The Communities and Local Government Committee INQUIRY


MEMORANDUM by the Association of Geographic Information (AGI)




The Association for Geographic Information (AGI) is the umbrella organisation for all those with an interest in geographic information (GI). Membership comprises individuals and organisations, including government departments and agencies, local authorities, other national organisations, educational institutions, utilities, commercial software companies and data suppliers. The mission of the AGI is to maximise the use of GI for the benefit of the citizen, commerce and good governance.


AGI is additionally a member of the UK GI Panel, a body that aims to give high-level advice to DCLG Ministers on geographic information issues of national importance for the United Kingdom.


Because of its wide and diverse membership, the views expressed by the AGI - whilst taking into account a broad input from members - may not reflect the views of all its individual members. Being a 'broad church', AGI may sometimes find itself caught between members in external dispute and subject to criticism. It is relevant to note that other organisations responding to this enquiry, Ordnance Survey, Department of Communities and Local Government and Intelligent Addressing (whose Managing Director also currently chairs the Locus Association) are additionally members of the AGI.


The AGI sees the work of Ordnance Survey in terms of providing public service, high quality and equitably available data that is current and regularly maintained, as highly essential and considers that the National Topographic Database is a vital national asset. AGI believes Ordnance Survey has a national interest role to play and that at least the publicly funded collection, update and maintenance of unrefined GI data is pivotal to the nation's well being.


The AGI memorandum is structured below to match the questions originally stated.

Ordnance Survey: Public Service Information

1)      In 2002, the Committee's predecessor, the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, concluded in its report on Ordnance Survey: "there is a clear need to define the boundaries of Ordnance Survey public service and national interest work." To what extent has this changed over the intervening five years?

(a)     In evidence of the Select Committee 's recent inquiry into DCLG 's Annual Report, the Department said the ending of NIMSA meant there was "no distinction between public service and commercial activity for Ordnance Survey " (Third report of 2006-07, HC 106; Ev.105 ). But OS remains the largest public sector information holder in the UK, providing publicly gathered data under licence to organisations both public and private. How clear are the boundaries between its roles as the holder of base geographical information required by its partners and competitors to make their products commercially viable and as a commercial operator within the same marketplace as those partners and competitors?

1. Answer


1.1 AGI believes that these boundaries are blurred and are becoming increasingly so. This lack of clarity causes confusion and cost not only to the private sector, but the public sector.


1.2 AGI agrees with the recommendation of the OFT report (ref 1) that 'unrefined information' should be distinguished from 'refined information' within Public Sector Information (PSI) agencies like Ordnance Survey. The former should be made available on a fair and equitable licencing basis to the commercial sector. Currently, it is suggested, the OS does not distinguish between these in a clear and definitive manner. It must be possible, it is argued, for OS to enable all organisations to access this unrefined data on the same terms as it applies to itself before it refines this data into OS branded commercial products.


1.3 Ideally, publicly gathered data should only be produced once and should constitute the sole definitive product. From this data, other value-added products can be derived. Because there is no regulation currently in place that defines this definitive public data product, the boundaries between publicly gathered and commercially added value continues to be blurred. Nevertheless, the EU INSPIRE Directive (ref 2) requires by 2009 the identification of a reference product for public sector information and thus scope must be made for this.


1.4 From a public sector AGI member perspective, it is believed that the focus of providing and being the national mapping representative is being lost and the 'public service' ethos is perceived to be diminishing. If so, this will be detrimental to Local Authorities (and other public bodies) who rely on mapping to deliver many services (targets for which are set by the government).


1.5 It is pointed out by some local government AGI members that whereas OS incorporates data from local authorities in their products, which is available free of charge and supplied under statutory duty, in return, OS are able to request licensing fees from local government for using a diminishing proportion of their Address Point product in local government's own National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG). This specific example raises a variety of complex issues because it also involves Royal Mail licencing costs for the Postcode Address File (PAF). AGI certainly perceives a great deal of concern and confusion from local authorities regarding this matter. OS will state that by offering additional value to the data it uses it can charge licence fees for its products.


1.6 Concerns have been raised that such transactions between public bodies may be financially inefficient to the general public and create a conflict arising from the lack of distinction between publicly gathered data and added commercial value.


1.7 There was, it is believed, a clear remit for public service provision by OS under NIMSA. Its withdrawal, it is feared, leads to a further blurring between commercial and public interest activity and a perception that public service will suffer.

2)      In 2002, the Select Committee also identified "a clear need for some form of independent arbitration so that conflicts could be resolved" between OS and its partners and customers. To what extent has this changed over the intervening five years?

2. Answer


2.1 AGI believes that although the number of actual cases per year involving the Ordnance Survey has not significantly altered over the period scrutinised by the CLG Committee and its predecessor, there is no unambiguous evidence of an effective independent arbitration process 'with teeth' currently in place.


