back to article Driving some value into Google's Street View

So Googlers are driving their cars around the UK at the moment snapping pictures of every bit of every road and everyone and everything around them - and causing a bit of a privacy hoopla. Perhaps Google should pay some penance for its evil. As luck would have it, we’ve got a lovely idea for how it can redeem itself. But …


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  1. Bob

    Copyright Law...

    It's not clear to me that taking street sign names off of Google Maps would not be legal. In the US at least, copyright (supposedly) covers the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. The fact is that particular street has a particular name whether or not Google has a picture of its street sign (and Google never invented the name either).

    How is this different from using Google Street View to find a pub?

  2. Bruno Girin


    Sustrans has nothing to do with the government, it's a charity. Their primary goal is not to produce maps of the cycling network, it's to extend and build that network. Going to the home page of the web site you point to would have told you that.

    As for providing the Ordnance Survey with data and buying it back from them, ask the Royal Mail. They provide a significant amount of the data the OS use (posties do walk along all those streets every day so they are a good source of such data) and yes they get to buy it back at inflated prices! So maybe all the people feeling stitched up by the OS could make a deal up with openstreetmap, contribute to their data set and get maps back for free.

  3. John

    Service speed

    To be fair, the slowness of the government's one has nothing to do with it being paid-for data, but to do with the underlying technology used to serve up the map. In my opinion, both services are unacceptably slow in a world that has become used to googlemaps.

  4. Eddie Edwards
    Thumb Down

    Oh leave the OS alone

    "Nearly half of the OS's revenue comes from selling its data to the public sector, and the public sector is funded by us, the taxpayers"

    And the OS is also funded by us, the taxpayers, so the net loss to us, the taxpayers, is zero. What a stupid comment. I'd expect better from the ... no wait it's from the Guardian.

    The fact that OS are *partly* funded by us through tax and *partly* funded by selling maps is neither here nor there. Any profit they make is also ours. The balance between tax income and product income is arbitrary if they only sell maps to British people. But they also sell maps to tourists. So tourists help fund the OS even though they don't pay tax. Guess what? That means we pay less tax.

    Do the OS make a profit? Do they make more selling maps than they do updating them? Because if they do, then all Freetard Maps will achieve is to drive them out of business, so we'll no longer have quality maps of the UK at all (or we'll pay way more tax for the priviledge).

    Remember, OS maps are accurate. Not just "turn left at the next lights" accurate or "ooh look there's my house" accurate, but "here is the exact topography of this square mile" accurate. I'd hate to lose that just on the principle that maps "want to be free".

  5. Luke
    Black Helicopters

    Google Earthlings

    I just got caught by one of the imperial corsa's on Chiswick high road. I think I managed to slip behind a parked van before it sucked out my soul.

    This was about 20 mins ago - it is heading towards Hammersmith. For the love of god people of west London, close your blinds and lock-up your children!

  6. John H Woods Silver badge


    Yes but the Royal Mail would probably need to stop selling postcode data (that we paid tax to create) before they could argue that they shouldn't have to buy back OS data they helped to produce.

  7. kenneth gonsalves


    in my town, yahoo! doesnt have the images and google is inaccurate. So the only option is osm:

  8. Rob Farnell

    I sent this to David Cameron last week but haven't had a reply

    With the advent of Google Earth and the Google Maps API, the United States with it's freely available postcode information are capable of drawing up amazingly powerful mapping designs using various freely available datasets. The UK is starting to catch on with credit crunch maps - , ASBO - and Knife Crime - . However, the main hindrance of really allowing the UK to endorse this amazing technology is the copyright of the Royal Mail Postcode PAF file and it's associated longitude and latitude information and restricted access to government collected data..

    As described here at , there is vast amounts of data that if made public, could make all our lives better and potentially make us all a bit more informed. Until these government collected data sources are available to the public without condition, progress cannot begin. Public data needs to be released to the public without licensing, commercial /legal agreements, logins and passwrods and re-use confusion.

    The UK is in danger of falling behind on this and missing out on a new wave of information driven web sites and technology that could generate jobs, skills and profit. Will you attempt to relax copyright on our postal information and open up more datasets to the public?

