Ordnance Survey shake-up backed for open data promise
Data expert says operational change to a GovCo could ensure more flexible use of geospatial data, though full commitments are yet to be finalised
The decision to transform Ordnance Survey (OS) from a trading fund to a Government Company (GovCo) by the end of the current financial year has the potential to expand the amounts of geospatial data available for open use, though the full extent of these proposed changes are yet to be finalised.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said it was overhauling the structure of OS partly to build on existing open data commitments, though it added there were no plans to make similar changes to other data distributing trading funds such as the Met Office at present. Open data is a term describing information that is available for anyone to access, use and share, regardless of whether the holding organisation operates in the public or private sector.
Eddie Copeland, head of technology policy for Policy Exchange, said the switch had the potential to be "very positive" in terms of strengthening government open data commitments, particularly with the provision of geospatial information - identified by BIS as among the UK's most valuable datasets.
However, Copeland noted some caution, saying it was "early days" for the switch, with further details on BIS' plans for OS as yet unknown.
"We shouldn't be jumping up and down with excitement just yet, but I think this should allow more data to be made available freely or at reduced cost," he said.
Matthew Hancock, minister of state for business, enterprise and energy, last week confirmed that the decision to change OS from a trading fund was aimed to improve the organisation's day-to-day efficiency, while building on existing support for open data initiatives.
In a written statement to parliament, Hancock said that that the change was "operational in nature", with OS remaining 100% under public ownership and this data still being held as crown property.
"In the coming weeks I will also be setting out more details on how OS will be building on its existing extensive support for the government's open data policy and on some senior appointments which will further strengthen the management team," he said.
Citing rapid technology change in how mapping data is compiled and distributed to meet the needs of customers, Hancock said OS had to be more flexible in its operations to offer cost effective services that were still "open and free where possible".
A spokesperson for BIS said that proposed changes to OS' structure were "purely operational" and designed to improve databases without limiting the types of information made available to customers However no further details were available "at this stage".
The spokesperson added that there were no plans to transform trading funds such as the Met Office, which like OS also collects, manages and distributes vital datasets, into a GovCo.
When asked about the possible impact on information sharing from making OS a GovCo, non-profit body the Open Data Institute (ODI) said a large number of organisations including companies and trading funds were now supporting a growing culture of open data provision.
"Being a trading fund, or even being a commercial company, is consistent with making open data available. All the trading funds - including OS - have made significant commitments to open data," said an ODI spokesperson.
"Companies House and Land Registry are moving towards completely open data. We're working closely with the Met Office as they build on DataPoint. OS has released significant amounts of open data and we're looking forward to further commitments from them. https://www.geovation.org.uk/ is a great example of OS commitment to open data and innovation."
Despite praising the government for making "good progress" on releasing and reusing its data over the last decade, the ODI said late last year more work needed to be done to ensure open data could overcome some of the most pressing challenges facing public service delivery and development in the UK.
The Cabinet Office has previously said it is committed to recruiting a government chief data officer (CDO) to reform public sector standards for the use and sharing of information, as part of commitments outlined in a reform document released last year to strengthen open data commitments across all departments.