Guardian article just plain wrong !!

Once again the Guardian Newspaper in the UK (which I read incidentally) has got caught up in the free geospatial data debate.

I quote..”Our taxes fund the collection of public data – yet we pay again to access it. Make the data freely available to stimulate innovation, argue Charles Arthur and Michael Cross ”

The OS is no more funded from taxpayers than many large software companies who work largely with government customers and have had the development of their core software funded over a number of years of development contracts, this is particularly the case with the large GIS software vendors!

The article is so full of factual errors I don’t now where to begin, but what comes across really clearly is the lack of the customer viewpoint!

Why not ask the customers of OS data what they would prefer – the status quo where they and they alone pay to license the high quality data they need, or the much admired situation in the United States where the provision of spatial data is funded by political mandate, which has over the last couple of administrations, resulted in data which is decades old and not maintained to any level of consistency.

The much admired data in Google Maps, MapPoint etc. comes from commercial vendors, which Google etc. have had to license, the base government supplied data does not meet their needs.. Remember the famous “Where is Apple” discussion last year, a result of government funded data used by Microsoft being so out of date it did not show the location of Apples’ offices in Cupertino !

There is no such thing as “free data”, in the end somebody has to pay for the expensive business of collecting and maintaining national geospatial databases, ask a politician what they would prefer to spend a limited tax funded budget on.. Hospitals and Schools or funding the collection of geospatial databases you know what they will answer !

Written and submitted from The Marriott Hotel, Huntsville, using the hotel in-room internet connection.

34 replies on “Guardian article just plain wrong !!”

[…] Ed notes (and dislikes) this piece in the Guardian about how taxpayer funded data should be Free. The article isn’t limited to geodata and fails to mention openstreetmap like previous articles so perhaps it has an industry source. They make good work of the juicy target – the OS – and mention the Peter Weiss article. […]

How about a clear Funding of the OS page on the OS website to make this kind of journalistic error inexcusable?

If true, it is interesting that 47.5% of OS revenue comes from its local government customers. Clearly then, the “government funding” of the OS is in a different league here from that other well-known trading fund, the Post Office. These same bodies also provide much resellable data to the OS for free, which, interpreted by some accounting rules, would surely push that percentage well over 50%.


I’ve heard you bang on about this time and time again; I’m still very much to be convinced.

Of course somebody has to pay for data, but who should pay, how much they should pay and the length of time they should pay for the data are all valid questions. The fact remains OS MasterMap is too expensive and is restricting the good GI could do for society.

I refer to the example prices on the OS website; to put OS MasterMap data for Edinburgh on two computers for the period of just 1 year it would cost £10k! Sure the Royal Bank of Scotland making £500 a second could afford this, but the RBS aren’t the innovating people we need to get using GI. I’m sure I’ve read posts to your blog suggesting that GIS vendors restrict the uptake of GI with expensive software; I think you need to look closer to home.

I do feel Arthur and Cross make a valid point when they remark…

“OS has a monopoly on centuries’ worth of data thanks to taxpayer funding. Without that head start, it would be in the same position as any other startup today: facing the choice of creating a brand-new dataset, or finding someone who had collected it and licensing it from them.”

However, I actually think Arthur and Cross miss the point somewhat banging on about tax payers money, the crux of the matter is GI must be cheaper. In this case, I find their charge about the use of taxpayers money somewhat hypocritical. If we looked at the percentage of Guardian readers employed in the public sector, I’m sure you’d find ultimately, taxpayers money pays for many copies of their paper everyday, yours excluded Ed 😉


You make some good points, I agree our data is relatively expensive but it is expensive to collect large scale data nationally and maintain a currency where 99% of change is in the database within 6 months.

You are right in that we need to find a way to get our data into the hands of innovators for much less or even free. I’m working hard on making this happen perhaps the way to do this is to extend our developers programme.

SteveC trackbacks should be working now ?

Rob – never mind the public-sector readers; I think it was pointed out a few years back that the Guardian’s annual profit (ok, surplus) equated almost exactly to the public-sector spend on recruitment advertising in their G3 Society/Media/IT etc. sections.

