Memorandum by Association for Geographic
Information (OS 13)
1. The Association for Geographic Information
(AGI) is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee founded
in 1988 (after a House of Lords Committee of Inquiry into geographic
information chaired by Lord Chorley) to represent the interests
of those concerned with geographic information as users, producers,
consultants or academics. The Association has about 1,500 members
in individual, corporate and sponsor member categories. It is
the largest representative of the Geographic Information (GI)
community in the UK and is a leading GI organisation in Europe.
Ordnance Survey is a sponsor member of the Association.
2. The mission of the AGI is to "maximise
the use of geographic information for the benefit of the citizen,
good governance and commerce".
3. The AGI represents organisations and
individuals that use, supply, or have an interest in geographic
information in many forms, including electronic and paper, for
many purposes, rather than the consumers of Ordnance Survey's
paper map output (either that produced by Ordnance Survey themselves,
by third party publishers or by Ordnance Survey's SuperPlan agents).
For that reason I will limit myself to comments on digital data
pricing, the costs of updating and maintaining databases and the
effects of new technology on costs. I will also make some observations
on the provision of maps for electioneering.
4. The issue of the price of Ordnance Survey
data has been raised with the AGI on many occasions and we have
held a number of meetings on this issue. The AGI has close working
relationships with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors
(RICS) who have also expressed considerable concern over Ordnance
5. We recognise the fact that in many of
the markets to which Ordnance Survey supplies data, Ordnance Survey
is either the sole supplier and enjoys a monopoly position, or
is the dominant supplier and enjoys a near monopoly.
6. Sir John Bourn, the head of the National
Audit Office, qualified his opinion of the 1999-2000 accounts
of the Ordnance Survey because of a disagreement about the value
of Ordnance Survey's digital database. Ordnance Survey is obliged,
under its present Trading Fund status to recover its full costs
and make a return to the Treasury, which represents a return on
the value of the assets employed. Thus the value placed on Ordnance
Survey's digital database can have a significance effect on prices,
however there is no agreed mechanism for valuing such a unique
asset. Valuing this asset, which I feel constitutes part of the
nation's information infrastructure, and requiring Ordnance Survey
to make a return on that value, effectively places a tax on geographic
information rather than reflecting any realistic market conditions.
7. The combination of its monopoly position,
and its financial responsibilities to the Treasury as a Trading
Fund, make pricing a critical issue for Ordnance Survey. Ordnance
Survey cannot rely on a competitive marketplace to help them set
prices, because of their dominant position in the market, yet
they are obliged to recover their full costs and make a return
on capital employed. This combination of circumstances makes Ordnance
Survey's relationship with its major customers in local government,
the utilities, central government and other agencies such as Her
Majesty's Land Registry (HMLR) at times difficult. As a result
Ordnance Survey became embroiled in many counter-productive debates
with its principal customers over "fair" pricing. The
effect of these debates is often to damage Ordnance Survey's relationship
with its principal customers; to reduce the use of Ordnance Survey
data in parts of government that cannot afford to pay the prices
charged to other major customers; and to waste a great deal of
time and energy among public servants pretending to be operating
market based discipline.
8. Once prices have been set for the major,
usually captive, customers, prices for other users must take into
account what is being paid by the major customers. These prices
are frequently far too high to allow the development of any significant
secondary market for Ordnance Survey data.
9. Even once these quasi-commercial agreements
are in place there are a number of activities that Ordnance Survey
undertakes "in the national interest" for which there
is no direct commercial justification. Such activities include
the revision and maintenance of rural mapping for which there
is little current demand, but which may be needed in case of an
emergency. The availability of up-to-date rural mapping proved
vital following the Lockerbie air crash, when emergency services
needed to search a very large part of the rural borders and, more
recently, to assist in a swift response to the foot and mouth
crisis. Such non-commercial activity is part-funded by money provided
under NIMSA (the National Interest Mapping Service Agreement)
10. Ordnance Survey's room for manoeuvre
may be limited by the proposed HMSO regulation of the activities
of Trading Funds in disseminating government information. In the
recent consultation document circulated for comment by HMSO it
is proposed that HMSO will take on the role of regulator both
for bodies that disseminate government information at low or no
cost (charges being levied only to cover the cost of that dissemination)
and for trading funds, that are required to cover their costs
in full. A proposal in that discussion document suggests that
there should be full transparency of trading fund pricing policies.
This may make it necessary to remove price advantages that are
enjoyed by, for example, the charitable and educational sectors.
Such transparency might be difficult for Ordnance Survey to achieve
in its current commercial contracts. The removal of the right
to provide discounted data to not-for-profit bodies would also
appear to be counter-productive, if one wishes to maximise the
use of national resources.
