Ordnance Survey Thoughts

Now why was that so difficult ?

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that many of the data products produced by Ordnance Survey are too be made “open data” free for download and use by both indivuduals and commerical organsiations in the UK.

Our data has been freed ?

Well of course we will still have to see the details but this is a massive step forward and huge kudos needs to be paid to all those who have worked behind the scenes lobbying for this change and of course those who have been much more visible in their campaign. Congratulations Charles !!

The impact of Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt is raising the value of free data on the political agenda was also clearly important and perhaps was the final push in the finally balanced arguments between the treasury and cabinet office.

Is the world about to end now in Southampton?

Of course not, many myself included have often made the point that there are in actual fact two data businesses at the OS. The one which produces large scale detailed and up to date data for use by government and customers in the utility sectors and  the other which produces the rest and which actually accounts of a relatively small proportion of the revenues of the OS.

It is this second business that is impacted here, the people who continue to license OS Mastermap and Address Layer will not be impacted by this move, and the OS will not see a massive fall in revenue as a result.

On the other hand at least some of the following datasets should be made available for free, and we can expect to see many new products and services appear as a result..

  • Boundary-Line™
  • Code-Point®
  • Code-Point®  with polygons
  • Land-Form PROFILE®
  • Land-Form PROFILE® Plus
  • Land-Form PANORAMA®
  • Meridian™ 2
  • OS VectorMap™ Local

Make no mistake this is something that has been forced on the OS by Government, the OS did not appear to be represented at the announcement yesterday and there is only a terse statement on the OS website reflecting this change in direction.

This is a shame, the leadership of the OS could have been more proactive in realising the value of their information came from its wider distribution not from following a business model based on its scarcity.

Written and submitted from Pan Pacific Hotel, Singapore (01.293N, 103.859W)

24 replies on “Now why was that so difficult ?”

[…] become openly available to us and how best the data should be distributed. Ed Parsons offered a ;speculative list of OS data products which he thinks may be opened next year. From our perspective, BoundaryLine, CodePoint and Meridian2 would be a great start, […]

Ed, it is astonishing you don’t know about Google’s takedown of Worldwind or that you would so glibly lay claim to a public web as Google’s private property. I see you also haven’t bothered to read Google’s legal filings in Google’s attempt to nullify copyright laws covering millions of books Google would like to appropriate for its own gain, that is, in your words, “reverse engineering to gain access to commercially sourced data.” Rich irony, indeed.

Google Earth (GE) is a public tileserver like the many others that preceded it, were developed alongside and came after: TerraServer,Virtual Earth, Worldwind, OSM, etc. You browse it like any public web site by giving it a URL/connection string with the lat/lon of what you want to see and it gives you images back. There’s no https or login required. It is an indisputably public connection in service of Google’s objective to leverage the public nature of the World Wide Web to get many users. There is no “reverse engineering” required as the plain language and totally obvious nature of the URLs and connection strings, plus their similarity to all the other tile servers, are so utterly trivial they can be written by a child.

When not shifting into sanctimonious hypocrite mode, Google itself is the first to argue in numerous court filings that anything out there on the public web is fair game to browse, to index, to digest and regurgitate and to otherwise utilize. That’s Google’s core business, after all, viewing and digesting the “assets” and “content” of others and regurgitating them in whole or in part within a wide variety of “search” results in order to make money selling adjacent advertising. Google takes that even further, claiming that even books laying within private libraries or sold under copyright contract can be scanned and privatised for Google’s own gain, or that images of your own front door, your children at play in your yard and images of you washing your car that are acquired by Google agents become Google’s private property.

Setting aside the evil of grasping privatisation in so many ways, the particular evil within GE comes when Google insists that users can browse their GE public website using only Google’s own browser, GE, or only Google’s own code. If Microsoft insisted that only IE could be used to browse a Microsoft site, and then installed underhanded jitter within IE and the site in an attempt to enforce such a monopoly, and then went on to tell lies about “viruses” when that jitter did its dirty work, people would rightly be up in arms.

GE is far from the only browser that can browse these public URLs to view images. Just about any browser can be used to browse GE web sites or the other tile servers (like VE, TerraServer, etc.). It takes but minutes to cobble up some code that can handle a wide range of tile servers, including GE. Typical examples are OSM Mapnik, TerraServer, WorldWind, Cloudmade, Osmarenderer, VE street maps. VE satellite, VE hybrid, Yahoo! and, of course GE. You don’t need to use anybody’s API because the connection and display of the tile images is so utterly trivial. Numerous people, including children (I count young teenage coders as children) have done so. There is much open source code out there, beginning with Microsoft’s generously donated “how to do it” snippets for Worldwind. Good on you Microsoft.

