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Ordnance Survey man finds UK map mashups: but are they truly British?

Ed Parsons, the chief technology officer of the Ordnance Survey, picked up on a comment I’d left on his blog about the number (or lack of them) of UK-based companies generating mashups. (A mashup grabs two sets of data and creates something new from them; here’s a Guardian article explaining it at length.)

He points to this page at programmableweb which has “at least 22 mashups in the UK, and yes they all contain Ordnance Survey data licensed through partners.”

My response (which I’ve posted on his blog as a comment to his post) is that none of the APIs comes from UK-based companies, apart from the BBC. They’re all American – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Flickr (which is part of Yahoo), Feedburner.

Is it unreasonable to argue that we don’t have a homegrown map-API-offering company because we charge for access to that data, while it’s available for free in the US?

9 Responses to “Ordnance Survey man finds UK map mashups: but are they truly British?”

  1. Ed Parsons Says:

    Charles,

    Do you really think the data used by Google et al was obtained free of charge?

    ed

  2. Charles Arthur Says:

    Do you mean the data here, or in the US?

  3. Ed Parsons Says:

    Charles,

    Both… In the US as in the UK, Google et al have licensed all the data you see from commerical data providers -Navteq,TeleAtlas, and DigitalGlobe are the main ones. This data was licensed by Google, Yahoo and the others at some considerable cost.

    They don’t contain “free” data in the US !

    In the UK the Teleatlas data used is based on OS data.

    ed

  4. Nicholas Verge Says:

    Charles,

    I think it is fundamentally mistaken to consider Google maps or whatever, as providing a useful source of free data (mapping) for the UK. This data is not data in the usual usage of the termin the geoinfomatics industry.

    What the creator of such mashups has is the opportunity to use is a third party map created from OS information, presented as a georegistered, but otherwise dumb image, which can be used as a background layer for the dispaly of another dataset. The user has little or no control over formating the appearance of the background layer, cannot pick and choose what is shown in it, can not perform queries on the information it etc. The creator of the mashup is also at the mercy pf the background layer provider(s) – if they choose not to provide such a service, the mashup creator is stuck.

    Mashups are merely the digital internet equivalents of sticking pins in or drawing on a hardcopy OS map. It is better than nothing, but not much better.

    To appreciate what could be done if OS and other data was freely available, compare these mashups with:

    http://demo.manifold.net/Monroe/mainpage.asp

    There is an order of magnitude difference in sophistication, adaptability and fuctionality. Mashups and working with data, s.s., do not compare.

    There is no funadamental reason, why someone with propgraming skills and willing to invest a few hundred pounds could not create a website as sophisticated or more as the one above, or more so, for the UK, showing whatever they want, be it local governement planning, bus routes, post code areas, tourist attractions or pubcrawls. The only obstacle to this happening is the lack of free PSI information sets to build such a site around and display on it.

    Nick

  5. Rob Says:

    Charles,

    I think you’re grasping at straws here…”Is it unreasonable to argue that we don’t have a homegrown map-API-offering company because we charge for access to that data, while it’s available for free in the US?”…Yes, it is unreasonable.

    As I’ve said before, I think mastermap is expensive, and could be provided for a lot less; I also acknowledge ideological arguments as to why our mapping data should be free, but this has very little to do with the lack of a GYM based in the UK. The reason we don’t have a home grown company providing a map api has more to do with the fact that we don’t have the largest IT companies in the world (e.g. Microsoft, Google) based in the UK…and that has nothing to do with how the OS provide data!
    their data.

    Rob

  6. Earle Martin Says:

    Nicholas is right; “mashups” – only the weblog crowd could have come up with that one – are quite naive. You can stick pins in a map? Gee whiz. Sadly I couldn’t get through to the link that he provided, so here’s another one: Mumbai Free Map Demo. http://mumbai.freemap.in/ Note the various layers of geodata that you can switch on and off at will.

    The issue here is that the Ordnance Survey has received countless millions of pounds’ of taxpayers’ money before 1999 to pay for its activities, and indeed another £60m through NIMSA since then, and yet gives us nothing in return. Contrast the United States, where taxpayer-funded geodata is mandated to be in the public domain. A few examples of what they give away for free:

    * http://edcsns17.cr.usgs.gov/EarthExplorer/
    * http://nationalatlas.gov/
    * http://www.census.gov/geo/www/tiger/tigerua/ua_tgr2k.html * http://www.census.gov/geo/www/gazetteer/places2k.html

    Those last two are significant. Add the former to the latter, and you can produce something like http://geocoder.us/ – a service that lets you find the geographic location of any zipcode in the United States, for free; and draw maps of it, for free. This is invaluable for developers of free geospatial services within the US – of which there are quite a number – who are striving to build free services for the public good.

    What do we get over here? Zilch. Unless, that is, you’re willing to pay Ordnance Survey £large for maps and the Royal Mail £even larger for the Postcode Address File.

    This situation, should it continue, will ensure that the programmers of this country such as myself and the other members of my team (http://openguides.org/) are forcibly held back in the geospatial dark ages, while our friends abroad are free to make leaps and bounds in their technological process.

  7. Steve Maller Says:

    I agree strongly with the original assertion. I can certainly, from first hand experience, refute the statement that

    “The reason we don’t have a home grown company providing a map api has more to do with the fact that we don’t have the largest IT companies in the world (e.g. Microsoft, Google) based in the UK…and that has nothing to do with how the OS provide data!”.

    My company would provide this type of service, gladly, but for the commercial arrangements. Indeed we have offered to PAY for the data, and pay LOTS, but not on the exact terms demanded by OS. OS insisted on a transactional charge. You can be pretty sure this was not demanded of Google, they would have paid a fixed fee, even if a large one. So we have offered a fixed fee, but to no avail.

    For the sake of not breaking commercial confidentiality, I’ve not posted my web site. From the e-mail you can probably guess what it is.

  8. Rob Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Why does the OS refusing to work to your company’s terms and conditions prevent you from providing a service similar to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft? If the OS doesn’t wish to work to your terms and conditions why not use the same data providers as Google, Yahoo or Microsoft.

    And for context; As I’ve said before, I think mastermap is expensive, and could be provided for a lot less; I also acknowledge ideological arguments as to why our mapping data should be free, but this has very little to do with the lack of a GYM based in the UK.

  9. Xin Zheng Says:

    Hi Earle,

    I totally agree with you. Americans having Tiger Line data to play with for their country is something we Brits can only dream of for ours.

    To quote you:
    What do we get over here? Zilch. Unless, that is, you’re willing to pay Ordnance Survey £large for maps and the Royal Mail £even larger for the Postcode Address File.

    There are a few UK-based geocoding services. To plug ourselves, http://www.geocode.isharemaps.com, we offer an accurate & affordable geocoding service that geocodes UK addresses and postcodes. It is subscription-based, and far less than you would have to pay for anything like it.

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