2.2 For example, the scope for conflict between OS as a public sector information provider and partners and customers has been exemplified in the OFT report (ref 1) on the commercial use of public sector information, culminating in the complaint by one AGI member to the OFT about OS commercial competition it believes to be unfair. Although the response by the OPSI (ref 3) made several critical observations concerning OS commercial practices and ruled in favour in one area for the complainant, the conflict has not yet, it seems, been resolved in the eyes of the complainant. OPSI states that since its original report Ordnance Survey "has made sufficient progress in the given timescales" and has satisfied OPSI that the recommendations made have been "met" (ref 4). Additionally, the recent conclusion by APPSI (ref 5) that Ordnance Survey's Address Point product does not fall under PSI regulations has deepened the confusion for AGI members over the position of OS as a public sector information provider.


2.3 AGI eagerly awaits a definitive response from Government to the OPSI ruling to obtain clarification that will be very important to AGI members. In the meantime, two government bodies using public funds are competing for the use of their products by other public sector bodies.


2.4 Because licensing terms are considered conflicting, there is a strong perception from some local government members that this is likely to hamper the ability for joined-up government and setting up local partnerships to deliver local services to the citizen. For example, joint emergency response centres (between fire, police and ambulance services); local community and child services joined up with the health and voluntary sector etc.

Geographic Panel

3) What is your assessment of the UK Geographic Panel's operation since its introduction in 2005?

3. Answer

3.1 AGI has a seat on the GI Panel. It is relevant to state that whilst it has full visibility of meeting content, in terms of public communication it is bound by a level of confidentiality outside the published GI Panel minutes.


3.2 There is some perception in the wider GI community of a lack of transparency about the GI Panel and insufficient communication concerning its activities. This has contributed to concern and disappointment in some quarters over its activities because the role and objectives may not have been clearly articulated and it is considered to be not very effective. AGI has requested a more timely publication of minutes by the GI Panel to help improve communication and this was recently agreed as an action at the April GI Panel meeting.


3.3 The GI Panel is currently focussed on creating and submitting an appropriate GI Strategy to DCLG Ministers - a non-trivial exercise. This is perhaps the most significant formal government related gathering to discuss GI matters and deserves fostering to ensure the maximisation of the use of GI for the benefit of the citizen, commerce and good governance.


3.4 Having the Chief Executive of a Trading Fund as Chair of the GI Panel creates a potential conflict of interest. However, AGI recently supported the continuing role of the OS in the Chair of the GI Panel, because it is so close to the stated submission date of a GI Strategy, that to change at this stage could be detrimental. We believe that the Chair should rotate, as originally intended, at a more suitable point.


3.5 AGI believes it is important to maintain a GI Panel, to improve its communications with stakeholders and also for it to be viewed in a balanced manner bearing in mind some of the political factors that seem to have currently affected it in association with Ordnance Survey.


4)      The Select Committee's predecessor, in recommending in 2002 that an advisory panel on geographic information should be created, suggested that it should have at least three members, including the Association for Geographical Information, OS and a private sector representative. Is the current panel's membership currently balanced with three private sector representatives among its 12 members?

4. Answer

4.1 There is a preponderance of public sector organizations on the GI Panel and no representatives from utilities and academia. AGI believes that the size of the panel should ideally not be increased, or increased significantly, to maintain efficiency. In the case of the private sector, no additional single commercial operator should be appointed, rather any additional members should be trade/membership bodies deemed relevant. Similarly with academia, if given a seat, this should be a collective representation if that is possible. It has also been suggested that there is a lack of any scientific/research council representation on the GI panel. Perhaps NERC should be represented, particularly as sustainable development and climate change move up the government policy agenda?

5)      In a memorandum to the Committee during its recent inquiry into DCLG's Annual Report 2006 the Government said that the ending of NIMSA means "there is no distinction for OS between public service and commercial activity ". If that is the case, should the head of a commercially active organisation continue, ex officio, to be official adviser to Ministers on "all aspects of survey, mapping and geographic information"?

5. Answer

5.1 If the DCLG statement is considered to be correct then the head of a commercially active organisation should not continue, ex officio, to be official adviser to Ministers on "all aspects of survey, mapping and geographic information".

5.2 The official advisor to Ministers should be independent of any own commercial interest, which, it is argued, is currently not the case. Even with a clear split of OS activities between collecting data (unrefined) and commercially producing products in competition with others (refined) there is an argument that the head of the former shouldn't automatically be the holder of any of these roles and as head of the latter, certainly not.


5.3 Additionally it is possible that OSGB are not positioned to provide the necessary breadth of knowledge and wisdom to UK Government across all aspects of GI - take for example marine & coastal, geology, meteorology, statistical information, land registration and so on. Ordnance Survey is however, an internationally acknowledged expert in the field of GI data collection and maintenance and its importance in advising Government where and when necessary should not be overlooked.


