September 28, 2006 – The Institut Géographique National (IGN), the French national mapping agency, is being accused of hindering France’s knowledge economy by the high prices it charges for digital data and the obscure way it calculates them.
Government auditors also accuse the institute of conflicts of interest in setting national policy for a sector in which it is the dominant player. These criticisms have cross-channel resonance.
Although the directly subsidised IGN is run on a different model to its British equivalent, Ordnance Survey, its problems spring from the conflict that arises when a public agency tries to market data commercially. Now an official inquiry in France has suggested a possible solution along the lines of that proposed by Guardian Technology’s Free Our Data campaign. This is to make taxpayer-funded data sets freely available to all comers on the web.
The inquiry, by government inspectors, probed the institute’s flagship project, a large scale geographical database known by its French acronym RGE (référentiel à grande échelle). Like Ordnance Survey’s digital MasterMap, the RGE is much more than a map. It has several layers of data, including administrative boundaries, aerial photography and postal addresses. It is supposed to be the basis for all official mapping in France, as well as being available to commercial developers of value added products.
In a forthright 50-page report (tinyurl.com/r6ajp – a 660KB PDF), the inspectors condemn several aspects of the RGE programme, as well as the general governance of the institute.
Far from encouraging the use of geographical data, the report says, the institute has discouraged the RGE’s take-up by setting high prices, despite a 70% government subsidy. The mechanism for setting charges is complex and secretive, relying on the “good sense” of administrators. Their incentive, is to get as much income as possible in the short term, which encourages squeezing more money from captive customers. Altogether, the inspectors find “a lack of rigour” in the institute’s commercial policies.
“This situation is responsible for the low level of sales and the feeble development of the geographical information sector in France, compared with other European countries,” they comment.
One problem is that government allows the institute to wear two hats, that of publisher and author. The report says that government has abandoned matters of geographical information strategy to the institute “allowing it to set policy according to its own vision and interests”.
The inspectors recommend that the institution’s commercial activities be separated from its “public good” functions, with separate and transparent accounts. They also say that public data should be priced to encourage wide take-up. “To take this reasoning to its logical conclusion, free online access on the internet could even be envisaged.”