GIS Thoughts

When is a map not a map.. when it’s Mastermap


It’s funny how sometimes you can have a couple of conversations with people, which all seem to be coming from the same perspective but are unrelated. This happened to me last week in talking to a few people about Mastermap and peoples perception of it.

Mastermap was launched almost exactly four years ago and has been an increasing success built on a slow start. But to what extent are people really exploiting the fact that this is a geographic information product – not digital mapping.

You may not recognise that the image above is actually a rendering of Mastermap Topo data, because it does not following the “standard” style developed by the OS.

OSMM House style
OSMM “House style”

The Mastermap house style is very good at demonstrating the fact that Mastermap is a full polygon dataset with each feature shaded, but nobody would argue that it is in cartographic terms very flexible.

Why do we at the OS and many of how customers follow the convention created four years ago and still displaying Mastermap in this way?
I and a number of people I have spoken to believe it that it is because we still perceive MasterMap as a cartographic product – a Map!

The reality of course is that MasterMap is a database, which may be rendered using any number of cartographic styles relevant to particular needs, if you want it to look like Landline you can indeed simply change the style remove the polygon fill and there you have it.

The real benefit of Mastermap like any other geographic information dataset is the attributes of each feature and the intelligent relationships between them, not something that is every easily visible from looking at a cartographic rendering.

Its about attributes

We need to change the way we think about products like Mastermap and start to exploit the fact we are using geographic information not just digital maps.

It is as if we were at stage where we have replaced our horse drawn carts with motorcars, but have yet to realise there is actually a engine in them.

6 replies on “When is a map not a map.. when it’s Mastermap”

Ed, Do you suppose part of the reason your customers are thinking in terms of maps, not data, is precisely because they are your “traditional” customers? If you were to provide this data, even in a reduced fidelity version to the geohacker community, I bet you would see a bit more innovation in the use of the data.

In other words, if you sell your data to “map” people, you’ll get “maps”. If only “map” people can afford your data, then you’ve locked yourself into a usage pattern that will only change slowly. If you want innovation, maybe you need to be innovative first, and a freely available data set would be pretty innovative for OS!


I think there is some validity in what you say.. most users of Mastermap are traditional users of digital mapping not geographic information. There is no way the OS could make a whole dataset like Mastermap free but I would be interested to see what the geohacker community could do with sample data, as you say this is where the innovation is happening.


Positive Developments in Openness

Some positive things that should be noted. And encouraged.

Ed Parsons is interested in seeing innovative uses of Mastermap and is prepared to be open minded about the results
Kevin Flanders ponders the meaning of Open in an article at Directions an…

Hi Ed,

I agreed completely with Allan’s analysis about usual suspects being very unlikely see powerful new uses of your lovely data. I’m afraid I’m not surprised that you’re not finding anyone willing to hack with the tiny bits of sample data given away for free.

Remember, when someone does go to the effort of doing innovative stuff for free they have to be motivated, and the most powerful motivation is the thought that loads of people might use your widget. If you hack sample Mastermap data, the most encouraging thought you might have is that one of the companies which can afford the 20 squillion pounds per square inch licencing cost might rip off your idea.

Also, don’t forget the idea of limited use free licencing. At mySociety we’ve already built a pair of web services using OS and non-OS geodata which work fine. The non-OS one, Gaze, is free and already being used (it contains global placenames, disambiguation of placenames and population density info). We’d love to open the OS one on limited licenses – ‘get data about anywhere in the UK, but only a max of 500 queries a day’, that sort of thing.

Oh yes, we’d also be happy to build you a mastermap web service, if you could see to getting the data into our hands :))




Now you know I agree with your sentiment.. some way we need to be able to fund the very expensive collection of the data that produces Mastermap and at the same time allow for its non-commerical use. You know the saying about oil tankers steering….


Add a comment?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.