back to article UK government considers open source Ordnance Survey data

The government has released a 91-page consultation paper on how UK citizens could get more access to Ordnance Survey mapping data from next year. "We are now consulting on proposals to make certain products from Ordnance Survey freely available so it can be used for digital innovation and to support democratic accountability …


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  1. Number6

    Royal Mail Data

    It's probably amazingly naive, but if the government want Royal Mail to open access to the postcode database and they're concerned about the £2m they'd lose, why not come to some arrangement whereby the government gives them an extra £2m/year and then lets everyone else use it. Royal Mail is only concerned because the government want it to make money and so every source of income is valuable. If the government are serious about open access then they'd find a way to do something like this.

    1. David 100


      Royal Mail get a lot more than £2m pounds income from PAF: more like £20m. £1.6m may be the net profit they make?

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Seems like a waste

        so they take £20m in revenue, and make £1.6m annually? From the sale of a database... Do post codes really change so much that it costs over £18m a year to maintain....

        Sounds like jobs for the boys.

  2. Roger Kynaston

    shame they don't extend this to admiralty

    The UKHO who publish admiralty charts have just massively increased the cost of using their data as they need to maximise revenue. Someone whould tell to be a bit more consistent. BTW US Navy charts are free to download.

  3. John 98

    Post Codes

    I helped an elderly relative with crimbo cards recently. The addresses mostly lacked post codes so I tried to add them but gave up - ghastly hassle (tell us the colour of your pants and we might tell you a couple more) - so they went out again sans code. Not sure how this helps anyone...

    If we're talking two million quid to let us all use the data as we want, let's give it to the PO (though their argument is rubbish - they maintain the thing for their own benefit - or not, as above)

    1. Robert E A Harvey
      Thumb Up

      bit late for this year

      I gave up years ago on royal mail's search.

      But with a nearly accurate name and half an idea of an adress it's a doddle to find subscribers on If they've got a landline phone. The displayed address includes a postecode

  4. Colin Millar

    How unpredictable

    Whitehall favours the option with the vaguest definition - quelle surprise.

    As for the PAF - its not the public that would get the benefit from freeing the PAF but a bunch of web services trying to resell someone else's information and throwing patent and copyright suits around to protect "their" IP.

    As a tax payer its my information and I vote to screw every last penny out of the vultures who want to access it.

  5. FlatSpot


    Could someone explain how letting anybody utilise your expensive dataset without payment is a good thing.. Yeah public paid for it blah blah, but they also return a lot of money back, e.g. maps, licensing etc

    I dont really get the ROI for this, it doesnt even seem to be an undercover privatisation thing ie. fast buck sell off and dont worry about the long term profitability or product quality (no money who will keep it updated after year one)

    Confused.... :s

    1. JaitcH

      Use the code

      The code is an aid to the Post Office as the lame brains can't figure out where places are any more.

      If they wan the code added they should make it FREELY available.

  6. DaveKsailing

    They should open Hydrographic Office data too!

    The government should enable the Hydrographic Office to release digital nautical charts and tide data for free too. Surely there's more justification to release this data for free - Maritime Safety.

    There's something wrong when I can get free charts for the U.S. but not for blighty!

  7. JaitcH
    Thumb Up

    Pay for codes? Only in Britain.

    Canada shows the way! < >

    By code, by address. F R E E

    Oh, we also have a very special one (remembering the format is Letter Number Letter Number Letter Number) H0H 0H0 - its address is the North Pole where a certain guy is very busy at this time of year. (Who aid civil servants don't have a sense of humour?)

  8. Red Bren

    A public sector success? Quick, let's cripple it!

    Is this a subtle way of depriving Royal Mail of a revenue stream, so that the governement can later claim it's another public sector basket case that must be sold off?

    While free access to postcode and ordinance survey data may seem like a good idea, can you imagine the (overseas) companies that currently pay for this information passing the savings back to the customer? In the meantime, the lost revenue and maintenance costs will have to come from somewhere, i.e. the UK tax payer.

  9. The Vociferous Time Waster

    there is another way

    The problem is that hobbyists like myself want access to the PAF but can't get it because it's too expensive. How about a solution where the database is hosted with a robust API that allows for a certain number of uses free for the hobbyists but still charges for the companies that want to do high volume lookups.

  10. Stratman

    As a British taxpayer

    I am of the opinion that any public data that the government currently charge for, such as OS and census for example, should be freely available. I've paid for it, it belongs to me.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Actually, it's OUR expensive dataset

    because as you point out, we paid for it.

    That this confuses you speaks volumes.

