back to article Cambridge boffins draw map to Free Our Data

Top boffins have given economic backing to a campaign to relax access restrictions on government-collected databases, such as the Ordnance Survey's unrivalled stash of UK mapping information. The Department for Business, Employment and Regulatory Reform (BERR, formerly DTI) released the analysis, commissioned from a team at …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. analyzer


    "The government argues that businesses and individuals who use the data should contribute to the cost of collecting it."

    Just where do the bloody morons think the bloody money came from in the first bloody place. Public money is OUR taxes you bloody morons that's OUR data your charging us for.

    When, if ever, are we going to get politicians who've been hit with a large cluebat to vote for? :(

    Flames in the hope they burn in hell for their stupidity

  2. J Davies
    Thumb Up

    Yup, I'd have to agree with that

    Having tried to develop mapping software, the licensing costs for OS data are prohibitive unless you are a utility company.

  3. peter wegrzyn

    Soon it won't matter is making great progress on an open source map of the world.

    Then how much would The Ordinance Survey be worth?

  4. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

    Oh MAN! If only.

    I make extensive use of weather charts and have to go to European sites to get them. But they have been prepared by the MetO.

    I don't mind paying £2.99 for a road atlas and I have never used Tom Tom. But if this goes through I'd be an happy chappy.


    Why can't I have a thumbs up and a smilie face?

  5. call me scruffy


    Well I suppose if all this was punted into the public domain then we wouldn't care so much about information going walkies when CD's get lost in the post, a spook gets too pissed and drops his lappie or an MP uses his mistress's name as a password.

    While there might be good money to be made mining all this wonderful data it would be foolish in the extreme to assume that said money would be made by British companies. An ancient (but chilling) example was an american company that OCR'd BT's phone books and use it to produce a CD-ROM with forward and reverse (name&address from phone number) searches. BT complained about copyright, which was dismissed by the US courts, and there are good reasons why directory enquiries won't let you do a reverse search, which brings me on to...

    More importantly some of that data, or interpretations drawn from it constitutes a "Special Investigatory Power" as defined by the Official Secrets Act, While the loony left whines incessantly about this that or the other government database, being a gross invasion of privacy, these releases, particularly the land registry, will provide raw materials and embellishments to "stalkers charter" websites such as, "direct marketing" (telephone and junkmail) and even identity fraud operations. And those companies WON'T be answerable to the OSA and WON'T have much incentive to behave nicely to the guy on the street.

    Still those clever people at Cambridge have given it the thumbs up, what would I know.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Data isn't free

    Someone has to pay to collect and process this data.

    If you're willing to pay to access and use this data then you can have it now.

    If you aren't willing to pay for it then obviously your usage obviously isn't that important to you. Surely anyone with a genuine GIS business would accept the cost of the data as a normal part of doing business?

    And remember, while Google may supply a free application to give you access to data they actually had to pay someone else for the rights to use it - free to end user doesn't equal 'free'.

    I would assume the quoted figures for 'economic benefit' are probably equivalent to the amount of money people currently spend getting access to the data though the normal routes.

    So what you'd actually have as an 'economic benefit' would only apply to those people who no longer have to pay to access that data, with the costs actually transferred to the taxpayer.

    So I would suggest that the current system is retained, as it's exactly the same one the commercial equivalents use for their data and means that the taxpayer doesn't get screwed to help pay the back-end costs of someone's GIS company.

  7. Red Bren

    Benefit the economy?

    Benefit shareholders more like!

    As the Free Our Data website states, the Ordinance Survey is a commercial entity that receives no direct tax funding. So if they start giving away this data for free, who is going to plug the gap? Joe Taxpayer.

    If the only thing that's stopping developers from creating these killer applications are the "onerous copyright restrictions" and fees, then perhaps it isn't such a money spinner after all and the £164m figure starts to look dubious.

    And if developers do get free access to this data, will they be just as generous with the fruits of their labour? Somehow I doubt it, but if they do, where does the £164m benefit come from? And if they don't, Joe Taxpayer pays three times - once to gather the data, again to have it packaged up and sold back to him and yet again when the bean counters work their dark arts to minimise the tax on the profits.

    That's not to say the current system is perfect. The government could release the data for non-commercial use under a GPL style licence and charge a royalty for commercial use, rather than a flat fee. But just giving the data away is selling the public short.

