for the higher accuracy that Galileo will offer and, in any event, any such advantage will last only until the US deploys Block III Navstar, which promises equivalence.

(That’s an interesting statistic: 100,000 vehicles using TrafficMaster. And that’s only one of the many satnav systems on sale. How much taxable revenue does GPS – a free government data service – generate?)

Now the Guardian notes that Galileo faces further obstacles: in “Funding row pushes GPS system further off course“, it quotes Olivier Houssin, head of the commercial and security operations of French electronics group Thales, saying Europe runs the risk of being left behind in key commercial and military applications by the US, China, Russia and India if it doesn’t back Galileo.

“If Galileo collapses it will be the collapse of the most important EU programme outside the common agricultural policy,” he said in an interview. “Europe is stagnating in space.” EU transport ministers agreed last month to scrap the public private partnership for building and running the 30-satellite Galileo system, which promises greater accuracy than the American GPS, to control air and road traffic. It will also provide enhanced civil security and even help to pilot driverless trains. Mr Houssin dismissed the PPP/PFI as “a false good idea” because Galileo was a “strategic infrastructure” that Europe had to fund publicly. He said the French and Germans were now at loggerheads over how to provide the extra €2.4bn required.

Berlin favours making extra voluntary contributions to the European Space Agency, which is in charge of the overall project, in return for a greater share of the workload. “They want to take over the technological leadership of the programme and centre it around the activities of Astrium [the space arm of EADS] in Munich,” he said.

The French would prefer to see the project financed as an EU investment, with cash sourced from other European commission budgets.

Britain, which still clings to the notion of a PPP/PFI, has refused to give the go-ahead for switching entirely to public funds.

It is very difficult, as Owen Paterson pointed out, to find a way in which Galileo is necessary when GPS III is on the way – unless, that is, its real value lies in military application. But that supposes us not being an ally of the US, which is a very peculiar worldview to start from.

(Thanks to Rob for pointing to the debate.)

New Zealand makes statistics data free to encourage business – but where’s the logic?

Friday, June 15th, 2007

In an announcement that we’re struggling to find much coverage of, New Zealand’s statistics are to be made available for free starting from this August, down from prices of NZ$25,000 (£9,500) in some cases.

That’s quite a radical move, explained by the NZ minister for statistics Clayton Cosgrove thus:

“I am pleased to announce that information to help businesses identify market opportunities, assess their competitiveness, and implement informed investment planning will be made freely available. The roll-out of information will include a host of industry-specific information for the building, retail and tourism sectors, and for importers and exporters. The data will also be useful for local authorities and communities,” Mr Cosgrove said.

And also – chiming with the Free Our Data rationale –

“Previously the information could be ordered at a cost from Statistics New Zealand, but in future, trade figures, for example, which were charged out at around $400 per customised request, or Digital Boundaries files that cost up to $25,000, will be available free.”

“The Labour-led Government is committed to giving businesses every opportunity to grow and prosper by providing the tools to support well informed decision making. Making key information available at no charge will encourage more businesses to identify new markets, for example, and plan for the future.”

Politics aside, businesses are keen on it:

Phil O’Reilly, Chief Executive of Business New Zealand, said, “Business groups have consistently advocated that this valuable information be made freely available, as it is in Australia. I am pleased the Government has taken this step.”

Well, yes, anything that reduces a direct business cost is going to be welcomed. But of course this will have to be balanced with increases in the amounts spent on direct taxation: the NZ government is putting NZ$6m into Statistics NZ over the next four years to ease this process.

And of course in the UK, National Statistics makes all its raw non-personal data (correct me if I’m wrong) available for free, except where it’s forbidden by copyright involving mapping agencies, and only charges for custom-made datasets.

There’s some media coverage – New Zealand Herald interviews the head of Statistics NZ.

An interesting NZ government press release from August 2006, when Mr Cosgrove talked about how statistics can help small businesses. (But not if they can’t afford them, eh?) And the Salvation Army pointed out that the free data is good news for the charity sector:

‘Many of the statistics are currently prohibitively expensive for non-profit groups, so removing the charges will make available a wealth of information otherwise inaccessible.’

A full list of what’s being made available (the government press release plus accompanying PDF).

And here’s a key part, from the FAQs: the expected growth.

Have other countries done this?
Yes. Australia and Denmark have both seen big surges in use of data following similar initiatives to make statistics freely available. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports data downloads have approximately tripled since they made similar information free in 2005.
What is the uptake of the data expected to be?
A similar upsurge in data uptake is expected in New Zealand. In 2003 Statistics New Zealand made Census information freely available on the internet. This has resulted in a significant increase in public usage from around 250 paying subscribers in 1993 to over 20,000 accesses in the last year alone. [Emphasis added – CA.] The INFOS system currently has 93 annual subscribers. Once the system is redeveloped for easy use on the web, based on international experience, usage could increase to between 1500 to 2,000 users per month, and businesses would become the predominant sector using the information.

What we can’t find is anything leading up to the announcement, nor any indication of the economic analysis that surely must have been done before embarking on this. Any pointers?

In print: Canada’s maps go free – but here’s more background: it’s not so simple

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Today’s Guardian has Canada drops licences and adopts free model for map data, which makes pretty much all the same points (possibly fewer, due to the limits of print space) as this previous post.

Since writing it however I’ve also been contacted by Tracey Lauriault, of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. She points out a number of things about the ‘free mapping’ movement in Canada, which I’ll quote at length since they’re all worth absorbing.

