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Dr Mike J Smith
Kingston University

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Future of Ordnance Survey

Sat, 11 Mar 2006

An article in the Guardian entitled Give Us Back Our Crown Jewels seems to have caused a bit of a stir in various quarters. On the one hand we have the strongly "pro" free access to public data lobby, such as Jo Walsh, whilst on the other we have the slightly more sceptical stance taken by Ed Parsons (CTO at the Ordnance Survey). The article takes the position that various "public bodies" have a mandate to collect data. Examples include the Hydrographic Office, Meterological Office and Ordnance Survey. This data is expensive to collect/collate and this expense ensures that these organisations hold an effective monopoly over the markets they enter. As part of the (Tory) government of the period, to ensure that these organisations were "efficient" they were required to "pay their own way" and therefore sell their data. This may well seem a good idea, however as Arthur and Cross illustrate this can be counter-productive to the "wealth of the nation". To a certain extent the current government realises this (e.g. Hansards), however the Office of Fair Trading's investigation into these effective monoplies illustrates the problems that still exist.

Ed Parsons rightly points out some significant factual flaws in the article. For example the OS is not a government agency but a Trading Fund with a controlling stake held by the government. Also, the success of Google Earth is down to the commercial data is has licensed, paid for and is currently leveraging.

However the central idea in the article in well expressed. The OS does produce one of the best, if not the best, mapping products in the world (significantly better than the US). However the pricing and licensing structures donot benefit the nation as much as it should. To say that the OS is not government funded is slightly economical given that nearly 50% of income is from government contracts. This uncovers a certain unease beneath the surface in that it makes you wonder how much more the data would be used by government if it were truly "free". Indeed the Environment Agency have acknowledged that whilst MasterMap is the best product to help with flood modelling, the ludicrously strict intellectual property rights attached to it (i.e. "anything you "derive" from our data we own"; I know I've mentioned this in several articles so don't get me started!) meant they they devised an entire modelling strategy based around not using OS data!!! BUT THEY ARE (essentially) TWO GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS!!! And then we have the whole debacle about creating a single address database for the UK, organised between the OS, local government and the Post Office. Local government have a mandate to collect and maintain this information, whilst the OS and Post Office develop and use products based upon it. Except some in local government are not keen in handing over address data as they believe they will have to pay to use their own data if they give it to the OS. And then we have the IPR issue again.

This really is a complete and utter mess. Mapping (and the national geospatial databases) are absolutely vital to the wealth of the nation. Of course the OS didn't ask to be a Trading Fund. That is the remit it has to operate in and the alternative, at the time of its creation, was to become a commercial entity. Arguably the worse option. So the question is what to do now?? Well Arthur and Cross clearly want back the "Crown Jewels". And rightly so however this is out of the hands of the OS. We need strong leadership from the government to say that we need a properly funded national mapping agency to maintain is tradition of standards of the highest quality, whilst truly benefitting the nation.

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