Reform geospatial data


Maps and geospatial information

The Ordnance Survey is fundamental to delivering the power of information for the economy and society. The Taskforce has contributed to the Government’s Trading Funds Assessment. This Assessment should be radical and fundamental.

Maps are an easy to understand way of presenting complex information. However, until recently creating tools for presenting information on maps was very difficult and expensive to do. This is no longer the case.

Since around the time of the launch of online mapping services such as Multimap and Google maps with subsequent opening of APIs for easy reuse there has been a steady decline in the complexity and cost of development. It is now possible for people to create innovative mapping services in their spare time on a cheap laptop.  This should be a tremendous spur for innovation in all sectors in the UK, as it has been in countries like the USA, Canada and Australia which have liberal public information regimes.

The Taskforce has been impressed by the extent to which access to geospatial data has been a recurrent theme during its activities.  For example, the Show Us A Better Way competition had around 500 entries and of these over one third were for ideas around maps and location. It is possible to speculate why this is: perhaps people want ‘government’ to present a simple, ’smart face’ based on location and service; perhaps they want to plan how to get to the hospital or the quickest route to school.

There are two components that are needed to make location aware services:

  • Where the user is interested in; and

  • What the area is like.

Whilst GPS devices are becoming more common, the universal key to location is postcode. The government should create a freely available single definitive address and postcode database available for the UK. Once created it should be made freely available for (re)use and maintained by the Ordnance Survey, Royal Mail and Local Government. This could be seeded by the census.

The public sector and associated bodies contains several rich geospatial data sets: flood information in the Environment Agency; demographic information in ONS; location of school, hospitals and other public buildings; transport information; etc. However, the jewel in the Crown’s geospatial data is the information in Ordnance Survey. For the reasons set out below, Ordnance Survey’s information is underpins almost all public sector geospatial information.

In the Ordnance Survey the British Public have very high quality maps with universal coverage and rapid incorporation of changes but there seemed to be an unusual number of barriers to society and the economy making the best use of this service.  There is a high demand for map-based public sector information services. But the complex and legalistic licensing and charging regime offered by the Ordnance Survey is acting as a barrier, both real and perceived, to innovation in this area (see WhoOwnsScotland case study).

The Taskforce recognises that some progress has been made with the creation of OpenSpace in response to a recommendation in the original Power of Information Report. However, the force of findings of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee’s report into Ordnance Survey in 2002 still hold true:

the dual role of OS as a public service provider and a commercial organisation; the boundaries between OS’s operations and those of its licensed partners; the difficulties caused in pricing and copyright negotiations by OS’s dominant position in the market; and the availability and cost of OS data.”

The importance of the information held by the trading funds has been highlighted repeatedly over the years. This has been reinforced in recent times by the original 2007 Power of Information report, the 2008 Communities and Local Government report Place Matters: the Location Strategy for the United Kingdom, the work of Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information, the 2006 Office of Fair Trading Commercial Use of Public Information (CUPI) study and a 2008 report by Cambridge economists commissioned by BERR and HM Treasury. Research by Oxera for the Ordnance Survey suggests that their information alone underpins 12-20% of economic activity. While the points in this section can be generalised for all government information businesses e.g. other trading funds or the Environment Agency, both the scale of the prize and of the change needed create a focus on Ordnance Survey.

However, the current access regime is aimed at maximising the average return on capital for a single data business, not the overall welfare of the UK.  Economic theory generally holds that maximum welfare is generated from charging at marginal cost, but the Ordnance Survey charges out at average cost as part of its Trading Fund approach. Analysis by Cambridge University suggests that current pricing directly reduces the size of the UK economy by £190m a year, in a sector that has been growing at an average rate of 9% a year.  If the impact found by Oxera is true then this figure will be much higher.

The Taskforce spent some time looking at the issue of crime mapping which has excited much interest over recent months. We were struck that in common with other public sector organisations, the Metropolitan Police chose to implement a service based upon Google Maps rather than any directly-sourced Ordnance Survey product.

The Taskforce followed the interesting debate that was generated around the use of data which has been ‘derived’ from Ordnance Survey maps. Derived data can be difficult to define but, in the context of Ordnance Survey, arguably contains any information that has been created by reference to a map including: electoral regions, geo-tagged performance information and the location of public buildings. Ordnance Survey claim copyright in derived data. This means that use of other online mapping services may be challenged and discouraged.

At the same time Ordnance Survey’s own online mapping service is restricted to charitable/hobbyist use. This leaves risk averse public bodies with no ’safe’ way to create innovative portals like that at Redbridge.

The Taskforce judges that technological advances in delivery increase the distortion in the public service delivery and economic activity through the current charging and licensing regime. For example:

  • Who runs local services – The ability to discover easily administrative boundaries is essential for democracy.  At present these are held by the Ordnance Survey and cannot be presented free at the point of use to the public in a form they can reuse. For example, despite the fact that electoral areas are set down in statute, the Ordnance Survey hold the copyright to displaying the regions on a map.

  • Finding public services – Bulk information about schools has recently been made available. It does not contain precise locations provided to the Ordnance Survey by the schools because of perceived problems with licensing.

  • Crime Mapping – Crime Maps were announced by the Home Secretary in the July 2007 Crime Strategy. Inspired by the Taskforce’s crime map mock ups, some forces were looking at a Google Maps interface. Ordnance Survey claimed that this would breach their license but don’t (at date of writing) allow public sector use of Openspace.

  • Census information – The census provides high quality local information. Despite the census areas being original work, licensing concerns have stopped the ONS providing an online geospatial interface to their data

  • Local Authority information – one large local authority expressed bewilderment to the Taskforce that the location data for its own street furniture seemed to be owned by the Ordnance Survey.  The Ordnance Survey often claims derived copyright in public service locations, often despite the original information coming from other public bodies.

This is not new analysis. The importance of geospatial data was identified by Steinberg and Mayo in 2007 but for users, the situation remains unchanged.  There is now a pressing need for reform at the Ordnance Survey. Shareholder Executive and HM Treasury are currently undertaking a review of the trading fund business model. They should seize the opportunity to recast the Ordnance Survey as a mapping agency for the 21st Century. Technological advances have shifted the fundamentals of the traditional Ordnance Survey business model and there is a real risk that it will find itself an anachronism as it is outpaced by more open alternatives such as Open Street Map, supported by cheap technology to support map-making.

However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. A substantial shift towards distributing data at marginal cost will not be achievable without finding a new funding model and the Assessment should consider the effect of funding on business incentives.

Recommendation 7

It is the Taskforce’s view that ‘freeing up’ geospatial data should be a priority. The Ordnance Survey requires urgent reform.  Recent announcements of cost reductions at the Ordnance Survey point the way to wider reforms. This reform should include at a minimum:

  • Basic geographic data such as electoral and administrative boundaries, the location of public buildings, etc should be available for (re)use free of charge to all.

  • There should be simple, free access to general mapping and address data for modest levels of use by any user.

  • Voluntary and community organisations pursuing public policy objects should benefit from straightforward standard provisions for ensuring access to geospatial data at all levels of use

  • licensing conditions should be simplified and standardised across the board and, for all but the heaviest levels of use, should be on standard terms and conditions and should not depend on the intended use or the intended business model of the user.

  • The OpenSpace API, similar to but currently a constrained version of Google Maps, should become the primary delivery point for the Ordnance Survey’s services.

  • Creation of a freely available single definitive address and postcode available for the UK for (re)use.