Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Outing the OS "policy options" 'consultation'

Apologies for so much grammar in the title but those of you who have been following this since November 17th will know exactly whence the implied skepticism comes.

In the intervening months you may have observed (as I have not been 'anon') various comments I have made to various posts and other blogs (I can't remember them all now so no links!) correcting factual errors and establishing a soap box of sorts from which to contrast and/or challenge in a "you can't prove that your emperor has any clothes" kind of way some of the statements, demands and assumptions of the 'georati' (?).

Now of course you may argue that I, on behalf of emapsite, have an agenda of my own, what with being an OS Premium Partner (that's value adding reseller) and all. You may be right and I am not going to be sharing corporate information here so you'll just have to speculate but on the whole you won't find me hiding behind some smoke-screen of nobility and social good. Actually, on the one hand I am 100% behind the release of data sets under some kind of OS Free in support of these kind of activities, mashups etc, unhindered by the derived data nonsense. On the other hand I give short shrift to a number of things:

- that data (in this context OS data) is 'expensive'
- that large scale geographic data has a high price elasticity of demand
- that there are businesses going out of business or not come into business because data is so 'expensive'

After all we're a commercial concern, employ people, pay tax etc in delivering services to our customers.

But in the wake of the ludicrously quick announcement on Monday, by the PM no less (in amongst the big stuff on the digital and information economies), to assorted digerati that a policy option had been worked out and that it included a "substantial package" of data under the OS Free banner, the 'community' (that is neo and paleo - the alleged will to stop this squabble in a tea cup expounded at fora such as AGI apparently forgotten in the rush to claim the leadership of this not so new zeitgeist) have been quick to cheer, deride and second guess various aspects of the forthcoming announcement.

Whoops, that is a long sentence......feel a rant coming on.....

Sage voices, false prophets, various trolls and those who you might think would know better have saddled their various donkeys. It's all so undignified! But then again dignity is hardly what you would ascribe to the decision (presumably taken by December 23rd when the consultation was released) to announce a preferred policy option just three, yes 3, days after the consultation closed, with barely time to download the PDFs, rip open the envelopes and digest the contents, let alone assimilate, evaluate, reflect, ponder, revisit etc the wisdom of the community (from end users to software sellers, integrators and resellers, competitors and contractors, fans and detractors, old business and new et al) and convey that in measured form up the chain of command in line with the standard consultation protocol, upto 87 additional days later. Yep, take it as read that industry submissions have received short, if any, shrift. Indecent cry some, stitch up others, foregone conclusion? Why did we all bother? Why indeed?

It was evident from fairly early on (and arguably from the way in which the 3 options were positioned) that CLG, Cabinet Office, LEK et al were 'hedging', looking at option 3 as a stepping stone to option 2 within an unspoken timeframe. It was also evident that the consultation would count for nothing given the hostage to fortune of the original announcement, unencumbered as it was (and is) by recognition of the legal OS operational framework.

You would think that such a well respected consultancy as LEK would diligently dissect the various strands available to them and the limited material in support of a given direction. Not the case here as any decent assessment of the available literature on the economics of geographic information reveals. Prof Nigel Shadbolt of this parish was quick to acknowledge in January in the wake of criticism of the assumptions of the so-called Cambridge Study that there was a need for greater research on this subject. The reason: Pollock and friends are entirely unchallenged on the evidence-free assumption that the demand for large scale data (i.e. OS MasterMap) is highly elastic and their numbers are repeated ad infinitum without question. I would not argue that such products are perfectly price inelastic but, as one of the few businesses with a decade of evidence to hand, I can with confidence say that those who 'need' large scale data need large scale data, not perhaps at any price but at just about any price short of going and collecting it themselves. That is one measure of the value of large scale data.

Picture the use cases:

- house extension requires planning application requires 'plan' - cost of plan from about £12.99 depending on supplier and area; cost of extension from about £15,000; benefit of extension from about £25,000. Mmmm, %age cost of essential, useful 'plan' - paltry.

