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can the government just give it away?

[cross-posted at]

The Guardian UK Tech Section has an ongoing campaign to free UK government data, with an associated blog:

Their campaign inspired a response from the Ordnance Survey titled:
These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free
. The response argues that the maps cost money, that the OS needs money to operate, and that by charging for the maps they can continue to provide a valuable service. Among other things:

It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

If we are successful, we can cover our costs, encourage widespread licensing through partners, and stay focused on providing value for users. Under licence, there are many examples where our data is free at the point of use. This does not mean there is zero cost.

[Interesting to note that the OS’s clients, much like statscan clients, are “users,” not citizens].

The Free Our Data people responded to response in their blog, noting the key reason for their campaign:

We believe [making OS data and maps free] would set off an explosion in private-sector use of the data, and lead to more companies which would create more jobs and generate more taxes. That would offset any extra taxation required to fund OS. Making the data free would also get rid of onerous and inefficient licensing schemes that tangle up central and local government departments, which wonder if they can reuse something or even display it on the web. (Search this blog for NEPHO.)

And that was followed by further response from Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, the authors of the Power of Information, who say:

The key issue about charging is whether the UK would benefit more in net terms from the more vibrant information market that more open information would bring than it would lose through having to find an additional £60m per year. This is a serious question that the Treasury is currently looking into, having accepted the recommendation in the independent review we co-authored for the government earlier this year.

[link to complete letter].

Which garnered some further feedback from the Free Our Data.

And in the end this is a compelling case, perhaps the compelling case: a case that ought to convince you whatever your political leanings, right or left or circular. There are moral and social and philosophical reasons to support free government data. But the one that’s most likely to win converts is the case that free data makes for more innovation. The innovation can be commercial, social, socioeconomic – touching on health, environment, planning, equality etc, but also just good old-fashioned economic vitality.

But all of it, we’d argue, will “make Canada a better country” not just morally, but in our ability to solve important problems, and, yes, make some people more money in the mean time. Which means, in the end, more tax receipts, which means that it should offset any lost revenues Statscan and other Canadian agencies now receive for excluding all but big companies and institutions from their datasets.


  1. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2007-10-09

    Great post. One tiny quibble – freeing the data to taxpayers, whose increased freedom raises more tax is one thing. But you would also be gifting an advantage to other countries (presuming the data would be free without restrictions), who would contribute no tax, and who might not do the favour in return.
    Repeat – quibble. Great post.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-10-10

    you might be right, but a few comments:

    -there is no (significant) marginal cost, ie. giving away ten data sets is more or less equivalent to giving away 100 … so while foreigners might not produce tex receipts for the UK gov’t, their getting access to the data is not costing more. so it should not make a difference to the expenses/revenues balance

    -the data in question will be almost exclusively data about Britain (maps, health data, enviro data etc) … so while other countries *may* use this data, it’s real utility is in Britain, so that’s where one is likely to see the most innovation.

    -and you *could* add reasonable restrictions to your licensing: free for UK residents, cost for others.

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