Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde consider a new Geospatial Commission

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde 1931 via Wikimedia

It’s November, it’s budget time, it’s that moment when geo-geeks and OpenData enthusiasts scour the hundreds of pages of budget pronouncements searching for phrases like “Ordnance Survey”, “Land Registry” and “Open Data”. It’s amazing how often we have got a mention in the budget or spending review publications over the past decade, you’d think that with all of the challenges that the country has faced since the crash of 2008 that the Chancellor would have more important things on his mind than geospatial data (don’t get me started on my list of omissions from the budget).

Yesterday, the Chancellor gave his “make or break” budget speech and within minutes of the budget report being published twitter was humming with discussion about geospatial open data, to be honest humming might be a bit of an exaggeration but  quite a few geo-geeks were onto this announcement:

“4.14 Geospatial data – The UK has some of the best geospatial data in the world, and much of it is held by public bodies. The potential economic value of this data is huge. To maximise the growth of the digital economy and consolidate the UK’s position as the best place to start and grow a digital business, the government will establish a new Geospatial Commission to provide strategic oversight to the various public bodies who hold this data. To further boost the digital economy, the government will work with the Ordnance Survey (OS) and the new Commission, by May 2018, to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular, under an Open Government Licence or through an alternative mechanism, while maintaining the OS’s strategic strengths. The Budget provides £40 million a year over the next two years to support this work.”

Wow, the buzz words are rushing at you at 100mph! I’ve highlighted a few in red above. Well this is fantastic news, or is it? I find myself with very mixed views on this announcement (as usual with budget announcements there is very little detail so we are left to guess what is actually intended) hence the Jekyll and Hyde analogy – this could be great but on the other hand …

Some Mr Hyde-ish pedantry

9 years after the Free Our Data campaign successfully made the case for OpenData leading to Gordon Brown’s Damascene moment when he met Sir Tim Berners-Lee we are about to be able to access MasterMap as OpenData (or are we? more on that in a minute). So what’s not to like about opening up MasterMap? If that is the outcome, and MasterMap becomes some form of OpenData (inevitably there will be conditions that will preclude certain usage and activities) then that has to be a good step forward. However, the devil is in the detail and when I read that budget statement I cannot avoid reading between the lines and wondering what they really mean or whether anyone in government really understands what they are buying into. Call me a pedant if you wish.

“the best geospatial data in the world”

A little bit of exaggeration or evidence of the persuasive powers of OS marketing and the influence of their leadership? I think it is fair to claim that we have some of the most detailed and up to date large scale mapping compared to any other country but does that make it the “best in the world”? For many, data that provides global coverage may be more useful/desirable than highly detailed data for one country (of course the two are not mutually exclusive).

“maximise the growth of the digital economy and consolidate the UK’s position as the best place to start and grow a digital business”

I’d suggest that for many, if not most, digital businesses success is dependent on being able to scale globally, a dependence on a highly detailed geospatial dataset that cannot be replicated across multiple geographies may be a hindrance rather than an advantage. I know of at least one ‘hot’ startup that started out thinking it would use MasterMap as a key data resource in its service and has now reconsidered as it prioritised geographic expansion over greater detail.

Call me an obsessive Remainer if you wish, but I reckon that access to talented staff from across Europe and further afield will be a bigger factor in making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business than access to our national map data.

“The potential economic value of this data is huge”

Gosh we have heard this one so many times in the past but somehow it always remains “potential”. The evidence base remains limited (see this from 5 years ago and this from earlier this year), the same few companies in transport and health are repeatedly cited as case studies although they don’t seem to be generating much growth in revenues or employment let alone profits that can be shared with wider society through taxes. A year or so after the first release of OS OpenData in 2010, the OS commissioned a study of the benefits, that study was never published, since then there has been an NAO report and a study by the ODI.

Maybe the evidence does exist but it just needs publishing, maybe there is reason to believe that it will exist in the future and we just need to understand the assumptions and modelling but surely after nearly 8 years it is time to move on from an act of faith in the economic benefits of Open Data to stimulate innovation.

Of course there are other immensley important benefits arising from Open Data e.g. transparency, accountability and societal well being which may be more important than the financial benefits. But we are being told that government are about to invest £80m over 2 years “to support this work” that amount of money represents a 10% increase to the funding of 150 primary schools or … I think it is reasonable to expect some transparency from government on the basis that it is choosing to invest taxpayers money in geospatial data in preference to education, health, care or welfare budgets.

“establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular”

Well this will be fun, I guess a group of consultants and OS management could spend a fair chunk of that £40m working out how to define a small business, how to restrict the benefit to UK based companies, what to do when a small business grows, what to do when a small UK business gets acquired by an larger non UK business, how to prevent a non UK business setting up a UK subsidiary to gain access to the “hugely valuable” “best geospatial data in the world”.

The phrase “under an Open Government Licence or through an alternative mechanism” suggests that this may not be fully Open Data and that there will be constraints on what users can do with the data which will prompt a not unjustified howl from Open Data purists who aspire that data should be free to use, re-use and combine with other data. Maybe, but I doubt that would be sustainable while larger users are expected to pay millions for annual licenses for MasterMap.

Over to Dr Jekyll

Enough of my Mr Hyde-ish doubts, let’s pause to look at some of the early comment on the announcement, perhaps others have a better informed and more positive outlook.