- decent size urban regeneration (few 10s or even 100s of hectares) - cost of detailed digital mapping for use across the multiple companies involved? Maybe upto £3,000 or so; cost of development in the millions; benefit of redevelopment - economic and social - massive. Mmmm, %age cost of vital, core data - paltry again.

And now we have the claim that 'markups' are 'wrong'; watch out for 'profit is evil' or 'do no profit' branding on a search engine near you soon. First duty to shareholders and all that.....can't see costs to customers falling and of course out of profit do UK taxes come (if UK domiciled of course!).

And yet there are those claiming, even this week, that the private sector finds this data too 'expensive'. Our customers don't - they know the cost and risks of the alternatives and the benefit of instant availability. Have there been errors? Of course! Are transactional charges for B2C websites (those that want to use OS data) too high? Yes. Should the third sector have specific use rights and charging waivers - if the distinction of non-profits, charities etc was not so blurred, of course.

But all these bleeding hearts....get yourself a business case, really. And please don't say LBS or even LBMS or 'ad revenues' or 'donations', it don't wash. If the target ain't paying your bills, by whatever means, you're going to blame the one thing you knew the cost of? Tell that to your Board, sell the Maserati, whatever....too difficult, scapegoat required, doh. Different of course if costs were put up without warning or rationale.

I am mostly interested in large scale data (as is OS as it provides 80% of their revenues); in all the 'noise' it seems to have been overlooked that Free Our Data and almost everyone else concurs that this should not be in OS Free (they don't want option 2 either). In the clamour for 'free' the point has been lost - how is an inefficient organisation with an outdated mandate to be recreated for the 21st century as a streamlined entity with a tightly constrained public task that will deliver long term geoinformation integrity at a declining cost to users in real terms?

And another thing....next some will be claiming that other infrastructure should be run as a government asset and thus be free at the point of consumption. It was never thus, government always got receipts from nationalised industries, now utilities, charging to cover for delivery of the next unit and the one tomorrow and also for the unit in 30-50 years time, the maintenance, update, investment bearing considerable parallels, albeit at a much smaller scale, with databases. I worked in Mongolia and saw and benefited from (when working) the centralised free hot air heating systems - they're great - but are we to truly anticipate and relish a return to nationalised this and that?

btw, anyone can be an OS 'partner', there being no protection per se and the costs, like 'em or not, are transparent, making a cost base and business model 'easy'.

Of course OS has done stuff it would have been wiser not to down the years (we've been quick to tell them, they're no angels) and could have moved more quickly in a number of areas - sorting out derived data, consolidated consumer licensing and pricing, OS Free, click use licensing, cutting costs, not competing with the private sector being notable - but have you tried dealing with the others? And as I say it isn't that hard to change the cost structure and mandate and resolve these issues. This consultation is the opportunity to do just that but has signally failed to identify, let alone drill down into and resolve, these fundamental issues. Opportunity missed #FAIL.

On competing with its channel.....OS has continually moved up the value chain over the last decade and there are signals already that concerns over short term revenue 'hits' on the back of this consultation are contributing to more of the same, and at significant cost (£10m), at a time when OS should be looking at slashing its cost structure.

I've always been for the broader social good and OS Boundary Line (everything from parishes and wards to euro zones), Code Point (that's postcodes, a right royal (ha) pain), addressing and various gazetteers should be unleashed on the third sector, charity, mashup, academic, bedroom hacker and any other kind of user to produce stuff and present stuff (that be Gary's secret sauce) to people that wish to 'consume' it and the benefits it confers. emapsite would benefit too. These are the framework geographies by which most public data (data.gov.uk and all that) can be assembled, aggregated, analysed and visualised. And what is used for that visualisation? Well, it ain't OS mapping (that's the 1:25 000 scale Explorer and 1:50 000 scale Landranger equivalents) - too dense and rich cartographically to provide a useful contextual backdrop for most applications (as the low take up of OS's own OpenSpace service kind of demonstrates) - most are using OpenStreetMap (OSM) (and should be eternally grateful to SteveC and all the 'VGIers') for its clean visual style, flexibility (if you have the inclination), spherical global projection (another issue for another time!) and licensing or GYM.

