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.

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