Free Our Data: the blog

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

Tristram Cary of Getmapping responds on the OS consultation: ‘British mapping is fundamentally flawed’

Time for a different viewpoint on the OS consultation. Tristram Cary is head of Getmapping, which shot to prominence from its AIM-listed position in February 2002 via a story perhaps best expressed in the opening paragraph of this story in the Independent:

The Queen has found herself unwittingly on a collision course with the Government as a result of a legal dispute involving a small aerial mapping company.


Getmapping, an AIM-listed aerial photography specialist in which the Queen has a stake, is taking legal action against the Government-owned Ordnance Survey claiming it has abused its market position and breached fair pricing policies. Ordnance Survey is part of the beleaguered Stephen Byers’ Department of Transport.

Ah, yes, those halcyon days when Stephen Byers was beleaguered, and OS was in DoT. (It’s interesting to ask why it was there, and why it moved, but that’s for another day.)

Cary and Getmapping sued OS:

Getmapping has spent £6m developing an aerial map of Britain which it sells over the internet to estate agents, local authorities and civil engineers. It finished the so-called Millennium Map in May 2001 having agreed the previous September that Ordnance Survey could sell it as part of its own services.

However, last May Ordnance Survey decided it wanted a higher specification aerial map and put the contract out to tender. Getmapping claims Ordnance Survey was planning to undercut the Getmapping product even though its higher specification map would cost more to develop. It says Ordnance Survey would therefore be cross-subsidising in order to compete unfairly with the private sector.

At the time I found this lawsuit very interesting; I’d say that it was, for me, the genesis of the entire “free our data” concept, certainly regarding OS’s behaviour. (Since some might wonder, I’ll specify: I had and have absolutely no relationship, commercial or otherwise, with Getmapping or Mr Cary.)

The lawsuit was eventually settled – which in effect meant Getmapping was forced to exit the stock market:

[Getmapping] finally agreed to drop its abuse case in June and paid £125,000 to OS to cover its legal costs although Mr Cary is still angry about the unfair advantage he feels that OS gets from not having to separately account for its commercial arm from its public sector work. The government agency’s commercial activities do not pay a market rate for OS copyright material, Mr Cary claims.

(See also: OS pledges to fight after judge calls Getmapping case “very weak” (June 2002); OFT ruling on the case (May 2002); formal statement at end of case (June 2003)

Water under the bridge? Well, Getmapping is still around (and has been providing aerial data to sites such as Microsoft’s Live Maps). And Tristram Cary recently added a comment to an earlier posting, which we thought would be worth reprinting here, since not everyone subscribes to our full comments feed.

So here’s Getmapping’s take on the consultation (though it’s not their formal response, which is of course far more detailed.)

Tristram Cary writes:

I take a very different view of the OS Consultation and I would like to outline my thoughts here. If there is an opportunity to provide a fuller explanation in the Free Our Data blog then I would be happy to do so.

I also would be very happy for anyone to base a response to the OS Consultation on these ideas.

I think that the way that British Mapping is managed is fundamentally flawed, and that as a result British mapping is not nearly as good as it could be. The main flaws are:

a) OS has become detached from the main sources of mapping change (in particular Local Government). When Local Government authorises a change it does not inform OS and OS therefore has to find out about the change from secondary sources. For example OS does not have access to the Local Land and Property Gazetteers (LLPGs) from Local Authorities which list all changes which affect the NLPG. As a result OS maps lag far behind the ‘truth’ on the ground (typically 6-12 months) and there is a substantial waste of surveying effort, as changes are logged and mapped twice (once by the Local Authority and once again by OS).

b) Maps are Value Added Products. Maps are combination of various low level ‘Elemental Datasets’ superimposed for convenience. Some of these Elemental Datasets are Natural Government Monopolies (NGMs) (eg District Boundaries, SSSIs, street names etc), but others are not (eg coastlines, rivers, height data). Thirty years ago it made sense for maps to be the lowest level of Core Geographical data, but in the modern era of GIS and digital mapping it makes more sense to maintain each Elemental Dataset separately and to allow the private sector or individual users to combine them to form maps. Why? Mainly because the role of government should be minimised to encourage competition and customer choice – this implies that the Government should only look after the Natural Government Monopoly datasets such as Boundaries, SSSIs street names etc. Over the last ten years good progress has been made in opening up the mapping market to genuine competition, and there are now several sources of OS independent mapping including NavTeq, Bartholemews, UK Maps and our own People’s Map. The great downside of giving away map products as free PSI is that it will kill the competition for those maps. It would be much better to give away the Natural Government Monopoly data ONLY and allow the free market to develop all the higher-level mapping products.

c) The Derived Data Trap. The OS is currently in a dominant (almost monopoly) position for the provision of large scale maps. OS maintains that position partly by claiming IPR on data which a user derives using an OS map as a reference, even if the data does not appear on the OS map in the first place. For instance if a utility draws its pipeline network using an OS map as a reference than OS says that if the utility stops paying its annual licence fee to OS then the utility must delete all its derived pipeline data and recreate it from scratch. This acts as a effective barrier to the creation of a truly competitive market for maps for two reasons. First the main customers (government and utilities) are locked in because if they change map supplier then they face having to re-create their derived data. And second because the independent map suppliers cannot get hold of any derived data without paying OS a fee and negotiating licence terms. Boundaries are a good example of this. The Boundary Commission cannot supply its boundaries to the private mapping sector because they are drawn on top of OS Maps and are therefore considered to contain OS copyright.

