Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


In the Guardian: how Ordnance Survey keeps election boundaries to itself

In this week’s Guardian Technology, we look at the peculiar way that the Ordnance Survey treats the information collected by the Boundary Commission of England, under orders from the Electoral Commission (pay attention at the back..) when it’s drawing up constituency boundaries.

Obviously the boundaries’ locations affects who might win elections in marginal seats; they’re being redrawn right now, in fact. Academics are interested to know how they’ve changed, in as much detail as possible, because they tell you interesting things about society, and so on.

Turns out though that the Boundary Commission collects the geographic data and then puts its copyright on it. You can probably guess the rest of the story: those who want to use it for anything other than academic, educational or political purposes has to pay. Parties are banned from reusing the data (which OS makes available, for free viewing but no re-use, at election-maps.co.uk.

However there’s an interesting – if limited – development:

Last year, OS gave Professor Richard Topf, director for the Centre for Comparative European Survey Data based at London Metropolitan University, permission to show Westminster parliamentary boundaries for each election since 1983 (besis.org). Furthermore, it provided the data at no charge, encouraged its development and links to the resulting site from the Election Maps site. Topf says the reason the maps go back only to 1983 is simply because they are not available in digital form before then.

But the site uses outlines of whole constituencies, rather than high-resolution mapping. Topf says OS required that high-resolution data could not be extracted from the site as a condition of its use: “It took several months, but that was because they wanted to know a lot about the technical construction of the files,” he says.

OS says that agreements outside Edina have to be considered to ensure that material is used only for the purposes granted, and if it is for display use only, OS may require technical safeguards so data cannot be extracted for commercial use.

Dr Southall says such agreements can be hard to come by: “The academic liaison side [of OS] is very, very helpful, but as soon as you say ‘copyright’, the whole organisation freezes,” he says.

We heartily recommend besis, which is very interesting to play around with – though as the article points out, the detail is limited.

But as for copyright freezing everything, see our post about whoownsscotland.

Leave a Reply