March 2006 Podcast with Ed Parsons

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Back in March 2006 the OSM blog had a post which was a podcast recorded discussion between Steve Coast and Ed Parsons who was then CTO of Ordnance Survey. (Note: This is all ancient history now of course. Ed Parsons is now chief of Google Maps)

Anyway this page is a transcript of that old discussion



SteveC: Hi and welcome to the first er Opengeodata podcast. We don’t have a jingle, we don’t have any music, er just words but I hope you enjoy it anyway. Opengeodata, er that’s the blog behind OpenStreetMap, er OpenStreetMap being the project that creates free mapping data.

I’m planning to talk to a series of people involved in OpenStreetMap and the wider geo community er to help OpenStreetMap um c connect just more than through the mailing list the wiki and the blog and besides a podcast sounds like a fun idea. Er if you find this podcast useful then please donate there’s a link on the Opengeodata website or just click on some ads, whatever whatever takes your fancy. Today I’m going to talk to Ed Parsons, bit of a controversial figure at the moment, er he’s CTO of the Ordnance Survey and lets see how the interview goes.


"Skype noises"


SteveC: You mentioned becoming the second mouthpiece. That brings us onto the Guardian article.

EdP: Mmm.

SteveC: In, the websphere - gah, that's the name of an IBM product - in the sphere of the web that I inhabit, you are synonymous with the OS.

EdP: Yes.

SteveC: So you almost are a second, if not primary, mouthpiece.


EdP: It's a difficult position, I understand that. My role here isn't to be that mouthpiece, the reason is there is a press office, and the press office is there to respond to queries. What I put in my blog is my own opinion, and as I said before, 95% of the time, that will just will just so happen to coincide with what the view of the organisation is. If I really disagreed with what the Ordnance Survey did, I wouldn't be working for them. So, most of the time, my views and the views of the Ordnance Survey corporately will coincide. But it's not always the case, and I'm certainly not there as an official mouthpiece. I don't check what i say with anyone else at the Ordnance Survey.

SteveC: D'you think that the media section of the OS will "catch up" with blogging, if you like?

EdP: Well, they're very much aware of it, they are tracking the blogs, and watching what is going on. To a certain extent, the official response of the OS has to be constrained by the fact that we are a civil service department, and, you know, one of our primary concerns is that we don't embarass our political masters. So we have to be very careful what we say officially. And, you know, i think for that reason it is quite difficult for the Ordnance Survey or any other government organisation to respond quickly, in the way that the blogosphere works.


SteveC: Right. You said in your article, which I'm sure that most people who eventually listen to this will have read, "Guardian article just plain wrong!". Is the idea that there is no such thing as free data?

EdP: Well, absolutely. I mean, i think, *clears throat*, if you're really honest, and you think about the issue, there is no such thing as free data; what we do, in terms of capturing geospatial data, costs money. The only debate is who pays for it. And, you know, that debate pretty much focuses down on, the general taxpayer pays for it, everybody who pays tax pays for it, or the UK case as it is today - and this isn't the choice of the Ordnance Survey, it's the choice given to us by our political masters - the user pays, so those people who specifically use geographic information, pay for its collection and its maintenance. So, there is nothing that's free, someone pays, it's just who that is.


SteveC: There is this distinction between the OS, and the political masters.

EdP: Mmm.

SteveC: And so a lot of your blog would appear to be, agreeing with the political masters, rather than the OS, which might not even have a view.

EdP: Well i think, to be fair yes the OS corporately doesn't have a view. Though we want, as the Ordnance Survey, we want our operations to be well-funded, we believe that is there is value in having high-quality, maintained geospatial data. Now the way we do that currently, the way we've been directed to do that, is, we need to license our data to users, because we'll get no direct funding from the taxpayer, and we need to be - well there is a lot of debate about this, is it funded by the taxpayer or not? We don't get funded in the same way as in which, another government department gets what's called a "vote funded" element to their income, they'll get a chunk of money every financial year. We don't get that, all we get is money that comes from the licensing of our data. Now that's the choice of, of the government. They could say, well actually, we will give you 200 million pounds a year, and we don't expect you to license the data. But the choice is, the choice that the government has made at the moment, is that we need to be funded by licensing revenue.

"The National Interest Mapping Services Agreement ... provided
GBP12.7 million of revenues to the Ordnance Survey during 2003/4."
Consultation on NIMSA beyond 2006 NIMSA annual reports 
"The Pan Government Agreement (PGA) between the Office of the 
Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) and Ordnance Survey provides access
to a wide range of Ordnance Survey digital map products for 
central government." IGGI PGA Market Sounding


SteveC: Right, how do you feel, given that it's not something that's probably central to your job, how do you feel and what is your motivation behind backing these views on your personal blog, and defending them again and again, for example, just looking at the massive stream of comments?