5.4 If the official advisory role were not solely in the hands of Government agencies such as the Ordnance Survey, the UK Hydrographic Office and the British Geological Survey, perhaps this should be the role of an up-rated GI advisory panel to Government with RICS AGI and other relevant bodies included as members?


National Interest Mapping Services Agreement

6)      What impact will the ending of NIMSA have on rural mapping?

6. Answer

6.1 AGI members are concerned that the impact will be either reduced currency of rural mapping (longer intervals between surveys) or increased prices (to existing customers).

6.2 If currency of data is reduced, there is concern that this could have major implications where large housing or road development takes place in rural areas, and may have a detrimental impact on emergency services. It could also have an adverse impact on a dynamic part of the UK landscape - where there are many conflicting development and land management interests at stake. The split between urban and rural areas is changing as development and land use evolves and what may be in the rural category for OS may in practice have moved into the urban one. AGI notes that there is apparent confusion as to the current data maintenance programmes undertaken by Ordnance Survey and the impact of NIMSA withdrawal will have on these programmes. Further clarification from Ordnance Survey would be welcomed.

6.3 There is an argument that any difference in data maintenance policies should not be based simply on the classification of mapping as being "rural" or "urban". Rather priority and emphasis should be given to those areas which are subject to the greatest volume of change. Again Ordnance Survey could clarify its data collection strategy and practices in this area.

7) Will procurement be more expensive for local authorities now that OS is not providing them under NIMSA?

7. Answer

7.1 AGI believes the outcome of the next Mapping Service Agreement (MSA) will determine the answer to this question. AGI urges that all parties in the procurement of the next MSA should ensure that the process be simpler than the current one and concluded in less time and at less cost (to public bodies) than the last.

7) Some OS competitors allege it is able to use its position as public sector information holder to compete unfairly, either by imposing over-stringent and costly licence conditions or by developing products of its own in direct competition with theirs but without the associated licencing costs. There are further complaints that OS is an effective monopoly, preventing fair and transparent competition in the GI market. What is your view of these suggestions?

8. Answer

8.1 This is always going to be a controversial area, but certainly a number of private sector organisations have genuine concerns about OS imposing over-stringent and costly licence conditions or by developing products of its own in direct competition with theirs but without the associated licencing costs.

8.2 Some AGI members suggest that they are directly affected by the OS trying to use their alleged monopoly position to dictate terms and conditions of PSI. The case is well exemplified in the conflict between local government (represented by Intelligent Addressing) and OS over addressing data where both bodies compete against each other in the provision of addressing datasets. This led to the recent complaint by Intelligent Addressing, the private sector body that manages the NLPG on behalf of local authorities, to the OPSI. In a ruling (ref 3) OPSI pointed out that OS licensing terms were not transparent and fair. OPSI now states that Ordnance Survey has made progress in these areas and that they are satisfied their report recommendations have been "met" (ref 4). Nonetheless these have not appeared to have been resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant.

8.3 To complicate the matter for a number of AGI members, APPSI in its recent assessment (ref 5), concluded that Ordnance Survey's Address Point product does not fall within the regulations for public sector information, yet it is provided under Crown copyright by a public sector organisation. It is not clear where the APPSI report leaves local government. There is confusion as to whether APPSI consider local government to be the only public sector body that produces public sector address information? What is the role of Royal Mail PAF data? Does this fall within the public sector information category or not? What is the situation of competition between PSI and non-PSI data? The situation of addressing has become so confusing that it is essential for central government to clarify the situation for the benefit of running an efficient and effective service by local government. The current situation of duplication, uncertainty, lack of transparency consumes valuable public funds to provide services to citizens and urgently requires a clear resolution.

8.4 AGI stresses that addressing is not purely a problem affecting Local Authorities. From central government, emergency services and wider commercial perspectives there are other beneficiaries who need to be served by national, well-maintained and consistent address products which are free of confusion and uncertainty.

8.5 Some members have raised concerns about the time taken to understand the Terms & Conditions and often 'standard' agreements are supplemented with non-standard side letters. AGI Members cite that licenses have increased in length - the current OS Address Point VAR agreement is approximately 48 pages, whereas many private sector companies are moving to shorter licences composed of clearer terms in order to help stimulate business.

8.6 AGI believes Ordnance Survey has found itself caught between a blurred public and commercial role and as a result is subject to difficulties, misunderstandings and conflicts. AGI is concerned that this may stretch the capacity of the organisation to cope with the demanding and complex circumstances it finds itself within. OS is skilled and respected for data collection, update maintenance and production. It is in the area of distribution, pricing and licencing where difficulties and confusion start.


1. The commercial use of public information (CUPI) OFT861, December 2006.

2. Directive 2007/2/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, establishing an Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE), March 2007.

3. Office of Public Sector Information Report on its investigation of a compliant (SO 42/8/4): Intelligent Addressing and Ordnance Survey, July 2006.

4. Evaluation of Progress made by Ordnance Survey, OPSI, March 2007

5. Review Board of APPSI Report, April 2007.