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the famous “Where is Apple” discussion last year, a result of government funded data used by Microsoft being so out of date it did not show the location of Apples’ offices in Cupertino !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 !!”

Tom, a fair point.

I focussed on commercial services because I was responding to an article placed by a group of commercial companies seeking to promote a change to OS funding and licensing status. These are not open source companies or “not for profit”.

How will you measure “opportunity costs or externalities”? The opportunity cost of freeing up OS data could well be the gradual reduction of quality.

There are several models of licensing and pricing that would sit between everybody pays and its all free that would support expanded use of OS data.

I know this is a geo-blog but why has nobody mentioned the Royal Mail, Vehicle Licensing Authority, Land Registry, Environment Agency, etc. Try and deal with some of those organisations and you might change your view of the OS.

It is standard commercial practice to value an enterprise’s assets and then amortise/depreciate them at some percentage over the lifetime of that asset, showing this on the annual balance sheet. Can I ask Ed if the OS balance sheets for the period since trading agency status actually do this with respect to the mapping database? If so, at what rate? What would the asset value, what amorisation period, and what appropriate depreciation rate? Or has the asset value increased? If OS did what their competitors do and account for what they claim to be ‘theirs’ in this way, what would be the impact on the supposed ‘profit’?

Hi Dave,

The OS, like many other organisations whose business is exploiting data, don’t capitalise the value of the database.

It is more valuable to look at the asset value of the systems developed to maintain it over that period.

For full details of the potential value of the database as an asset are detailed in the annual accounts, for last year at

and indeed for all years as a trading fund on the website.


As a long time user and critic of OS data, and usually a pain-in-the-**** of OS, I have to say that many of the comments about the price, the restrictive copyright and derived data conditions and the variable quality of OS data, pale into insignificance with other GI data sources. I sometimes wonder if anyone has ever tried to acquire and use geological, hydrographic and air photography from other GB GI data vendors. Sure, the OS data is expensive to acquire and restrictive in use, but, heck, they are not the only ones. And, if it is all so damn easy to acquire and publish cheaply, why hasn’t anyone else done it? Openstreetmap may be a start but I’m sure my grandson will be an old man before anythinguseable comes of it.

I believe that the OS could strike a balance and offer Meridan and Strategi for free to the public. This then might be comparable to data made available in the US market, though in fairness, the physical landscape doesn’t change very much over time. The las time I checked, the Mississippi River still runs from the State of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, local authorities do capture and sell their data to the commercial sector, and many in the commercial sector continue to use the blog maligned USGS 1:24K series of maps. Most of these large scale datasets that the local authorities generate there also hold far much more attribute information than MasterMap, though in fairness there might not be the same level of detail captured from one authority to the next, but there is a collective effort in this direction.

Anyway, I think it would be good PR if the OS provided these aforementioned products and perhaps a generalised version of Landline at low cost or free. There should also be a serious review on the restrictions of sharing datasets derived from OS products.

Also, I would invite readers to check this local authority’s website. Pricing schemes are provided for their datasets. Some datasets are listed as free, including Lidar datasets!

More free data at this url which includes every street and road in the State of Minnesota


I don’t agree with public geo data position, the current draft of INSPIRE will still increase the availability of information across Europe while maintaining the ability to continue to adequately fund its collection through licensing where necessary.


I notice that there are at least two arguments above that go “The OS licensing system may be bad, but have you seen the other guys?”

Now, forgive me for being presumptuous, but I could have sworn that such ‘least-bad-is-best’ thinking was supposed to have been confined to the history books. Punch in the arm instead of a kick in the teeth? Me sir, me sir!

[…] Debate continues in response to a recent article posted by The Guardian (Give us back our crown jewels – Mar. 9, 2006)newspaper last week on the topic of charging for spatial information – commonly known as geodata. Traditionally the issue of charging has been quite polarized with different figures and facts being used, not to mention emotions. Few have commented on the issue of scale though – so let’s take a look at that. […]

Maybe “least-bad-is-best” – or more to the point is “least-bad-is-better-than-none”. I did mention data “owned” by other government bodies in my first message. Has anyone compared access to that data with access to OS?

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