    As for the practice of government departments cross-charging each other for services, how many large, private sector companies don't do similar? Does it not make sense for the department of transport to pay more for using this information than the department of culture?

  8. Sid
    Gates Halo

    It doesn't have to be given away

    I don't see a problem with a charge for Geodata, the problem is the very high cost and the restrictions the OS place on what you can do with it. It costs money to collect this data (partly paid for by the taxpayer), and they should ensure that the costs are re-couped.

    But they should also ensure that if us taxpayers are paying for this then we should be allowed to use our data without draconian restrictions, and at a fair price.

    The OS is a monopoly, Thats not right.

    Angel Bill cos he'd give it away free... :)

  9. Ru
    Thumb Down

    Open Street Map

    isn't much good for a lot of purposes, and couldn't even conceivably be for quite some time. Outside of larger urban areas, its coverage is poor for anything but larger roads. OS cover tracks and footpaths too for example, and have little things like elevation data which OSM totally lacks.

    Stopping government departments charging each other vast sums of money wold be nice too. The post office are particularly bad in this respect. We pay our taxes once to have the data collected, twice to have our local government buy it from central government, and then a third time if we actually want to make direct use of it ourselves...

  10. The Other Steve

    @Red Bren/AC + @call me scruffy

    "As the Free Our Data website states, the Ordinance Survey is a commercial entity that receives no direct tax funding."

    And it goes on to say that, in fact, since it obtains 50% of it's revenue from Public sources it is in fact heavily tax subsidised, and all it's profits go straight back to the treasury. OS doesn't have shareholders. Its domain is

    "So if they start giving away this data for free, who is going to plug the gap? Joe Taxpayer."

    Well, that's the point exactly, yes. Giving access to data to UK businesses will drive the development of plenty of useful geoloc stuff, sales of which go to the treasury. There seems to be some cynicism amongst reg commentors on this point, but that's OK, since it doesn't matter, because :

    In any case. since you've just done away with the crawling bureaucracy, you could still keep paying out the same amount of treasury cash and it would probably cover the costs in entirety. Bureaucracies are _really_ expensive.

    So, pay the same money out, only without the friction, whole lot goes to OS et al. So far, no one notices the difference, except now, for the first time ever, UK GIS developers can get access to (e.g.) the highest quality UK mapping data that exists.

    So tell me, who's not winning here ?

    @call me scruffy

    I agree to a certain extent w/r/t to the Land Registry, for instance, but there's no reason it can't be done with proper controls to limit the amount of inference that is possible, for instance the way things stand, if I wish to find all properties owned by a person, one of the following criteria must be met :

    The applicant is either the owner or has the owner's written consent to search

    The applicant holds a Power of Attorney in favour of the owner of the properties

    The applicant is a trustee on behalf of the owner of the properties

    The applicant has a Court Order authorising him to apply for the search

    The applicant has obtained a Bankruptcy Order against the person owning the properties

    There's no reason why such criteria can't still be enforced while removing the charge (£90).

    Some other searches can be done by anyone, like finding the registered owner of a property, given the postal address, which costs £20 and "contains a description of the property, its tenure, the name and address of the owners, purchase price, details of mortgages and other charges, covenants etc."

    That's a large chunk of personal data I agree, but £20 is not really even enough to stop someone who is merely very curious (although it will limit the amount of people who want to nose at all their neighbours).

    I think there are probably some interesting issues around to what extent this data is available, and to whom, but the fact remains that it is, by law, a matter of _public_ record, and therefore the public ought to be able to see it.

    Personally I think using cost as the limiting factor in access to public data is a bit dodgy, people with fat wallets can still lay my life bear, so why should people with a restricted budget be left out of the game ?

    Lifting the financial barrier to access may even raise public awareness of just how much data is available*, and make them start wondering whether it should be so.

    For a full list of such info that you can get your grubby mits on, see :

    * Please note that I do _NOT_ in any way think that the argument "there's already lots of data on people available, so they should STFU whining when we start trying to collect more" is a good one, unlike Phorm and their PR sock puppets. Quite the opposite.

  11. David Pollard

    17th Edition Wiring Regs

    Hmm, this made me wonder again about the price of the Wiring Regulations. The price, £65, doesn't appear to be calculated to encourage widespread access.


