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Opening the Ordnance Survey
November 17, 2009 6:31 PM   Subscribe

The British government has announced plans to make Ordnance Survey map data freely available online. The Ordnance Survey is the government-funded agency which maps the country at high resolutions. Unlike the US Geological Survey's public-domain data, Ordnance Survey maps are proprietary, and licensed only under restrictive terms and for hefty fees, including to local governments; setting the data free is said to produce a £156 net economic gain. (Previously)

The government's move is expected to release other data, including train and bus timetables, currently controlled by entities charging monopoly rents for access. (Fact: the tenth highest-grossing application in the UK iPhone App Store is the "National Rail Enquiries" application, which costs £4.99 , and has exclusive access to the National Rail website's APIs.)
posted by acb (37 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
setting the data free is said to produce a £156 net economic gain

£156? That doesn't sound like very much.
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


OS maps are truly awesome. I miss having them for the areas I now go to.
posted by Brockles at 6:41 PM on November 17, 2009


This is great news, I love OS maps. They're a joy to look at.

setting the data free is said to produce a £156 net economic gain

£156? That doesn't sound like very much.


Each £1 is worth $14,000, you know. Or it could be there's a "million" missing at the end.
posted by Sova at 6:47 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Woo!

But a separate study, by a team at Cambridge University, commissioned by the Treasury, found that making all OS data free would cost the government £12m and bring a net gain of £156m.

Hell yeah! The more maps that become freely available, the cooler the utility. If it can help the budget at the same time, all the better.
posted by neewom at 6:54 PM on November 17, 2009


setting the data free is said to produce a £156 net economic gain

It will be used to buy Prince Charles his first iPod. He's been jealous ever since Obama gave one to his Mom.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:56 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Horace Rumpole: "It will be used to buy Prince Charles his first iPod. He's been jealous ever since Obama gave one to his Mom."

His Royal Highness is a big fan of Electric Light Orchestra, it turns out. He's working on arranging the MBE for Jeff Lynne.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:03 PM on November 17, 2009


Joe Beese: His Royal Highness is a big fan of Electric Light Orchestra, it turns out. He's working on arranging the MBE for Jeff Lynne.

Jeff Lynne unleashed many a horror onto the airwaves in his day but he will always have a place in heaven for Mr. Blue Sky. That's just one of all time greatest happy pop songs.
posted by Kattullus at 7:10 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh Obama and his shitty gifts... next time they should give him a little plastic telephone box and a teddy bear with a union jack stitched onto it.
posted by Artw at 7:15 PM on November 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was really pissed off about that National Rail app -- they shut down all the other people using the API when they launched it. But it turned out to be miles better than all of them, so I don't care any longer. The bus timetables are mostly fiction, so they don't matter too much either.

The postcode database wasn't mentioned, but this bodes well for them releasing that, too. Locking that up was doing real harm to charities and other bodies.
posted by bonaldi at 7:24 PM on November 17, 2009


I'm surprised that the postcode database is still proprietary. Is the copyright on datasets not the same in the UK as it is in the US? That seems like a phonebook-style situation, where there would be an obvious incentive for someone to copy it. Or is the data just hoarded so carefully, nobody can actually copy the whole thing in a useful way?
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:54 PM on November 17, 2009


Is the copyright on datasets not the same in the UK as it is in the US?

Nope.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:58 PM on November 17, 2009


A little known fact is that the UK Met Office has a network of Doppler radars almost as good as that in the U.S., but all the data is kept under lock and key except for coarse images like this. Europe also has a similar deal with their ECMWF supercomputer model, which is also kept under lock and key except for a few basic fields. Contrast that with the U.S., where NOAA strives to freely distribute every drop of data that taxpayers make possible.
posted by crapmatic at 8:08 PM on November 17, 2009


The UK post code DB was leaked a few months ago.
posted by bystander at 9:27 PM on November 17, 2009


OS maps are truly awesome. I miss having them for the areas I now go to.
I can get a bit of vicarious rambling pleasure from afar (ooh er) just by perusing the walker's maps of places I've been in the Lake District or West Highlands. Truly splendid objects and this is great news.
posted by Abiezer at 10:03 PM on November 17, 2009


I hope the mods don't fix the amount of money up there. I liked it, as it made the British government sound so woefully utilitarian.