  12. Tony Hoyle

    It's not just too expensive

    It's not just too expensive, It's huge - gigabytes in size. It's not an internet download at current speeds... which is why it's supplied on tape. Few people really need the full PAF file though... It's not just a postcode database it's a postal database containing details every house in the UK, right down to flat numbers. It contains all sort of stuff - NHS districts, election boundaries, even the names of the people that live in some of the smaller provinces, plus company names where the company name is a valid postal address.

    1. Peter Simpson 1

      Oh...Gigabytes in size!

      That would be one or two 4.7Gbyte DVDs, then?

      Here in the US, all this data is free, based on the fact that our taxes paid for its creation. However, it's just the raw data that's free...if you want pretty maps made from it, or an online GUI, or a satnav database, you need to do it yourself, and you're perfectly welcome to charge for the work you do to make access to the data convenient. Navteq, Google and their ilk all created their maps starting with free government data. Then they put a considerable amount of effort into scrubbing it and keeping it up to date. I don't see why a similar model wouldn't work in the UK.

      And there's always

      //just don't forget to use common sense while enjoying the turn-by-turn directions from Micheal Palin

    2. Anonymous Coward


      Which decade are you from? it could easily be downloaded as it's only gigabytes in size.

      Probably could be downloaded in under an hour on even home adsl connections.

      Yet they wanted around £2500 data supply costs (not including the data licence) last time I looked (which was only a couple of years ago) to provide on some format which I've never heard of having only been into IT for 20 years.

      It's about time OS maps were more popular so we can have more satnavs that don't just have the cartoon route that tells you next to nothing.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    I agree ...

    ... with Stratman.

    The data are provided by public purse and should be available to the public (OS and PAF).

    Matters of national security or bits best kept schtum about are probably best kept schtum about so it is not really a free for all release but a managed release in which the "public" have about as much access as the organisation deemed to maintain the data.

    I view holding out on info/data as something belonging to a long gone age of dinosaurs :-) especially when it depends upon the public purse.

    And I do have to wonder about what is the notion of "public" enshrined in law (Worldwide, European, UK, England & Wales, Scotland).

    A nonentity?

    A peoples to be taxed, taxed, taxed and taxed again?

    What/who, if any, has at least a democratic vision of public services and the "public"?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Need an Ambulance/Fire Engine/Police man?

    The emergency services can get help to you if you tell them your post code. They got the post code data base from their software suppliers. The software suppliers got it from the post office, and passed it on with a small markup. Under the current system, tax payers pay for the entire post code database at least three times over. I would be shocked if the police had only paid for one copy of the post code database. Add some more copies for driving licenses, passports, taxes and any other branch of government that writes to people and you will probably find tax payers are paying most of that £1.6million plus some mark up for the middle men.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Go for it

    2 million quid seems like a lot, but for an organisation the size of the the Post Office, it's a pretty insignificant sum. I think the point is that since they are making so *little* money off it, there would be more benefit to the country by making it freely available.

    I'm very much looking forward to the OS data being made free.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The local mapping agency in my part of the continent (a sub-State entity) has been giving free [cc-by-nc sort of thing] access for years to their extensive mapping data via WMS and similar, as well as to their toponyms database, GPS data (NTRIP, RINEX), and software.

    They are organised as a PLC wholly owned by the local government so they are a profit-making entity, but these days they get most of their income from producing the data (via satellite ventures, aerial photogrametry, etc.) as well as consulting and on-demand mapmaking. They also license their maps and imagery to corporate clients (e.g, Google). Matter of fact, the exposure they get from free distribution is more profitable than the meagre returns they used to get from selling the data in the retail market as they used to do in the 90s, and with less overheads too.

    So yes, the OS would probably benefit from such a move (assuming they don't come up with a grossly overengineered solution, in typical style).

    On the other hand, as far as the Admiralty data goes, since a couple of people have raised the point, that's a different ballgame. The cost involved in producing and constantly maintaining the charts (and the distribution of both base data and updates, be it on paper or digital form) is much higher than for topographical products, and the market is, I believe, smaller. Also, the Admiralty charts and other publications are *the* canonical product for oceanic navigation--whether it be on British, Panamanian, Ukrainian or other ships, that's all I ever saw on the bridge. Considering that the safety of the vessel and crew depends on the quality and accuracy of those products, I'm more than happy for the companies I work for to pay for it.

    Lastly and on the other hand, I agree that data which is primarily of scientific interest, such as tide data, should be freely released by the UKHO, as it used to be before they went privatoid.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Free data

    There is so much that can be gained from providing free OS data. Currently, if you want to download maps for GPS devices, satnav, the mapping data comes from OS and that's why the maps are expensive.

