Thursday 11 March 2010

Lack of address register a national scandal, say government advisers

The development of a freely available national address register is "long overdue", the government's official advisers on public sector information said this week. In its response to the consultation on the future of Ordnance Survey (OS) the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information says, "It is a national scandal that we do not have a definitive single National Address Register when most of the components have long resided in the public sector."

The panel, chaired by a former chief executive of OS, also comes out in favour of ending licensing charges for geographical information.
The response roundly criticises the scope of the CLG's consultation policy options for geographic information from Ordnance Survey published at the end of last year.

"We believe a much better approach would first have been to take an overview of the national information infrastructure and assess the real needs for Geographical Information (GI) as part of it, rather than concentrate simply on what is presently available from Ordnance Survey. Focusing on what OS produces misses the crucial point that we actually need an inter-related set of Core Reference Geographies to meet many other policy needs."

In a comment likely to be welcomed by local government, the panel dismisses the consultation's proposal that public sector discounts for data be phased out. "What discounts local government receives is mainly for bulk purchase, not for being in the public sector," the panel says. "It seems wrong to penalise local government for being organised and efficient."

The panel, which advises on policy and adjudicates in disputes over public sector licensing, says that a "free data" regime for the OS would be "the most holistic, durable and clearest solution". However it recognises that this would be an irreversible step and agrees with the government's inclination for a phased transition from the current trading fund model. Less complex, restrictive and expensive licensing is crucial to the success of the government's open data initiative, it says.

"In particular, OS should not have any intellectual property rights in derived data."

In unusually forthright terms, the panel, chaired by professor David Rhind, a past head of OS, points to what it calls "a fundamental contradiction" in government information policy. "The great bulk of government organisations are those that provide that information to citizens and businesses at marginal cost or for free. But a relatively small number of information providers fall into a second category: notably the trading funds of Ordnance Survey, the Meteorological Office and the Hydrographic Office, and also the Royal Mail. There has been no consistent philosophy behind the allocation of a body to a particular category, other than 'make some money wherever we can'."

This contradiction will need to be resolved, the panel says, not least because of the complexity of mixing and mashing public sector information from widely different licensing arrangements in a single product. "We believe that the mixed economy model (free and charged for) is increasingly difficult to support in many areas."

The national address register, which would involve the intellectual property of OS, Royal Mail and local authorities is a classic example. "The situation ... must be resolved. The commercial interests of different organisations, all directly or indirectly answerable to government, have prevented there being a single national address register. This has caused confusion, lost opportunity and unnecessary cost."

The submission reveals that Defra has taken over the leadership in re-examining a national address register and welcomes its involvement as a way out of a "10-year imbroglio".