Governemnt Information Should be Free – we lost the vote but won the argument


On Monday evening I was invited to speak in a debate at the House of Commons organised by the Debating Group opposing the motion “Government Information should be Free”. Speaking for the motion were Michael Cross of the Guardian and the Free Our Data Campaign and Neil Shepherd-Smith, Vanessa Lawrence (DG of OS) and I were opposing. My 16 year old daughter, Flora, who is studying politics could not resist the opportunity to hear her dad speaking in Committee Room 10, so I knew I had a fair chance of persuading one person to vote against.

I thought we were going to rehash the same arguments and to some extent we did:

OS data is funded by government so it should be freely available – no it isn’t only half of OS revenue comes from the public sector and any way the data is free at the point of use by the public – but if it was available free to any business that wanted it there would be an enormous surge in creativity and loads of money for the tax payer – the economic case isn’t proven and no doubt some of the beneficiaries would not be UK tax payers – anyway does anyone apart from FOD really want free OS data? – a tax payer funded model for the OS could leave the OS vulnerable to fluctuations in funding and investment – there are some ridiculous examples of duplication and infighting between sections of the public sector arising from this policy – yes there are particularly around addressing but don’t forget that one of the most vocal protagonists in this particular debate is a private company not a public sector body etc etc etc ad nauseum

I have tried to capture the spirit of the arguments (not all of which were aired on Monday evening).

But there was a big surprise before I could lay into him with my rapier like wit and incisive comments Michael Cross attempted to remove the wind from his opponents sails by acknowledging that the economic growth argument based upon the US approach was unsubstantiated and that the US model had contributed to the poor quality and out of date mapping available for free! Game over I thought, he has thrown in the towel.

But no, Michael continued to point to some of the bizarre consequences of the current model (and some of these points are difficult to refute) Michael also suggested that an alternative to tax payer funding of OS could be a charge for change to the MasterMap database which would be borne by property developers, I think that would be a new tax and Michael did not really elaborate on how this might work, I seem to recall Robert Barr suggesting something similar a year or two ago. Not sure that this would be overly popular if it added to the cost of building a conservatory or a garage extension to your home.

It was an enjoyable evening, I don’t think any entrenched opinions were significantly changed. I saw a few familiar faces from either side of the argument but most of the audience were not specialists and I wonder whether they really cared all that much about the topic. When it came to a vote the outcome was narrowly in favour of the motion 41 to 36, Flora thought they had miscounted the votes against and that we had carried the vote by 1 or 2 but you have to be a gracious loser.

At the end of the evening we had lost the vote but the proposer had conceded that one of his main justifications for his campaign was unproven, so maybe we moved one step closer to winning the argument.

If you haven’t read Jeff Thurston’s article at Vector 1 on the Importance of National Mapping Agencies in the knowledge economy you really should.