Amid the minor salvoes of the coming electoral battle will be the Government’s pronouncement on the future of Ordnance Survey, expected shortly after the consultation exercise announced in December and now drawing to its close.
This subject used to be the preserve only of Geo-spatial and public sector information junkies. However, the Free Our Data campaign and the Making Public Data Public initiative have contributed to its being a part of the debate not just on the transparency of Government but on the role of the public sector itself.
Those who get their regular fix on what is sometimes an arcane debate will be familiar with the three options which the Government’s consultation on Ordnance Survey presents. Novitiates will not – but the debate hinges upon the availability of data collected by Ordnance Survey and the terms of its availability to the public:
Option 1: “This option builds on the existing business structure and unwinds some of the problems over the medium-term...This model does not propose a dataset funded by government to be free at the point of use.” In short, continue as things are – a solution now that the Berners Lee (Making Public Data Public) genie is out of the bottle will satisfy no one in this long running debate.
Option 2: which “...would enable customers to use and re-use large- and smaller-scale data for free and without restriction.” A decision so uncalculated in its impact upon the public purse and on a trading private sector that not even Berners Lee’s own Sancho Panza, Professor Shadbolt, thinks it a realistic alternative at this time.
Option 3: And thus Sir Humphrey brings us by a seeming remorseless and reasonable logic to the “... release, for free and with no restrictions on re-use, of a selection of mid- and small-scale products.” Plus “an acceleration in the pace of organisational change and an enhanced ownership function” (what does that last phrase actually mean?)
All of which is very well except that the remorseless logic works the other way. Let’s leave aside the fundamental one that nowhere in any of these Ordnance Survey exercises has anyone sought to define the fundamental core task of the public sector in the critical geo-information sector. (For that one must go not to Government’s consultation exercises but the arguments advanced by).
Even leave aside the not inconsiderable issue of whether the “selection of mid- and small scale “ mapping products will satisfy the demands of innovators and the Making Public Data Public initiative (innovators want vector mapping which is of intelligent design which they can enhance and manipulate; what they may get is raster mapping which is of little use to them).
But there is a much bigger issue here - “A House divided against itself cannot stand”. There is neither logic nor reason for Option 3 to be a sustainable proposition. Some data will be free; some will not – purely because this is what suits the exigencies of the public purse at the moment.
We will all accept that the present state of calamitous public finances mandates pragmatism. But ultimately the Government has done what we said in Making Public Data Public – unintended consequences: it has spelt the end of the Trading Funds model as a by- product of failing to impose proper governance on Ordnance Survey and a succession of intellectually unsustainable consultation exercises.
To borrow and adapt Lincoln’s predictive voice again: “I believe this government ('s information strategy) cannot endure, permanently, half Ramsey pricing, half free!”