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”

I’m working on a personal mapping product for the Mac (and possibly
Linux) which will need O/S mapping and data to be valuable – but I’ve
temporarily switched my efforts to other projects because

a) the current O/S licensing process seems to be fairly heavy duty for a
sole trader to navigate through and

b) I’m optimistic that sometime in the near future O/S’s licensing may
change to make it easier to release a product that fetches data over
the ‘net with that data being paid for directly for the user.

While I’m generally comforted by the direction you’re taking can you say
anything more specific that will encourage me (and others like me) to
return to my mapping project?

Good post, Ed. I’m trying to jump start the 2.0 culture in my organization too and it’s like sailing the world’s largest heap of junk without a rudder.

I like how OS operates and the way you lay out the trust factor in your post is key. Even though you’re a national mapping agency, users and buyers not only need to trust the data they get from you, but they need to trust your service. It’s just good customer service that OS needs, not a mystery customer desk in the basement of OS.

I would also like to note that OS should accept the fact that citizens want to participate and try to figure out how to work with the Community Atlases, like OpenStreetMap and others, to combine the best aspects of 2.0 for the benefit of the community at large. It’s something I would like to do with my information, but the folks at the top aren’t ready for it yet. Still, I think the concept of open sourcing your information and accepting the information of citizens, to an extent, is viable and will raise support for OS 2.0.

I wish you well in your challenge, and I hope you succeed.


“and in particular, reduces innovative uses of geospatial data.”

Being in the same sort of boat (and on the same platform as commenter #1, I have to agree with this statement, but I am glad that you are taking steps to at least make some more data available for limited use for limited cost. I still don’t know where this leaves a startup with limited funding (apart from playing with US data which is nearly all open and free), or research projects.

OS obviously has academic licenses, but without being a part of an existing University/School I can’t get this data (at a reasonable price) for small research projects.

All that said though, I like your plan – it is a start šŸ™‚ Good luck.

I guess we’re lucky that the idea for the geograph project didn’t take shape five years sooner šŸ™‚ But seriously, thank you (OS) for agreeing to support the project. It will become a far better educational resource thanks to your help.


Ok point taken… but geograph is just the innovative type of application we need. The “sense of place” provided by a image of a location is very powerful, and something we are only slowly beginning to understand.

Sorry I missed you last week..


Does this represent a culture change in the OS?

As a customer, I always get the impression that the OS sales reps are
trying to sell us data that we ethier don’t need, does not meet our requirements, or is less expensive to capture ourselves.

Using this approach you would get instant feedback.


Unfortunately not .. culture change is a long and difficult process ;-( , but watch this space..


Great idea! Look no further than Oracle for precedent. Last time I looked you could download and use all their software for free for evaluation. They trust that once you deploy commercially you’ll write the check.

Ordnance Survey 2.0 ?…

The Ordnance Survey is highly respected, globally, for the quality of its traditional and digital mapping products. It’s pricing policies, and its attitudes to openness, sharing, and the nurturing of fledgling markets are – perhaps – less well regard…

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