‘Throwing Out the Geospatial Information Baby with the Bathwater’


There is a clear distinction across all public bodies between those that maintain geospatial information to support their public task and those for which the maintaining of geospatial information is their public task. This distinction is not apparent in the UK’s Geospatial Information Strategy, but we believe it should be, as it could inform the way the strategy should focus its efforts in the future.

In the case of public bodies that maintain geospatial information to support their public task, the focus must be on ensuring that the information is of the highest quality (see box on quality measures) to support organisational decision making. Without ‘fit for purpose’ information i.e. evidence, the efficacy of decision making will suffer and, without the highest standard of information management, the quality of the information will be poorer. In addition, the body will be less efficient, as dedicated civil servants strive to make up the shortfall. Financing best practice data management in bodies that rely on geospatial information to undertake their public task has to be a ‘no brainer’ because without it, the individual body, and hence collectively government as a whole, will be much less productive. There is no argument against the geospatial information that these bodies hold being made as widely and freely available, and as efficiently as possible e.g. via web services, because there is no risk – or there shouldn’t be – that the budget for geospatial information will not be available year on year, otherwise the body requiring that information will become dysfunctional.

In the case of bodies where maintaining geospatial information is their public task, the argument is more complex because these bodies are entirely reliant on external funding. There is no internal requirement for the geospatial information and users i.e. customers for that information, public and private are external. Of course best practice data management will still bring benefits, but who provides the funding is less clear, and what exactly is being funded – is it the core datasets or the products, services and applications based on these core datasets? The focus is – or should be – still on maintaining the highest quality data but the relationship is one of a supplier/customer, and the customer pays model has certain advantages, whether that be through some form of Public Sector Mapping Agreement, via a licence agreement, or directly with customers.

Exactly what role the private sector has in this also becomes more complex, with the risk that the public and private sectors start competing with each other, either directly or by providing inadequate substitute datasets, or data products and services, by accident. Any direct form of competition between public and private sector bodies will be counter productive, leading to frustration and confusion in the market. Neither will it deliver the Government aim for a vibrant information economy. Being able to distinguish between the data provider (public) and added value product and service providers (private) through collaboration will deliver the greatest benefits to all concerned, especially customers and end users who can rely on providers understanding their requirements and meeting their exact needs.

In our twenty years’ experience of providing marine mapping products and services to the public and private sector, the priority has rarely been about cost. Mostly, users require the most up to date, accurate and comprehensive data available, in a form that is readily accessible and easy to use, and have been willing to pay for it. A similar argument is applied to navigational products and services from the UK and other National Hydrographic Offices. And here’s the rub, users would rather pay to ensure that the geospatial information they rely on continues to be maintained and supported. They enjoy and benefit from the supplier/customer relationship that puts them in control. Without that, the “what do you expect, its free” attitude could prevail and the risk of budgets being cut and the quality of data suffering is real, as it is in the USA, and as it is becoming in the EU with the budget for EMODnet for example being reduced year on year. When budgets are tight – as they will be soon as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic – maintaining a high standard of geospatial data is unlikely to be on any politician’s priority list.

There is an argument that free data generates greater revenues in taxes paid by businesses selling on that free data – or the applications based on that data – to consumers. That might be the case in some areas, but we contest that in the marine domain there is no evidence that this is the case. Offshore developers are already well catered for by the products and services provided by OceanWise. Navigators are generally satisfied with the products and services provided by the UKHO or the private producers, such as Navionics, that licence data from the UKHO and other national hydrographic offices. So, we challenge the Geospatial Commission to show us the evidence to the contrary, and if it ‘ain’t broke, don’t try fixing it’, otherwise there is a real risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater! There are plenty of other issues that need to be addressed, such as improving data management awareness and expertise across all of the UK public sector. Now that would make a real difference but sadly is not even mentioned!

Image: The ISO Generic Data Quality Model