A hard-hitting analysis of Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency

Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, is a funny organisation. Internationally it is highly respected. In Britain, however, it fuels all kinds of passions ranging from quiet pride to unbridled anger. So I felt like writing a reality check which may be relevant to people both here in the UK and elsewhere.

Ordnance Survey mapping © Crown copyright. All rights reserved. Media licence W01

By way of background I should say that I’ve worked in mapping all my career, and three years ago I moved to the UK  to head up the data operations of a large B2B information business which, amongst many other things, also happens to be Ordnance Survey’s largest commercial reseller.

When I was still abroad I admired OS for their slick mapping products and their impressive conference keynotes. So I was surprised, indeed taken aback, when I arrived in the UK to find that there was one thing in particular that united the geospatial industry: their highly critical attitude towards OS. How could this be?

This was not the angry mob also known as ‘Free Our Data’, a movement championed by the Guardian newspaper. They got their deal when the data.gov.uk initiative went live and OS was ‘volunteered’ by the prime minister to make some of their lower-value mapping available for free. So the angry mob declared victory, and off they went. Their aims were largely non-commercial, and good luck to them.

What many people have overlooked is what I might call the volatile business framework surrounding the OS.  From my days in the energy industry I remember political risk being a key driver for investment decisions regarding oil fields in far-flung places. OS is no Libya, Nigeria or Russia – but there are parallels.

What has struck me in many meetings with OS is that you never quite know who you are talking to. Is this OS, the government agency, or OS, the business? They can’t do special deals with you because, as a government agency, they have to treat everyone equally – which is fair enough. But at the same time OS remains at liberty to pursue any commercial opportunity that takes their fancy. There are geospatial companies that have been badly burnt by this, especially aerial imagery folks or online mapping providers who dared to compete with OS’s  almighty mapping machine. In many cases, even today, OS is still competing with its own business partners.

This explains why the UK geospatial industry sees OS in a very different light to what you might expect elsewhere. When CEO Vanessa Lawrence gives a keynote at an international conference you see OS, the national mapping agency – and that is indeed very impressive. It’s a truly word-class operation, and I have witnessed it at first hand. But at those feel-good events the dark commercial underbelly remains out of sight.

However, this is not the end of story. What I also learnt over the past three years is that the OS critics have been barking up the wrong tree. OS, as a government agency and so-called Trading Fund (i.e. self-funded), was never given clear rules  on how to operate, as a public body or commercial player, and as a result the line became blurred. I know a lot of people at OS, at all levels, and they are all polite, decent and very good at their jobs. Clever people can’t help doing clever things if you let them. Admit it, you and I would have done the same.

So it’s really down to the government. And things are improving.  OS’s open data licence is more open than OpenStreetMap’s  (if you don’t believe me, ask your lawyer). As of 1 April, the UK government is allowing all public bodies free access even to the highly prized and detailed MasterMap – Great Britain in all its glory at 1:1,250 scale. And, importantly, the private sector has been invited to play a role in the distribution of this mapping to public bodies. This is eminently sensible, and everybody wins. Next up is the Public Data Corporation, through which the government is hoping to merge and clarify all its data activities, including OS.

We need more common sense like this – on derived data, sales & marketing, the whole works. I believe change is coming, but we need to keep pressing the government (if you don’t know how to, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with the right people).

Because clever people can’t help doing clever things.


2 thoughts on “A hard-hitting analysis of Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency

  1. Thank you to all who have commented on this post via Twitter, or privately. So far it has received over 600 hits, including many from the US and overseas. I understand that some people may feel reluctant to publicly comment on a topic which is perceived to be quite sensitive but ultimately I should note that, in my experience, all sides are open for discussion.

    Some have also pointed to this much more hard-hitting article (Getmapping vs OS) which explains how aerial mapping companies are suffering in the face of OS.


    There are other examples too but my personal view here is this. I have great respect for aerial mapping companies and admire some of their innovative products. At the same time I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a national mapping agency to engage in aerial mapping. Other countries do this too. The fact that aerial companies are losing jobs is lamentable but not merely the result of OS’s actions. Besides, OS and other organisations have also shed jobs in the current recession. The pain is rather compounded by the fact that aerial suppliers everywhere are hurting, and I expressed my concerns about this in an earlier blog post here:


    So the issue is not that OS is devious or the government incompetent. They are not. The issue is that OS is a big fish in the geospatial pond but only a tiny cog in the government’s huge political machinery. Tightly regulating OS’s activities (and those of other Trading Funds, for that matter) has never been big enough a priority to bother with. But it has created uncertainty and investment risk for everyone (this is a far cry from OS “underpinning £100 billion worth of economic activity”, as the claim goes!).

    But now that public data is high on the government’s agenda there is a chance to get it sorted, for the benefit of all, via the Public Data Corporation. Some of you may not hold your breath but I’d say let’s not waste this opportunity while everyone is at the table. And let’s not be fooled that the Open Data initiative has solved it. We need to keep pressing the government, the Cabinet Office, the Shareholder Executive, and so on.

  2. Thierry. Your conclusion (to perhaps unfairly paraphrase) is that the long-standing tensions with Ordnance Survey are the fault of Government. It is true that Government, according to its own reports, have not put in place adequate Regulation and Governance arrangements. But the individuals in the CLG who advise on Governance issues are not senior Civil Servants with a deep understanding of the commercial sector. They simply represent the shareholders’ interests – as do the Shareholder Executive.

    The general area of Trading Funds has some awkward conflicts of interest. But surely if you were running OS surely you would consider it was your duty – not that of your shareholders – to manage your business (admittedly with their agreement) so as to set the pace in balancing sensitively the public good element of your activity and the deployment of your very powerful market position? Would you not set a strategy in consultation with your market that positively enabled your market to thrive and yourself to do the tasks more suited for the public sector? Would you not carefully consider conflicts of interest and do your best to remove them? When one complaint was followed by another would you take even-handed stock of your strategy and approach or reach for your lawyers’ number? Do you feel OS does any or all these things successfully?

    You quite reasonably home in aerial photography as being the sort of issue that OS as a mapping agency is bound to need. Why should it not expand its activities here? The answer, I guess, is whether we actually want to encourage any geospatial industry in the UK. If we do then it is vital that OS operates in such a way that others can develop their activities and this means that OS has to have some proper boundaries and rules of engagement. This is certainly about governance and regulation but it is also about its own internal management ethos and direction. Otherwise who knows where OS will move next. Addressing, perhaps!

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