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OS free data splurge lacks public sector licensing deal

Wander round in circles till UK.gov finds a direction

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Today’s release of some Ordnance Survey mapping data, which has been made available for free re-use by the government, shies away from one major factor that could yet stymie the entire process - a public sector licensing agreement won’t be drawn up until April 2011.

As outlined in the government’s ‘impact assessment’ paper on its OS Opendata plans, a public sector mapping deal is yet to be reached.

Instead, today’s release of some small and mid-scale OS data represents the government’s suck-it-and-see approach to what will happen now that some information has been unleashed on the British public.

The government clearly stated in its response to consultation on freeing up some OS mapping data to UK citizens that such a public sector licensing agreement would be “subject to discussions” that might eventually lead to more datasets being freed up.

But that is dependent on talks with all the parties connected to public sector data, be those commercial or otherwise.

In essence, the government’s data launch today - while welcomed by many - came, perhaps unsurprisingly, with strings attached.

“Provision of a Public Sector Mapping Agreement would allow government to make geographic information provided by Ordnance Survey, including high specification OS MasterMap, free at the point of use for public sector bodies, and subject to no limits on re-use when used internally within the public sector for public sector activities,” said the government.

“This would cover all the definitive national datasets that the public sector needs in order to provide vital and valuable services to the public. Subject to discussions, Government will make this change come into effect on 1 April 2011.”

Of course, between now and then lots of change could happen outside of the realms of the OS. A General Election is imminent, and if the Tories grab a majority of votes and are invited by HRH the Queen to form a new government, then the chances are that the OS's plans could be redirected once again.

The Conservative Party has already been questioning the validity of the current government’s decision to open up some OS datasets by wondering if the organisation has a "sustainable future" now that some data has been freed.

At the same time, others have expressed concern about how the government plans to fund the OS data release.

Communities secretary John Denham told The Register at the launch of OS OpenData in Southampton this morning that the government had agreed to foot the bill for the loss of income that comes from not selling the newly opened-up data.

“The wider economic benefits vastly outweigh the cost involved in making the data public and we’re confident of that,” he said.

We asked Denham to tell us more about the £14.8m budget, confirmed in Parliament by Barbara Follet MP earlier this week, set aside by the government for “investment” in the OS over the next 12 months.

“We’re not getting into details of costings at this stage… There’s been no disagreement between ourselves, the Treasury and the Ordnance Survey,” he said.

However, Denham was less certain about what the shake-up means for workers at the OS, which currently has about 1,000 staff based at its Southampton headquarters.

“I can’t say there won’t be change, of course, because the business model is changing. In terms of how important the OS is to the British economy, it’s now more important not less important.”

Meanwhile, questions remain about what UK web developers and chums can expect from how the government will handle the thorny issue of derived data for the OS.

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