    Take a look at the map data for MemoryMap,the crazy thing is, if you were to download all the map data for the UK it will actually cost you more than if you bought every OS map in your local book/outdoor shop, which when you think about it is insane: as the paper versions of the maps must be produced from the digital data and so must cost more!

    More applications at lower cost would be developed if the map data was free.

    And why should a government department make a profit from the data? It's effectively a form of taxation. The primary customer of the OS is the military, the map data isn't produced for Joe Public, - ok, you could argue some of it is, but this stuff has to be produced for the military.

    So selling it on to the public is a way to raise revenue for a department which we're already paying for out of general taxation.

    It should be free.

    Postcode data: For many years the Post Office have been using postcodes as the primary means to route mail to its destination, using hand writing/optical recognition. Many years ago they embarked on a long campaign to encourge us to use the post code, and if I recall correctly, look up the post code by asking someone in the post office.

    Now, with the internet, looking up the post code should be an easy thing, but it's not. You have to jump through hoops and hurdles to get that information.

    For F**cks sake Royal Mail, if you want us to use the Post Code because it saves you money, then at least make it easy for us to obtain that information! Don't be such a bunch of tossers and deliberately make it difficult for us. Either you want us to use the postcode or you don't.

    I shouldn't have to enter a ton of personal information about myself just to obtain a post code, I don't want an account with you, I don't need to register, all I want is the f**ng postcode!,I shouldn't have to enter information which isn't needed for you to give me the post code, which who the hell knows what you do with said information, and do we trust your data protection policy - if we can friggin find it and be bothered to read it in the first place.

    But RM, not exactly known for the their forward thinkingness, their intelligence are they?

    Personally, with the way RM employees keep stealing packages sent to me and my neighbours, I'd love them to go out of business and replace them with better.

  18. John Murgatroyd

    ow hard can it be ?

    To find a post code.

    I use streetmap....not exactly hard.

  19. alex dekker 1

    re: 000000

    > What it really just boils down to is pure fucking greed!

    Well not quite, I think it's more likely to be incompetence than greed - having 20 different departments of one country's government each paying money to another department of the same government, for the same set of data just doesn't make sense.

    How about a Department for Publicly Owned Data, charged with releasing as much taxpayer-funded data sets into the public domain as possible? As others have pointed out, we've already paid for it once with our taxes, and there's no need for us to pay for it again. The OSM [] project is doing a fantastic job with very little money, just imagine what it could do with a bit of assistance from the public sector; in fact, they could probably teach the public sector a thing or ten about using budgets as efficiently as possible.

  20. Gaz Davidson
    Thumb Up

    Experian QAS

    I'm with the Anonymous Coward/Xmas/00:42, I bet Experian QAS and QuickAddress Pro cost the taxpayer more than 2M a year.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      UK FE colleges alone probably shell out half that. Add in the universities and there you go...

  21. heyrick Silver badge

    "and to support democratic accountability"

    Excuse me, what? How will public access to map data support democratic accountability... in fact, what does that phrase even mean?

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    That data is not the UK's it is the property of all the British Isles, paid for by us and our ancestors they can damn well get their grubby little UKanian mitts off it, and release it immediately. Thieves and scoundrels the lot of them.

  23. Tom 7

    So Open Competition works then

    so the mere threat of free alternatives brings them round.

    We were lucky they hadn't 'sold' it to someone else like our other data.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    A strange old thing?

    In the UK it, on the face of it, seems a rather strange old way of doing things.

    For example, were you or I to do something that needed to be copyright protected we could do it and we would be the copyright owners.

    For those of you involved in, say, software development if you get the application published in the US it can probably attract copyright (I am not to sure about the UK though).

    And for people that do stuff that is copyright protected under in employment under terms of employment then that will be copyright protectable by the employer.

    But in the UK should public funds be used to do something then it is Crown Copyright protected or so it seems.

    Now to me that seems a wee bit daft. Crown Copyright based on public funds seems to be a theft of sorts. Were the Crown to pay for something out of it's own funds (that is non public sourced/taxed income) then it seems reasonable for it to be Crown Copyright..

    Perhaps there should be a new category of UK Public Copyright based on initiatives that were funded from the public purse?

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now here is another strange old thing?

    Those of us in the UK are probably pleased to see OS as part of government initiatives.

    It maps, it collates, it sells to both business and private individual.

    And here is the rub...

    As a UK subject I am better served by an American based organisation (google maps of course and incomingly Bing maps) and can do so on a free basis.

    I accept that google maps are not the most precise in creation.

    But where, a UK subject and EU citizen might wonder and ponder, is any initiative to the public by the foresworn and instituted organisation with clout, duty and responsibility to UK subjects?


    OH, I see. I must pop down to a shop and buy it from there - ahhhh!

    I get the picture now?

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