OS chief urges ministers to consider cost of ‘open data’

Government must remember the cost of gathering public sector data before it gives it away in its ‘open data’ initiative, Ordnance Survey (OS) chief executive Vanessa Lawrence has told CSW.

By Joshua.Chambers

07 Mar 2012

“No data is free; somebody has to pay for the maintenance of it. You can’t have a workforce that makes 5,000 changes without somebody spending money,” she said.

Asked whether government should give OS datasets away for free in order to boost the UK economy, she said: “Obviously, that is a decision for ministers, not me; but it is very, very important that people think carefully about how [OS] will remain sustainable, not just in the next two years, but in the next 20 years. There is a real cost to collecting this information accurately, and it would be important to understand how that cost will be borne going forward.

“Great Britain is not actually profitable to map as a whole, but Ordnance Survey maps the whole,” she added, arguing that private companies only want to “map the urban areas for the professional market, or the most rural areas”.

Lawrence said that “the key thing, the number one thing, is the long-term sustainability of an organisation that, according to independent research, underpins in excess of £100bn of the British economy. That’s about eight per cent of GDP.”

OS did not make a submission to the government’s consultation on open data, which concluded last autumn. Cabinet Office transparency chief Tim Kelsey has told CSW that he’ll use the responses to “develop the proposals for a white paper” on releasing public sector data.
OS does already freely provide some of its datasets, under plans set out by Gordon Brown in 2009. Highlighting communication problems under that administration, Lawrence recalled that “the prime minister made an announcement rather unexpectedly. I didn’t have any knowledge that it was to be made, and the minister of the day [Ian Austin] didn’t seem to either.”

Brown made his announcement in November 2009, but “it took [ministers] until the end of February” to decide that OS should provide a third of its data for free by 1 April 2010, Lawrence added.

Ordnance Survey is a trading fund overseen by the Shareholder Executive in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

See the full interview.


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