The Ordnance Survey have a strangle hold on UK geo data (maps, data for drawing maps, data about locations, and data for routing applications) This is something which has barely registered in the public conciousness. It takes a little techy vision to understand the stifling effect, or to imagine the growth industry we’re missing out on. But even the tech community haven’t really been massively moved to kick up a stink about the problem because …well why not just use google maps?
The Guardian has done well to focus on the issue over the past year or so with their “free our data” campaign. Suddenly a few months back, the government appeared to sit up and listen, launching the “Show us a better way” competition. What’s more the winning ideas were mostly related to maps. All good news for free geo data.
But the competition entrants had instinctively taken the beautiful Ordnance Survey maps and then reached for the flexible google mashup toolset. How else would you build a funky free geo-app? Think again! Ordnance Survey had given some kind of agreement for the purposes of the competition, but last week they turned around and said OS “derived” data can’t be mashed with google. Back to the drawing board guys!
This rather wonderfully illustrates the bear trap you are stepping on if you ever make the mistake of thinking these maps are “free”. Even in the context of this competition, issues of copyright (and terms & conditions) loom over UK geo data.
Now hold that thought …and take a look at the OpenStreetMap project. As web developers and technologists look to work around these corporate copyright restrictions, they will increasingly understand the reasoning behind what might at first appear crazy… building maps from scratch.
It’s not all about copyright of map images though. OpenStretMap has an open API giving access to the underlying data in it’s raw vector form, something nobody would even dream of asking Ordnance Survey for, competition or not. The open source toolset built around OSM’s API is still rough around the edges, but it’s already pretty simple to solve the same kind of problems (show postboxes, public toilets, school catchment areas) which were awarded funding by the “Show us a better way” competition.