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


Ordnance Survey says Met Police crime maps break its licence. Does Jacqui Smith know? Or Gordon Brown?

Ordnance Survey has confirmed to me that the crime maps being used by the Met Police break its licence.

And any other police force that uses “ward boundaries” (subdivisions of their force’s policing area, which is how all police forces record crimes) or refers to an OS map in order to plot the location of a crime, and then plots it on anything other than a fully-licenced OS map, is also breaking the OS’s licence.

This, basically, derails any sort of useful crime mapping – and has to call into question whether police forces can meet the deadline promised by the home secretary Jacqui Smith in July.

Just to remind you what was said:

Every neighbourhood in England and Wales will have access to the latest local crime information through new interactive crime maps, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced today.

The rollout of interactive crime maps follows the announcement made by the Home Secretary earlier this month, as part of the Policing Green Paper, that every police force in the country has now delivered monthly crime information to the public on their websites. New interactive crime maps will take the rollout of local crime information to the next level.

By the end of the year every police force area will produce crime maps which will allow the public to:

  • see where and when crime has happened, down to street level for some crimes;
  • make comparisons with other areas; and
  • learn how crime is being tackled by their local neighbourhood policing team.

The new maps will give the public the information they need to hold their local police force to account. The maps will communicate to the public how they can get involved in setting local policing priorities to reduce the crime that matters to them in their area.

The Met Police then went and set up their own crime mapping site, which doesn’t give precise locations of crimes, but does show relative levels of crime, broken down by ward, and plotted – fatally – on a Google Map.

Yesterday OS sent me a statement which said:

“Our understanding is that the Met Police sourced their boundary information through the Office of National Statistics (ONS). We class this as being derived data therefore taking that outside the terms of our licensing. We are working with all the parties involved to find a solution.”

(Need to remind yourself about “derived” data? Be our guest.)

This though skewers Jacqui Smith’s publicly-announced plans for crime mapping. There can be no solution while the OS’s licence – which forbids one putting OS-derived data obtained under one OS licence onto a map that has another licence (or no OS licence at all), unless the two licences have an exactly congruent set of users and terms.

It’s never a good idea to tell a home secretary that the pledge they made publicly in July, allowing six months to happen, now can’t be met.

Then again, perhaps Jacqui Smith isn’t a formidable enough opponent. How about Gordon Brown, who is also in favour of crime mapping?

That said, there are some crime maps already available, which do use OS maps: West Yorkshire police; West Midlands police. As I’ll explore in a later post, they’re complete rubbish – they lack any sort of helpful positional API, multiple layers, or other features that make crime mapping useful. Though they do seem to build on an OS map. This means OS is offering some sort of API-based system. Pity that it’s pretty much hopeless.

Compare and contrast it with the Chicago output of Everyblock – for a particular police beat, or a neighbourhood – and you can see how prehistoric these UK efforts look. Even the ones that are breaking the OS licence. (And especially the ones that aren’t.)

If one good thing can come out of all this it would be for the OS’s stranglehold on geographical information to be broken by a political row in which it frustrates the Home Office – one of the most powerful departments in the country.

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