Free Our Data: the blog

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

Virtual London online plans killed off by Ordnance Survey licensing demands

The map to the side was created by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, showing air pollution (redder means worse; bluer less bad). It’s the sort of map that would have all sorts of uses, if you could make it interactive and navvigable online: you’d be able to determine how polluted the street where you were looking to buy a house was; or (as a planner) where congestion was worst; or (as a scientist) where to site experiments.

But you won’t find a navigable map like that – only snapshots. Reason being that longstanding attempts by Casa and Google to persuade the OS to license the use of the map online have foundered.

The reason: Google wanted to make a one-off payment for the MasterMap data the map derives from; OS insists that it must be a per-user system, as applies to all sorts of other people (and which has scuppered other plans in the past, longstanding readers will recall – see “Travel maps of Britain.. measured by time, not distance” in May 2006. There too it was OS’s licensing model that meant that work funded by the Department of Transport couldn’t be shown online).

In Want to see a great 3D model of London online? Ordnance Survey says no we look at what’s been lost:

Virtual London, developed by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London, represents all of the capital’s boroughs in 3D, including 3m buildings. It was intended to help citizens visualise the impact of new developments and hazards such as air pollution and flooding. The mayor’s London Connects e-government programme has also sent copies of the model, running in Google Earth, to each of London’s 33 local councils.

Then the problem emerged. Virtual London contains spatial data derived from OS’s MasterMap, the definitive crown copyright database of Britain. Licences to use MasterMap data are a valuable income stream to OS, a trading fund required to earn a profit for the Treasury by selling products and data licences. There was no problem with London’s boroughs using the 3D model in-house, because, like virtually all government bodies, they have licences to use OS data. What they could not do was post Virtual London on websites for London’s citizens to use.

The Virtual London team blogs their disappointment:

While it is fair to say that Google can be demanding the lack of movement by the OS does strike [smack? – CA] of an agency out of touch with today’s data requirements.

The Free Data Campaign has a number of posts and information with regards the practices of the OS. While we have not always agreed with them, and indeed have been warned off openly criticising the OS in the past by the powers that be, we cannot deny that the whole episode has been slightly Pythoneque.

The OS currently does not have the ability to license models for public usage and this is from a government-funded and approved agency.

(Obviously OS would argue about the “government-funded” part of that last sentence. But since just under half its revenues come from licensing to central and local government, it’s at least partly correct.)

The Virtual London team – while saying that they are merely passing on the link (to the world) while “worrying slightly in a ‘we need to distance ourselves from all this for the sake of our career[s]’ sort of way” – point to an article on the matter by the Londonist about OS entitled “Ordnance Survey are not our friends”:

You’ve seen those adverts for a well known building society, right? – the ones with the annoying chap explaining that it ‘doesn’t work like that’.

Change the building society for the Ordnance Survey (our national mapping agency) and make Google the customer for a farce that has made London the laughing stock of the mapping world.

Google – Can we publish the Virtual London model from the guys at CASA? We’ll pay, and even put on your logo so that you get the credit.

Ordnance Survey – Doesn’t work like that.

Google – OK how does it work? Lets find a way around this, after all it is in the public’s interest and what with the Olympics coming up…

Ordnance Survey – Doesn’t work like that.

When you consider it like that, the whole thing really is Pythonesque. It could have come straight out of Life of Brian.

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