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.