Pronoun Problems at Ordnance Survey

October 4th, 2007

These maps cost us £110m. We can’t give them away for free

Were Ordnance Survey to lose its sales income, the quality of its data would decline, says Scott Sinclair

The Guardian Technology section’s Free Our Data campaign believes that Ordnance Survey’s core mapping, along with other public-sector information, “should be made freely available to the knowledge economy” (Digital Norway sweeps away barriers to information sharing, September 27).

At the same time, any moves we make to widen access, such as launching a new website for people to share walking routes, are simply seen as not good enough. You quote an Ogle Earth blog attacking us for “entering a market niche that is serviced much better and for free by the private sector” (Government opens data channel as Ordnance Survey takes a walk, September 20).

It is no surprise that the spotlight in this campaign is often on us. Mapping is incredibly popular and has a whole range of uses. The ambulance that arrives at your front door in the middle of the night, the sat-nav that takes you to your remote holiday cottage, and the local-authority call centre that lets you report the location of an abandoned car all rely on Ordnance Survey.

But in repeatedly calling for our core information to be given away, the campaign ignores the fact that someone still has to collect supposedly “free” data, and that it needs to be supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Out-of-date or poor-quality data is useless.

It cost Ordnance Survey £110m to collect, maintain and supply our data last year, but we are not “paid for by taxes”, as the campaign often claims. Instead, we depend entirely on receipts from licensing and direct sales to customers for our income – we receive no tax funding at all.

If we are successful, we can cover our costs, encourage widespread licensing through partners, and stay focused on providing value for users. Under licence, there are many examples where our data is free at the point of use. This does not mean there is zero cost.

Many local-authority websites and free-to-air services from private-sector companies embed Ordnance Survey information. We offer an emergency mapping service that helped in the response to the summer flooding. More than 30,000 university students and staff download free mapping from us.

We make a free OS Explorer Map available for every Year 7 pupil in Britain. Around 4 million children have benefited from this, making it the biggest initiative of its kind in British schools. We also provide free access to GPS survey control data over the web – vital for utilities and the construction industry.

Underpinning all of these examples is accurate and up-to-date information, which requires investment. Experience from around the world, and even from our own history between the world wars, shows that underinvestment can lead to a severe deterioration in quality.

The key aim of the Free Our Data campaign is to force us to give everything away. We believe this would seriously threaten the quality of our information at a time when more people are relying on more of it in more ways than ever before.

Scott Sinclair is head of corporate communications at Ordnance Survey


Looks like Scott Sinclair has Pronoun Problems

First of all, the facts:

Ordnance Survey (OS) is an executive agency of the United Kingdom government. It is the national mapping agency for Great Britain,[1] and one of the world’s largest producers of maps.


In recent years there have been a number of criticisms of Ordnance Survey. Most of these centre on the argument that OS possesses a virtual government monopoly on geographic data in the UK.[2] Although OS is a government agency it is required to act as a “trading fund” or commercial entity. This means that it is totally self funding from the commercial sale of its data whilst at the same time being the public supplier of geographical information.

The Guardian newspaper has a long-running “Free Our Data” campaign, calling for the raw data gathered by the OS (not to mention data gathered on its behalf by local authorities at public expense) to be made freely available for reuse by individuals and companies, as happens, for example, with such data in the USA,[3] although the campaign rarely makes any comparison between the quality of the OS data and the quality of the data available from these free sources.[citation needed]

On the 7 April 2006 the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) received a complaint from the data management company Intelligent Addressing[4]. Many, although not all, complaints were upheld by the OPSI, one of the conclusions being that OS “is offering licence terms which unnecessarily restrict competition”. Negotiations between OS and interested parties are ongoing with regard to the issues raised by the OPSI report, the OS being under no obligation to comply with the report’s recommendations.


Ordnance Survey is run by HMG. But the taxpayers do not pay for it. That is completely wrong. Either ORdnance Survey goes private and competes like everyone else, or it belongs to government and government pays for it, and the data is made available to anyone who wants it.

The ‘£110m’ Scott Sinclair is whining about is £10m more than HMG are going to spend on Gardasil every year, and orders of magnitude less than they are spending on the immoral illogical and murderous Iraq invasion. There is money for this essential service.

There is absolutely no reason why something as important as Ordnance Survey should not be totally financed by the public, and the public given free access to all the data.

If ‘These maps cost us £110m’ and we pay for them, then they will belong to US since WE will have paid for them.

You say, “any moves we make to widen access”.. YOU are an EMPLOYEE of the state, and that means that YOU WORK FOR THE TAXPAYER in ordinary circumstances. It is not for YOU to say what YOU will and will not withhold from YOUR EMPLOYER.

You say, “The key aim of the Free Our Data campaign is to force us to give everything away. We believe this would seriously threaten the quality of our information at a time when more people are relying on more of it in more ways than ever before.”

This is nonsense, and you have deliberately missed a step. Giving away the data will not “seriously threaten the quality of our information”, underinvestment is the cause of that, by your own words. If the investment stays the same and the data is given away, the quality remains high and the benefits to everyone go through the ceiling because there are no artificial barriers to getting the data.

Better luck next time.

Unfortunately, the position of OS is rather odd; it is a state run organization that is not funded by the state. Once that flaw is fixed, then they will not have a leg to stand on.

What this man should be doing, to be on the right side of history, is joining the campaign; the argument about no money causing the map quality to deteriorate is valid. What he should be saying is, “we would love to give it away, but until HMG funds us 100% we cannot cut off the licensing model, otherwise our data quality will suffer”. This is an entirely reasonable line of argument and approach. He would not look like a luddideish, buggy whip cracking data hoarder and maybe the campaign would actually be able to pull it off.

Comments are closed.