Communities and Local Government Select Committee

Inquiry into Ordnance Survey


The Association of Regional Observatories (ARO) represents the English Regional Observatories; observatories have extensive experience of using data and geographic information to inform public service delivery, regional policy, strategy development and performance monitoring. ARO works closely with the English Regional Development Agencies and Regional Assemblies to maximise the quality and accessibility of the evidence base available to support regional policy.


ARO welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee's inquiry into the Ordnance Survey. The importance to regional observatories of the geographical information produced by Ordnance Survey is difficult to understate; the data is key to the role that observatories play within the public sector, in enabling delivery agencies to target areas of need, and in monitoring the progress of regions. The opportunity that exists to serve the public good through the provision of geographical information is, however, hindered by the approach that currently governs Ordnance Survey operations.


The concerns held by the Association of Regional Observatories reflect the conflict that exists between the Ordnance Survey as a provider of public service information, and the commercial principles which underlie access to data for other public sector organisations. Access to data is prohibitively expensive, particularly for small organisations who do not make use of a lot of the products marketed by Ordnance Survey. The commercial drive behind the current provision also leads to concerns that less profitable data sets will not be sufficiently maintained, undermining the quality of mapping that Ordnance Survey currently achieves.


The licensing of data is complex and restrictive, with ramifications that affect the competitive nature of the geographic information market. Licensing for regional observatories is covered at present by the Pan Government Agreement, which is currently being renegotiated. The contractual terms, particularly around "derived data", are unfavourable to the market, with the proposed contract requiring all derived data to be deleted and recreated if an agency moves to another geographical information supplier. This evidently impinges on the competitive nature of the geographic information market, as the cost implications of changing supplier (necessitating the deletion and then recreation of derived data) are significant. This lack of competition also means that the Ordnance Survey maintains a position of monopoly, removing the ability of public sector agencies to achieve best value through competitive tender.


Since the Ordnance Survey's inception as a trading fund in 1999, there have been rapid and considerable developments in geographical information systems which enable public sector delivery agencies to better target activity. These systems are dependent on reliable, cost-effective access to Ordnance Survey data; however, the current licensing system does not adequately respond to these developments, stifling both the effective use of current systems and future innovation in this area. These geographical information systems have the capability to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of public service delivery, for the benefit of the public sector and the taxpayer; the Association of Regional Observatories would therefore suggest that the Communities and Local Government Select Committee consider this issue in more detail.


The breadth of information covered by the Pan Government Agreement exceeds the data needs of many small users, and this factor, along with the restrictive nature of the licensing and the uncertainties that exist around subscription increases, means that a number of members of the Association of Regional Observatories are considering whether the Pan Government Agreement represents the most cost-effective approach to the purchase of geographical information. The data needs of observatories may well be better served through the procurement of information from Ordnance Survey on a limited, need-driven basis, which would result in withdrawal from the Pan Government Agreement negotiation process. If other signatories to the agreement were to follow suit, the continuation of negotiations would be undermined, and this may ultimately lead to the collapse of the process. The resulting situation would surely lead to parties procuring directly from Ordnance Survey, reducing the effective use of geographical information and ultimately acting to the detriment of the public good.


The Association of Regional Observatories supports the argument of the Local Government Association (amongst others), who contend that certain data produced by the Ordnance Survey (such as some 'core reference geographies') should be categorised as a public good, which should therefore be available to other public agencies without restriction. This would enable the public sector to more effectively utilise geographical information, whilst allowing Ordnance Survey the opportunity to achieve commercial gain through the provision of non-core or value-added services, for which some parts of the public sector may continue to be a market. This would also be consistent with recent European Directives, which seek to eliminate obstacles to data re-use, and to encourage greater public access to geospatial data.


At present, it seems that the operational stance of Ordnance Survey constitutes a barrier to the effective use of geographical information in the public sector. The Association of Regional Observatories welcomes the inquiry of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee into the role of Ordnance Survey, and would welcome the opportunity to contribute further if the Committee proceeds in that manner.