Why OS refuses an exemption request

an old favourite

A few weeks ago I wrote about Ordnance Survey’s response to my FoI request regarding data exemptions and I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the high proportion of requests that were granted. The FoI response left a gap as far as I was concerned so I asked a follow up question

“You state that refusals were because OS “considered the risk of release of the dataset, to OS or our partners, outweighed the positive impacts of a release of the dataset.”  Could you explain how such a decision is reached and perhaps give some generalised examples?”

To give OS even more credit, they didn’t brush me off, they came back a couple of days ago with a pretty full response. Unfortunately the formatting of the response images seems to have got scrambled on the What do they Know? site so I have copied here and re-uploaded the images.

Whilst the above request is not a request for “information” under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), I am happy to provide the following information in accordance with our duty to provide advice and assistance under section 16 of the FOIA.


As previously noted, OS makes a decision to refuse an exemption where OS considers the risk of release of the dataset, to OS or our partners, outweighs the positive impacts of a release of the dataset.


To make its decision, OS analyses each request that is made, and considers a range of criteria in relation to the relevant dataset, including the following.


  1. Would granting exemption status have a negative impact on Ordnance Survey’s commercial business and ability to operate as a sustainable business, or create a precedent that may have such an impact?
  2. Would granting exemption status damage Ordnance Survey’s reputation or brand?
  3. Would granting exemption status release a dataset that would compete with (or act as a substitute for) an existing or planned product or service offered either by Ordnance Survey or by one of Ordnance Survey’s business partners?
  4. Would granting exemption status infringe (or potentially infringe) the IP of a third party?
  5. Would granting exemption status be for the public good, or in the public interest?
  6. Would granting exemption status support the effective delivery of government or citizen services?
  7. Would granting exemption status enable greater efficiency in Government – reducing costs or supporting cross-Government initiatives?
  8. Would granting exemption status support government policy; for example the Transparency agenda and Public Data Principles?
  9. Would granting exemption status fulfil statutory or legislative obligations?


Where possible, exemption requests are dealt with by our Pricing and Licensing Team; this is the case where previous exemption requests have set an applicable precedent.  Where no precedent applies, the request is discussed at our Pricing and Trading Group where the pros and cons of agreeing to exempt the dataset are discussed.  The process is set out in diagrammatic form below.

image001 image002

In relation to your request for generalised examples of requests which have been refused, two examples are a Generalised Land Use Dataset and polygon based planning datasets, as described below.


Generalised Land Use Dataset

This was an early exemption request that was refused.  The derived data in this example, even with the addition of the applicant’s own attribution for each point, line or polygon feature to identify land use, clearly formed a ‘substantial copy’ of Ordnance Survey licensed data, in that the area shown copied exactly the data from which it was derived; see the two images immediately below, the first being taken from the Generalised Land Use Dataset, the second from OS MasterMap Topography Layer.



Planning datasets


There is still ongoing discussion concerning applications to exempt planning datasets, but a number have been refused an exemption due to the nature of the relevant dataset for which an exemption was sought. For example, polygon based planning datasets (see above image for an example) have been refused where the dataset contained property boundaries, address, UPRN and X, Y co-ordinates.  The property boundaries are a substantive copy of the OS features, and as such would have been likely to have a negative impact on Ordnance Survey’s and our licensed partners’ commercial business.


It should also be noted that applicants whose exemptions requests have been refused already have broad licensed use rights under the terms of the PSMA (or OSMA) Member Licence; these rights enable Members to use the data for their Core Business (defined as any public sector activity in central and local government and health services).  Core Business excludes Commercial and Competing Activities, which instead need to be licensed on our commercial licence terms, so as to be fair to all our licensees in compliance with our regulatory obligations.

Let’s have a quick look at the 9 criteria that OS use in considering exemption requests.

1 – 4 are the “Why we will reject a request” criteria. They are straight forward commercial considerations, while I might not fully support the increasingly commercial model that OS are adopting (or being pressed by the Treasury and BIS to adopt) I won’t argue that the criteria are unreasonable in that context. Clearly there is room for judgement in the application of these criteria and as we have seen from the overall statistics only 5% are rejected, not too bad.

5 – 9 are the “Why we should grant a request” criteria. They are based on public interest, meeting statutory obligations, supporting government initiatives and transparency. Good stuff.

Where it gets a bit messy is if OS considers that a request falls in the first group and puts their commercial interests at risk but it also falls into the second group and supports a government initiative or is in the public interest. My hunch is that OS’s commercial interest will outweigh the public’s interest.

Of the two examples.

  • I can see why OS would be concerned about the Generalised Land Use dataset. I don’t see much generalisation going on here and the value add must be mainly in attribution (in which case it could be published as linked data using the TOIDs).
  • The planning data set takes us right back to James Rutter’s long delayed and subsequently rejected exemption request. I find this much more arguable, the data set is far from a complete copy of MasterMap and it is clearly in the public interest supporting government initiatives and transparency to enable this information to be published.

The debate about the publication of planning applications is ongoing with disputes over the boundaries, derived centroids (x and y coordinates) and of course addresses. Rob Steele, Digital Platform Manager for Data Publication at Surrey County Council and a co-founder of Surrey Digital Services wrote on the Open Data Institute blog

The ‘transaction cost’ created by complex licensing and derived data rights costs the public sector time and money. Time and money that could be spent building better public services. We simply want to publish planning data – information about what is going on, when and where – so anyone can see and use it for any purpose. At the moment we are being told that we can’t release this information because the detailed data within it – such as addresses and map coordinates – create a substantial risk to OS commercial operations.

I couldn’t agree more. This is ridiculous, we continue to burn time and money trying to break out of this OS imposed Catch 22 of licensing, commercial interest and pointless aspiration to flog off our national digital data crown jewels. It’s …


Cow Pat

It’s time to get this sorted out, if you are interested in open data, transparency or planning you could start by completing the Surrey Digital Survey