Small companies report problems with unfair competition arising from poorly defined reuse policies. Some PSI holders that exploit their own data create so many restrictions to protect their own activities that the private sector ends up attempting to develop its own data as an alternative. Apart from the duplicated investment, the risk in this situation is that the PSI holder will then loosen its restrictions, undercutting the private sector’s investment and making it potentially worthless.

While Dr. Fornefeld claimed that high prices for PSI were a result of overestimating the value of data, that is not necessarily correct. In my experience, prices can be high simply because those who set them are risk averse and have no competition in a market with no pricing comparisons. There is a reluctance to experiment with the market and to drop prices when there is no competition.

There needs to be a mechanism for countries to define what information must be collected as PSI. It is clearly not acceptable for the public bodies creating PSI to themselves determine what data to collect. Rather, the state has to decide what it needs to own and collect as part of the national information infrastructure and then to decide on its policy for wider distribution. Whatever the state decides to own itself should be very easily accessible. The question should also be asked whether the private sector should be collecting any of this data instead.

The prime minister speaks enthusiastically about how the use of technology has grown in the United Kingdom. It is certainly true that, over the last ten years, software, hardware, bandwidth, and other technologies have improved immeasurably. It is also remarkable what has been achieved with the digitization of public resources. Ten years ago, user skill levels were a real constraint, but today the majority of people can use a computer and the Internet. So the constraints of user skills and technical delivery are no longer the key issues. As these problems have been solved, the most important constraint has instead become access to information. Whatever the costs of limiting access to PSI at present, they can only grow.

These costs of limiting access to PSI fall into three categories. First, there are direct and indirect costs to the public sector, which are generally not measured. If efficiency improved in the public sector by only 1 percent as a result of free or improved access to the geospatial element of PSI (e.g., in the United Kingdom, the Ordnance Survey or the Met Office), the sum saved would be the equivalent of eight times the cost to the state of collecting the data in the first place.

Second, there are costs to the private sector, both direct—excessive time spent negotiating, managing, and complying with licenses or additional costs collecting data that should be openly available—and indirect, such as the loss of opportunity.

Finally, the economic cost to the citizen when knowledge is available, but inaccessible, cannot be overlooked. For instance, in the United Kingdom and France public bodies have created excellent maps, but their license terms do not always allow the ready use of these maps, such as making them available on the Internet. Job opportunities are lost, higher taxes may result, and there is less choice. If U.K. citizens were offered a choice between a continuation of the current situation (cost and restrictive licensing) and one where their taxes would be increased by £1.25 but they had free access to Ordnance Survey maps on the Internet, would they not reach in their pockets for the £1.25?

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement