Free Our Data: the blog

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


‘What happens at the next Lockerbie?’ – the risks of killing NIMSA

One of the points that I made during the Open Knowledge Foundation meeting in London last week was that the Ordnance Survey knows when everything changes. It has a mission to map the UK, and pretty much anything the size of a garden shed will get noticed by its overflights. (Wouldn’t local authorities love to know about changes in their areas that conformed or didn’t to planning permission? How much do they have to pay if they do?)

I’ve been to OS – which apparently six of the eight past ministers in charge of OS haven’t – and seen the work they do loading the overflight data onto the MasterMap. It’s impressive. The OS target is to get 99.6% of changes in the database within six months.

However the end of the National Interest Mapping Services Agreement (NIMSA) last year means that the OS gets no subsidy to map areas that are out of the way. If it’s having to compete with a growing number of commercial services (apparently the latest one Vanessa Lawrence is concerned about is China’s mapping agency), how can it justify mapping remote areas at that speed?

Ed Parsons, former chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey, says that it won’t. “Areas in cities will get updated, but in Scotland your new garden shed might not be noticed for five years.” Nice for your garden shed – but what happens when a plane or a tanker or some other disaster happens in that remote area that has been neglected because of the death of NIMSA?

That is why the Free Our Data campaign says that Ordnance Survey is valuable – and that the government has a responsibility to citizens to make sure the UK is well mapped, within the public sector. Duncan Shiell of OS, who spoke at the NCeSS event, said that between the wars, councils did a lot of the mapping – but that when the OS was re-funded back to strength and took it over, it discovered that many of the maps didn’t join up across county boundaries... explains what happened between the wars in the comments (Any errors are mine, from misremembering.)

We think the point remains though. That’s why you need a well-funded – taxpayer-funded, not privatised – OS.

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