Monday, 27 November 2017


I guess we all think we know what access means - I can get hold of things or through to my target. Of course the definitions go much wider.

There is tendency though, not unusual of course when pedalling a personal agenda, to look at access through a single lens. Before, I go there, I should declare my interest in what follows. As a founder of emapsite, the few of you who read this will think there is a specific axe to be ground here owing to our track record as a successful OS partner, turning OS and other data assets into products desired by our customers, and that specifically I am railing (or about to rail) against the the Chancellor's announcement that the government will be creating a Geospatial Commission and what follows on from that, as confirmed in today's Industrial Strategy. I defer to the Urban Dictionary.

There have been some cogent posts from those with long interest in and insight into open data including those by Ed Parkes, Leigh Dodds and Owen Boswarva that are all well worth reading. 30/11/17 - I somehow omitted Steven Feldman's Jekyll and Hyde post on the matter.

Other than a common thread concerning the uncertainty that comes with the language being used by the Chancellor, if there is a single idea that links these posts and other commentary it is the allegedly thorny matter of 'access', specifically to OS MasterMap but more widely, with the cost i.e. the licensing terms and conditions of that access somehow getting in the way of obtaining and using what is commonly agreed to be a rich (if flawed) resource.

I doubt there are many who enjoy reading and understanding let alone creating licensing documentation but read and understand them you should! Again noting that I am not writing this on behalf of Ordnance Survey, if you were to invest the time in so doing you might come away with a plan of engagement, either directly or with existing OS partners, that provided you with the very access you sought in order to meet the needs of you or your customers to make you and them rich (sic). I'll leave you to enrich your life with the reading ;-).

The bottom line though is that 'access' is not really the issue. The 'issue' is having a cost attached to your business proposition that either makes the proposition a non-starter (i.e. the market won't give you a margin because the actual or perceived value to them is lower than what they're willing to pay and you have neither the marketing resource or evidence to convert enough of them), 'just might make it' (returns a wafer thin margin) or dents your ambitions by having a cost you hadn't planned for as you hadn't done your market research on both the supply and demand side.

Turns out that in business 'costs of sale' are normal, who knew, so few tears there - and for most the investment in people and technology makes the investment in understanding licensing pale. With the falling costs of any input propositions gradually become more attractive be it at bulk or transactional level - everyone gets that. As an aside an organisation like IronMan is worth getting on for $1bn and much of its value derives from being able to assemble huge numbers of volunteers to execute their events in return for discounted kit and event entry but most business while equally human capital dependent operates with another model!

For those wanting "all the data" (to create derived products or for analysis to meet a market need for example) then there have always been ways to access the data at no cost. That there is a royalty once a product is ready for market is the 'complaint' but that there are costs has always been evident so we come back to the responsibility to research the supply as well as the demand side of any brilliant idea. It is those costs that are alleged to be a barrier to innovation or perhaps more realistically to the successful application of that innovation. While one could again take issue with a business that "would be successful if there weren't all these costs involved" there is a wider discussion to be had about value and whether cost of the data component of a product, innovative or otherwise, element is genuinely a barrier (to take up) or whether there are other more prosaic less 'accessible' factors (as well).

A planning application requires a map or plan, typically costing £8-£25 for a residential plan. The added value to the property through its construction or extension is measured in 10s of £000s with architects, structural engineering, groundworks, legal fees, consents and more all representing significant investment sums. An EPC can cost £120. The plan is a fractional cost yet less than 20% of planning applications are accompanied by a plan, the presence of which would doubtless solve untold time and money at hard-pressed planning departments. Is freely available detailed mapping going to change any of that; is anyone going to invest what it takes (in tech, in people and in marketing) to change any of that? The most cost effective change (with the net benefit accruing to all of us through cost and time savings at local authorities and improved decision making in one of the bottleneck areas of the "housing crisis") would be to require all applicants to submit a plan with their application.

A large scale commercial development worth 10s of £ms could under existing licensing spend 10s of £000s on licensing location content (mapping, addressing, imagery, perils and more) to ensure compliance, good governance etc. Fractional, again. Not sure there would be public sympathy for the beneficiaries!

Will the pennies saved by your insurer make a difference to your policy selection decision, will they even pass it on? The benefits may not flow in quite the expected direction.

