Free Our Data: the blog

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

Archive for August, 2007

Want to put maps online cheaply? Get a paper licence and scan them

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

This will seem really strange, but tipped off by a comment on this blog from Walkhighlands, we investigated further. And it turns out to be true: with an Ordnance Survey “paper licence”, you can scan maps and put them online as you like.

Price difference compared to the digital licence: it’s about 1/50th price, or more if the digital licence waas quoted by a reseller.

There’s more at Paper maps rather than digital ones save site 99% in OS fees, which looks at the problems that Walkhighlands – an enterprising new small business based in Skye, which offers walks in those most beautiful (and remote, and in need of urban visitors looking to spend some time and cash, such as the picture above of Skye) – had in trying to put digital versions of the maps of its walks online.

Set up only this February, it operates from Staffin, in northern Skye, and already gets an average of 600,000 hits every month from about 18,000 visitors a month. It has recently been chosen as one of 26 new businesses to receive funding from Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and features more than 250 walking routes, which its organisers are expanding all the time.

But when Paul Webster, who runs the site, inquired into the costs of putting printable Ordnance Survey maps on the site (which already offers links to buy the full printed versions), he was horrified by the cost quoted by a reseller: £20,000 per year for the licence for the digital data. (OS says that it did not give a direct quote for that data). Trying to pay that would bankrupt the site.


instead, he turned to paper. “As long as you have purchased a ‘paper’ licence, you can scan maps and put them on the internet – as long as the webpage and the map doesn’t contain advertising,” he explains. He insists that the OS put this permission in writing – which it did, with a letter from a “senior service advisor”.

(We have seen a copy of the letter.)

This confirmed that “paper map extracts currently displayed on your website are covered by your Paper Map Copying Licence”. This, the letter says, is because “

  • the map extracts are being used as an information tool on your website to enhance your business
  • the mapping is not being sold and you are making no financial gain from the use
  • the map extract would need to be used in conjunction with the whole map sheet to give your extract context
  • there is no advertising on the same pages
  • “.

    Now, digital maps have far more utility than scans of paper ones – you can do all sorts of things with them that you simply can’t with a paper one, as Google and Streetmap and Multimap demonstrate. (You can’t dynamically calculate a route or a distance on a scanned map, unless you’ve done some very clever work locating corners.)

    But given that OS has to cover its costs, and that the paper licence only costs £50, it can’t be economical to issue the licence. It must cost more to administrate than is received. It would, surely, be cheaper and more efficient for OS to make paper map licences free.

    Which would be a start.

    Of course, as the article points out,

    this is not OS’s decision: ministers determine how it is funded. But with the trading fund model now being investigated, and OS under fire from a number of other government departments, the time is ripe for a radical revision of its funding regime.

    Time for ministers – perhaps with OS’s help, if it could say how much it costs to issue a paper licence – to have a think.

    (Afterthought: see, we do read your comments – and we do act.)

    Information World Review joins Free Our Data campaign

    Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

    We’re pleased to welcome our first official partner in the campaign: Information World Review, a VNU publication, has joined the campaign.

    In a posting on the IWR blog, IWR’s editor Mark Chillingworth notes that

    it would be great if Information World Review and its readers can be part of a campaign to make the information we already own more easily available.

    IWR – motto “Information for competitive advantage” – is Europe’s leading newspaper for the information industry, covering both content and information management issues from the perspective of information professionals and managers responsible for intranets, extranets, portals and content management. It is circulated to information professionals, information managers and content managers working in corporations, consultancies, and public sector organisations in the UK.

    As I note on the blog post, the more people and organisations we have on board, the better our chances of success. If you see more examples where government is charging or re-charging itself for data, let us know – add a comment here.

    Virtual London online plans killed off by Ordnance Survey licensing demands

    Friday, August 17th, 2007

    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.

    Not waking the dead: time to make details of the dead available?

    Thursday, August 16th, 2007

    Overdue, but last week’s edition of Technology Guardian wrote about the place that we could call the dividing line between personal data and potentially free data: that of death. Like taxes, it’s inevitable. And notably under the Data Protection Directives, the dead do not enjoy data protection – details about a dead person can be passed without reference, because (obviously) they’re dead.

    That means though that dead people are (weirdly) potentially liable to identity theft (people assume the identity of the dead person, if organisations don’t realise they’re dead; infinitely less risk of the dead person spotting their credit record going sour, after all). And there are other problems too, such as people receiving mailshots at upsetting times, as the article – Direct mail reaches beyond the grave – explains:

    In June this year, the Ministry of Defence sent a recruitment mailshot to the family of Lance Corporal Dennis Brady, a reservist with the Royal Army Medical Corps, inviting him to re-enlist. But Brady had been killed eight months previously while serving in Basra.

    Although the blunder was very public, prompting a ministerial apology and the MoD to suspend direct mailing, it was not unusual. About 570,000 deaths occur in Britain every year.

    The key point is that death data should be shared within government (one of the drivers behind the e-government framework was one of its architects’ discovery that in trying to notify a death, a family had to contact official bodies 44 times over a period of 18 months.

    Releasing information about deaths, and the identities of the dead – so that they can be removed from databases (and so that credit and other applications in their names would be flagged) would obviously have huge benefits.

    Up to now, we have been concerned mainly with information about the natural environment and anonymised statistics, where we think the case for automatic free dissemination is clear. At the other end of the spectrum, data about identifiable citizens should be rigorously protected – the more so as the government moves towards joined-up databases.

    Records of deaths lie at the boundary between the two. We believe that, while the existing restrictions on the release of bulk data are absurd, the potential harm to living individuals means that re-users (including those in government) should be under a special obligation to get their facts right.

    We’ll offer a footnote here to the Bereavment Register, which offers a similar service, aiming to reduce the amount of direct (junk) mail sent to the deceased. It costs money, of course, whereas our scheme might make such prevention in effect free at source, since marketing databases could be cleaned against them. But a company like this could offer a service “cleaning” databases too.

    Administrative note: If you want to promote an organisation that has some connection to this campaign (or campaigns against it – we’re all for robust argument) then please use your real names. If you want to get in touch separately, then please email me – [email protected] works well.

    More on government departments’ submissions to the Select Committee

    Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

    This week’s Guardian Technology supplement expands on the acid remarks from Defra and also the Ministry of Defence over the Ordance Survey’s licensing system in submissions to the Communities and Local Government select committee inquiry.

    In Ordnance Survey under fire from inside the government we note that

    the Ministry of Defence paints a picture of a 200-year-old relationship turning sour because OS has to operate as a business. While the agency is a world-class organisation providing an excellent service, “in recent times the boundaries applied to the use of OS’s data for public service and national interest work have become increasingly blurred. MoD has experienced more stringency and complexity being applied to the release of data by OS, which has resulted in uncertainty and lack of flexibility in the use of that data by the MoD.” Licensing charges set by OS are “particularly high”. As a result “some government users are being denied access”.

    Sound familiar?

    Also worth noting: there’s now a single page with all the Free Our Data stories from the Guardian. (It’s part of the website redesign. Maybe we’ll try on here some time.)