A good place to start would be the former CTO of the OS, my friend Ed Parsons (now Geospatial Technologist at Google)

Charles Arthur the founder of of the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign and a long term advocate of Open Data celebrated with

Michael Cross, the other founder of Free Our Data wrote

While Ed Dowding said


And finally this from Civil Service World

Inevitably addresses had to spoil the party a little bit, Bob Barr, who has advocated an open address register for more than a decade, poured some cold water on the jubiliation

The Big 40

By this stage you may think that I should pay more attention to Dr Jekyll, if all these people think that the announcement is good news why am I still hesitant? I’m baffled by the talk of £80m over 2 years, that’s an enormous amount of money and based on any reading of OS accounts significantly more than the value of MasterMap sales to small businesses. So what is the rest of the money for?

My skepticism is fuelled by the knowledge that when OS negotiated £20m p.a. for the initial OpenData release they bundled in a number of products whose sales were relatively minor and in several cases were in decline. It is highly debatable that government got a good deal and the lack of evidence of usage only adds to that doubt. Rumour has it that the £20m was substantially reduced during a subsequent review.

Perhaps there is a big demand for MasterMap that will be satisfied by some form of OGL availability, I hope there is more evidence for the demand than there has been for the initial data releases from the OS. In the recent OS Annual Report and Accounts they report an average of 290 downloads per day (some products are chunked so that you need to download several chunks to get national cover). The risk for government is that smaller commercial users of MasterMap will be delighted with the price reduction or elimination that they receive but that the latest colossal estimate of £11bn of benefit will not be realised, but hey when you can throw out numbers like £11bn a cost £40m sounds like a tiny price to pay.

The Geospatial Commission

“Get thee gone Mr Hyde!” I say.

Maybe there is more to this new Geospatial Commission than just funding OS to make MasterMap open/free to small businesses for 2 years. The clue might be buried in the announcement “a new Geospatial Commission to provide strategic oversight to the various public bodies who hold this data” and a bit more info came out with this press release from the Cabinet Office and the Treasury 

“The new Geospatial Commission, supported by £40 million of new funding in each of the next two years, will drive the move to use this data more productively – unlocking up to £11 billion of extra value for the economy every year.

The new Commission will draw together HM Land Registry, the Ordnance Survey, the British Geological Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the UK Hydrographic Office and the Coal Authority with a view to:

  • improving the access to, links between, and quality of their data
  • looking at making more geospatial data available for free and without restriction
  • setting regulation and policy in relation to geospatial data created by the public sector
  • holding individual bodies to account for delivery against the geospatial strategy
  • providing strategic oversight and direction across Whitehall and public bodies who operate in this area”

Perhaps the Geospatial Commission heralds a merger of the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey into a body similar to the cadastral bodies in several other European countries, this opens up the potential for a complete release of geospatial Open Data funded by a tiny levy on property transactions which is what Bob Barr has been suggesting for ages.

“That would be a fantastic outcome for Open Data advocates, transparency campaigners, innovative businesses and the public sector purse” says Dr Jekyll to a sulking Mr Hyde.

Groundhog Day

This really does feel like a Groundhog Day, we keep having discussions about Ordnance Survey business models, open data, sustainability and innovation. 2 years ago I wrote to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, suggesting that plans to “develop options to bring private capital into the Ordnance Survey before 2020” might not be a great idea. If you can bear it you might want to re-read what I said at the time because it feels equally applicable today as advice to Mr Hammond and his new Geospatial Commission.

“Why not just fund this team to carry on surveying etc? You currently pay the OS £80m for them to do this through a series of agreements with government, that should be more than enough to cover the costs of surveying, data management etc. You could probably save at least £10m or £20m or even more once they stopped doing things that weren’t really essential. You could make the raw data available to government and the private sector for free and without restriction potentially unlocking a chunk of the billions that people think will come from OpenData”

Removing sales, marketing, licensing, legal, other commercial staff, consultants, cartographic functions, printed map production and sales would probably result in operational costs lower than government’s current £88m expenditure with OS. We could have free and open geospatial data and potentially even reduce the tax payers spend on that data! Perfect for people (or governments) who like having cake and who like eating cake. If there really is £11bn of extra value to be released for the economy from open geospatial data then most of it should still be there without the commercial paraphernalia.

2 years on from George Osborne’s spending review we have heard little more about introducing private capital into OS and the proposed privatisation of Land Registry has been canned.

Putting on my Mr Hyde hat, I wonder what if anything the Geospatial Commission will achieve over the next 2 years. But switching to my Dr Jekyll hat, if the Geospatial Commission used its £80m of funding to merge OS with LR we could end up with free open geospatial data, reduced costs to taxpayers and we might find out whether there really is this huge potential to be unleashed.

Since the budget, I have been chatting with someone who has had close operational links with OS, who remarked:

“Basically the OS operates as if it was a competing private company but it’s like Network Rail, the Met Office & the Hydrographic Office, it’s a tax payer funded monopoly … 80% or more of its income is from the taxpayer STILL. So after 20 years, the growth model has failed. Time to Reboot for the 21st Century

I’m not sure about the 80% but otherwise I think this sums up where we are and why we need a rethink.

A touch of irony

Regular readers of this blog will know that there is usually an image at the beginning of each post. Sometimes the connection between the content and the image is quite tenuous to say the least but on this occasion I thought I would try to find a nice MasterMap image to start the post. It isn’t easy to find Creative Commons images of MasterMap so I thought I would tweet the OS team to ask for one. Ed Parsons pointed out the irony of that!

Unfortunately a day later I hadn’t received a reply from anyone on the OS social media team so I went looking for an image idea to start the post and along came Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde who represent my split personality on this topic – Dr Jekyll loves the idea of more open data, Mr Hyde wonders whether we are wasting a lot of taxpayers money


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