The times they are a changing, or are they?

The Ordnance Survey’s New Business Strategy was published the day after the budget and is currently open for comment via a blog type interface, so far there have been 70 responses. Before the strategy had been published I had written that the important part would not be the content of any announcements but the way that Ordnance Survey chose to execute upon the strategy. In other words judge them by what they do.

On Tuesday Iain Wright, the minister responsible for OS, officially launched the strategy alongside Sir Rob Margett, the new OS chairman and Vanessa Lawrence. I wanted to hear what they had to say before commenting on the change of strategy.

For many, the key part of the announcement will have been the government’s decision to retain the “user pays” model as opposed to what was described as a “utility” centrally funded model that allows data to be distributed at zero or marginal cost. I was surprised to hear that the estimated cost to the government in the first 5 years of the utility model was between £500m and £1bn, the range seems enormous particularly when OS current operating costs are around £100m per year and forecast to fall. I presume that the gap is made up by the loss in value of the business as an entity but there was no explanation given. Given the gap between the numbers quoted and previous estimates of the benefits of the utility model there have to be some pretty fundamental differences between the methods of assessment. It is understandable that several people are asking for some of the background research to be published, the sooner this can be explained the better

I have never been convinced that the utility model was sustainable and I have argued that point in several forums over the last couple of years. In the current economic crisis it was even less likely that the treasury would be keen on taking on an extra burden to the public purse. I also remain very doubtful about the flurry of economic activity that would be released by eliminating charges to commercial companies – what are the profitable services that can only exist if they can utilise OS data at zero cost? Surely they would be flourishing on the back of the several free web map API’s that already exist rather than being constrained by the charges that OS were seeking. After all OS is not the only data supplier in the marketplace.

Anyway a decision has been taken on the business model and with an election coming up in the next year and the likelihood of a change of government there is not going to be a change in the model for at least 3 years. So it is time to stop grinding the rusty axes, park the issue and focus on how OS can respond to the key areas of concern that were associated with the way they interpreted their business model and charter.

Nobody who has tried to navigate through the maze of OS licensing and IP constraints would suggest that everything was fine in the old model.

  • Public sector users who are the OS’ largest customer have been unable to do things that they patently should be doing in delivering services to us and finding efficiency savings that we desperately need.
  • Businesses waste time and energy trying to agree viable terms to use OS data (in my opinion simplicity of terms is much more of an obstacle to commercial exploitation than cost).
  • Community groups and charities have been prevented from easily using OS data.
  • To cap it all, creativity both within the OS and within its customers, partners and the wider GeoCommunity (excuse the plug) has been stifled.

Things had to change and hopefully this new business strategy sets out a much better way forward. The published strategy document is pretty high level and sets out some aspirations that most of us would support. Sir Rob Margett said “this is 10% about strategy and 90% about execution” and Vanessa Lawrence added “the devil is in the detail” in other words it’s not what they say it’s what they do. What I heard on Tuesday and the conversations I have had with OS people suggests that there is a real energy in the organisation to make change. I hope so.

Rant over.

Declaration of Interest

I should add that I am an external adviser to OS on the innovation strand of their strategy. I will be working with Stew MacTavish of Mo.Jo on an Ideas Challenge which will launch in the next few weeks and also providing some input into the way that OS facilitates and encourages innovation by its customers, partners and the broader community.

The times they are a changing at OS and it should be fun to help them along the way.