    Kind regards and thanks in advance for your reply,

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OS Copyright

    As I understood the copyright issue, any accurate map of the UK is within the copyright of the OS because simply because they mapped it first. Since they drew the original maps of the UK then they own the copyright to the main map. You could presumably argue that if you mapped a new feature before them, then you own the copyright for that bit of map. But unfortunately you can't map something without reference to the geography around it (a map without reference to that would be useless) then the OS would still own the copyright to the underlying map.

    If there are any copyright lawyers out there perhaps they could clarify this?

    Incidentally each local authority holds the "definitive map" of their area which defines the legal status of public rights of way. They sell this info to the OS. So while the OS make money selling data to the public sector they get a lot of that data from the public sector in the first place.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You can't compare OS and Google Maps

    Nobody uses an OS map to drive round Picadilly Circus. And nobody uses Google Maps to walk up Snowdon.

    Nothing that Google or Open Street Map are doing touch the latter market. So taking our satnavs offroad will never be an attractive proposal until OS stops fleecing us for data maps. (Incidentally, the raster version of a 1:25000 OS map is about 3 times the price of a paper one.)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Just taken a look at the site. The postcode search is incredibly slow and once it finds the postcode it's rather inncacurate. My postcode is over half a mile out, which makes the map effectively useless. Where are they sourcing the postcode data?

  12. 4a$$Monkey
    Dead Vulture

    Yeah... leave the OS alone

    It's an interesting idea but you can't knock the OS too much. They do produce the best maps in the world! Try finding maps of similar quality and accuracy for any other country - you won't be able to.

    You can't wiki-up that kind of quality as we all know.

  13. FlatSpot

    Half Baked Reporting... again

    "UK taxpayers have the pleasure of supporting Ordnance Survey’s activities to create maps of the >>*entire*<< UK"

    OS are self funded and not *funded* by the taxpayer, less than 5 mins of google work would have cleared that one up!

    So what if a local authority buy their maps from them? Someone has to be paid to produce maps, nothing in the world is free, who paid for the satellite, the satellite launcher? They buy them even if compelled because its been decided that we would like some decent quality to our map data. The Open Street Map may be great for London, but outside of the M25 (Yep quite a lot of the world is outside London), the data is completely useless, doesnt have anything beyond A roads and B Roads.

    If you are pushing towards dicing them up just like the Post Office, you end up with a unsustainable business.. Freetard Cherry Picking hmm what Post Office... ??

    On your bike.. El Reg thats a 20mile cycle to your nearest Post Office.

  14. Dave

    @Service speed

    to be fair one of the cycle maps is running from a $6/month web host, I'll let you guess which ;-)

  15. Anonymous Coward


    What a typically self-indulgent Western argument this is. While we're arguing the toss over paying for highly accurate maps, there are places where such topographical certainty is hard to come by at any price - as I discovered driving to Mali a few months ago. In the end, the best directions I could create came from GPS routes created using Google Earth.

    Then I found - which uses the OSM method to generate highly accurate maps for a place that doesn't have any. Very useful, and if you contribute then you get free access to the maps created. I'll be using it on my next jaunt.

  16. Dave


    The postcodes either come from the OpenStreetMap data itself, or else from the NPE maps project at

    Official postcode data isn't free in the UK you know. Feel free to enter your postcode now and the OSM server will then give you a decent hit.

    As for speed.. well.. more funding needed clearly.

  17. Alex Wright


    "Someone has to be paid to produce maps"

    Err, did you read the article? Open Street Map are doing it for nothing. And you can use the data for nothing.

    Some enlightened companies (mostly haulage firms) are giving their data to OSM. AND, Automotive Navigation Data (, donated the entire streetmap of the Netherlands as well as road networks for China and India.

    It really doesn't have to cost...

  18. Garry Mills


    Actually, Yahoo provide an API for postcode geolocating

    From one of my sites," method="get">

    Works well.