"We have crunched the numbers, and apparently we stand to raise the GDP of the nation by 156 pounds if we drop the licensing systems for the OS maps."

"156 pounds? Why haven't we gotten rid of it sooner?"
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:04 PM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is amazing how much better the OS maps are for walking than the USGS maps I have seen. I'd still buy them even if the data were available for free.
posted by grouse at 10:23 PM on November 17, 2009


For those that don't know, works produced by officers and employees of the U.S. Federal Government as part of that person's official duties are placed in the public domain. This is a good thing.
posted by ryanrs at 10:52 PM on November 17, 2009


Does it feature Argleton?
posted by HotPants at 10:55 PM on November 17, 2009


I think we've drawn them away in the next round of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, HotPants.
posted by Abiezer at 11:14 PM on November 17, 2009


The union representing Ordnance Survey workers (Prospect, which also happens to be my union) has reacted cautiously to the move:

This measure will cost Ordnance Survey millions of pounds. The question for OS must be how it will make up that loss.

It is curious that the government wants to chop off sources of revenue for OS just as it is exploring privatisation options. If this decision is confirmed, it can only mean that the government intends to keep OS in the public sector and abandon the attempt at a sell-off. Naturally we welcome that decision.


It's worth noting that the report which came up with the figures about '£12m cost for £156m net gain' also calculated that the government would need to increase its subsidy to OS by about £30m to make up for the loss of revenue. Is this likely to happen in the present economic climate? I wouldn't bet on it.
posted by verstegan at 12:18 AM on November 18, 2009


Weren't all maps propietary because technically under UK law they all belonged to the Queen? Did she have anything to do with this release?
posted by PenDevil at 1:58 AM on November 18, 2009


Weren't all maps propietary because technically under UK law they all belonged to the Queen? Did she have anything to do with this release?

The doctrine is known as Crown Copyright, but it apparently dates only to the early 20th century. It belongs to "the Crown", which is essentially "the state but with that nice lady/chap as its figurehead".

AFAIK, this does not refer to all maps, but only those produced by the Ordnance Survey, so it's not the same sort of quaint anachronism as the Queen owning all swans on the Thames.
posted by acb at 2:16 AM on November 18, 2009


This is great, but I think I'll still wind up using the paper versions. I was stunned at just how good these were after moving to the UK from the US. I spent all summer with one in my pocket wandering up and down the Western Isles of Scotland looking for this or that cairn or dun marked on the map. Hopefully, the agency is still able to produce high quality maps without the funding stream of crown copyright.
posted by nangua at 3:17 AM on November 18, 2009


The map data will get produced anyway (the government and armed forces need it). The tradeoff is of a revenue stream (and one which is indirectly passed on to the taxpayers, for example in council tax) for a social good.
posted by acb at 3:41 AM on November 18, 2009


And about bloody time. Since, you know, we've already paid for it and everything.
posted by ComfySofa at 3:48 AM on November 18, 2009


This is awesome. I hope Google are busy thinking of ways they can integrate this into google maps!
posted by jzed at 4:25 AM on November 18, 2009


The National Rail Enquiries application mentioned in this article is developed and sold by my company, Agant Ltd. We’re a small independent development company who approached ATOC last year with the idea of creating a train times application for the iPhone. We certainly don't have exclusive access to any National Rail Enquiries data feeds, and ATOC have made it clear to us that they are very happy to work with other developers to create other applications too. We’re in complete agreement that this option should be available to other developers.
posted by Dave Addey at 4:28 AM on November 18, 2009


I remember being in some meeting once where a representative from OS moaned at length about how the map which had been circulated showing people how to get to the venue had 'probably' been 'indirectly' ripped off from them, and was therefore violating their copyright.

