Saturday 14 May 2011

PSMA and open data don't mix

I've been trying to encourage local authorities to consider using openstreetmap for a while on and off. It seems that Ordnance Survey (OS) recognised the growing competition and have forestalled these efforts. Local authorities use maps so much that they often have a dedicated GIS team. They base most of their activities on OS maps, which is not surprising, OS being the national mapping agency of Great Britain. Until recently the local authorities had to negotiate with OS about what products they wanted to licence. However the UK Government announced that this was to change for the current financial year and a new ten-year Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA) was being introduced.

This agreement allows various public sector bodies access to core geographic datasets from OS, free at the point of use. This sounds very appealing to local authorities since they get to use any of the OS datasets included in the core set as and when they want and they don't have to worry about the cost. What could be wrong with that?

Well actually it is a very shrewd move by OS. The money to fund their licences with public bodies mostly came from central government. Most money that local authorities spend comes from central government. Council tax, for example, only covers about a quarter of local authority spending. The Government have naturally taken away the money they used to give to public bodies for OS licences and put it into the central pot to fund the PSMA. OS receive that cash, so they get the same money as ever, but now have much less effort in renewing the licences each year.

The really smart part is the way OS have tied the hands of local authorities into using OS datasets. When local authorities paid for an OS product, if they found a replacement the brave ones could have chosen not to licence the OS data and use the replacement instead. That would have saved them money - a great incentive. Now they get the OS datasets seemingly for free so why look at anything else?

Why does this matter? Well it matters a great deal if you are interested in open access to data from local authorities and other public bodies. If they want to publish information as text or tables they can do as they please, but as soon as they want to display the data as a graphic overlaid on a map their only option is to use an OS map as the background and suddenly they can't release the data as they choose because they are bound up by the draconian restrictions OS place on their map data. The local authority are not likely to use any other form of map, without these restrictions, because of the effort to move away from the seemingly-free OS datasets.

I am sure that for most of their work OS data suits local authorities very well. I'm not well placed to know if the PSMA is good value for money overall - clearly it is not free as some local authorities have claimed. I want to see a viable way of publishing data from a public body in an open way on maps that is not restricted by the licence of another public body, OS. PSMA has made that less likely to happen and has strengthened the hand of OS as a dominant GIS provider.


Unknown said...

I can certainly see how the PSMA protects the OS's market position in the public sector, and makes it much less likely a local authority will make use of OSM. I am not clear what you mean my their draconian terms, though. I thought they had clarified their rules on deriving from OS maps and displaying data on top of OS maps. More details here:

Are there other problems remaining? If so, what are they?


Chris Hill said...

If a public body wants to publish location-based data on a map in an open licence, they can freely publish the data, but not with the underlying OS map data. So the data is usually meaningless, since it has no reference points to tie it into the real world. The examples in the clarification from OS make that crystal clear.

They give an example of an allotment site, where the individual plots were overlaid on an OS map. The council can publish the diagram of the allotment plots in any licence they want, but not with the OS map as the base layer. If they use the OS map as a base layer the council can only publish it as Crown Copyright, stopping anyone else using the diagram for other purposes.

The allotment diagram might be useful in its own right, but it probably needs the OS layer to make real sense, such as where the access gates are in relation to the roads. In the case of point locations, such as council facilities, single markers without the underlying map is clearly worthless.

Ed has gone on to question this further, including on an OS blog and AFAIK has not received an answer that differs from this view. Indeed, there was an exchange with someone from OS implying that GMaps licence was the obstacle to sharing, something Ed strenuously refuted.

Anonymous said...

Does this not allow a local authority to publish the allotment data as say a shapefile or as a set of centre point co-ordinates without restrictions, then allowing OSM users to import that data into OSM?

Chris Hill said...

Yes is does allow the allotment layout to be published as, say, a shpfile in any licence, and with if it is a compatible licence then that could indeed be loaded into OSM. The fact is that they often want to publish an overlay on an OS map for context and then that mashup has to be Crown Copyright.