On a general point, I’m always slightly surprised how black and white this debate is. Public geodata advocates say “we want it all free, and we want it now”; OS says “you can’t have it free, not now, not ever”. Isn’t there room for freeing _some_ of the OS’s data – say, a small scale map of the UK, plus postcode data to ‘AB12 3’ resolution? That would enable a vast number of mashups while protecting the most lucrative portions of OS’s business.

I can remember back in 1991/2 talking with Census Office people who confessed that the Census’ cost recovery effort only looked so good because of other parts of government and the public sector buying the data. I seem to recall they recovered 15 million pounds but that 12 or so million came from the public sector (taxpayers).

You’ll note that in 2001 the majority of census data down to ward level was made freely available to the public – leading to sites like and many other innovative uses of census data. The only downside was that it probably made junk mailling slightly cheaper 🙂


As one of the authors of the piece, I’ve got a response.

The article is so full of factual errors I don’t now where to begin, but what comes across really clearly is the lack of the customer viewpoint!

I’m a customer – I use, or would like to us, OS data. I can think of zillions of uses for it. Except it’s hedged around with all sorts of absurd copyrights. I think it’s crazy that the OS got a monopoly of data and then gets to charge us to make use of it – and sues us (who gave it the leg up to collect it before the “trading agency” concept was introduced) if we use the data in a way it doesn’t approve of.

So it’s expensive to collect? Yes, but as is obvious, there’s a benefit to the economy in collecting it and making it available to the public. People will find great uses for it. The expense is miniscule compared to, say, defence or social security costs. And good data might reduce those costs.

For example – Hansard (the written record of Parliament) used to be under hefty copyright. Then it was made available online, for free. Which has led to the brilliant which lets you see what your MP has done, how they have voted, in ways that Hansard would never have thought of.

How expensive is it to run Hansard? Who cares? It’s important to know what your MPs do.

I did look at the OS page. I do know about trading agency status.
As to customers – there are plenty out there who aren’t happy about the OS’s status. Perhaps you need to meet a few.

As to the Microsoft/Apple/Google Maps issue – as I said in the article, “if you view [the UK] as belonging to its taxpayers, and meriting rigorous mapping for their benefit, there are no ‘uneconomic areas’ – only places that people haven’t started to use yet.”

The OS should set up an API that would give people access to data that, after all, you oblige local authorities to collect – as is also pointed out in the article. Or shall we wait for the OFT investigation?


Really pleased you responded.. and that you read the blog.

So as a user what part of your license to use OS data causes you problems ?,

The OS does not have a monopoly in the creation of spatial data, Yes it would be hard for a new organisation to start collecting large scale data, but not impossible and with technological developments this is becoming easier every day. Outside large scale data, we face competition in all our other markets and have in the past lost supply contracts to both UK and overseas based competitors.

I agree that services like theyworkforyou are great, however the collection of geospatial data is not the same as the production of Hansard, once you capture the actions of a MP for the record.. the job is done, it will not change.

Geospatial information is always changing and therefore the expense of collecting it is a completely different matter, like painting the Forth railway bridge it is a never-ending activity revisiting the same places at least every few years.

Richard makes a good point above, about the need for lower cost less detailed mapping for citizen based applications, the OS business model today is built around the need to collect the most expensive detailed data. As I have said before I think there is a role for open source geospatial databases like openstreetmap to fill the gap.

OK I know there are a few OS customers who do not agree with the status of the OS, but that is not the same as unhappy with the data OS produces or accepting a reduction in data quality which would be a direct result of funding from taxation.

And finally the OS does oblige local authorities to collect information, if they chose to provide us with information about new development we are grateful to use it to direct our surveyors to go any survey it – there is no obligation however.

Happy to continue the debate, I’d be happy to sit down with you and put the other side of the story ?


I am not familiar with the position of the OS inside/outside UK government, nor do I understand in detail your mandate. This isn’t directed specifically at you.

From my perspective (I work for a local government, but am not speaking for them) if the data is being collected to support government operations and is a requirement for the government’s business, then the data should be made available to the public free of charge. For many small organisations, the cost of actually servicing the requests means that there is little or no cost recovery.

I’m sure that most people have read this:
which originates in my part of the world.


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