So, good.
posted by Phanx at 4:31 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is awesome -- I just hope that topographical maps, etc, are easy to download. It will make research so much easier.
posted by jb at 4:38 AM on November 18, 2009


Canadians have been having a ton of fun since GeoGratis opened up the data, so it's good to see that the UK is following suit. I suspect the crown copyright will be retained, just the licensing eased to allow anyone to use the maps.
posted by scruss at 4:40 AM on November 18, 2009


We certainly don't have exclusive access to any National Rail Enquiries data feeds, and ATOC have made it clear to us that they are very happy to work with other developers to create other applications too.

There used to be a free iPhone app named MyRail Lite, which would show live arrival/departure data from National Rail, until its access to feeds was shut off and it died. If National Rail enquiries data is open to all, why did this happen?

Please excuse my suspicions, but if free apps for accessing a data source stop working and someone else charges £5 for an app and gets substantial sales, that looks like a monopoly-rent situation to me.
posted by acb at 4:52 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is awesome. I hope Google are busy thinking of ways they can integrate this into google maps!

It'll save them money; AFAIK, they currently license their data from mapping companies which license it from the OS.

I'm more interested what this will do for OpenStreetMap.
posted by acb at 4:55 AM on November 18, 2009


I remember being in some meeting once where a representative from OS moaned at length about how the map which had been circulated showing people how to get to the venue had 'probably' been 'indirectly' ripped off from them, and was therefore violating their copyright.

There was an Ordnance Survey table at the Future of Web Apps conference in London this year; the chap behind it (who looked more like a tweedy academic type than a hard-nosed Blatcherite privateer) made noises about the OS looking at ways of being more open and collaborating with OpenStreetMap and such. So perhaps I'm not sure how much of that was a genuine change in policy and how much was content-free spin about the OS not being the bullies people said they were, but there seemed to be an acknowledgement that the OS's policies had an image problem.
posted by acb at 5:35 AM on November 18, 2009


>
When the British Empire did this with tea, us Americans got so mad that we dumped it all in the harbor and decided to start a war over it. Now, old people take to the streets claiming it's just like healthcare.

You should totally get your friends to start tossing their iPhones at the Parliament Building. That'll learn them to shut people out of the AI, and in 300 years, your grandkids will dress up like you and start protesting the NHS.

Who knows, you could even get Britain to declare your independence.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:44 AM on November 18, 2009


This is excellent news - I love the OS maps, and whenever I'm off on holiday with my family I always make a point of finding every building, object or feature written in Gothic type [for the uninitiated, features marked like this fall into the category "really old but not Roman"] and insisting that we go and visit them.

Thus far, this has resulted in a few fascinating expeditions, but considerably more wandering through waist-high bracken on damp hillsides, trying to decide whether that particular lump of nondescript rock could possibly be the prehistoric burial chamber marked on the map. At least once, we've come to the conclusion that previous tourists must have stolen the particular antiquity we'd come to see.

It's just my little way of getting back at my sisters for insisting that we constantly look round stately homes...
posted by ZsigE at 5:52 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is excellent news.

> it's not the same sort of quaint anachronism as the Queen owning all swans on the Thames.

FREE THE SWANS!
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on November 18, 2009


A little known fact is that the UK Met Office has a network of Doppler radars almost as good as that in the U.S., but all the data is kept under lock and key except for coarse images like this. Europe also has a similar deal with their ECMWF supercomputer model, which is also kept under lock and key except for a few basic fields. Contrast that with the U.S., where NOAA strives to freely distribute every drop of data that taxpayers make possible.

Do you have a source for this claim? I ask because I am fascinated. When I lived in Canada I used rely on the doppler radar for planning my cycle commute on rainy days. It was possible to see the gaps in the rain and see if I could make it home dry by timing things right.

Since moving to the UK I have been puzzled by the lack of resolution in the available weather radar imagery. I assumed there would be greater need for the sake of all the boats in the water but saw no evidence it was available.
posted by srboisvert at 8:32 AM on November 18, 2009


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