When NASA WorldWind’s team added such a module to display layers from GE, Google’s stinkin’ thug lawyers went after them and achieved a takedown. You do the research, since it was your legal thugs that did it. When a nice kid from San Francisco created a web site to do wall paper from served images, once again Google’s thugs swung into action. Later on, Google offered a money grant to the NASA guys (the old “silver or lead” thing thugs do) to buy their friendship but the original takedown was a hostile act against gentle researchers, a prime example of unrestrained Silicon Valley evil, a triumph of money over kind intelligence.

You are coloring this as if it is an access to private data question when the real issue is Google’s insistance that only Google’s browser can be used to view these images that Google provides to the public web. I’m not talking about the “ownership of data” matter, but I’ll be happy to ridicule that as well given Google’s insistance in court that anything that is searchable on the online web or in libraries or can be acquired through surveillance using whatever elaborate technology a giant like Google can bring to bear is fair game to suck up for Google’s purposes.

If Google wants to stand on this “it’s my proprietary data” bit, then don’t put it out on the public web. Arrange a password or other method of enrolling people into some private contract. But that inteferes with your desire to use the public web to hook hundreds of millions of people into using your browser and none other. For that matter, much of what GE displays is public data paid for by US and other government’s tax money. OK, so you buy it in crooked little deals with government bureaucrats to privatise it. Looks just like the OS scam.

Can’t have your cake and eat it too, Ed. Don’t be criticising the OS when your hands are so dirty.


Wow I guess our world views are just way too different..

The data behind Google earth regardless of how it is exposed is commercial content licensed by Google for very specific use via specific google applications and their api’s only. The data is available in many other places and if the developers of WorldWind or anyone else would like to license it for their own use or to make it available to everyone a public tile server there is nothing to stop them form doing so.. other than perhaps cost!

I think that is very different I would argue from the position the OS found itself in..

A clarification: the NASA researchers taken down by Google did not acquire or pass on any data from Google. They only spoke, in a traditional open source way, about how one might connect to public Google web sites that served images. That was enough to get them bludgeoned.

Ed, this is so full of rich irony as you generously pat the OS on the back for being more open with usage of public geospatial data while so ungenerously rejecting the notion that Google be open about the usage of geospatial data that Google itself chooses to flood onto the public web.

I agree that Google is very different than the OS. The OS never placed their content out on the public web. Google did.

The OS is also different from Google in that the OS has never claimed to be able to take other people’s commercial content, regardless of how it is exposed (to use your rather Orwellian phrase), and use it for itself, as Google does. If the OS had a commercial policy of harvesting other people’s commercial content and privatising the results, while at the same time the OS said you couldn’t harvest their public content for any purpose, we’d all call them hypocrites, wouldn’t we?

Whether my world view is different than yours is not really the issue here. It is that Google sets forth opposing world views at the same time. Your comments on the OS are a good example of that, as is your statement:

“The data behind Google earth regardless of how it is exposed is commercial content licensed by Google for very specific use via specific google applications and their api’s only. ”

Really? That is completely in opposition to Google’s own world view as expressed in the many efforts your company undertakes to secure Google’s own ability to use other people’s content for Google’s own purposes. That “regardless of how it is exposed” bit is especially evasive. What’s going on here is that Google is trying to develop a reputation for being open while being stiffly closed. That’s not right, and you should be called on that.

It’s also wrong that Google is trying to privatise public data. You are assisting in that by talking about how great it is that the OS has become open and by providing technical support to Google’s privatisation initiatives. Anyone who believes that the surface of the Earth is still in the public domain, that the OS being more open is a good thing and that public data should not be sold into private hands where a suitably stylish technologist can claim it is now ” commercial content licensed by Google for very specific use via specific google applications and their api’s only” should call you out for taking the wrong path.

For that matter, one of the things that has made the World Wide Web what is is has been the user community’s insistance that no one gets to privatise the public web, nor does anyone get to regulate how free people can choose to view that public web. Those of us in favor of an open Web have long rejected self-serving “terms of service” restrictions placed on public web sites – if you choose to take advantage of a free-born ability to stand up and speak your mind in the public square you don’t get to announce that all within earshot now owe you money for hearing your voice, or that you can control what they do with your words, or that they can only hear your words through an interpreter provided by you. Speak privately if that is what you seek.