EdP: (laughing) Sometimes it feels quite lonely defending them! I guess, my perspective on this comes from my experience of looking at how data is captured in other places, and, you know, it's very easy to just draw the analogies, and look the United States, and say, "Isn't it wonderful, all this data is free?" But the quality of the data is very different, but, you know, that's fair enough, you could say, because the size of the country is different. But if you look very specifically at the equivalent organization to ourselves, the United States Geological Survey, over the past ten years, their funding has decreased, year on year, as politicians have decided to put the money elsewhere. It's very easy to see that same issue happening to any organization that relies on, in effect, the political will to be funded. Often, politicians, if given the choice between funding schools and hospitals, or funding an organization that captures geospatial data, they're going to fund the thing that's going to be more of a vote winner.


SteveC: Right.

EdP: Or, you know, for political necessity, they're going to cut back, because they have to pay for, you know, the war in Iraq. My personal opinion is, if you're earning your own revenue through licensing your own data, you're more in control of your own destiny. If you make a bad product, people don't like it, they won't license it, you won't get the revenue, and you'll need to change your way. So, I think it brings a bit more focus on the customer, or at least ideally it does.

SteveC: So, that's bringing a lot more of the free market into a government agency, and that's what trading funds were supposed to do.

EdP: Absolutely.

SteveC: Right, answered my own point. So how do you feel about all of these responses, and taking the time to respond to them, and going through them? It looks an awful lot like, well, it is, it looks like a licensing debate, in the traditional Open Source sense.


EdP: I think, in some elements, it is. I think the debate is pulling in various communities. There's the community of hackers, if you like, who want access to information, and they want to do non-commercial activities, they want to experiment, they want to discover patterns in data, and I think those needs are quite valid, and we need to work out a way of making information available to those guys more easily than we do currently. That's something that's easy to say, but is actually quite difficult to deliver on. We're working on that, but it's going to take a while for us to get our heads around it. We do it to a certain extent with things like our Get-a-Map service, which is a web mapping tool, but we could do some more work around making that sort of thing more sophisticated, and easier to embed, you know, put an API on it. So there's stuff that we could look at to do that, but we need to tread quite slowly and carefully to do that. But that's one community of users that are part of the debate.


EdP: I think behind the scenes is another community of users who are commercial organizations, who see the potential to make more margin, if the cost of the raw material - from their point of view - our data - is decreased or disappears completely. And they have a very different motivation from the hacker community, and I think you're seeing those two communities joined together in the current debate, the current campaign, and they're actually wanting quite different ends.

SteveC: So would you say in that case, to put it bluntly, your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

EdP: I think so.

SteveC: And just how different are those motives?


EdP: Well, I think the motives, the end result, in terms of, from an individual within that debate, the end result might appear to be the same. If the debate gets its way, and we then become completely funded by the government, then the end user no longer pays, but there's a community of commercial users out there would say, great, we can take that data, start adding value to it, exploit it, and then commercialize that and sell it on. If you look at the example in the United States, people say, well, the street network database used by people like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft don't come from directly from government agencies, they don't come the Census Bureau, or the USGS, they come from commercial companies, like Teleatlas and Navteq, who have taken the free government data, they've manipulated it, they've added value to it, and then they license that data to commercial organizations.


EdP: For that information to be really valuable, you have to go through that other step that these other commercial organizations do, and you can see that same thing happening here, if the data was made available for free. Perhaps what we as an Ordnance Survey would be able to do, because of funding constraints, would decrease, and commercial organizations would step in to fill the gap. The end result might be that if you really want to do useful, valuable stuff, you still end up paying, but you'd be paying somebody else, not the Ordnance Survey.

SteveC: So, for someone who's just logged on the web, and Google Maps comes up, and they're looking at a map of the UK, how does an Ordnance Survey surveyor wandering around the streets with a big GPS, how does that data get from all the way from there, to you seeing this on a map?


EdP: Okay, let me step through this slowly and carefully. The surveyor wandering around the UK with his expensive surveying kit, or potentially sitting in an aeroplane with a very high resolution digital camera in the back, is capturing very detailed, large-scale information that your common guy in the street, or someone just using Google Maps or Multimap, will never see. It's very detailed information, that's used by the utility companies, or used by the Land Registry for land registration purposes, by local, central government. From that very large-scale data, we earn the vast amount of our revenue, and the vast amount of our cost goes into that. We derive smaller scale data, simpler versions of that, for example, one of those is a street network product, that we then license to companies like Teleatlas, who take the data, they manipulate it, they add, say, address ranges and other navigation information to that, and sell that on to people like Google.


EdP: So, the mapping that you see on Google for the UK was originally derived from Ordnance Survey data. It's then been manipulated by Teleatlas, who are our partner, and they then sell that to Google. So, Google have paid for that, and they've paid quite a large amount of money for that, and they can justify doing that, you know, because their business model is driven by the number of eyeballs they can get looking at their sites, that then directly lead to advertising. So Google have paid for that data, and we will get a small return from Teleatlas, based upon the amount of use that Google makes of it. That same information goes into the navigation products that Navman or TomTom produce, so, going through TeleAtlas, our information is used behind the scenes.