GIS Thoughts

RSA debate – my thoughts..

RSA Debate

So on Monday night I attended the RSA debate on the “Free our Data” campaign. I was originally scheduled to speak representing the OS, but was replaced on the night by my boss.. I was quite happy for this, as Vanessa is much better at representing Ordnance Survey and the other Trading Funds than myself, I sometimes have personal conflicting views with my organisation which often leak out by mistake !!

So what are my thoughts..

I very much enjoyed the event, not sure to what extent it was really a debate, many people came with their existing views and agenda well established and I doubt if many of these were changed by the end. I was very impressed that the event attracted so many people on a hot summers evening – well over 200 people !

Much of the debate did focus around the OS and its position in the UK GI market, you can understand why this happened, but I did feel for the non GI industry part of the audience, who may not have picked up on all the intricacies of some of the arguments around Ordnance Survey.

For me a key point that I personally think needs clarification is the difference between business models and licensing frameworks, in relation to the OS in particular. There remains an active and valid debate around the business model of OS which actually boils down to who pays – taxpayer or user and which model would provide the greatest benefit to UK PLC.

My personal views around this are quite clear and well known, in that I believe the user pays model is best, primary because it establishes a direct link between the beneficiary of data and the supplier. A model funded by general taxation would put the OS in the general melting pot of Government spending and traditionally, in all countries, the funding of geographic information is never high on any politicians agenda, look at the chronic underfunding of the USGS for example. This is not the case interestingly I would suggest for statistical information, which perhaps more directly is seen to drive policy ?

I think it is important however to separate out the business model debate from issues around the licensing of OS data which is of concern to some of the OS partners represented at the event.

I don’t think anybody would argue that there are no issues with current OS licensing, the framework today is a result of a number of years incremental additions, changes , and modifications which have resulted in something which is difficult to understand and even more difficult to change to better reflect the needs of our partners in rapidly changing markets.

There are some elements even, which I personally find very difficult to defend, but the bottom line here is that there is no silver bullet which is going to change these overnight – change is absolutely needed in my opinion, but it will take time and commitment both from the OS in trying to find simplicity while maintaining a level playing field, and from our partners who need almost unbearable patience.

if you attended I’d be interested in your views, the debate will be podcast in due course from the RSA website.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

10 replies on “RSA debate – my thoughts..”

Hi, Ed,

I agree with much of what you say. However, do you need “user pays” to establish a direct link between the beneficiary of data and the supplier? Hackneyed, I admit, but open source has this link without payment. Also, freely available content would have more users, and therefore more such feedback.

could the silver bullet be free access to public data for non-profit use? I think (by and large) this would tick the innovation box – it allows new non-commercial services to be developed, which if successful could then be revenue (and therefore licence fee) generating. This is often the way think happen in practice. It also has the advantage of being simple.


Great to hear that. However, how about in a wider context? Could the proposal that is made to government from this campaign be to apply this principal uniformly across public data? That would be a real breakthough!

Defining non-commercial may prove difficult. How about starting with Not for profit organisations and registered charities?


a) Isn’t the direct link between provider and user only really helpful if the user has an alternative? otherwise its “get what you’re given”. If the OS database (which seems quite tangible to most people) pre Trading Fund date was provided free to anyone who wanted it (not just OS) there might be some real competition, although I accept that there would inevitably be cherry picking.

b) Being neither completely one thing nor the other, the quasi commercial status of OS results in some fairly silly situations such as having to fly the same area twice – once for non commercial NIMSA related rural revision, once for the commercial OSMM imagery layer, not to mention the well discussed National Address Insfrastructure fiasco….doesn’t really comply with the “collect once use many times” principle.

c) If OS was run entirely, not just partially, on a tax funded basis there could be substantial savings – most of the sales and marketing staff could go (about 14% staff?) and all the wasted effort in the money shuffling between OS and Central / Local Gov would dissapear. And there could well be a substantial economic “pump priming” effect for the GI industry and wider economy? On the other hand I am aware of the “what about next year when the Gov cant afford it” argument.

..bottom line is, as you know, its political – Gov want to be seen to reduce the direct cost to the Treasury, even though this might result in greater overall costs and less efficient use of resources in GB plc. It will be interesting to see if OS lobbying manages to retain the status quo post INSPIRE…probably


a) The direct link benefit is I believe that customers vote in terms influencing the type of data products produced, if nobody is willing to pay for a product OS should not produce it.

b) Agreed can’t argue on that point… although the OS does not fly imagery twice.

c) If the OS was vote funded you are right no sales and marketing organisation would be needed, I don’t accept the economic argument other than it will result in the taxpayer supporting commercial businesses doing what the OS does currently.

At the end of the day all i care about is a well funded organisation if anybody can guarantee that under a tax funded status the OS would receive the necessary funding then I’d be happy. I just don’t see it with the current government spending pressures – just ask DEFRA how reliable their tax-funding is..

No INSPIRE will change things regardless of OS lobbying…


thanks for the reply. On the first point – yes up to a point. But I would use the analogy of the train infrastructure…you could argue that people will just vote by turning to cars if the train service isn’t good, but thats not really a good argument for not getting the train service right. On the flying, OK but thats not the same as saying that the same area doesnt get flown twice. I agree that INSPIRE will change things but I suspect that it will be tinkering at the edges rather than any fundamental shift.

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