Whose data is it anyway?

Thanks to opensource.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/

Does anyone know how the Public Data Corporation is progressing? It seems that there is some form of conversation ongoing following the initial web based forum for comment and suggestions but I am not sure who is talking to who. The latest announcement from Francis Maude is pretty opaque and could be read as “everything is still under discussion” or as “we have pretty much made up our minds”

The minister also said that although most public sector information will be available under the UK Open Government Licence, launched in September 2010 by The National Archives to make it easier to re-use government data, there are some instances where this is not possible.

He said that examples include where third party intellectual property rights are present, or where charges are required to ensure the quality of the data.

Read that and try to work out whether OS data will be in or out. Is this about opening up public data for transparent government and possible innovation or creating a vehicle to capitalise on the commercial potential of public data asset?

Last week I was chatting with with someone who I thought should be in the know and he suggested that there was a need for more options for consideration. So in case the decisions have not yet been made here is my two penneth.

A while back I wrote a piece suggesting that the 10 year PSMA had made OS somewhat more privitisable than previously and that Sir Rob Margett’s comment that a free data model would cost £500m retrospectively made sense. Now I am not suggesting that there are plans to privatise the OS or that that is part of the PDC agenda, I have no inside information on this. But if anyone in the Treasury, the Shareholder Executive or the Cabinet Office is pondering the question of privatisation here is a thought or two for you.

We now have a de facto monopoly in the management and provision of large scale geographic information and addresses as a consequence of a 10 year public sector supply agreement and the unrealistic costs for a new entrant to build up comparable data. In 10 years time it is unlikely that any alternative sources of supply will have evolved – no doubt that bold prediction will prompt some spirited disagreement, bring it on. One might take the view that a lack of competition and opportunity will limit innovation and the delivery of best value to the tax payer, that seems to be thinking behind the proposed changes to the NHS, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” perhaps.

Perhaps there is an answer and  surprisingly (well at least for me) it can be found in the old LGIH/NLPG custodianship model. Perhaps the future for the PDC is to retain ownership of the National Map while letting a contract for the continuing collection, enhancement, processing and commercial exploitation (sale to the public and private sectors) for a fixed period. At the end of the contract period there could be a competitive bidding process for companies to take on the custodianship of the data for the next contract period while the data would always be retained as a national asset. This model would work regardless of whether the commercial model was to recover costs of data maintenance through sale or by a central government grant making the data free to use for all. Incidentally it could also be a model for PAF if government is planning to privatise Royal Mail.

Of course privatisation of any of the PDC assets may not be on the agenda, assuming the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Shareholder Executive have a common agenda. But if it is, custodianship may be a model worth considering.