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!

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