Time's up for the Ordnance Survey…?

Some news regarding the Ordnance Survey and spatial data in the UK has come to me via the wonders of GIS User and my work. Once again, OS licensing is the key issue but now there is a another driving force on the scene which may have an impact.

The concept of service provision…?

For a while now, I’ve been getting frustrated with the Ordnance Survey. Not in terms of the data they provide, it is of the utmost quality, rather the prohibitive costs associated with using their data, the way in which it is delivered and the draconian licensing arrangements (which the OS themselves recognise).Yes, there is Googlemaps but the quality just isn’t there for cartographic work and I have argued previously that the OS should improve access to their map data and cut through the nightmare of red tape that is OS licensing.

There have been small signs of the OS bending to public pressure from campaigns such as Free Our Data and input from influential figures like Ed Parsons (of Google and formerly the OS) when they recently did a u-turn and re-enabled access to OpenSpace from a KML based application by Gavin Brock. This application allows OS data from OpenSpace to be viewed in GoogleEarth and was deemed contary to the OpenSpace developer licensing agreement and hence disabled. Of course, the initial response of the OS was to threaten (remember the Met Police crime map fiasco?) then block, then bow to public pressure and make excuses after Ed Parsons blogged about it and a large contingent of interested parties from all walks of life who found the application useful bombarded the OS with complaints (but note, the OS still shrouded this u-turn in legalise, denied it was their fault and blamed Google!).  Hardly fostering innovation through effective use of licensing.

Recently, it emerged that some Historic Environment Records (or Sites and Monuments Records as they used to be called) have started to demand that users of their spatial data have current OS licenses, presumably due to the old chestnut of OS ‘derived’ data and their need to comply with their OS license agreements: Pretty much anything that has been captured against any OS map base is arguably derived data and hence OS copyright and therefore cannot be reused under the terms  of OS license agreements. So, to obtain archaeological spatial data created and maintained at tax-payers expense it is necessary (in some areas) to buy or obtain an OS license for the area in question. Similar to the news that some local authorities are charging for Local Plan maps , this is a more close to home example where the OS is affecting the cultural heritage sector through it’s ridiculous licensing restrictions. Whilst most academics can access OS data through Edina licenses on an institutional subscription basis, everyone else must jump through hoops and pay to ensure they have appropriate licensing in place else face the wrath of the OS. And this must be done every time there is a need to obtain archaeological spatial data from those authorities where the Local Authority GIS/legal teams have interpreted OS licensing in such a way as to demand a current OS license. Incidentally, this is by no means all Local Authorities, highlighting how the complexity of the OS licensing agreements leads to inconsistent interpretation and implementation.

A viable alternative…?

But now it appears a saviour may be on the horizon, a mapping provider with an alternative view on spatial data. The UKMap from the GeoInformation group is a resource to rival that provided by the OS. Not only are they looking to develop delivery services based around OGC standards (WMS/WFS) suitable for dynamic inclusion in my GIS, but they have stepped away from the ridiculous, convaluted licensing models used by the OS. Yes, the OS have developed OpenSpace in response to GoogleMaps but this is explicitly for non-commercial use, not a means of delivering data to customers.

The GeoInformation® Group, publishers of UKMap® the new large-scale topographic mapping and address database for the UK, today announces a new strategic partnership with STAR-APIC, a world leader in delivering and managing mapping databases. The partnership will see STAR-APIC build and maintain the online delivery service for UKMap. The system that has been developed also offers the capability of delivering UKMap data via the Internet conforming to Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) web mapping WMS and WFS standards. The system is designed to offer traditional file based data delivery with the requirement for online delivery expected to increase through time.” (from the UKMap news pages).

And as regards the data available, if you thought no-one could possibly rival the OS, in addition to the 1:1000 topographic map base and overlay layers, the UKMap product comprises:

  • Addresses
  • Points of interest including retail and commercial data
  • BLPUs
  • Aerial photography
  • Terrain
  • Land Use
  • 3D buildings

Plus a 1:5000 thematic raster map product suitable particularly for web-mapping applications. So that’s a pretty comprehensive list then! Especially given everything bar the thematic product is shipped as one product, no need for licensing of individual products. Plus the UKMap team handle contractor licenses, elimanating the nightmare that is the OS Subcontractor licensing scenario, an adminstrative nightmare. Plus, there is no derived data issue: data created by users belongs to users: “UKMap offers users the rights to retain any derived data they may create through using UKMap so increasing corporate assets and reducing investment costs” and “Share derived data and UKMap data with partners, sub contractors and consultants through simple licensing options” (quotes from the UKMap website). Furthermore, the data is delivered in useable formats so (in my case, as an ArcGIS user) no need to purchase the ESRI (UK) Productivity Suite Conversion tools simply to access the data.

The end is nigh…?

Obviously, I have yet to see what these licensing arrangements are for this new product and associated services, but the very fact that UKMap are thinking in terms of sharing and reuse is the polar opposite of the OS who claim rights over pretty much anything and are positively obstructive to the sharing of data (see the examples of SMR/HERs and Local Plan data above). I also haven’t seen the costs yet, but I doubt they could be as expensive as OS products. And of course, coverage will be an issue until the UKMap can provide full national coverage. But all this is, to an extent, beside the point. There is now another provider in the market and if local authorities such as Brent can see the benefits and move across, this should give the OS a bit of a push to get with the programme and realise they cannot simply hide behind licensing as they have done up till now.

So, just when I thought my dreams of having high quality mapping at a reasonable price delivered direct to my desktop GIS and web-based systems were little more than that, just dreams, along comes a light at the end of tunnel. So perhaps not exactly time’s up for the OS, indeed I would hate to see that happen, but hopefully this will shake them up a bit. Wake up Ordnance Survey, you’ve got competition now!