    Given that there's a strong case that implementation of wiring standards will lead to safer electrical installations, then there's also a case that the regulations that explain what's necessary to achieve this should be widely, hence inexpensively, available.

    But I suppose that the 'Cambridge boffins' and have all on to make a case for governmental organisations to open up their resources to more people without also trying to tackle organisations that have been privatised or semi-privatised.

  12. Turbojerry

    Simple compromise

    Online data for free, paper copies and CDs charged at cost plus, that would allow useful mashups of data while still generating some money.

  13. Edgemaster
    Thumb Up


    "OS cover tracks and footpaths too for example, and have little things like elevation data which OSM totally lacks."

    Are you sure?

    Yes, coverage isn't great everywhere, but in some places it is *excellent*

  14. Peter Norris
    Thumb Up

    What about Post Code Data

    Shouldn't this also apply to Post Code data? The mapping of Post Codes to grid refs is a very valuable thing to do but is stupidly expensive from the Post Office. Isn't this a National Resource that should be more freely available if nit available free.

  15. call me scruffy
    Gates Horns

    @The Other Steve

    Of course it's a cynical point of view, this IS el-reg FFS!

    Please make up your mind though, on the one hand you're talking about getting shot of the licensing pen pushers at the OS, imagining that this will translate into a massive saving, while on the other hand suggesting that access entitlement checks, requiring significant pen/paper interaction should be done for nothing.

  16. Sheetghoul
    Thumb Up


    As in ?

  17. Red Bren

    @The Other Steve

    "And it goes on to say that, in fact, since it [The O.S.] obtains 50% of it's revenue from Public sources it is in fact heavily tax subsidised, and all it's profits go straight back to the treasury."

    True, but that statement seems a little contradictory - if the OS is making a profit for the treasury, why does it need a subsidy from the treasury? If it is making so much profit, that might suggest that the fees are too high, in which case, why hasn't some enterprising business stepped in to offer a more competitive alternative?

    "OS doesn't have shareholders."

    I would argue that it does - every tax payer in the UK, including corporate tax payers. And like a board of directors, I expect the government to maximise profits. If this information is given away for free, the tax payer is effectively subsidising the business model of private companies.

    Perhaps I am being too cynical and socialist (it's Red Bren for a reason!) but I always read the phrase "good for the economy" as "good for business fat cats."

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They are our maps let's open it

    The OS is the same as any type of government organization, we can all benefit from having the maps open.

    Sure, some companies will go to the wall, but that is because their business model was based on unfair usage of a public resource.

    There will be open maps shortly wherever or not the OS open up the maps we have paid for, if they wish to make money then they should build mapping software to work off the data, rather than subcontract it out.

    A lot of businesses in the UK need this data, and the current offerings of mapping software are pretty piss poor.

  19. sleepy


    It doesn't take a report to deduce the bleedin' obvious. The value of data is only realised when it is used for a purpose. That value is maximised when the data is is freely available and used for all purposes. The revenue obtainable by government from it is maximised by taxing the resulting activities, not the data.

    Let's look at how this works in an area where our reckless government already releases taxpayer-funded information to all, at no charge: traffic lights and pedestrian crossing signals. We could instead make these invisible to ordinary citizens, and fund them by means of special user paid-for detector/viewer devices that disclosed if the lights are currently red or green. Thus the information would still be available for those to whom it has value, but the taxpayer would not be burdened by funding it.

    Of course large amounts of economic activity involving travel would come to a standstill. Which is exactly where we are now with government data that currently only huge bureaucracies can afford to use.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @the other steve

    Price to access details on a property is £3 not £20 if you go direct to the Land Registry itself - Probably not as comprehensive as the service you linked to, but still good enough to get a lot of information - especially if you are thinking about buying a property.

  21. Clive Galway

    A lot of you are missing the point.

    It's not just map tiles that are restricted. For example, borders of UK counties are the property of OS. These are semi-political borders - laws affecting you could, for example, be based upon which county you are in, but to get the data to find out which county you are standing in you would have to pay. OS's argument? The lines that some of the borders follow (eg a hedgerow, a road) were surveyed by OS way back when and are thus OS property. The OS owns the UK's borders, not the UK citizens!

    I came up against this when trying to write a free google maps application for your website, and needed borders of UK counties to draw when you hovered over a county marker (like here - hover over a county - ). I was told that this would be illegal use of OS data. Riiiight.

This topic is closed for new posts.