The usual BS from OS

Most people would except that if they hand over money, they will get something in return. That’s not the case when it comes to the British taxpayer and the data his or her taxes have paid to create. In that case, you get nothing for your money. Even worse, you have to pay twice, three times, sometimes even a dozen times to access the data your taxes have paid for.

I bring this up after a particular case has come to my attention involving the Ordnance Survey. Be aware that the OS was created at taxpayer expense and for most of its life was entirely supported by the taxpayer. Then Gordon Brown decided to label it a ‘trading fund’ which basically means that it must charge for its services. But guess who its main customers are – other public bodies! So public money is simply being recycled all the while the public get nothing for their money.

Andy Wightman needed OS data for his project Who Owns Scotland?. He was trying to figure out…well who owned Scotland. Land ownership is still an incredibly secretive affair in the UK, and Andy was trying to shed some light on the land ownership of Scotland for the benefit of the public. For several years, he had a deal whereby he was able to use OS data for a reduced rate – but he still paid more than £4000! Then in October 2004, the OS sent him a letter stating he was violating Crown Copyright and ordered him to take down all his maps. How can you describe land ownership without maps? Andy went back to the OS and explained that he did, in fact, have a license. That was fine for awhile, but then the OS came back later in an even more aggressive manner. You can read the full story on the Who Owns Scotland website.

This case highlights a serious problem in the way the UK manages public information. Crown Copyright restricts access to public information. It is the primary reason that the UK and Europe (which operates a similar system) falls so far behind America’s information economy. All American public information belongs to the public, whereas Crown Copyright means politicians and bureaucrats ‘own’ public information rather than the public who paid for it.

In the expanded version of Andy’s story, he discusses the implications of Crown Copyright and, in particular, the important issues raised about how OS licenses its data, derives data, customer care, and a much wider issue of access to publicly-funded data in the UK.

Ordnance Survey is increasingly acting like a big business, but it holds a monopoly position based on its taxpayer-funded resources. Ordinary citizens cannot use the data that their taxes have paid for; the only people who benefit are corporations (who can afford the fees), universities (whose staff can get access) and public sector organisations. Any ordinary citizen who wants to do geographic research or analysis is, as Andy says, stuffed.

No wonder Google Maps is taking over the world!

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