11. It is clear, therefore, that Ordnance
Survey suffers from a number of fundamental contradictions. On
the one hand the Treasury wishes them to behave, and provide a
return on capital invested, as would be required by the shareholders
of any private business. On the other hand Ordnance Survey has
non-commercial obligations which are not fully met by NIMSA money;
has a sometimes uneasy relationship with its main customers because
of its monopoly or quasi-monopoly position; is now likely to be
subject to external regulation by a body, HMSO, that has primary
responsibility for the not-for-profit dissemination of government
information and operates in an environment where there are many
calls for it to distribute its main product, "data",
below "cost" (as costs are very hard to ascertain on
a product by product basis). At the same time Ordnance Survey
finds itself in competition with many private sector companies
that are interested in "cherry-picking" the most lucrative
parts of its market, but are not prepared to provide a comprehensive
national mapping and geo-data service for the whole of the country
up to the standards that Ordnance Survey currently supplies.
12. Ordnance Survey had to compete in this
new environment with a complement of staff whose numbers and skills
reflected its origins as a national mapping agency and were less
well suited to becoming the custodians and maintainers of a national
geo-data business (geo-data being the underlying data from which
maps are constructed rather than the maps themselves). The high
cost of redundancy and early retirement in the public sector made
it difficult for Ordnance Survey to re-structure itself into a
new role. However Ordnance Survey have now rapidly accelerated
the extent to which new technology can be employed to reduce Ordnance
13. Despite the many disadvantages of its
present position the directors of Ordnance Survey may well prefer
to remain in the commercially more predictable financial regime
of cost recovery, than to have to submit themselves again to the
annual struggle for Treasury funds which would have a less certain
outcome and which may curtail activities at times when the need
to invest in geo-data may be highest.
14. By contrast there are Ordnance Survey's
customers, users and potential-users who feel that the agency's
products would be used much more widely, and would benefit the
nation more, if they were available at the cost of dissemination
and Ordnance Survey's base costs were met directly out of a block
grant along NIMSA lines. For example, the national statistical
service is working in this way while the national mapping service
is expected to be commercially viable. The two organisations are
expected, of course, to provide quite different services and different
funding models may be appropriate.
15. There is much anecdotal evidence that
Ordnance Survey is one of the best large scale mapping agencies
in the world. It is harder, however, to find objective evidence
for this assertion.
16. The reason for this is the fact that
there are few directly comparable mapping organisations. However
it is clear, that the content, currency and detail of Ordnance
Survey mapping are widely admired.
17. Ordnance Survey is seen as a leading
mapping organisation by its peers and runs very effective, and
well attended, international conferences for mapping agencies
from around the world. It has been active in collaborative ventures
between the European mapping agencies. Former Ordnance Survey
staff have leading positions in the national mapping agencies
of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The US national mapping agency,
USGS, suffers from the vagaries of uncertain government funding,
to provide often out-of-date mapping at much smaller scales, but
is only able to charge dissemination costs. They have sent staff
to Ordnance Survey to learn the secrets of their "success".
18. It is unusual for large scale mapping
activity to be separate from land registration. In many other
countries the land registration function of HMLR is combined with
the production of detailed maps, which in Great Britain are produced
by Ordnance Survey. (However the option to combine the functions
of Ordnance Survey and HMLR was rejected in HMLR's recently published
Quinquennial Review.) This, in particular, makes international
comparison difficult as well as creating the anomaly that land
ownership is not recorded on Ordnance Survey's large-scale maps.
It also makes this widely admired set of maps and underlying geo-data
much less useful than it might otherwise be and separates the
cost of large scale mapping from the most obvious source of revenue
(land registration) that might have supported it. In Scotland
closer collaborative arrangements exist between Registers of Scotland
and Ordnance Survey to capture interests in property.
19. It can be argued that Ordnance Survey,
as the national mapping and geo-data agency, should withdraw from
activities that can be carried out by other companies or organisations
or from the provision of products that can be supplied by a competitive
private market. However, it is not easy to break down Ordnance
Survey's activities in this way. Ordnance Survey has four main
areas of work: surveying, the maintenance of the national geo-data
base, digital data sales and the publication of paper maps.
20. Of these four activities, only the production
of paper maps could easily be separated from the others. If Ordnance
Survey retains a national remit to provide consistent and up-to-date
map and data coverage for the whole country it must retain an
ability to survey; it must maintain a single consistent database
of geo-data (Ordnance Survey does not yet have such a database
but the current Digital National Framework programme, and the
associated product MasterMap is moving in that direction) and
it must be able to stock, and rapidly print to order, map sheets
for any part of the country.
21. It can be argued that the surveying
and printing operations could be contracted out without loss of
coverage or ability to respond promptly to national circumstances.
However as mentioned in 12 above such re-structuring of the business
may be too expensive for Ordnance Survey.
22. However there is a clear core activity
that creates a natural monopoly that appears to be appropriate
for Ordnance Survey. That is the maintenance of the geo-data that
should be collected, stored and maintained only once and then
used for a very wide range of purposes. This geo-data framework
includes the geodetic framework (the scientifically measured and
maintained set of reference points from which the location and
altitude of any other point in Great Britain can be established;
a digital elevation model a computerised model of the height of
the land) and a database of topographic featuresvisible
and surveyable features that make up the surface of the land.
This geo-data framework should be collected once and only once,
should be definitive, and should be re-used for many purposes.
Ordnance Survey has a clear plan for creating supporting and marketing
such a framework. Beyond that there are some more controversial
23. There is much geographical framework
data that cannot be seen in an aerial photograph or easily surveyed.
