The Government is at a Geospatially Located Crossroads

7th May 2020

Why the Geospatial Commission has an opportunity and duty to do more.

In my recent blog "Thanks, Gordon Brown. (What we can learn from the open release of flood data)," I drew parallels between the release of Environment Agency flood data and the need for the same or similar measures in ground data. The challenge remains that government bodies don't want to change. Or perhaps they don't know how to change because they haven’t been in this position before. Here I’m looking at what I’m calling the "Public Sector Data Commercial (not quite) Curve".

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I've worked in some of the most exciting times of the early stages of the geospatial sector and played my part in the last 20 years helping form and grow the market through digitisation projects, data quality standards and practical licensing. The early noughties were an exciting time to be in this sector, seeing pieces of paper transformed into digital raster images and later vector data.

It took time and skill to access and commercially awaken public sector bodies to the potential of the files they held, and the benefit private sector companies could provide in funding bringing it to digital life ("Lag Phase"). Protective and suspicious; eventually, public bodies realised that having access to digital data could improve their public services. Revenue from making their files available could fund improvements to the maintenance and development of those digital files ("Exponential Phase").

2007 saw a combination of recession and the "Free our Data" led to a revenue decline for public sectors and perhaps it was this phase that cemented their desire to vehemently hold on to this particular revenue stream ("Recession/Open Data Phase"). Circa 2009, post-recession, public and private sector revenue hit a plateau, albeit at a rather lovely revenue level for existing public and private sector players.

Fast forward to 2020, and we are at a crossroads ("Tension Phase”). The private sector sees this as an opportunity going begging. Public sector sees any move from existing models as a gamble on its existing revenue stream. But is it a gamble? Look further into history, and I say we're back in the "Lag Phase". The private sector is having to wake up the public sector for a second time to the need and potential for consumption of the data in new and different ways and places ("Opportunity Phase").

There have been a lot of challenges and changes in the industry since the early noughties, but few had landed real, meaningful change. The only long-lasting change had come from Charles Arthur & Michael Cross who On March 9, 2006, published an article in The Guardian "Give us back our crown jewels". The argument was simple: government-funded and approved agencies such as the Ordnance Survey, Environment Agency, British Geological Survey and Coal Authority; they collect data on our behalf, so why can't we get at that data. Their claim “That it restricts innovation and artificially restricts the number and variety of organisations that can offer services based on that most useful data - which our taxes have helped to collect.” Their impact on the industry was positive. It eventually saw public pressure to open some lower resolution data sets, sometimes allowing a view of the higher resolution data sets (more use) or data that had little to no value in the geospatial sector. Defra and the Environment Agency was the first and only government body to make the complete change and hats off to them. People can access and use their data, free of charge and under a genuinely Open Government Licence (OGL). The problem for the industry is, it seems to have stopped there.

The first attempt to get the public sector on board was time-consuming.

The second attempt needed the power of the media to kick the can along the road.

This time around, there is hope that the government might do it for itself. The latest incarnation of government oversight into the UK's geospatial industry, the Geospatial Commission. The Commission was set up as the government's commitment to maximise the value of geospatial data and accelerate delivery of economic, social and environmental benefits derived from geospatial data. With £80m of funding, it has a duty and incredible opportunity to achieve what none of its predecessors managed, that is to govern, harmonise and simplify across all the UK government Geospatial providers. It's starting position is enviable. The data is there, the structures are there, and as Gordon Brown and Frances Maude demonstrated with flood data, it is quite simple when you say, “do it”.

A word of caution. If, like its predecessors, the Geospatial Commission positions itself as an enthusiastic enabler or passive observer rather than an overarching enforcer of change, the public sector providers will root more deeply in the "Tension Phase". The UK will fall behind the rest of the world in data and technology-driven services.

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Blog written by Lucy Oxer

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