Now we're getting somewhere!

Ordnance Survey triangulation station

Ordnance Survey triangulation station by Wessex Archaeology

Not only are we getting somewhere but news this week suggests we will have access to all kinds of map goodness to find our way and see what’s around us! First, the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) decided to start giving away their data in the public interest as announced at a recent conference. Then the Guardian’s Allegra Stratton reported yesterday (18/11/09) that moves are afoot to make more UK geospatial data freely accessible, including (wait for it) Ordnance Survey data. This was followed tomorrow (not sure how that works but the article is dated 19/11/09!) by another article in the Guardian by Charles Arthur with some more details. The long and the short of it is that the ‘mid-range’ series of maps from the OS will become freely available for both commerical and non-commercial use. Crucially for us archaeologists, that means the 1:10,000 map series we all know and love and currently pay through the nose for, unless we are privileged enough to have access to Edina Digimap or are working under an OS Subcontractor License.

Talking about Gordon Brown’s statement, Chairman of Ordnance Survey, Sir Rob Margetts said:

As Chairman of Ordnance Survey, I am delighted that the Prime Minister and John Denham have today made these proposals about releasing for free some of Ordnance Survey’s data to support innovation, accountability and growth. I  also very much welcome the commitment made by Government to contribute to the cost of this. This on-going commitment is fundamental to maintaining the sustained quality of Ordnance Survey’s data that has made the organisation a world leader in its field. The Board of Ordnance Survey will work very closely with Government, as well as our customers, partners and others to ensure that the proposals are fully developed for consultation and implementation next year.”

So what does that mean…?

The details are still to be fleshed out but note Margetts said some. I anticipate the data to be made available will be the 1:10,000 raster series. It’s not clear which, if any, vector products would be made available given that LandLine is no more and MasterMap is more detailed than the 1:10,000 scale cut-off, but anything is better than nothing: Some or all of Codepoint and BoundaryLine look to be included which will be useful for some, albeit limited, archaeological purposes. There is also no mention at this stage of other useful OS products such as LandForm, such terrain data being used to place archaeological data into its landscape context, perform analyses such as viewshed/visibility analysis and generate derived products such as slope, aspect and hillshade maps. Historical map data is also not mentioned yet and given that the digital georeferenced products were produced in conjunction with Landmark and are sold at a premium, I doubt we will be seeing such data becoming free anytime soon.

It will be interesting to see how this map data is delivered also. An enterprise (ie chargeable, commercial licensed) version of the OS OpenSpace platform called OpenSpace Pro is now at Release Candidate stage and it is possible that this could be a mechanism for delivery. Some standard WMS/WFS type webservices suitable for inclusion in desktop GIS software would be a useful addition though. And the range of data available through OpenSpace exceeds that being put on the table for open access, although notably does not include the 1:10,000 raster series.

Derived data anyone…?

The derived data issue, which meant that OS claimed ownership of all data produced using its maps claiming it to be a derivation of their intellectual property, should also become a thing of the past. Archaeological data held in Sites and Monuments Records, Historic Environment Records, the vast majority of published sources containing locations derived from OS maps not to mention user generated content created using the OpenSpace platform will be able to be freely distributed, copied and reused without any interference from the OS. The need for the kinds of licensing restriction currently being put in place by many Local Authorities and other repositories to cover themselves against possble legal action from the OS, which I have discussed previolusly, will be no more. This alone is a massive breakthrough for archaeological research.

Where next…?

So it seems a massive U-turn is about to take place with the OS being led by the nose from their position of ‘open data being untenable’ supported by mysterious secretive internal reports and no real evidence to ‘open data is the way forward’ supported by the Prime Minister himself. Perhaps the British Geological Survey will join the movement and make their data freely available…? To be honest, I thought hell would freeze over before the OS released any data for free so I am now in an optimistic mood and waiting for the next amazing installment.

UPDATE: 19/11/09

Ed Parsons has responded and there is an article in the Times from Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt providing some contextual background, these last two gentlemen reporting on the matter for government.