The evolution of a more open data world is to be welcomed as it will usher in new products and new services, likely in ways and in markets that were not foreseen. But that access will actually, as with LinkedData and xml, be, directly, for the few, not the many. Genuine actual access to the value of geographic content is in being able to see and obtain that value directly in the products and services sought by markets and users. And that comes back to investment - in tech, in people and in marketing. There are hundreds, 000s of exciting things that can be done with data, full stop; getting them to market to drive a return on your investment and/or to drive adoption and/or integration that changes behaviours, processes and benefits in ways that are tangible and measurable is perhaps an alternative measure of accessibility.

While those of us who are geographic data geeks (to a greater or lesser extent) are excited by and are already deeply embedded in the ingestion, processing, maintenance, update, interpretation, product creation and service delivery that provides that accessibility, one imagines that it is the latter perspective (and the funding mechanism for the long term sustainability of Ordnance Survey and others) that will be focusing the minds of the Geospatial Commission over the coming months!

Friday, 20 May 2016

this land is your land?

You may have noticed there's another consultation about Land Registry's future. And it's nearly closed so get consulting if you haven't already.

And I mean get consulting NOW! Unless that is you have now, had had until now or never will have any interest in any of the following - whether or not you actually own or have rights in the land and property that you think you have rights in, who has rights in the land or property that you may be interested in acquiring rights in, who, more broadly, owns what (that's for transparency and related junkies and journalists et al), the literally existential matter of land and property and so on.

Are you crying foul sir? Well, it's more to do with trust and confidence - a familiar theme from last week's missive about addressing.

Now there may well be things wrong with HMLR and its business model but at this stage that's not really the point. The point is that we, the owners and future owners (via our banks and mortgages) of the 85% or so of property that is currently documented by HMLR, and the whole value/supply chain (estate agents, conveyancers, removals, planners, developers, the lot) put our collective faith in the currently sainted Land Registry when it comes to the acquisition and exchange of property and promissory notes. Accountable to no shareholder (other than as a Trading Fund to government) HMLR is an integral component of the property boom of the last 20 or more years.

What could fracture the confidence of lenders, buyers, sellers, borrowers (and potentially moisten the lips of barristers)? Doubt i hear you say? Distrust? Suspicion? Uncertainty? We all know what that does to a stock valuation! What will it do to land and property sales? Who really owns that? Do I even own it? I am sure I did pay for it but now I can't even find it! And so on.

It is damnably difficult to get the approvals to gain access to HMLR's data, arguably for good reason. That data and it's perceived absolute authority and uncorruptibility are the basis for our prosperity. Hacked land registration (ownership, liens et al) data throw the whole system into disrepute overnight.

I don't wish to speak ill of interested parties but there may well be incentives that we can all imagine that would undermine that current confidence.

So, am off to consult.......

Monday, 16 May 2016

addressing a single source of truth

While personal physical mail seems in terminal decline (and even my junk mail seems to be following suit, if not online) the matter of addressing seems forever in a state of flux - one moment all the right noises, then righteous indignation and carpet chewing, then barely a ripple on the pond. I'll try not to rehearse recent history (mainly because I know Bob Barr (and others) will correct me) but suffice to say that relatively recent 'events' might indicate that the waters are about to become choppy once more.

The March budget contained a commitment to an open address register with upto £5m of government backing. After the Postcode Address File (PAF) went with RMG into the private sector in 2013, with the possibility of an open national address gazetteer stalled (and the NAG 'brand' in the hands of Geoplace) and with openaddresses struggling, surely this was a glimmer of hope for open data advocates.

To my mind the notion of a £5m stimuli to the delivery of a single consistent national address data set that meets the gazetteering, delivery, identity and other challenges and opportunities that extend from the allure of such a thing represents but a drop in the ocean and really begs the question as to what that £5m can do, what else might be done and whether it is all going to be wrapped up with a suitable sustainability commitment to meet the alleged needs of those that cannot or will not use products that currently meet their needs (as well as those who absolutely rely on those existing products to meet their public tasks, from emergency services, utility companies, the ubiquitous delivery vans et al).

Now £5m might seem like quite a lot to splash in this area but whoever ends up getting whatever is really in the pot is going to discover very quickly that it goes nowhere near solving the challenge.

Which kinds of lead one to wonder what else might be done and with what consequences. The obvious answer would seem to be that the notion of an open address register has sharpened this minds of those who argued for it and seek to get it delivered and they have landed on the idea of opening up Geoplace's NAG in some way. So is the £5m for them (Geoplace is an OS/LGA joint venture)? Excluding PSMA revenues from addressing are allegedly in the £10m+ area per annum with a substantial share of that going on to RMG. RMG may not notice the loss (PAF already generates them over £20m) but Geoplace/LGA/OS sure will if they have to maintain NAG for the foreseeable future. Having to maintain it works both ways - fine if there is a government spending commitment but if that were not forthcoming would GeoPlace have to maintain it (and with the CSR pretext of selling public assets (see section 10.5) why would they)? What next then for open addresses?

