Data Policy Ordnance Survey

Does this equation mean the end of the commercial OS ?

delta w

It has taken me a while to get round to commenting on the Trading Funds Report as I have been travelling, and it’s 150 pages long !!

It is a very important document in many ways, for the first time there is a well researched analysis from economists on the impact of different funding models for trading funds on the wider economy. This is something the GI industry and even some in the OS have been crying out for, for many years.

The conclusions are clear ,even through the internal pricing mechanisms within trading funds are very complex, the UK economy would be better off if the OS was to make is key data products (Landline and Mastermap) available at marginal (zero) cost.

The logic of this argument is actually simple if you think about it, on one hand the ludicrous merry-go-round of government departments paying another government department to license data would disappear, reducing costs and increasing the use of geographic information within government, particularly those departments who can’t currently afford it.

On the other hand the still relatively small GI Industry in the UK would flourish, being able to produce value added products based on the unrefined OS data, much as has happened in the US. And remember the companies that form the UK GI industry pay corporation tax unlike the OS.

So the Free our Data campaign is vindicated, we can just sit back and wait for our MasterMap DVD’s in the post… unfortunately no.

The reports authors calculate that the welfare (value of the benefits to the UK economy) would be around £168m for which there would need to be a subsidy paid to the OS of something between £12m and £85m! Not a bad return you might think, even the higher figure, but even if we take the lower amount, who is going to pay the £12m ?

This is a £12m subsidy not paid by any government department today, and it is much more than any one government department pays to license OS data today…

And even if you can find that £12m from within government, you then place the OS in the position where it’s continued operation and the quality of its data is reliant on a subsidy from government, a disastrous position which could result in a USGS like reduction in funding if political priorities change.

Now we have a much better handle of the economics of funding the OS why not look at different ways of funding its operation which still allow increased access to the data.

Fro example, rather than licensing data to create revenue, why not fund the activities through as registration process. It just so happens that the biggest user of OS large scale data is the Land Registry, for producing your title plans, it would be simple to add a fee to each property transaction to fund the OS…

I hope the publication of this long awaited report moves the debate into the circles who can actually make some decisions, for the sake of the UK GI Industry somebody needs to make a decision on this issue once and for all.

Written and submitted from the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Sydney, using its broadband network

9 replies on “Does this equation mean the end of the commercial OS ?”

A levy on Land Registry transactions is one possibility but how about a levy on Planning Applications since they are what generates the most actual change to the base map? After all, developers pay for putting in other infrastructure such as roads, why not the mapping infrastructure as well?


I am delighted that you are finally free to support my longstanding view that the most sustainable way of funding geospatial reference data is out of registration fees.

We now need our friends, particularly the Freeourdata campaign, to switch to this as an objective.

…and, of course, a national address gazetteer, needs to be included.


Rob’s suggestion is a reasonable one, charge a levy on planning applications. However it is fraught with difficulties. Too many planning applications do not result in a change to the topographic map, or any change at all. We have already seen how difficult it is to apply a policy consistently across all planning (local) authorities while the land registries are one-stop shops (albeit national with different arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

The logic of merging the registry aspect of OS (dealing with raw topographic and spatial identity data) with the Land Registries and the Valuation Office Agency looms large as soon as this is suggested. It is interesting that the Trading Funds report (on a quick read through) doesn’t seem to recognise this logic or consider a registration route for geospatial data.

I was more thinking of a levy on Planning Apps as a complementary approach to a levy on Land Registrations. My logic was that spreading the load to subsidise the mapping infrastructure would only marginally increase costs to each and it would strengthen the revenue stream. In any case philosophically I like the idea of those who are responsible for development paying more for their contribution to the costs of infrastructure. My unease is that if routine Land Registrations were to be exclusively charged, in most cases they don’t actually have any direct effect on the map base and it is not those who carry out the development who would pay most. You could restrict the charge to Transfers of Part but these comprise the minority of applications and it could significantly increase the costs of registration if exclusively used.

Just to note that the Ordnance Survey in Northern Ireland (OSNI) has gone down the route of merging with the Land Registry, Rates Collection and the Valuation and Lands Agency to create an organisation called Land & Property Services (

It would be great to see geodata becoming cheaper and easier to licence because of this but I’m afraid the move looks like central govt cost cutting. Personally I doubt whether new ways of paying for OSNI’s work will have even been dicussed.

Not sure too many people have actually read the full substance of the Cambridge report; it is as Ed points out not only long but loaded down with caveats and complex equations as shown above which in turn have rather broad assumptions associated with them – one reason for the range of values (£12-£85m). I would have thought, as Bob indicates above, that the focus for any campaign to generate social, cultural and economic value from GI actually needs to be less on the topographic base but more on resolving the far longer standing gripe that many wider thinkers and business professionals struggle with – address. Of course there are GI-industry specific opportunities around a liberalised OS MasterMap (all this without even beginnign to thtink about the refined-unrefined debate that will develop) but all this pales into insignificance compared to the “welfare” deriving from a liberalised useful national address gazetteer though this did not fall into the remit of the Cambridge review! “We” (GI professionals if I can count myself one still!) really need to broaden our perspective!

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