GIS Thoughts

Building Ordnance Survey 2.0

I’ve have been at the Ordnance Survey 5 years now.. and at times I would be the first to admit that life has often been very frustrating… The organisation has come on leaps and bounds in many ways over this time, but I still feel like the proverbial “captain of a oil tanker” trying to turn his ship.

So to vent my frustration to some extent, I present today the first of a number of irregular postings which describe my own personal view as to what the OS needs to do differently, if the OS does not manage to get there, well at least you will understand my intentions – and hey I have got these off my chest.

Let me make it clear at the start, the activities of the OS are highly valuable, and as I have made clear on many occasions I believe the operations of the Ordnance Survey (or any mapping agency) are best funded directly by its users through licensing data rather than general taxation.

There is however, an argument, that the requirement to license data restricts it’s use, and in particular, reduces innovative uses of geospatial data. I don’t think however the problem here is actually licensing data for specific activities, I believe the issue is that the OS makes it too difficult for potential users to understand the value in its data.

Historically the OS has made it very difficult for anybody to gain access to its data, in many markets there was no alternative to using Ordnance Survey mapping and very restrictive controls of it’s use were enforced (When I joined the OS it was not possible to license OS data for display on the web in any from whatsoever !!).

Well clearly the Landscape has changed..

There is now real choice for many users of OS geospatial products, both in terms of other commercial providers and through the developing open source geodata movement. Also, as with the general software industry, the customer is taking control, demanding much more from their providers – wanting better understanding of their business, solutions rather than pre-packed solutions etc.

The software industry is responding to these demands by changing the way it operates, and the OS needs to the follow these trends.

Software publishers, like geospatial data providers have traditionally exploited IP in the form of packaged solutions, this is changing – increasingly software is becoming a service business, where in the past corporate customers might have bought a CRM system, now they rent usage at

Geospatial data on its own can never deliver a total solution in the way that does, however the OS with it partners can provide geospatial data as a managed service… do customers really want the hassle of installing GIS software, loading and converting data at regular intervals ?

Providing OS data as a service to an increasingly networked group of potential customers massively reduces the barrier of entry to geospatial information.

The big difference I think this would also make, is that is would allow potential users to “Try OS data for Free” – OK pick yourself up off the floor and let me explain..

Let users discover the value in OS data by actually deploying it, and if the value is there, they will pay for it later.
This is clearly based on trust, but the reality of our industry is that for too long we have focused on the buyers of geospatial information and not its users, who are often the innovators but who need access to OS data for example, to figure out its value.

Most enterprises are honest and when a real need is identified and a solution found they will pay!! This is how has become successful selling to sales guys who were frustrated by the big iron ERP systems, it is also behind the success of the Blackberry which was a personal buy before it became corporate.

So Ordnance Survey 2.0 must work at reducing the resistance to identifying the value in geospatial data by concentrating on the delivery of information within a service and by making the service initially free – if the user sees no value then simply switch the service off.

Written and submitted from the Holiday Inn Express Southampton, using my Vodafone 3G network card.

19 replies on “Building Ordnance Survey 2.0”

“Let users discover the value in OS data by actually deploying it, and if the value is there, they will pay for it later.”

This will no doubt provoke lots of discussion amongst the ‘traditional’
GI and GIS users; specifically in the public sector. If it doesn’t then it’s time to pack up and go home…

It’s nothing if not controversial – good post Ed.

Just a little question. When we were chatting informally the other day I said to Ed (and it wasn’t for the first time) “Why don’t you give us a huge HDD with all your data for non public use, and we’ll find out what unpredictable value there is in it”.

Ed said “Make us a proposal for what you want to do with it” and laughed it off.

However, having more data than you strictly need is precisely how you find new uses, and how you explore all this non-obvious metadata you’ve been so carefully adding. As you say yourself “Let users discover the value in OS data by actually deploying it, and if the value is there, they will pay for it later.”

Unfortunately for the culture of change at the OS, it is the most expensive data that is the hardest to percieve value in without playing with it – what sort of intruiging stuff lies in all those vector layers and toids?

Hey wait a minute Tom, I was serious – make me a proposal as to what you are going to do and we will look at it… Really !!


Ed, I’d love to hear what you have in mind for “providing OS data as a service” – the open standards Web Map Service and Web Feature Service, for example, or spatially-queryable georss feeds of the (7m or so?) ‘points of interest’ that the OS currently offers through commercial partnerships?

If we’re going to be able to ‘try OS data for free’, what kind of license terms are likely to be attached to the data coming out of any OS web services?

To be honest, none of this sounds very “2.0” to me. Googlezon et al have been offering web service based, free for re-use access to their data for years. “2.0 Culture” descriptions tend to include an “architecture of participation”; providing means for ‘users’ to become ‘producers’, to correct information and contribute their own – the OpenStreetmap model, where geospatial data becomes a kind of collective work. When the OS starts to take this idea seriously, perhaps I’ll believe it’s reached the 21st century šŸ˜‰

Tom deserves a better response than you’re offering: how can his cohorts at MySociety come up with a good proposal for use of OS data, unless they can find out what’s in it?

Hello Jo,

Yes we will in due course do both WMS and WFS, in fact we already use WMS for most of our internal systems.

Don’t know how we would license this – what do you think ?

Yes OK this maybe not very 2.0 for much of the industry, but for the OS a move in this direction I would argue would be significant.

Tom, I’m waiting for your call.. lets see what we can do.


I stumbled onto your blog and found it interesting for the forward thinking for a “public sector guy” and hope that you dont feel offended by that.
Now, even though the “Oil Tanker” is capable of shipping the oil to the far away lands. But, still it is shipping oil unknown of the real understanding of what is it carrying as it does not understand the type of fuel that a consumer needs to fill in his car.
This is synomomynous of the old world style of marketing out of the bag. “I have this all, tell me when to stop”

The newer philosophy of customer centricity may be a guide for the next generation of “Oil Business”.
Probably, it would mean building a business partner network, with consumer as a part of the network, you can build solutions that it actually needs. And by consumer I mean the corporates who can exploit this data better.
This may inturn warrant looking for data from ground from scratch.

[…] The portal also represents a huge shift in mindset for government in the UK, I’m very proud of a letter which I received while working at the Ordnance Survey almost accusing me of sedition and threatening me with the official secrets act for blogging and suggesting the OS could make data more widely accessible. […]

Thanks Ed – I had similar days of pain and frustration and then elation while I spent 17 years working at USGS. The data is wonderful but sometimes the portals are challenging to use. Thank you.

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