Posts Tagged ‘Ordnance Survey’

Article: Google maps give direction

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

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.”

Ordnance Survey fees – no thanks!

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

I’m not sure I’m convinced by the Taxpayers’ Alliance defence of Ordnance Survey and its funding structure (“Well-charted territory – “free” means we pay…”, October 31), especially when one applies a little free-market economics to the claims being bandied about by OS supremo Vanessa Lawrence.

First and foremost, Ordnance Survey is a monopoly, so claims about profitability, product quality, dividends and running costs are moot – we have nothing to compare them against. Would it be just as good value if the OS cost £200 million to run and paid a 8% dividend? Economic theory gives us a good idea of what actually to expect – price maximisation, inefficency and stagnation. It’s easy to turn a profit when you got your capital assets for free and can charge whatever you feel like.

Is it a world-class service? Maybe today, but what about the mapping services of tomorrow? Innovation and investment in mapping is stifled because the private sector (the main driver of innovation) can’t compete. TPA claim that public and private organisations are “happy to pay”, but what of the budding businesses and good ideas that never even got off the ground because they couldn’t afford the fees? There’s a thriving, tax-paying mapping industry built on the back of the geospatial data provided for free by the US Government. The mapping industry in Europe is comparatively moribund.

Also, don’t forget the primary customers of the OS – other government departments. So a big chunk of OS income is just taxpayers’ cash doing the merry-go-round. This is a business operating in a fantasy marketplace, not the grown-up world of profit and loss.

Would privatisation help? I’d be very happy to hear the complacent Ms Lawrence sing for her supper a little more vigorously, but not if it means valuable assets currently owned by the taxpayer – the grid reference system, for example – flogged off on the cheap so that somebody can carve out a private monopoly instead. Better for those assets to be made available as cheaply and widely as possible – we’ll all benefit from the results.