Home Articles Geographic Information:Emerging Business Models

Geographic Information:Emerging Business Models


Professor Michael Blakemore
IDRA Ltd. and University of
Durham, UK

For the past three years Roger Longhorn and I have been writing a book on GI Policy. We have explored access and charging models, and we have taken the perspective of evidence and societal realities within which to assess the often polarised viewpoints of the ‘free data’ or ‘charge for data’ communities. We have written about the realities facing data producers in an environment of difficult government finances.
With Max Craglia I have examined human rights issues relating to access to data, in effect critically evaluating the ‘free data are our right’ scenario. Let’s be direct here -I would like nothing more for all data to be free, but the economics of achieving this are complex. At the very least I believe in making data freely available, even if there is a charge, and examples below show the effects of data restrictions on a GI market.

I personally live in a nation with a hybrid attitude to the price of access to ‘public resources’. Currently, and it is importantly to say currently because the UK Government in December 2006 announced that it is considering privatising some data producing agencies, we have free access to museums and art galleries, we have free access to some national mapping data through online Web services (such as(www.multimap.com) or (www.streetmaps.com). We need to pay license fees to access Ordnance Survey Digital Data, we can access basic weather forecasts free (www.metoffice.com) but would be expected to pay for local detailed long-range weather forecasts. I can access Google Earth free of charge and scan detailed imagery in border areas that are the subject of severe information censorship around the globe, and that can give me preferential access to information over citizens within those companies. Nothing in these observations is particularly new, for we have been writing about them for many years. We are clear in our view that any GI/SDI initiative must be user-led, not (as so many seem to be) producer-led. What we have tried to do as we have written the book is to identify common conceptual themes that link both the ‘free data’ and the ‘charge for data’ perspectives, we use the analogy of the ‘free lunch’. It goes like this: “All data are paid for, but the income streams can be along a range of direct to indirect funding”. Even ‘free data’ is paid for by someone, and if you buy me a free lunch, the cost of it is borne either by you as the ‘producer’ or by a ‘funder’, perhaps your business or employer. There may be altruistic motives, where I donate time, and possibly advice, and in that context there is both a tangible and intangible resource exchange.

What happens when a resource is made freely available? In an ideal world the cost of consuming the resource is met adequately by those who fund the production of the resource, demand and supply are balanced. However, since most government funding for free resources is finite, it can become very difficult for the funding to meet the demands of very elastic demand. In the UK the current Government overturned charging, and recent statistics indicate that museums saw an 84% increase in visits. However, they have to service this increase in visits (and a museum visitor is not a zero-sum resource consumer) through central government grants. The grants are, as ever, subject to policy and financial volatility, and the associated risk is that there now is both less to invest with the reliance on a central grant from government, and also that funding may make museums funding-driven, and less user-led.

We have examined a number of scenarios regarding national mapping and the production of GI. In all of them it is clear that there is no point having any business model if the dissemination model is not sensitive to market needs. Some, but not all, of the scenarios are listed here. The first scenario we could call a ‘governmental process monopoly’. An example of this is the Egyptian Survey Authority (ESA) which has a monopoly on the mapping part of land registration. It currently is computerising its mapping, and this is being carried out largely as an administrative process with maps of considerable vintage being digitised, without a clear update strategy. When we were asked to look at a business plan for market take-up of the maps it became clear that the market had moved beyond ESA to operate independently of the national data provider. Utilities, Municipalities, Telecoms and Antiquities sectors all had digitised national mapping independently of ESA, and were updating and maintaining the data using their own investments in areas such as surveys and aerial photography. The outcome of the process monopoly operating without clear market engagement, is that the only sector without effective access to updated mapping may be the government of Egypt.

This experience seemed not too different to the scenario of ‘driven by dogma, without resources being adequate for maintenance and enhancement’. One example for this would be US National Mapping, where the US Geological Survey was both dependent on the central government grant, and also had no realistic ability in the past to raise significant external income, dissemination occurred within the dogma of freedom of information, free information, and no copyright control. Recent attempts to ‘Weave a National Map’ noted how areas of USGS national mapping had become very outdated. This led to the attempt to ‘weave’ national coverage with other data owners (private sector, states, cities etc.) contributing their much more detailed and updated coverage, in itself an acknowledgment that the national mapping organisation no longer maintained mapping information that was fit for purpose.

The third scenario could be termed the ‘commodification with partial market domination’. Here the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain (OSGB), with its very high quality, detailed, and updated information, navigates a difficult path between the demands of government to fully recover costs and to pay a dividend back to the Treasury, and to set fees that are acceptable to core user groups (Utilities and Local Government, for example) who are mandated by law to use OSGB geographic information. In addition, the growing commercial re-use of OSGB information has led to market conflicts with companies such as Intelligent Addressing. There is an inevitable risk that as OSGB seeks to diversify

its revenue base, it may create commercial products that compete with those produced by commercial companies, leading to fears of unfair competition. This has led to critical comments by the Office of Public Sector Information (www.opsi. gov.uk)about OSGB’s practice towards such commercial companies. Both scenarios two and three are classic national mapping agencies at either end of the spectrum of the ‘free or fee’ data policy. However, we are not in any way saying that to achieve high quality you have to charge. OSGB has benefited from a rich legacy of data capture and maintenance, and USGS may well have built and maintained equivalent high-quality mapping in the USA if its funding base had been adequate, and it has been organised in a radically customer-focused manner. What would have been the scenario if USGS had experienced a Google Earth scenario of ‘privatisation of the full business model’.

Google Earth (https://earth.google.com/) is a wonderful paradox. I use it, but pay nothing. It allows me to view imagery of the border areas of India and Pakistan that would not be permitted to me by those countries’ official information suppliers. This led to concern by the Indian Government about high-definition data being available for sensitive areas in Delhi. Using Google News(www.news. google.com). I can access media content from around the world at no costs. What is the commercial logic, for example, that I have to pay to receive a printed copy of the UK Guardian Newspaper, yet can read the content free of charge on the Web (www.guardian.co.uk)? What becomes clear as the business model is unpacked, is that it is subject to rapid changes in strategy. Content that was free one day becomes accessible through a gateway process the next: you may have to pay, to register your details before accessing content, or watch an advertisement. Content providers can, and do, fail, and research into the media industry shows how fragile the funding streams are. So, in the end, both the production of government geographic information, and commercial producers, suffer from the same uncertainties of income streams. Where they also are similar is in the area of customer focus. Businesses fail because they are not providing the products needed by customers, at the right price, at the right time. On that basis the Egyptian Survey Authority could be regarded as a ‘failed’ business, kept alive only by a residual public subsidy as the market makes its own adjustments and collects data itself. A significant challenge, therefore, to the Survey of India and the implementation and maturing (for I hope that this is a document that changes and grows) of the National Map Policy, is to manage the complexities of moving a huge, conservative, bureaucracy at a speed that has any chance of meeting market needs. Lessons elsewhere show that if this is ignored, the market simply moves away.