Because of all these issues, Getmapping’s view on the OS Consultation is as follows:

a) All Natural Government Monopoly (NGM) data should be made available free of charge to the market as PSI, but without any non-NGM data included

b) No maps which contain non-NGM data should be made available free of charge as this will severely damage competition, customer choice and quality in the market

c) In the medium term responsibility for maintaining NGM data should be transferred from OS to the natural owners of the data (eg Local Government for street naming and numbering) and the maintenance of the data should become an integral part of the change process, funded by the organisation which causes the change. For example, if somebody extends their house, then the builder should commission an independent surveyor to make a detailed survey of the as-built change to a specified format and accuracy. This survey would be paid for by the owner of the building and it would be used as the formal NGM update record. An intelligent properly-connected process of this kind would allow maps to be kept up to date within hours of a change, not within 6-12 months

d) It follows that in the medium term OS’s role should become a QA and government-procurement role. This is because if NGM data is maintained by the ‘owning’ government department and made available as PSI then the private mapping sector will be able to make high quality maps to suit all market demands. I believe that the quality, choice and prices of maps would all improve as a result.

Your comments are welcome. The “derived data” is especially interesting, particularly as it applies to utilities. We’d love to hear from utilities or other customers whether this is indeed the implication of the contract – because we suspect it is, given previous form on the derived data question.

11 Responses to “Tristram Cary of Getmapping responds on the OS consultation: ‘British mapping is fundamentally flawed’”

  1. William Allbrook Says:

    This highlights the derived data issue which to my mind has been the real bugbear of many local authorities for a number of years now and one that nobody in government has really come to terms with. I also agree that OS Free could also jeopardise the businesses of some of the smaller niche players in the UK mapping market.

    As always navigating a path through this has proved very tricky.The OS has an important role to play in maintaining the key geospatial infrastructure and they should be charged with this responsibility but I think the private sector would be better for example at producing the paper maps and their digital equivalents for public consumption.

    Large scale products such as MasterMap were created and handed down to customers as a fait accompli, technically impressive but for many local authorities, over the top and too big to load into existing systems without considerable investment. Despite this MasterMap is a tour de force and is much admired but it should to my mind stand on its own two feet in the market place and compete.

    As regards Crown Copyright and derived data it will take courage and imagination to put right what has been so wrong for the last few years. As long as maps are not copied wholesale I think it is OK to build other value added products from them…there I have said it!

  2. Tom Hughes Says:

    The derived data issue certainly is one of the most important, and not something which the consultation addresses directly. I did highlight it in my response to the consultation ( precisely because I consider it to be, in many ways, more important than getting access to many of the proposed data sets.

  3. Anthony Cartmell Says:

    Quite agree that Derived Data is the elephant in the room. I don’t necessarily want free access to OS 1:50,000 mapping, and certainly not MasterMap, but I do want to be able to freely publish routes and locations that someone has traced on TeleAtlas mapping from Google Maps (technically derived from OS data).

    I would have thought that the derived data rules could be dropped, instead relying on normal copyright laws: if I copy substantial parts of a map I break copyright, if I use a map to draw a line I don’t think I do.

    I like the concept of Natural Government Monopoly data. The datasets that _should_ be free are those to do with administrative boundaries, and probably also Census output area boundaries. Otherwise it’s very difficult to map our democracy or to provide socially useful applications. Boundary information at this level should be free of charge and free of licensing restrictions.

    Like TIGER/Line in the USA, please?

  4. Brian Williams Says:

    Maybe I’ve read this wrong, but I don’t like the idea that we should always have to pay for geographical data – I think rivers, heights coastlines were not considered as NGMs – since a great deal of this information will have been surveyed at taxpayer’s expense years ago.

    This puts the USA position on its head doesn’t it? As I understand it, the USA makes all the topographical information free, as it is collected at taxpayer expense – unless I’m mistaken, of course.

    As a walker, I’m more interested in topography and rights of way. How does this fit into the scheme proposed?

  5. BrianSJ Says:

    b) is bizarre; does this make google maps pay per view? Distorting the market with my taxes is wrong, but as stated it does not make sense.
    c) My house footprint on my property is a Natural Government Monopoly? In the UK, the whole of Local Authority planning needs a massive clearout before any commercially sane, non-corrupt approach can be found. As proposed, this will turn into a scam.
    d) There is a vital need for some end-to-end information assurance. There needs to be assurance of what purposes a map is fit for. Government maps assert they are high quality. For both government and privately produced maps, there needs to be some statement of accuracy and timeliness. A possible future for government mapping agencies is to morph into information assurance bodies, though it is not obvious that they should have a monopoly.