Which finally brings us to what characteristics of addresses make such a gazetteer fit for purpose. For sure, all of completeness, consistency, accuracy, currency, geocoding, links to other data sources (property, people, organisations, ownership, value, security, H&S etc etc) or other attribution as you would expect. But under-pinning all of that are implicit factors such as the trust, confidence, integrity, brand, longevity required of the market in the provider.

As those factors are eroded, or are seen or perceived to be at risk of erosion, so adoption and utility are diluted. The risk is that a negative feedback loop ensues and, fast forward, there is no single source of truth, no one to trust and no one to blame. Deliveries, emergencies, emergency deliveries even, potentially falling foul of a fragmented, dated, incomplete, inaccurate data set. Opportunities develop for market specific sub data sets attracting new entrants, commercial pricing and the possibility of multiple versions of the single source of truth.

Doomsday scenario? Maybe! But £5m was never enough and is an irrelevance (except perhaps those seeking to bid for it) alongside the resource commitment, physical infrastructure, political will and commercial nous needed to sustain trusted addressing for UKplc.

As PAF licence fees (£75-£15k) illustrate myriads of users (over 35000 I believe) will adopt a product if the licensing and pricing make sense and the brand is trusted. It may well be that in seeking to create a more widely accessible single source of addressing truth the powers that be will land on the idea that the current primary source (AddressBase family from Ordnance Survey) would fit the bill if only more people could be persuaded to use. The key tool in that persuasion is the licence fee. So maybe that £5m could be a sweetener to OS while they get the address licensing sorted (almost freemium anyone?), cushion OS from a possible dip in revenues while the market gets re-educated and then earns back the revenue foregone in years ahead. Perhaps not altogether open addresses (the risks I think are real) but a new and sustainable model (and one that leaves space for innovators bringing other content to the address/delivery/identity/navigation/value party)?

That might be seen as an injection of public capital to help move the separate discussion on private capital further along the corridor too!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Chasing photos (Pt 1, hopefully)

Two weeks ago I was wandering the street of Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka when I contrived to mislay my camera, a dated Canon model Canon EOS XT 350D, black with a 55-200mm zoom lens. Re-trace footsteps at hotel (Bay Vista Hotel), nearby laundry, the ultra-slow Mandarin restaurant over the road, nada.

Now is not the time to point fingers but ultimately I believe I put it down during some form of transaction and that when the penny dropped that it was no longer to hand, too much time had passed (overnight basically) to be absolutely sure but also enough time for the new 'owner' to have decided what to do.

Tragedy with such things is not the camera but what's on the SD, sorry CompactFlash, card - luckily backed-up before leaving UK but still the whole trip - Jaffna, islands, Uppaveli, Passikudah, Arugam - in brain memory only and if the new owner has "erased all" then even this blog is for nothing. So typical, so why blog about it?

Well, on the off chance that the SANDisk 4Gb CompactFlash card still exists with the photos on and that the battery has gone flat (it was well down but yes I know it's £4.99 on ebay for a charger, 21 of which have been acquired on the uk site in the last month) then possibly the camera is literally sitting around somewhere be it in Sri Lanka or on someone's travels.

Anyway, once back here and "over it", I have become slightly obsessed with the notion that the interweb can find my camera and SD card. How might that be you ask? Turns out there are a number of sites that endeavour to help:

Stolen Camera Finder

You can test SCF as I have made a couple of my own images on Flickr public....

Camera Trace

Camera Found

Specifically - Example image off my camera from 2014

You will see lots of reports of lost, quite a few found but it appears not so many returned to owners - a Venn diagram of these different communities would I think show only a thin overlap!

Facebook Lost and Found Camera


Photosearch is unavailable

Plus I have used Flickr for years and their recent upgrade includes auto-upload and much improved search tools.

The key to most of these sites is your camera serial number - mine is 3520738633 - and the fact that it may be stored and retained in the EXIF that accompanies every digital image. I say "may be" because it seems looking back that not every image has the serial number in. Anyway it looks like these sites are essentially crawlers going to Flickr, Picasaweb and others (though it seems many sites - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc strip or corrupt the EXIF data but happy to be corrected on that).

