A free lunch anyone ?

The ongoing and mostly ill-informed debate on the funding of digital geographical information today hit the national press with a article published by Michael Cross in the Guardian . Now I have been a great fan of Cross’s often insightful journalism in the past but today’s article is full of errors and misrepresentation of the facts.

Now before I’m accused of just following the Ordnance Survey party line I must state that Cross does make some valid and interesting points illustrating some of the challenges that a commercially focused OS must must face to compete in an active market place.

Cross seems to see this competition as a bad thing, but if you accept the principle that the “user pays” and that the OS is a trading fund, then the OS must compete to survive. The Ordnance Survey would not last long if every time a new more competitive product came along, the OS gave up and rolled over. I would argue that this cannot be good for the user of geographic information, in every market competition brings improvements both in terms of value and product innovation.

The heat generated about national address databases continues, and one day this sorry story will become public, Cross is right to complain, but on behalf of the tax payer not commercial interests. Acacia which Cross mistakenly calls a company was actually a government funded project which failed to make much progress in developing a method to combine the existing databases to produce the much needed definite national database.

The “Open Access” debate is a good one, and I can see the benefits of providing data a no cost to end users of course, the more people who get access to digital data the better!! But there is one fact here we often lose sight of, there is no such thing as free data.
It costs somebody to collect, manipulate and manage the data collection process, and to maintain the detailed data we are used to here in Great Britain is very expensive. The “open access” advocates argue that this funding is the role of government or of course the tax-payer really, as takes place in the U.S.A.

But is Government really willing to fund the activities of mapping agencies in this way ?

In the US, the equivalent of the OS the USGS is so poorly funded that it has not yet completed mapping the whole country!! and those maps which do exist are often decades out of date ! Because of the wonderful “Open Access” policy the wealthiest country on the planet will never be completely mapped to a consistent standard!

I personally wish there was a way to make digital data available more cheaply, but detailed accurate information about the every changing world around us is expensive to collect.

I hope that the various “Open Source” GI database projects such as Mappinghacks and Open Street Maps are successful in providing free mapping data and these initiatives are very exciting however they will never be able to do what the OS does.

As a politician what would you argue to fund using you hared earned tax payers pounds or dollars? Building more schools or decreasing hospital waiting lists or funding the creation of digital geographic databases an activity which can cost you nothing and indeed generates you some income if done well!

Written and uploaded from the Airport Lounge at Leeds/Bradford Airport using a 3G data connection.

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