Monday, November 23, 2009

Free data - sign of times…

It’s official. Starting from April 2010, UK citizens and the rest of the world will be able to openly access maps from Ordnance Survey as well as plethora of interpretive geographical data such as crime, health and education statistics by postcode. After many years of significant revenue from a successful commercial model of licensing government geographical information to value added resellers, UK government has decided to change its approach and make the information available online for free.

Ordnance Survey monopoly on GIS data in UK will end although some may argue that its position was already heavily undermined by the success of OpenStreetMap project – a community driven initiative to provide free high resolution vector data in competition with OS. Smaller players and website developers will be the winners as this opens up new opportunities for mashing up the information into myriads of specialised online applications.

Ordnance Survey is a £116 million a year enterprise and now part of this revenue will be forgone for “a wider good”. And the burden of maintaining high quality geographic information will have to be shifted to the UK Government (ultimately taxpayers) as the activity will no longer be funded by end users. However, the argument is that the overall commercial benefit to UK economy will be greater than the lost revenue stream.

There is similar attempt to liberate government data in Australia with Government 2.0 Taskforce initiative. It is not a first such attempt - Spatial Data Access and Pricing Policy from 2001 is still in place. It allowed free access to quite a range of geographic information in the past but it is rather very difficult to assess its economic benefits.

It is quite obvious from past experience that just releasing the data will not lead to any tangible benefits. There must be a framework put in place at the same time for managing and improving that data (ie. either big money from the government or big crowdsourcing initiatives, as in case of OpenStreetMap project). Otherwise there is a danger that we will end up in a big mess… with everyone maintaining their own sets of data (hence multiplying the efforts) and creating own set of problems (one only need to look as issues with postcode data in Australia to understand what it can lead to... ).

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