Ever since I can remember, the Ordnance Survey (the OS; the National Mapping Agency of Great Britain) maps (particularly the Landranger 1:50 000 scale maps) have been the passport to many things that I do in my spare time: from cycling through cities to driving through countryside, they have been, and remain, invaluable and as important an item of equipment to me as a waterproof jacket or a compass. I have used them to carry out practical navigation in the field (night-time military exercises, winter walking across mountains in whiteout conditions) and to learn map-reading and cartography skills in the classroom.
I have travelled to several countries to go hillwalking, and what has struck me strongly when I have done this is how, without exception, the maps available for countries other than Great Britain have never been as good as those offered by the OS (the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, is covered by the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland). The paper-based maps are also only part of the service that the OS offer – their collection of geospatial data describing the UK in the form of the MasterMap database is enormous in scope, detail and currency.
So, what is indisputable is that the mapping data that the OS produces is of an extremely high quality and is something of a British success story.
However (and here’s the rub), I now find myself at this stage of my professional life as a software engineer also working closely with OS map data, particularly in the development of web-based applications that use this data, and this has presented me with a view of the OS that is in strong contrast to the positive one I had of it before when I was a fan of the Landranger maps. Principally, the problem is that the licencing restrictions of OS data are so strict that many believe that the OS are inhibiting proper academic research and teaching. In a broader context, this debate has been running for a while in the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Free our Data‘ campaign, and the recent publication of a report by the JISC-funded GRADE project has re-ignited the arguments against the stance of the OS. A Guardian article from Thursday last week covers this. Dr Mike Smith of Kingston University has summed up the position of UK academia in respect of OS data neatly here.
The OS as an organisation is in a somewhat confusing position that means it defies neat categorisation and this inevitably causes strife when licencing and financial issues are involved; whilst it started life as a branch of the UK government, it now has the status of a ‘trading fund’ meaning it has to operate on a commercial basis. The fact that its current status and success in large part owes a lot to its previous status as a government body (and hence enjoying access to all other governmental assets and funding from UK taxpayers) has not gone unremarked.
The Ordnance Survey does seem to be heading towards a decisive battle of wills in this area that up until now it has dismissed with the view that the quality of its services can only be maintained by the current licencing policies it enforces. But academic and legal opinion may be turning against it, and if it is not careful it may find itself in the position of being a dinosaur facing extinction (and let’s forget crocodiles and evolved birds in this analogy!)
All it will take is for some independent-minded academics that are itching for a fight to publish something that contravenes the current licencing agreements in the name of open academic research, and let the OS come to them for the legal fight. And the OS may lose.
Like the dinosaurs before it, the OS may also find its comfortable evolutionary niche being usurped by the mammalian upstarts of adaptable Google Maps/Earth, OpenStreetMap, and OSGeo, that more accurately reflect what grassroots IT-jockeys are really doing with web-based mapping techniques.
The perception of the OS as a corporate machine interested only in money was strengthened for me personally when I was looking for topographic mapping data for my handheld GPS receiver (see an article I wrote about this here), to help me navigate when walking in remote and mountainous areas, and to complement the road mapping data I already had. The best map data available is from the OS naturally, but the cost is prohibitive at around £130. The product (sold by Garmin under licence from the OS), TOPO Great Britain, is also not without its detractors – it only offers a subset of the map data that you would see for the equivalent area on a 1:50 000 Landranger map, and coverage of footpaths seems poor.
In contrast, GPS receiver mapping data available from the SMC, is free. This topographic, water feature, placenames and summit data is of lower quality, being derived principally from the ubiquitous NASA SRTM data (see my previous posting ‘Google Earth and other geobrowsing tools…‘) amongst other sources, but is still extremely useful for my purposes and is definitely accurate enough for hillwalking (as long as an old-fashioned paper-based OS map is used as the definitive navigation resource). So the OS lost me as a customer in this particular instance.
So is the OS an evil empire? No, but it appears to me personally that it’s walking away from the forces of light. In this context I’d also like to know what Ed Parsons (former CTO of the OS, and now a ‘Geospatial Technologist’ at Google) really thinks about the stance of the OS on these issues. He’s been a model of diplomacy on his blog where the OS is concerned, but it doesn’t take a psychic to read between the lines of what he writes to figure out where his head is at.