The short form, though, is: Canada’s federal maps might be free, but the really useful data lie closer to the local level – and those are still charged for, quite substantially in some cases. Here’s what Tracey said by email, quoted with her permission (since sometimes people don’t want emails reprinted):

I applaud what NRCan has done with its national framework data. Do keep in mind that NRCan topo data that was just made available is out of date and NRCan almost closed the office – read – this Hill Times article (subscription required for full text). We suspect they are making these data public and free to avoid having to continue the provision of paper maps. Canada is a country of wilderness lovers and tons of outdoors enthusiasts (canoers, campers, trekkers, hunters), forests, tundra, mines etc. where people go to very remote areas and well just cannot navigate using a blackberry screen or in remote areas where there is no satellite overage. See how the population is distributed along the US-Canada border to understand how critical it is to have up to date topo maps in rural and remote areas – which is most of the country!

GeoBase ( is very innovative indeed with how it is distributing national scale framework data and Geogratis ( distributes old, out-of-date free data. Both are part of the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure. Both are going in the right direction; however, the good stuff we all want is not there. And both are setting the bar high for other Canadian organizations.

Also read the Maps for Canadians site by Heather McAdam the GIS specialist for the MADGIC (Maps Data and Government Information Centre) at Carleton University. [There is more than one MADGIC in Canada – CA] Heather ran an excellent one woman campaign and mobilized our behind-the-times mapping associations in Canada. .. She is the reason for the topo map announcement.

Canada is a huge country, with tons of geography and few people with three levels of government and division of powers – Federal, Provincial and Municipal. The feds have released the national framework maps, the shells of the national scale. The data to fill the shells such as health canada, statistics canada, environment canada etc. are by no means free or accessible or void of crown copyright. Also, to do any useful analysis at the local scale we need the provincial and municipal data sets which are harder to get – Manitoba being an exception. Other provinces sell the data at a very high price or with very restrictive use policies.

Canada positions itself as being in between UK and US with cost recovery but not extreme like the UK. Statistics canada is very close to the UK model.

The PR person for NRCan was very clever with their headline but this is not a huge breakthrough, just a nice press release, Geogratis and Geobase are far more interesting.

Absolutely anyone can play and profit: Canada makes mapping data free for any use

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

Canada has, as the geographers have probably noticed, made its mapping data free for download from the Geogratis site. You’ll need a fast connection and GIS tools to do anything useful with the data – but such tools are available for free all over the web.

I held back on posting because I wanted to get confirmation directly from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) – the ministry which looks after mapping inter alia responsibilities for the country’s natural resources, of which there are a lot – that this freedom extended to commercial enterprises wanting to build businesses around the data. (That isn’t clear from the announcement, nor from following the links around it: might commercial companies be restricted in their commercial reuse of the data?)

But I’ve spoken to Ann Martin, who is director of the digital dissemination division at NRCan, and she confirms: yes, the data can be sold on without any royalties being due.

That’s a change from the situation that used to prevail, where NRCan would license the data to users and resellers; there was also a royalty structure which meant resellers had to pay some of their earnings back to NRCan.

Such a royalty structure is still in place in the UK: for instance, if you want to reuse a map from the London A-Z Map Company, about one-third of the charge is a royalty payable to Ordnance Survey. (OS knows about the Canadian move but has no comment on it.)

Ms Martin told me that the previous licensing system was complex: “it almost cost more to administer than it brought in,” she said.

However Canada’s charging system for maps was very different from that used by UK’s OS. Canada charged on a “cost of distribution” basis – that is, based on how much it cost to get the data to the customer, not a cost-plus recovery system like that used by OS where the charge is based on how much it costs to run the entire OS.

That means NRCan brought in much less from selling its mapping – about C$400,000 (around £171,000), according to Martin. That’s a long way short of the OS’s £100 million – though as we’ve seen before, roughly half of that comes from within the public sector, meaning half of OS’s costs are funded indirectly by taxpayers.

So, the difficult questions about this initiative:

  • how much is it expected to generate in new private-sector business, and hence taxes?
    Ms Martin doesn’t know – she says no formal study was carried out beforehand. But there has been interest from companies which had not previously shown any interest in the sector, apparently because of the licensing complexity.
  • How will the quality of Canada’s mapping be assured without any income stream?
    There isn’t an independent regulator; NRCan has an ongoing commitment to its mapping.
  • How much does it cost to collect the map data at present?
    Ms Martin doesn’t know. (The figures might be available somewhere, but she didn’t know where they would be.)
  • Will the Canadian government be strict in implementing its copyright over the maps and satellite data?
    Not particularly; users will be asked to acknowledge the original ownership of the data, and not distort or alter it.
  • There are key differences from the UK: Canada is much, much bigger, and its federal maps aren’t anywhere near as detailed as OS’s. The Geovisualisation blog has a very interesting take on this:

    I doubt Canada will ever be in a position to afford the highest resolution topographic data that will be needed in future applications. The country is too large. Thus, one strategy is to stimulate the private sector to build on the coarser resolution data. Consequently, Canada’s step to free-up topographic data is a step to ‘bridge’ needs against resouces.

    For, as Maps for Canadians notes,

    Canada’s maps are seriously out-of-date. In spite of daily landscape changes due to city growth and environment changes, Canada’s maps are on average, 27 years old. Canadians are concerned about security, safety and environmental health issues. Yet how can Government ensure critical services in these areas, if Canada lacks accurate and up-to-date maps?

    We’ve always recognised that free data is a two-edged sword; what you need is the right place for the mapping department to stand in so that everyone will benefit from the data being freely available. After the mess of the Rural Payments Agency, where mapping was key (though form-filling and processing also mattered), should Ordnance Survey be viewed as part of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

    Oh, and by the way: we’ve only just noticed this presentation (Powerpoint; or Googleised HTML) by Nancy Brodie, of the Canadian Treasury, from last year in which she notes the existence of the Free Our Data campaign. OK, so it worked for them. Could we have a few of the Canadian campaigners here too?