Such data includes definitive information about addresses, currently
maintained for postal purposes by Royal Mail (the Postcode Address
File is maintained on behalf of the Postal Regulator) and being
compiled for the purposes of recording land and property by local
government (the National Land and Property Gazetteer, NLPG). It
also includes data about land ownership, which is currently held
by HMLR/RoS and is being compiled into a national index map by
them. Ordnance Survey's role in holding, disseminating and reselling
address and property data is less clear.
24. Another type of geo-data that is not
directly visible, and surveyable, is data about electoral, administrative
and statistical boundaries. Ordnance Survey is currently responsible
for the maintenance of the definitive map of electoral boundaries
as defined by the Electoral Commission. However this data is then
disseminated on a commercial basis as the product BoundaryLine,
and by its inclusion on other maps. The cost of boundary data
is a significant impediment to its wide use. It could be argued
that the maintenance of boundary data is not a core topographic
mapping activity for Ordnance Survey and that both its collection
and dissemination should become activities fully funded by NIMSA.
25. It would now be technically possible
to provide on a ward by ward basis (or for any other geographical
unit) street maps with accurate electoral boundaries and the location
of every property linked to a list of electors, from the electoral
register, living at that property. Such maps could be provided
on paper or as a simple application running on lap top, tablet
or personal digital assistant devices.
26. Such resources are currently assembled
by some political party activists who have access to printed electoral
registers and street maps. However this is a time consuming and
cumbersome operation which may involve some breach of copyright
if street maps are reproduced without permission.
27. The automation of the whole process
will become feasible once local government completes the creation
of the NLPG and the uniform rolling Electoral Register is in place.
Ordnance Survey needs to improve its current BoundaryLine product
(and the maps it obtains from the Boundary Commissions and in
future the Electoral Commission) to ensure no ambiguity at the
level of individual buildings.
28. However two major impediments to such
a development exist. The first is the range of intellectual property
rights that would exist in such a product. The NLPG and Electoral
Roll will, under current plans, be owned collectively by local
authorities. The street map data will be owned by Ordnance Survey
and the electoral boundary data will be owned by the Electoral
Commission (although exploitation rights may be ceded to Ordnance
Survey). Each of these bodies would wish to be financially recompensed
for the use of the data and collectively the resulting product
may be too expensive for local political parties to use. If the
respective bodies were not recompensed they would need alternative
sources of income to produce such a product.
29. The second impediment is the anomalous
position of the electoral register with respect to the Data Protection
Act. As a public register the electoral register is exempt from
the act and provisions, originally intended to make the register
available at reasonable cost to political parties, have been exploited
by the financial services industry and others, such as police
forces, which require a source of personal identity information
to re-use the register for other identity purposes.
30. This situation was meant to be regularised
by the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allows for
the production of a single national rolling electoral register,
and allows an edited version of that register, from which individual
electors may opt out, to be distributed for gain. The Home Office
and IDeA, representing local government, expected the publication
of the edited register to become an opportunity to raise funds
which would more than cover the cost of electoral registration.
However a recent High Court decision in Wakefield has put the
legality of such dissemination in question as it is seen to breach
the Data Protection principles (if not the Data Protection Act
itself) and the Human Rights Act. At present the government has
decided not to appeal that decision and that leaves the Representation
of the People Act in an anomalous position.
31. Whatever the outcome for the process
of electioneering, a wider issue of spatial privacy is raised.
Now that geo-data down to the level of the individual building,
and addressed properties within that building, is becoming widely
available and is traded, it is inevitable that that data will
be matched to addressed data about individuals such as the electoral
register. The consequence of this is that it will become technically
feasible, and trivial, to point at a building on a map and get
a list of its occupants or to list the names and addresses of
individuals and organisations and have those displayed on an electronic
map. Parliament must decide on the spatial privacy implications
of these developments and act accordingly so that all users of
personal information and geographic information systems know where
32. Ordnance Survey is a widely admired
and effective organisation. However, its anomalous position between
the public and the private sectors, and the balance between public
service aspirations and commercial survival make it a difficult
organisation to run.
33. This anomalous position often places
Ordnance Survey in conflict with its clients, potential clients,
commercial partners and competitors.
34. These circumstances create a serious
conflict of interests for the Director-General and Chief Executive
of Ordnance Survey, who is the principal adviser on geographical
matters to the Government and, at the same time, is the largest
commercial supplier of geographical information to Government.
35. It is hoped that the Quinquennial Review
of Ordnance Survey, which will be placed before Parliament before
this Select Committee considers this evidence, will resolve some
of these issues.
36. It may be desirable if the Government
were to consider the appointment of an independent advisory Geographic
Commission to resolve issues about geographic information in the
same way as the Statistics Commission advises on the statistical
service. Such a Commission could also advise on issues such as
the spatial privacy considerations of other legislation.
37. Discussions about the pricing and availability
of geographic information are not simple issues of determining
fair market prices, but reflect deeper issues about the production
and maintenance of a national geographic data infrastructure.
They need to be seen in that light.