Free Our Data: the blog

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

Are the Show Us A Better Way winners safe from Ordnance Survey?

After the results of the Show Us A Better Way competition – the X-Factor for web services (as I think I dubbed it) – now here’s the letdown. Ordnance Survey has emailed local government organisations waving its copyright stick. And it’s quite a bit stick. One which, in effect, could prevent many – perhaps all? – of the SUABW winners (Free Our Data announcement; BBC announcement), and certainly those which might rely on local authority data that is in any way geographically related – from being implemented, certainly on Google Maps.

Which would only leave OS’s own OpenSpace product. Which as you know isn’t for commercial or high-volume use. Which would rather complicate things.

The OS, we’ve learnt, has circulated local government with a helpful Q+A about how they shouldn’t embed info on Google Maps (or of course other mapping companies such as Microsoft or Yahoo or..) if it has been “derived” from OS data.

Q I want to pass information I have captured, which has been derived from Ordnance Survey data, onto Google for Google to display on Google Maps. Can I do this?

A Any use of Ordnance Survey data, or data derived from Ordnance Survey data, should be in accordance with the terms of your licence. You are only able to provide such data to a third party in limited circumstances, for example, to your contractor undertaking authority business on your behalf, and only provided that such contractor enters into a Contractor’s Licence. (You should note that we believe the terms of the Contractor’s Licence are wholly inconsistent with what we understand to be Google’s standard terms and conditions.)

Therefore, you cannot pass such information to Google for display on Google Maps, and we must remind you that provision of data to Google in this way would be in breach of Crown copyright.

But what is “derived” from OS data? At local government level, pretty much anything if it relates to where something is.

Q What constitutes data ‘derived’ from Ordnance Survey data?

A Simply put, Ordnance Survey derived data is any data created using Ordnance Survey base data. For example, if you capture a polygon or a point or any other feature using any Ordnance Survey data, either in its data form or as a background context to the polygon/point/other feature capture, this would constitute derived data.

It should also be borne in mind that data from other suppliers may be based on Ordnance Survey material, and thus the above considerations may still apply. We therefore recommend that you verify whether any third-party mapping you use may have been created in some way from Ordnance Survey data before displaying it on Google Maps.

OK, then, how about another way of doing things? What if you run Google Maps and overlay info on top of that, rather than putting it “into” Gmaps?

Q I want to pull Google Maps onto my system and host my Ordnance Survey derived business information on top, so that no data will pass to Google. Can I use this solution instead?

A No. Although you will not be passing any data directly to Google, by displaying such data on top of Google Maps in this way and making such mapping available to the public, it appears that you will be granting Google a licence to use such data. This is the case despite the fact that you will be hosting the data on your system. Google’s terms and conditions appear to provide that any display of data on or through the Google services grants Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such data.

The terms of your licence do not permit you to license Ordnance Survey data to a third party in these circumstances.

If you’d like a copy to marvel at, then download the PDF. (Provided as a public service.)

Now, the OS is perfectly within its rights – indeed, it’s asserting its rights as required by its terms of business – to follow this.

But as implemented it would make it impossible for local government organisations to make available any geographical data about locations of objects they own. (And just for clarification, Google does not license OS’s data, not even through a third party. I’m sure I’ve heard phrases like “have to be a snowy day in hell first” but have no idea who said it.)

That means that things like school catchment areas (if given to geographical accuracy, or pulled off an OS-based mapping system) or postbox locations (if local government holds them) or recycling locations or cycling routes or toilets… gracious me, I seem to have listed the top five applications suggested for SUABW.

Let’s be clear, again: OS is perfectly within its rights to assert these rights. One can even argue that it’s obliged to. But I suspect that it’s not going to go down very well with ministers who have worked very hard to get the SUABW competition off the ground, and indeed into the stratosphere: let’s name Tom Watson (Cabinet Office), Michael Wills (Ministry of Justice) and Jim Knight (Department for Education). And of course the Department for Communities and Local Government put up some prizemoney for the competition too. Which OS – which reports into CLG – seems now to be, um, tripping up.

One could view this as a mistake. Or a political oversight. Or perhaps an attempt to force Whitehall, and in particular the Treasury, to decide whether it wants OS’s rights to prevail, or those of ministers who want more openness. In any event, I think that it might be the first test for OS’s new chair, Sir Rob Margetts, who as you’ll recall is required – according to the job advert – to

be an experienced Chair who understands how to build commercial opportunities in the public sector and who has the intellect to take forward a challenging debate about Ordnance Survey’s future strategy. S/he will have experience of change.

“Challenging debate”. Hope your season ticket to London is up to date, Sir Rob.

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