And please please, mashup some social and economic value and not the high profile kind of guff that has been first out the traps - ASBOrometer anyone, has anyone actually looked at that and been prepared to make a genuine decision about anything and I mean anything at all; safer cycling anyone, you'll know where I am on that already; potholes, ditto. Me? There be value in them thar data hills.....

Did I mention the third sector? I did? Diversion? OK! Unrehearsed argument this.....Bit like PPP and PFI only with a nobler defence, they've become a critical part of the service delivery fabric in our transformed nation state, sucking taxes directly from government and indirectly from the public at large (charity and donations as indirect broadly regressive taxation anyone - you know about the U-shaped charitable giving profile of course - for another time perhaps), providing fertile ground for parallel commercial and lobbying activity and duplicating existing institutional infrastructures. On the latter, I worked in 'development' through the late 80s and most of the 90s and have first hand experience both of the awesome, wonderful work of the likes of SCF, MSF, WaterAid et al on the one hand and the staggering costs of administering both these and especially the supra-agencies such as the UN (where anything up to 84% of receipts go on admin) on the other. BandAid set out to demonstrate among other things, and by most measures successfully, that it needn't be so but they remain the exception rather than the rule at that scale though more of a model at the micro voluntary and community scale. Those that come in their wake are these days more adroit at leveraging the 'third sector' appellation in different ways - an exemplar of 'freemium' for some and a Trojan horse to others. I have witnessed at first hand the credibility from that association, annointed by piety, used as a tool to convey entirely inaccurate 'facts' to duped credulous high level audiences. Chatham House rules preclude further revelations but for want of a good soundbite it pays to do your research.

For some reason the city of Tempe (AZ) just popped into my head as an exemplar (if I recall correctly) of what goes wrong and what costs there are to the dilution of quality (and hence, as night follows day, trust) in large scale mapping. I believe there are now 10 or more large scale vertical market or use case specific data sets for this one small city, most of which contain the same data but none of whoch have been collected to a common standard. It may look good in GDP terms with lots of declared economic activity but it sure as hell ain't efficient or re-usable or linked (or even accessible). Rumour has it that there are those in the crowd at WhereCampEU last week (sorry, had to duck out but Justin, Ian and Richard all put in appearances) who have suddenly woken up to the idea that you can't have two definitive large scale maps.....

Which in a very roundabout way brings me to what happens next....there are plenty of factors that could inform the outcome.....

- the idea that the public sector should pay more (a small part of option 3) is naturally laughable; as is giving away large scale data or nothing changing (options 2 and 1 respectively).

- the fact that prices have gone down more than 30% in real terms in recent years (with no significant increase in uptake) has for no apparent reason been ignored, though it disproves the case for option 2.

- that the thriving community of businesses in the sector (that employ upwards of 10,000 people (yes, employ, that's taxes folks, at both ends) according to the AGI) has received scant attention - why is that when the information economy is our future?

- the fact that beneficiaries of collective purchase agreements are saddled with unworkable derived data regulations is as sorely overlooked as the fact that so little is done with the data these organisations actually pay for (all options).

- the myth that LGA members contribute data to the OS for free that is then licensed back to them for a fee; the CODES process has been quietly dropped owing to the need, following field trials, for OS to go and resurvey the as-built real world features for which LAs provide pre-built/planned information.

- the fact that the public task for OS and the parallel opportunity to re-cast OS in a different mould while retaining its self-financing integrity in difficult economic times (when the alleged benefit to the Treasury through increased tax take from start ups and non-dom companies is as comical as it is scary) received little or no attention except from respondents (most of whom made this point in some form, all of whom are set to be ignored).

...but they (and others) won't - if I were a gambling man I would even bet that most of these are news to CLG.

So, having ruled out large scale data and raster backdrops and ruled in all that reference data, where exactly is the squabble? Is there even one! We'll know soon enough as the various models are run, fiefdoms are fought over, sacrifices and accommodations made, budgets re-run in time for All Fools Day.