  19. Rick

    OS != roads

    Others have already mentioned it, but it bears repeating. The author appears to have completely missed the point of OS maps. Google, OSM and whoever else only map roads, and maybe a few other things like bike paths. Which is great, as long as all you want to do is drive, or get an idea of where somewhere is. OS, on the other hand, map everything. And I mean absolutely everything. Roads, paths, buildings, heights, pylons, fences. Everything. Oddly enough, measuring and recording everything in such detail costs money, and involves actually looking at the place rather than just sitting at a computer. Good luck getting that done free over the internet.

  20. Andy Worth

    Think about it....

    If you see a googlecar.....moon it. Give them a flash of the pearly whites, and I don't mean your teeth.

  21. Tim Spence

    Get your facts right

    Yes, as an ex-OS employee who loved the place, I am slightly biased, but I speak in facts - unlike the author of this article.

    The OS is an executive agency and operates as a trading fund, which means it receives absolutely NO funding from the Government, and so is entirely self-financing. Any profit it makes, and it does regularly make a profit, gets returned to the Government coffers. As a result, I enjoyed much freedom with spending in one of the most well-funded IT departments I've ever been in.

    So where the article is critical claiming the taxpayer has to pay for this data, and then pay again to get access to it, it's plainly wrong. The only financial burden the taxpayer has over the data is at the point of sale. If you don't want the data, it doesn't affect you, so go away.

  22. Paul M.
    Thumb Down

    From the people who brought you Wikipedia...

    It's fecking useless. Why do Freetards always forget that it costs real money to produce good quality stuff? And why do they insist their own garbage is just as good?

    The maps outside city centres don't have any detail except A and B roads. But (@Flatspot) it's enough to make us worse off, since the Ordnance Survey balance sheet benefits from tourists buying urban maps and asking "Wo ist Ronnie Scotts?"

    The rest of us who need a reliable (not like Wikipedia) map to follow the footpath from Jimbo-on-Sea to Little Tarding will still have to pay for the real OS maps, but these will cost more now.

    Another Freetard con-trick.

  23. Glen

    @ 4a$$Monkey

    wasnt there a story a while ago about how the russian cold war maps of britain were better than the OS?

  24. Etienne


    OpenStreetMap maps a lot more than roads. All the things you mention: roads, paths, buildings, heights, pylons, fences ... AND ... post boxes, pubs, airfields, canals, rock climbing routes, shipwrecks, lighthouses, ski runs, whitewater rapids, universities, toucan crossings, coffeeshops (the dutch kind), trees, fields, toilets, speed cameras, toll booths, recycling points and a whole lot more.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Give the OS a hard time guys!

    There is a limitation to online maps that should be pretty obvious to anyone who's tried to print one out and use it in the field: not many people have access to full colour printers a metre across. To cover any reasonable area you have to manage a whole bundle of A4 sheets. There's also the durability issue, as typical printer paper (and ink) doesn't last long in wind and rain.

    So I'm quite happy to pay the OS to provide laminated maps that are actually useful. However, I'd also be happy if there were alternative free sources of good mapping data. That way other printers could also print decent maps and the OS would have to justify its (in my view) rather high prices in a competitive environment.

    The state's sponsorship of the OS effectively gives them a monopoly and I'm not at all sure we're getting good value at present.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    "OS Copyright" (AC 13:40)

    "any accurate map of the UK is within the copyright of the OS because simply because they mapped it first."

    You may well be right about the OS having lots of copyrights but I think you misunderstood the logic. The AA, for example, used to claim they had their own maps with their own copyright, based on survey data generated by their own patrols. There was some plausibility in this till it was spotted that actually some of the AAs maps were just OS copies (there are ways and means of telling); the net result was AA parent company Centrica paid £20M to the OS. Remember that when your next gas (or electric) bill arrives.

    Iirc, some time before that, there were others genuinely doing their own surveys independent of the OS, eg the Bartholomew family in Scotland, as seen in series 2 episode 1 of the BBC series Map Man. But in those days it was a huge task. Watch the next set of repeats. It's what your TV was made for.

