Snout is a new collaboration between inIVA, Proboscis and researchers from Birkbeck College exploring relationships between the body, community and the environment. It builds on our previous collaboration on Feral Robots (with Natalie Jeremijenko) to investigate how data can be collected from environmental sensors as part of popular social and cultural activities.
Snout will create two prototype sensor wearables based on traditional carnival costumes. Carnival is a time of suspension of the normal activities of everyday life – a time when the fool becomes king for a day, when social hierarchies are inverted, a time when everyone is equal. There is no audience at a carnival, only carnival-goers. Snout proposes 'participatory sensing' as a lively addition to the popular artform of carnival costume design, engaging the community in an investigation of its own environment, something usually done by local authorities and state agencies.
A public forum on 'participatory sensing and media scavenging' will be held in London in Spring 2007 to demonstrate the Snout wearables, discuss evidence collecting for environmental action and how communities can reflect on the personal impact of pollution and the environment.
This morning we received our peer assessment on the Feral Robots project from the funder, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). We were delighted to learn that our 'overall assessment' was Tending to Outstanding, the second highest rating ('Outstanding' being the best), especially since the criteria for the assessment is focused on academic requirements and outputs rather than those of our own cultural/arts practice and community.
Of the seven criteria the project was assessed on (by three independent assessors unknown to us), the individual assessments were:
• Communication of Research Outputs
Tending to Outstanding
• Cost Effectiveness
Tending to Internationally Leading
• Research Quality
• Research Planning & Practice
• Potential Scientific Impact
• Quality of Training & Experience
• Potential Benefits to Society
We contributed a case study on the Ordnance Survey (in relation to the questions of intellectual property and the public domain) to the IPPR's Public Innovation: intellectual property in a digital age which was published on Monday.
In addition to the case study (pp 55-57) is a section in the conclusions (p 85):
Opening up public sector information would present dramatic opportunities for entrepreneurship in the UK, without unduly benefiting overseas competitors. We support a recommendation related to us by Giles Lane from creative studio Proboscis that the functions of OS be split into two different components: one part being responsible for maintaining the National Geographic Database (NGD) and providing access to it on a ‘cost of reproduction’ basis to all who wish to use it, and another part that continues the OS’s legacy of innovation and product development, but that derives no commercial or competitive advantage from controlling the NGD.
The full proposal is below:
Accessing Public Geodata
Giles Lane, May 2006
Despite the Ordnance Survey's (OS) successes in widening provision for small groups such as academics and schoolchildren, the OS has not been able to create mechanisms that widen access to its core geodata for other non- governmental public uses. With its strong focus on cost recovery and development of new revenue models this does seem to be a conflict of interest. The Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) is reported to agree that there is 'substance to to complaints from commercial mapping firms that OS has been "obstructive and slow" in licensing its data.' (The Guardian, 23/3/06). Whilst the OS disputes the findings of the OPSI, it also disputes the conclusion of Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office regarding how it values the National Geographic Database (NGD) which it 'owns':
"In my opinion: in view of the effect of the decision not to capitalise the data held in Ordnance Survey's geospatial databases as a tangible fixed asset in accordance with Financial Reporting Standard 15, the financial statements do not give a true and fair view of the state of affairs of Ordnance Survey at 31 March 2005 or of its surplus, total recognised gains and losses and cash flows for the year then ended"
(source: OS Annual Report 2004-05, 13 June 2005)
This is not the first time the Auditor General has qualified the OS's accounts, in fact he has done so every year since it acquired Trading Fund status. The issue of valuing the NGD as an asset is complicated and open to different interpretations as to whether the OS's or the Auditor General's opinions offer the best value for taxpayers. However, it does highlight an increasing sense of frustration where a government department operates as an effective self-regulating monopoly controlling access to a public asset funded for over two hundred years by the taxpayer.
A Modest Proposal
One potential solution for the licensing impasse would be to separate the functions of the OS into two different components: one part being responsible for maintaining the National Geographic Database and providing access to it on a 'cost of reproduction' basis to all who wish to use it, and another part which continues the OS's legacy of innovation and product development but which derives no commercial or competitive advantage from controlling the NGD.
A possible model for this kind of separation of inheritance and service provision is the recent regulation of BT which separated the core national telephone network (which BT inherited on privatisation and has maintained and upgraded constantly since) from its own retail and business services provision. This separation was enforced to create a more fair and level playing field in the local loop unbundling of telecom services (through the new entity, Openreach) which had failed to gain momentum whilst BT retained control of the network and the exchanges and was competing with other companies wishing to install their own equipment and offer competitive services.
If the National Geographic Database were be accessible to anyone – including the OS itself – at no more than the cost of reproduction of the data, then the monopoly which the OS has inherited as a trading fund would be dissolved and new entrants would be just as able to deliver innovative new uses of GIS as the OS and other incumbents are today.