OS free data splurge lacks public sector licensing deal
Wander round in circles till UK.gov finds a direction
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.
Let's pack up map and go home
The mapping outfit's product manager Joe Greenwood told El Reg that the OS has been pushing for a "single framework for all the public sector where information will be freely shared".
At present there are a mixture of contracts within government that have muddled the process somewhat. And as of now, that lack of consensus remains.
"There’s not much ambiguity within the central government agreement, nor within the Scotland agreement and there are clauses within the local government agreement," he explained.
"It’s a patchwork of agreements that have built up across the public sector as it stands today."
As for the exclusion of the Royal Mail's PAF database, which contains some very tasty information indeed for web developers across the nation, Greenwood said the OS remained a
humble servant commercial reseller of the state-owned postal service.
But doesn't that relationship hamstring today's OS datasets announcement?
"There’s a significant step forward in seeing the release of CodePoint - all 1.7m postcodes, which provides very accurate locations and enables a whole variety of apps, that are particularly important in statistics. But none of the government data released is at a personal or address level," he said.
"CodePoint is the right level for what government wants to achieve, it’s not in the business of opening up personal address level information, hence the pressure for the underlying database [PAF] to be opened up, and I think that pressure will remain."
As for funding of the data that the government has opened up today, Greenwood agreed with Denham that the OS will take a hit in the short-term; however, at the same time the organisation projects revenues of around £115m this year, which is similar to 2009's figures.
But for those coders out there keen to know how the government will licence OS data over the long-term, be it free or otherwise, today isn't the day to get an answer. Developers will have to sit it out for a year before an agreement is actually reached.
"Government is deliberately choosing to make a move into what has been a commercial space to open the data up wider on the basis that we don’t quite know exactly what the outcome will be," said Greenwood.
"So in that sense there will be some, initially at least, who might be adversely affected by that, and it’s a case of seeing how it plays through the market in terms of impact." ®