Ian Austin, MP is Minister of State for OS at CLG and a very close ally of the PMs. With the latter in thrall to TBL (to the tune of £30m - wonder where that Institute will be - in one of those closed down University departments or MIT perhaps?) the (rest of the) money has to be on an OS Free that satisfies a small coterie of vocal technocrats while leaving a far larger swathe of often innovative, risk taking, entrepeneurial anything-but-Cnuts with proven markets and business models to re-think their propositions. It's one thing to fail to invest in tools and technologies to more effectively meet new challenges, it's another to have your business model overturned by a competitor but that is not the case with government edict.

Hey, life ain't fair, geddoverit, this is a slow train that has been a long time coming (and may take a while to pass)....best be on the side of the angels (and not Harry Angel - you may have to look up the reference and decide who is who too) and may it be profitable and popular...


  1. Well done James, someone had to say it!

    Your (very long!) post contains a lot of common sense as well as business sense.

    It is easy to forget in the general euphoria around free data - some of which is indeed justified - that at the end of the day it is the paid-for stuff that drives the economy. It is a bit naive to expect small and medium businesses - the back-bone of the economy - to throw away their livelihoods just because someone else says it will create innovation. Innovation is great, but how much do freeloaders living with their mothers contribute to the economy? The buck has to stop somewhere.

    Common sense will hopefully prevail. My bet is that it will, albeit for the wrong reasons - most likely it will be driven by different vested interested keeping themselves in balance, rather than a holistic & wise government approach. But isn't that what people power is meant to achieve?


  2. Great post James

    Breathless from reading and agreeing (with most of it).

    Time for some sanity


  3. James, as expected one of the most thoughtful comments on the "consultation" - While I agree with your identification of many of the errors, false preconceptions and assumptions which make the whole process lees than perfect - I would still rather be where we are today than 12 months ago.

    Be like many others outside the cosy club of AGI members and OS partners have run out of patience with ;

    1) The OS sorting out the many issues you identify, chiefly however derived data and making a token set of small / medium scale data freely available. This could have been down at any point in the last 5 years and the fact it was not is the simple result of poor strategic leadership in Southampton.

    2) Addressing (pun intended) the wider structural issues re postal geography and the role and status of OS. This required industry cooperation and a clear exposition of the scale of the problem to Government. This I would argue was not forthcoming from the UK industry or the organisations that claim to represent it.

    As a result of these two failures to progress, the UK GI industry is having a less than perfect solution imposed on it with uncommon speed, and of course we still don't know all the details, but I would rather have an imperfect solution than a re-run of the last five years.

  4. The asertion that the 1:25 000 scale Explorer and 1:50 000 scale Landranger are useless as a backdrop is simply wrong. If it is so useless why do people continue to purchase it? The richness of the cartography is the selling point. We need complete maps that have things such as footpaths and POI that is lacking from Google Maps and OSM (mostly). It is also heavily used as a base for capturing when MasterMap would be unafforable.

  5. Anon: I dont think I said (it was stream of cosciousness stuff) that the raster backdrops were 'useless'. On the contrary they are ideal for deriving other data sets from and are the best in the world for some kinds of overlays - it is all about the context. My point is rather that the mashing up community (those that want to display overlays of data aggregated by census area for example or those that want to use a certain kind of symbology to locate features or events) do find them too cartographically dense to allow them to convey the overlay information in a visually accessible way. There are of course ways round this, using the alpha channel for example, but GYM are in the box seat for these types of apps.

  6. Ed - thanks. The failure to address (ok ok, pun) all the issues you identify (and with which I agree - OS Free set, derived data, addressing to an extent, RM notwithstanding) can be laid at the door of OS leadership. As I say this is a slow train that has been a long time coming and they could long ago have resolved these 3 things and retained control of their destiny. It's now out of their hands and about to bite them all in the behind.
    ps 5 years? - weren't you there then ;-) (it is Friday afternoon!)

  7. James - Yes I was there, and so I share part of the failure. As you say this has been a long time coming, and many at the OS could see the issue, but were unable to influence the organisations direction.

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Thank you for taking the time to ponder my musings and for any contribution you make. Although comments appear immediately (i.e. unmoderated) I will remove (or if possible) edit offensive comments.