    Incidentally, would folk please bear in mind that many (most?) of the detailed "satellite" photos are actually taken from aircraft rather than satellites.

  27. Chris Duncan

    IDIOT Software Developer can't research article

    1. Sustrans is NOT a government body. It is a charity set up and run to promote sustainable forms of transport (particularly walking and cycling). It is because of Sustrans working with local government that the National Cycle Network has come into existence, however this is after years of tireless work by individuals.

    2. The Ordnance Survey is a Government Trading Fund. It doesn't get direct taxpayers money!

    3. Both 1 and 2 have already been mentioned - but nothing has been done to correct the story.

    Can I be so bold as to suggest that M. Walker should be so kind as to keep to his day job as a software developer at The Register until he learns how to properly research an article (or at least do some cursory checking of his facts).

  28. Richard Fairhurst

    Let's clear up a few things

    @Bruno Girin: There ain't a lot of point in building cycle routes if no-one knows where they go! Sustrans have been supportive of OSM and vice versa: in fact, a good number of OSM contributors are volunteer Sustrans rangers.

    @Anonymous Coward ("OS Copyright"): Your understanding is wrong. It's an infringement to copy OS data (potentially of 'database right', not copyright), but not an infringement to independently research the same facts - which is exactly what OpenStreetMap is doing.

    @Anonymous Coward ("You can't compare OS and Google Maps"), Rick and Paul M: Don't know about Snowdon, but OSM certainly has mapped most of the main paths on (say) the Brecon Beacons. Google hasn't, but OSM's scope is much wider than Google's. Similarly, OSM mapping of the National Cycle Network is clearer and more accurate than even the OS's, though not as good yet as the AA's.

    @FlatSpot, Tim Spence and Chris Duncan: As you well know, the OS gets plenty of Government money. The point is that it isn't paid in subsidy, but as payment for geodata from Government agencies (e.g. local councils) who need the data to do their statutory duty. Electoral boundaries, for example, are a fundamental part of our democracy yet are all "derived works" from OS mapping - so you can't, definitively, find what ward you're in without someone, somewhere paying the OS. Meanwhile, information on new housing developments and roads is supplied by the councils to the OS... for free.

    Because the OS has an effective monopoly on such data, it is what the economists would call a hidden subsidy. Now I believe the OS produces the best maps in the world and would actually _support_ Government subsidy for them, but let's not pretend that their current dominance is the result of natural market competition alone.

  29. tim
    Thumb Down

    Most online maps are crap for anything but roads

    I've yet to see an online map that's non OS or a scanned old map that shows disused railways or contour lines, two of the things I use maps for. Don't get me wrong, I like Google maps, but mainly for the aerial photos and the other functionality rather than the maps themselves. I can't see any lorry driver's GPS data adding the things like these to the maps.

    Around the early days of Google maps Multimap used to use proper OS maps and after Google proved how clunky the navigation was it was its only redeaming feature

  30. Ed


    This has contour lines. OSM does have some disused railway lines, I can't quite think at this moment where I've seen them though. Many disused railways are now foot/cycle paths so they will be on there in that respect... If you can think of somewhere where they should be marked, add them :) Or, post here and I'll add them for you as I've got nothing better to do today!

    You tag disused railways as: railway=disused (see )

  31. Richard Fairhurst

    Disused railways

    Tim - may I 'umbly refer you to my ongoing historic railway atlas project at

  32. Jon Kale

    On contour lines...

    So, after Ed's comment I went and looked at an area of the UK with which I'm very familiar (the Eastern Peak District) and while there *are* contour lines, they're at best misleading and at worst lethal: knowing the lie of the land at 20m granularity isn't much help when a) a 20m fall will likely kill or seriously dinge you unless you're lucky and b) no-one's thought to mark the cliffs on your map. Compare, for example, and and then tell me which one you'd like to be using when you're walking across a misty moor.

    (incidentally, many years ago the 1:25000 map of the Scafell region had the crag on the N side of Great End [] marked on... upside down. It's been fixed since)

    As discussed, probably OK if all you need to do is drive from point a to point b. For outdoor pursuits? Not so much...

