Article: Google maps give direction

I wrote this article after attending a conference on geographical information systems. It was also blogged about on the Guardian’s Free our Data campaign site.

Councils bypass Ordnance Survey for Google Maps
The Guardian, Thursday May 31, 2007
Local authorities are increasingly using the free application from the search giant on their websites

Navigating your way around a local authority’s websites can be a painful experience, especially if it involves maps. Perhaps, for example, you are looking for a school on an online map that is generated by survey data from Ordnance Survey. This can be particularly frustrating, with data fields going missing as you zoom in, maps updating slowly and overly complicated interfaces.

If that’s your impression, it’s backed up by a survey carried out for the Society of Information Technology Management. The society tested local authority websites against four key indicators: only 56% of councils had clickable maps; just 35% offered a way to find schools on a map. And only 13% offered a help facility.

But while maps and geographical information are vital to local authorities and their websites, the prices and licensing policies of Ordnance Survey, the government’s mapping agency, mean that some councils have decided to bypass OS and use free maps from Google to create mashups of information for their websites.

Traditional geographical information systems provide “complex data, complex systems”, said Dane Wright, IT service manager at Brent council in north London, at the annual conference of GIS in the Public Sector earlier this month. Google Maps, by contrast, provides “complex data, simple systems”.

Primary interface

Wright told the conference: “What we are doing is moving to Google Maps as the primary interface for casual use by public users. This will leave the GIS system for more specialist users. The reason for doing this is to provide a better user experience – familiar interface, easy to use, integrated aerial imagery, attractive, no need for training or large manuals.”

So far, a number of councils are considering the introduction of a full service using Google Maps, but Wright is certain there are many other projects in development. The central Directgov site, for example, uses Google Maps for its nationwide schools finder.

“There are now more opportunities for sharing and collaboration using maps and location data, otherwise known as mashups,” Wright said. For example, a group of citizens has used Brent’s service to create interactive running and cycling routes ( in cooperation with a commercial site, Or they will be able to search for their nearest vacant allotment, get an aerial view using Google Earth and even register for the site – all from within the map.

Switching to Google Maps could save a great deal of public money as Google Maps is free, whereas using OS data can cost thousands of pounds. Furthermore, says Wright, development of a Google interface costs less than development of an equivalent GIS web-mapping interface.

It is not yet clear what the total savings might be because Google could begin charging for advertising-free services. But it’s unlikely to be as high as the rates OS charges public bodies. Greater London authority alone paid £812,454 to the OS in the financial year 2005-06 – although that includes charges for detailed maps at finer detail than Google Maps affords, which councils still need for some administrative functions. As Wright said at the conference: “We still need OS for internal use with our GIS and we also need it for external use where maps showing the outlines of buildings are required.”

And isn’t the use of Google Maps just the re-use of OS data? After all, OS is listed as a source by Google. So is using Google Maps simply adding a middleman?

Not necessarily. OS isn’t the only organisation mapping the UK for commercial ends. In future, if Google decides that some other company – such as, for example, Tele Atlas, the Dutch mapping company which already provides some of its maps and satellite photography (while again buying in some data from OS) – would be be a sufficient provider, it could reduce its reliance on OS.

Losing revenues from Google – and from local authorities – would increase the pressure on OS to find alternative revenue streams. OS, as a trading fund, receives no direct tax funding, but must cover its costs by charging for its products. This in turn could mean that there are fewer organisations prepared to pay its prices, which could be disastrous for an organisation whose quality of mapping is rightly applauded internationally.

OS’s commercial policies are already under pressure from two European directives which are trying to bring the EU more into line with the American model of public information sharing. The Regulations on the Re-Use of Public Sector Information, which became UK law in July 2006, seek to eliminate obstacles that hinder the re-use of data. And earlier this month, the Inspire Directive came into force, requiring greater public access to geospatial data, particularly environmental data collected by public bodies such as postcodes, land and buildings. The UK has two years to incorporate the directive into law.

Simplify licensing

Dr Niall Watson, senior geographical information adviser at the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs, says that Inspire “doesn’t preclude trading funds, but there is an emphasis on making the data accessible and easier for the public to access. It’s certainly not a mandate to charge for the data, but it is a mandate to improve access to data.”

The law aims to cut duplication of data, simplify licensing , reduce the cost of data, shift the focus to using the data and encourage greater collaboration.

The OS acknowledges these problems. Graham Vowles, principal consultant for OS, says: “There is only one door at the moment to access our data and that is commercial. There is an opportunity here to expand this model by offering the data to local authorities at reduced cost.”

Guardian Technology’s Free Our Data campaign has a simple suggestion which would preserve both the OS’s client base and the quality of its mapping by removing financial squeezes from both. Make the data gathered by the OS free for re-use; fund the organisation from direct taxation and allow companies to build businesses on the data without constraint. Then it would not just be giants like Google that could afford to make their maps and location services free.

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