The Null Device

Freeing the Ordnance Survey

Some good news on the free data front: the New Labour government, in its desperate attempts to claw back the status of lesser evil, has vowed to make all Ordnance Survey maps freely available, ending the OS's practice of licensing said data for exorbitant fees and under restrictive terms, and bringing Britain into line with the US (where US Geological Survey data is statutorily in the public domain):
The government has been inspired by the success of crime mapping where "data openness" is helping citizens assess the safety of geographical areas.
In the new year Brown intends to publish 2,000 sets of data, possibly including all legislation, as well as road-traffic counts over the past eight years, property prices listed with the stamp-duty yield, motoring offences with types of offence and the numbers, by county, for the top six offences.
It is thought that among the data to be freed will be railway and bus timetables, currently being licensed under monopoly rents by privatised companies. (For example, those wanting National Rail timetables on the iPhone, and not wishing to reload the web page and zoom in on form fields every time, have to buy a £4.99 application. There was a free app, written by a user, but its access to the data was blocked by the rightsholders. The National Rail Enquiries application is currently the 10th highest grossing application in the UK App Store, undoubtedly making the publisher, Agant Inc., a mint out of the public.)

The Ordnance Survey are of course keen to protect their revenue streams, and argue that freeing their data would cost the government vast sums; an independent study at Cambridge University, however, showed that the costs of freeing the data (£12m) would be overwhelmingly outweighed by a net gain of £156m. A significant proportion of this would undoubtedly come from the slices of council tax and other funds currently being paid to the Ordnance Survey to license this data:

Local authorities also spend a lot of money getting access to Ordnance Survey. Swindon recently had to pay the OS £38,000 a year to use its addresses and geographical data, even though it had collected much of the data.
Of course, the devil is in the details. For all we know, the plan to free the data could be a purely cosmetic gesture comprised of little more than hot air and New Labour spin, offering the "freed" data under such onerous terms as to make it unusable. Though if it does live up to the promise, it will be a bold step in the right direction.

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