All very well but still why blog?

Basically, because so far have had no joy at all and have been trying date ranges, serial number, locations, tags (I'm guessing of course), camera type and serial number.

The search tools unsurprisingly rely on matching your search parameters with publicly available data. This means for example that any photos uploaded with the latest Flickr uploader will not be searched by these tools as they are private by default (although of course a user could change that plus they may be surprised with what is automatically uploaded if they look at their photostream - the CF card probably had a thousand or more images on!). The same applies to Panoramio, 500px, picasaweb although I think only Flickr makes the full EXIF searchable.

The camera contains no automatic GPS chip or geo-tagging so relying on others to tag photos and/or make them public seems a tad ambitious. But then maybe this exercise is too - which is to use the power of social media to crowd source the serial number 3520738633 from private and family and friends on Flickr.

The camera can go hang - I reported it to the tourist police in Arugam Bay by phone when I got back to UK as I forget to do it there even though they are just down the road from the hotel; though am yet to get a report number the hotel did call me say that the police have been in to follow up which based on a text message is pretty impressive imho though whether it will impress Columbus Direct remains to be seen - the real desire is get hold of the images.

So, the purpose of the blog?

It's to see whether having tweeted the link to this post that that desire is ever realised!

So, to my small band of followers a RT would be great (can this go viral?) and if I get to write a Pt 2 I'll be delighted!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The end of government services

Catchy headline huh!?

Inspired by: Plug pulled on government direct?

Interesting that TD's service preceded those that came after and now it is being retired. Open data and entrepreneurs with similar services being credited with driving this decision.

Now, look around, and what do you see - on the one hand myriads of existing commercial (or at least not funded by government) services of one kind of another built on open and not so open data; on the other government funds pouring into institutes and organisations to create free to air and paid for services based on those same data combos. And in many cases these new services replicate what is already in the market. For a government so wedded to the market model therein lies a tension, as the TD announcement so clearly illustrates.

What gives you might ask! I for one would hope that other arms of government will follow the TD example!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

It didn't have to be like this

It was only a question of time before the tensions between the paucity of really useful/economically valuable things being done with the "open data deluge" and the continuing noises over the necessity of it resulted in an apparent shift in the language of responsibility.

Gone is "raw data now", forgotten the criticism of Spikes Cavell, overlooked the hackneyed (yet poetic and often so) "the best thing that can be done with your data will be done by somebody else for some other reason". Instead we have a plea for open data publishers to engage with re-users. Completely understandable but in part at least risible nonetheless.

As ODI's piece Engaging With Reusers recognises at the outset, "Publishing open data requires time and effort" (though why its not on ODI website is unclear). Data custodians and their teams have in many cases across the public sector to do just that and, while one can and should argue not only with the utility of many of the releases, with the opaqueness of data currency and maintenance, with the absence of context by which to assess in any realistic way the relevance of the data, with the fact that the collecting methodology effectively cooks the data at the point of capture and that there is little genuinely raw data, with the formats of release and so on, there is significant endeavour in meeting the letter if not the entire spirit of open data initiative and the underpinning TBL 5 stars of linkedness. Now they are being exhorted to maximise reuse. That's surely to miss the point or is it a figleaf/buck-pass for the open data project.

As someone who has mostly believed that the best outcomes of this 'grand projet' will be significant efficiencies within and between government agencies this comes as no great surprise. Many of the numbers posited for the economic benefits may be fulfilled via productivity gains in the public sector itself rather than from the often ad-dependent tax returns of start-ups (the ad platforms not being domiciled for tax purposes not featuring in the calculations any more!). As a 13 year old start up steeped in the mysteries and myths of data licensing, re-use, utility, value and so on, assisting different markets in finding or realising value, it seems strange that hard-pressed internally focused data personnel within the public sector are now being asked to go into bat for the data whose release appeared to be their end game. Who knows, next they'll be wanting to develop and licence their own applications to recover all that time and effort! There are start-ups who are both advocates and practical showcases for what can be done with open data - Mastodon C, Placr come to mind - which is excellent and who they will tell you have had to do battle with data custodians and data alike to progress and the feedback provided will have helped the custodians I am sure. That surely is the point - if you build it they will come as the old saying goes - and the energies of the market will bring their own benefits as well as a sense of relative value, though whether that it is the same as the value sought for the PSIHs or along a different trajectory is less certain. If, on the other hand, you reach out or focus or engage or identify possible reuse cases/groups not only will you be diverting hard pressed resources but with the best will in the world you wont be doing what you're best at.

