Ordnance Survey releases free map data

The move will make large amounts of mapping data available for web applications and mash-ups, but does not cover the paper maps used by ramblers

The Ordnance Survey (OS) on Thursday released much of its mapping data to the public for both personal and commercial reuse, in a move the government said is designed to spur business innovation and improve government transparency.

By Thursday afternoon, howeverr, the website for the programme, called OS OpenData, has not become available. The Ordinance Survey said this is due to the level of interest..

"We're experiencing a quite unprecedented level of demand, and we're under quite a bit of pressure," an OS spokesman told ZDNet UK. "From the people who have been able to access the data, however, the response has been extremely positive." He said the OS had brought in extra technical staff to ensure the website was made available as soon as possible.

The move represents a dramatic shift from the OS' previous business model, under which mapping data had to be paid for and was covered by restrictive licensing terms. The terms for the data released on Thursday require only that the maps be accompanied by an acknowledgement of origin.

OpenData does not include the OS' flagship paper maps, such as the Explorer and Landranger series. These include data such pathways, bridleways and contour lines needed for walkers, surveyors and ramblers. 

During a consultation period that began in December the Ramblers' Association had lobbied for the release of the paper maps, arguing the move would create competition.

In its response to the consultation the government said it decided not to release the paper maps in order to protect the OS' ability to fund itself, and thus to "ensure that Ordnance Survey continues to provide high-quality products and services to those customers, including government, who need them".

The government said it expects the licensing revenue the OS will lose as a result of the OpenData programme will be made up by increased tax revenue generated by new business opportunities for UK organisations.

"Increasing access and usage will stimulate innovation within the UK’s information economy, through generating new ideas, new uses and new businesses for the 21st century," said secretary of state for communities and local government John Denham, in the government's consultation response document, published on Wednesday. "Digital and hard copy maps have become an underlying reference system for many types of business."

The OpenData datasets are also seen as a way of promoting government openness, according to the OS.

The government is releasing data such as health care, school attendance and crime statistics on the data.gov.uk website launched in January, and said citizens could use the OS data to create maps putting that information in context.

"Last year the government produced maps based on crime statistics, allowing you to view the country by different areas," said the OS spokesman. "There's no reason now why individual citizens couldn't do that themselves."

The government worked with Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt on the data.gov.uk project and on the OpenData consultation. The government said it has posted more than 3,000 datasets on data.gov.uk, while 2,700 people have joined a developer group to help improve the site's service.

"I'm delighted that the Ordnance Survey is releasing this data for free re-use," said Berners-Lee in a statement. "It will help people make fuller use of other government data on data.gov.uk, as well as stimulating innovation in mapping itself."

The OpenData maps include detailed maps such as OS Street View, as well as larger-scale maps such as the 1:50,000-scale Gazetteer maps and the 1:250,000-scale Colour Raster maps, the OS said.

MySociety, an organisation devoted to promoting citizen participation in government, created an archive of the OS data on its website.


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