Ordnance Survey data ‘will’ be freed

It’s quite amusing to compare and contrast the announcements from DCLG and Ordnance Survey today, regarding boundaries, postcode areas and mid scale mapping information. DCLG’s press release proudly declares:

The Prime Minister and Communities Secretary John Denham will today announce that the public will have more access to Ordnance Survey maps from next year, as part of a Government drive to open up data to improve transparency. Speaking at a seminar on Smarter Government in Downing Street … the Prime Minister will set out how the Government and Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping agency, will open up its data relating to electoral and local authority boundaries, postcode areas and mid scale mapping information. The Government will consult on proposals to make data from Ordnance Survey freely available so it can be used for digital innovation and to support democratic accountability.

See that? Lots of definite statements, of how they will do this, will do that. Well, hold your horses. Ordnance Survey’s rather brief press release is slightly more defensive, and markedly less excitable:

The Prime Minister has today announced that the public and others will have greater access to a range [of?] Ordnance Survey data from next year, as part of a Government drive to open up data to improve efficiency and transparency. The detail of this is still being worked through and a formal consultation period will begin in December to look at how these changes will be implemented.

So whilst DCLG see it as a chance to crowdsource some cool stuff, OS frame it purely in fairly boring accountant-bureaucrat terms. Hmm.

Of course it’s welcome news, but there’s a long, long way to go yet – and not much time to do it. With a general election on the horizon, boundaries absolutely must be freed – as quickly as possible, and in formats which will be most useful to the digital innovators. (Basically, that means dead easy integration with Google Maps.)

Oh, and let’s not get carried away about ‘postcode areas’. They aren’t Ordnance Survey’s to free, are they?

Ordnance Survey’s new approach


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with Ordnance Survey to produce a WordPress version of their new business strategy, published today. As you’ll immediately spot, it’s another piece of work based on Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme, including some of the tweaks I did for BERR’s Low Carbon Strategy.

As I write this, I’ve literally just pressed the ‘go’ button, so I haven’t even read the document yet myself, and can’t offer any opinion on it (yet). But I didn’t hide my disappointment at the unveiling of the OpenSpace project a year ago, and I’m told things have moved much further forward on that front at least. It hasn’t been enough to satisfy the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, though.

I know this is a subject of considerable interest to the e-government / activist community, which probably covers most of you reading this. We’ve created a web-friendly platform for you to read what OS are proposing, and tell them what you think about it. What are you waiting for?

Met launches London crime maps

London’s Metropolitan Police has launched the first test of its planned ‘crime mapping’ application, and at first glance, it’s really quite nice. There’s data from borough to ‘sub-ward’ (a few streets), although at the moment it’s only carrying aggregated totals of ‘burglary, robbery and vehicle crime’.

The ‘high/average/low’ colour coding makes it easy to take in; and navigation is pretty good. The selection of statistical geography is inferred from the zoom level of the map – a method which has its ups and downs. But with a postcode search, it’s easy to go directly to ‘your patch’. (I’m a bit dubious about the accuracy of the boundaries, though.) Throw in some nice little Javascript-y UI touches, and you’ve got an excellent start – with the promise of ‘further enhancements … prior to the formal launch of the service in September.’

But what’s most striking about this? It’s done on Google Maps. Here’s a extra-high-profile government mapping application, and they’ve made a conscious – and entirely predictable – decision not to build it using the tool provided by the government’s own mapping agency.

It’s not a million miles away from the vision put forward by the Power of Information taskforce; Tom Loosemore calls it ‘a decent first effort’, but laments the ‘lack of proper profile for your local coppers’.

Power Taskforce’s ideas on crime maps

The Home Office is confirming that it’ll press ahead with online crime mapping, as recommended by today’s Casey Report on Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime.

Even better, the Power Of Information taskforce – specifically Will Perrin and Tom Loosemore, in apparent association with designers Schulze and Webb – have posted a few concepts showing not only the mapping of crime data, aggregated to postcode sector; not only an overlaid layer of data showing public facilities such as schools, pubs and cash machines; but also the ability to actually do something as a follow-on. I’m especially intrigued by the RSS icon: blogging bobbies, perhaps?

Judging by the mockups anyway, we’re looking at some serious interaction potential: polling on local priorities, emailing the local policing team or your local elected representatives. (Never mind the possibility of interacting with the data.)

It’s not the first time some/most of this has been proposed: whilst working at National Statistics, I was involved in the concept work which ultimately led to the disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. It’s not as if we didn’t have some of these same ideas… but mashing-up has come a long way since then, thanks particularly to Google Maps. I note the ‘presumption’ that Google’s technology would underpin these maps… another nail in Ordnance Survey’s coffin?

Ordnance Survey reinvents Google Maps

‘Following a successful closed launch’, apparently involving no fewer than 12 developers, Ordnance Survey has opened the doors to OpenSpace. It describes itself as ‘a JavaScript® Application Programming Interface (API) that uses ‘slippy map’ technology, letting you dynamically pan the map by grabbing and sliding the image in any direction you like.’ Just like Google Maps, then. But there’s more.

‘OS OpenSpace allows you to build Web 2.0 applications using Ordnance Survey data’ – just like Google. You can ‘add markers, lines and polygons on top of Ordnance Survey maps, and also search for place names’ – just like, er, you know. Oh, except that it’s ‘non-commercial use only’. According to their FAQ: ‘There can be no advertising, paid promotional content or other revenue generating activities associate (sic) with any part of your website.’ Which doesn’t leave much.

There’s a page listing various usage examples: but guess what? The examples are all non-interactive GIFs… which kind of defeats the object. Duh.

I’d love to get excited by this. OS is finally speaking the right language: API, web 2.0, mashup, etc. But they have to give developers a better reason to use this than their claim of having ‘the best mapping data available’. They’re already way, way behind.

Quick update: see comments from Ed Parsons – ex-OS, now ‘the Geospatial Technologist of Google’: ‘not quite what I had opened Openspace would be, but given the constraints … a great first step and will hopefully lead to the much needed rethink.’