Having said all that I think it is unfortunate that the piece is structured in the way that it is. There are useful advisories on documentation, metadata and the downstream user community that serve as flags to PSI custodians so that when data is published it already has optimal utility and demands minimal further input or promotion or re-user engagement from the publisher (other than maintenance!). However, to me at least, these are lost in the opening salvo and are actually what demand all our attention. Metadata and API documentation may be the dull end of the project but no question they are central to value being added! This document is a draft - we can expect changes - so do comment on it!

Monday, 19 December 2011

The decline of democracy?

Weird starting with Francis Maude again but his "bonfire of the quangos" Public Bodies Act quietly came into force last week with Royal Assent. Putting aside the rather lacklustre execution to date of the quango cull it was the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) that attracted the most comment in a rather under-reported story.

Now the RDAs certainly are not perfect and for many have failed to deliver on some of their purposes, notably in getting match funding to accelerate economic development. You could as I do call this a problem of execution rather than function or you could see it as an exemplar of all that is wrong with quangocracy with all the placemen, red-tape, inertia etc beloved of red top ridicule.

Just for a moment step back and consider QUANGO - quasi autonomous non governmental organisation - organisations to which government has devolved power, which operate at arms length from Ministers and which in government parlance are referred to a Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). Very much a product of 1980s thinking there are well over 1000, with 177 or so due to fall under the latest axe. And they sound like a mechanism for mediation too, for coordinating and focusing the often conflicting demands of different stakeholders in local issues, dispassionately, putting out some mfires and stoking others to, in the regional context, at least, seek ultimately to lead not follow.

The irony is that for some quangos offered a route for delivering traditional governmental services along more commercial lines, independently of politics and changeable government priorities and unencumbered by civil service practices and bureaucracy. And in so doing could in some cases, such as RDAs, be seen to provide a more local, coordinating perspective than heavility centralised sensibilities in Westminster.

So now we have the death of RDAs and the return to centralised edict, masked by the mantra of localism. In a perfect world there would be thriving vibrant communities with all the diversity of US sitcom networking, interacting, supporting each other in the daily struggle to maintain their environment across social, economic, environmental, political, cultural milieus. But it aint so an to pretend it is and will all be address by a multi-channel digital by default paradigm in two flicks of a lambs tail is naive. I beleive in all of that and wish it would be but wishing wont make it so and a huge investment in ripping up the rule book of design and delivery is needed to even begin the process; one hopes that GDS might make some headway in this direction.

In the meantime, back to localism. In the accepted absence for most of a coordinated localism rooted in consultation and compromise, localism comes very quickly to represent the worst shades of the human condition. Trade associations, lobbyists, vested interests and men with menaces, George Monbiot's elite 1% (well mostly) are incredibly adept at painting a prosperity canvas highly loaded in favour of laissez-faire 'development'. RDAs (or organisations like them) provide the sounding board, neutrality (though obviously can be gamed if you're in it for the long term), reference point, guidance, mechanism for consultation and compromise that most in any community would expect of their representatives and worthies.

Pork barrel politics and the presumption to approve (planning) will combine to steam roll through all kinds of misbegotten short term development in the interests of the few. The consequences, pickaxes and filth encrusted letterboxes notwithstanding, are the loss of planning, over-pressured resources, over-heated south east, the loss of more green lung space (SANGs anyone?) and the deliberate absenting of government from the one thing that it was elected for - allegedly to run the (whole) country.

A few years back I was in the Potteries, Newcastle-under-Lyme specifically and having never been there before was shocked and stunned to find an area, for all its legacy of skilled workforce, proximity to markets, excellent communications (really excellent actually) not to mention stunning environs, palpably down on its luck - it felt under-invested, forgotten almost. If those factors alone don't alert anyone still still expousing regional planning virtues to what could be done to coordinate and run the (whole) country (to the greater good and at lower cost) then I would be surprised. And in a digital, linked data world, we don't all have to be in Shoreditch or Holborn.

Trouble is localism is meant to solve this on its own and it can't when the whole process has been emasculated and opened up to gerrymandering - quangos may be undemocratic and counter-intuitively to have ended up over-extending the hand of government but localism is really another side of that same coin. That's government reneging on its remit to lead.

Why am I so vexed? - everything happens somewhere but something should happen just about everywhere, even if its peace and quiet!