  6. steven feldman Says:

    The arguments in this post seem very flawed to me. Could it be that Tristram has an agenda to deconstruct the OS influenced by his past history with them?

    The issues around notification of change from Local Authorities appear to me to be more a matter of choice by the Local Authorities or the LGA. The duplicated effort (tot he extent that there is duplicated effort) could be solved by LA’s offering to provide this change intelligence to the OS. Incidentally are there any LA’s who survey new build for their LLPG? I thought they captured from builders plan as a temporary layer until the OS surveyed the development.

    The suggestion that each NGM should be maintained by a separate organisation almost beggars belief. How is all of this activity going to be coordinated? 400+ Local Authorities maintaining elements of a roads dataset sounds like a potential nightmare re consistency and quality.

    It looks as if we won’t be able to make the new national mapping souffle without breaking a few egss


  7. Brian Williams Says:

    This is all too silly. We all need maps. Make the whole thing free and take it out of taxes. If we can spend billions on the AGW myth, billions on people feeding inefficient electricity back into the grid, billions on the EU, what’s another few on worthwhile things like maps?

  8. Ian painter Says:

    c) is crazy and will totally destroy the large scale mapping infrastructure of the uk. the result would be a huge step backwards. As one of the technical leads who built OS MasterMap there are 450 million features to bring together in a consistent manner. It was hard enough building that from the OS survey base. Are you seriously saying UK local gov can coordinate revision cycles, accuracy and quality so that the private sector can bring together a consistent picture. It just won’t work. Bringing all this together would be so costly that the private sector wouldn’t touch it. It would be cheaper to capture from scratch. In countries where large scale capture does happen the consistency and quality is so poor that other gov department and utilities capture it themselves again. This approach duplicates even more effort, cost more and result in inconsisent large scale mapping base which will be unusable.

  9. Robin Says:

    I’m not sure that I agree with (c) but I think Tristram’s basic argument is correct.

    What the government currently proposes is likely to mean the worst of all possible worlds. If 1:50,000 OS mapping etc is made free then it will hurt competition such as Tele Atlas, Bartholomews etc and undermine independent sources of data such as OpenStreetmap (why would anybody bother making a raster map with OSM data if the OS maps are free?). The OS will have less revenue and no competitive incentive to produce good maps so in the long-run quality will suffer.

    At the same time, if derived data and true government monopoly data (e.g. where it’s decided to put the boundaries) are not freed up, then it doesn’t help people making maps. A raster map, which is basically a picture, is not something you can import into an independent dataset such as OSM.

    The counter argument is that it’s cheaper if just one set of maps is made and paid for by taxes, but the same logic applies to all sorts of information products. Why not have just one set of school textbooks paid for by taxes? One free newswire? One government credit reference agency?

    What the current proposals amount to is nationalisation of the mapping market around the OS. I honestly can’t see why that’s a good idea.

  10. Hamilton Says:

    In some respects you have to have some sympathy for those at GetMapping and the other OS competitors. Such fundamental changes as those posed in the consultation, will inevitably have some fairly major negative impacts for them. But having read Mr Cary’s take on things, I can’t help but feel a tad frustrated that he, just like OS before him, still doesn’t get what this whole issue is all about.

    The requirements for most people are simple. They want a set of medium scale maps (and spatial data) from which they can create and display their own data. They want these maps to be accurate and current. They want them to be standardised and available to all, so that what they create is comparable and sharable. In short, they want Ordnance Survey maps.

    Mr Cary warns us that OS Free will kill the market for other maps, but what has the rest of the market given us? Cheaper alternatives with more sensible licensing arrangements? Give us OS maps on those terms and you will kill the market, but only because it isn’t giving us anything better. Instead of trying to stifle and confuse open data initiatives, organisations like GetMapping need to look for genuine, honest opportunities and help build a market that doesn’t rely on forcing people into the arms of the lesser of two evils.

    The OS consultation isn’t for people like Mr Cary, it’s for the rest of us who need to use spatial information but are being constantly slapped in the face with price lists and licenses. It’s for people who are trying to further their knowledge, start a business, solve problems, improve our society and protect our environment. If OS maps weren’t created with public money and weren’t the best maps available he might have a point – but they are and he doesn’t.

    As for the derived data issue, there I am in complete agreement with Mr Cary. It is the most, short-sighted, backward and negative position to operate a company from. OS need to realise that they have a responsibility to help society, not just themselves.

  11. Robin Waters Says:

    Use of a relatively uncommon first name like ‘Robin’ on an relatively niche ‘industry’ blog like this can be antisocial. Robin Waters and Robin McLaren wish to make it clear that it is neither of us!

Leave a Reply