  33. Paul M.
    Thumb Down

    Freetard Maps kill people


    "shipwrecks ... Toucan crossings"

    Not much use to me if I'm lying under six of quicksand that some Freetard forgot to draw on the map. Or is that my fault for relying on (cough) collective intelligence for finding my way home in the dark?

  34. Jon H

    OSM mapping

    That's a pretty cool idea, however "the freetards could just trace the roads from the images" (Yahoo aerial photos) is all very well except for a 20 mile stretch around where I live in W.Sussex, the resolution is so poor, you can't make out roads at all. Not useful in the slightest.

  35. Richard Fairhurst


    @Jon Kale: if the only way you look for 20m falls is by using a map, you've got bigger problems than I thought. Personally I recommend occasionally lifting your eyes from the map and looking at the terrain.

  36. Sjors Provoost

    @Eddie Edwards

    I am afraid I have to disagree with both of your arguments. But I do appreciate that you actually discuss them.

    > The fact that OS are *partly* funded by us through tax and *partly* funded by

    > selling maps is neither here nor there. Any profit they make is also ours. The

    > balance between tax income and product income is arbitrary if they only sell maps

    > to British people.

    Let us compare that to hospitals so see the problem with this line of reasoning. Is there any difference between hospitals that are 90% goverment sponsored and 10% by their patients, or the other way around? It doesn't matter if you just look at the total displacement of money, but it does matter when you look at service. In case of hospitals it means poor people are out of luck, in the case of "unfree" map data, it means that the map data is used less effectively than it could be. Different orders of magnitude of course, but same phenomena.

    > Remember, OS maps are accurate. Not just "turn left at the next lights"

    > accurate or "ooh look there's my house" accurate, but "here is the exact

    > topography of this square mile" accurate. I'd hate to lose that just on the

    > principle that maps "want to be free".

    If OS gets the assistance of the OSM community (and moderates their input if they prefer), the result will be better maps at a lower cost. The only relevant question is: are they able to save enough money to survive only on tax money?

  37. Sjors Provoost

    @Rick (OS maps the details)

    > OS, on the other hand, map everything. And I mean absolutely everything.

    > Roads, paths, buildings, heights, pylons, fences. Everything. Oddly enough,

    > measuring and recording everything in such detail costs money, and involves

    > actually looking at the place rather than just sitting at a computer. Good luck

    > getting that done free over the internet.

    You would be surprised how cheaply you can precisely map these roads, paths, buildings, heights, pylons, fences and everything with current technology. Let's do one example:

    Let's say you have 2 Google Streetview Images of a standard postbox. The images come with GPS coordinates, so we can derive that they are for example precisely 20 meters apart.

    Now we also know the camera orientation (Google is to lazy to align these pictures by hand, so they probably record compass data). We also know the optic properties of the camera (if Google doesn't tell us, there are millions of pictures to derive them from and I am sure they photographed a few mirrors here and there).

    We also know how big a standard postbox is.

    Ergo, with some trivial math, we know exactly *where* the postbox is.

    Now all we need is a couple of people who tag every postbox in the city, which is virtually no work. In fact, if you do it for a couple of hundred postboxes, it should be a trivial to let a computer find the other hundred thousand or so in the country.

    Once we know the size and exact location of several typical objects, we can calculate the size and position of everything else in the image just by looking at the geometry.

    So you next question will probably be, how are we going to maintain this stuff? Don't we need a big expensive agency for that? Well, your government is solving that by putting up CCTV cameras all over the country. You can track every fence and every postbox in the country, every second, every day. And it will barely cost a thing because its payed from the anti terrorism budget anyway.

    And there is all the amateur cameras with GPS. In fact, even camera's with no GPS will do here. Thanks to Google, we now have an approximate image of everything and it should be "easy" to match the pictures to them.

    While we are at it... Does anyone really believe that face blurring is going to be enough once every street in the country is monitored at every second of the day? With that much data, I think you can derive peoples identity from their cloths, the way they walk, etc. And the photos on FlickR don't do face blurring... Fascinating, albeit a bit scary.

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