That is why I cite your phrase “regardless of how it is exposed” as particularly Orwellian, because riding upon that phrase is Google’s Fifth Horseman of privatisation, saying that if Google muscle is behind the matter, even the public square now belongs to Google. Your phrase says it is not “lend me your ears” anymore, it is “your ears are now mine and I’ll be the one saying how you can use them.”

The OS got into trouble because even with the law on their side they attempted to privatise the world about us, the digital view of the world which ever more frequently defines our civic life. Google now seeks even more nakedly to privatise the public digital world we all have come to take for granted. If you hang out your “content” in the public square then darned right it matters “how it is exposed.”

I appreciate your personal willingness to allow opposing views in your blog. That tells me you are a good man who someday may help reform Google. If the OS can reform surely it is not too difficult for Google, either.

Google wants a net neutrality with a free use of infrastructure other people paid for. The cable companies and cell vendors could reply in your words like this,

“The connectivity behind our pipes regardless of how it is accessed is commercial bandwidth licensed by our company for very specific use via our specific applications and their usage guidelines only. The bandwidth is available in many other places and if the developers of Google or anything else would like to license it for their own use or to use it to make available to everyone a public web business there is nothing to stop them from doing so.. other than perhaps cost!”

Google wants to scan copyrighted library books for a Google business. The author could say,

“The intellectual property within my books regardless of how it is exposed is commercial content licensed by me for very specific use via specific rights granted and the applicable copyright law only. My books are available in many other places and if the developers of Google or anyone else would like to license them for their own use or to make them available to everyone for public viewing there is nothing to stop them from doing so.. other than perhaps cost! ”

It is a tangled web.

@harry, @vladis

I appreciate your comments on this but i think we are expanding this discussion to areas beyond the orginal point.

I think it is useful to just clarify that geodata online is content that shares characteristics more closely to music or video than webpages. With a few notable exceptions almost all the data behind the popular online mapping sites comes from commercial data suppliers who license data at some significant cost to the operators of such sites. Google does not pass on these licensing charges to users or api users and as a result have expanded the use of mapping by an order of magnitude.

“I think it is useful to just clarify that geodata online is content that shares characteristics more closely to music or video than webpages”

Ed, I can see where you are coming from, but to get back to your original theme commenting on the OS, if the above is the nature of geodata then there’s no debate and no news about the OS being either open or closed.

Geodata is not like music or video, which are original works. It is the surface of the Earth upon which we walk and live. If the visible surface of the Earth is not in the public domain, nothing is. The outcry led by the Guardian over a closed OS arose because it was time to end the privatisation of what many feel is fundamentally public domain data.

For that matter, music or video that are streamed freely onto the public web abandon their claim to privacy and to control usage. In contrast, buying content from the iTunes Store is a clearly commecial transaction, as is the private purchase of commercial satellite data from a variety of commercial sites. That is very different from Google’s public web sites. There are many forms of content on the public web, but to date the touchstone for an open, public web is that what you put on that public web may be used by any visitor. Put a video on YouTube and you have no expectation of regulating who may look at it, what viewer they may use to view it or with whom or how they may share that video.

That relates to what is going on with the OS because we do not know as yet what this OS initiative will be. One hears reports that OS in private are citing Google as a motivation for some aspects of what they might do. Given Google’s footprint I believe those reports. If they say that providing data in public whilst claiming control over usage and derivative works, perhaps popping up in the future to lay claim upon any cartographic product created anywhere in the UK, as has been done in the past, that would be a negative outcome.

I would also remind all that the massive state financial underwriting of space activities is a legitimate aspect of the public policy debate in this matter of privatisation of public resources, either by OS or by Google or Google contractors. When the state pays the piper it should have a role in calling the tune. Any talk of “commercial data suppliers” absent recognition that the funds they pay for launches and other space services do not come remotely close to covering the fully loaded investment costs of that infrastructure they leverage and the services they consume is to uncritically accept another form of creeping privatisation.

Google, of course, can bypass that debate. Develop your own space science, design your own space vehicles, build your own launch sites, fly your own missions and pay for your own downlinks. And then sell the product using a private mechanism like the iTunes Store. To use the catch phrase that has emerged in this thread, there’s no obstacle to that.. other than perhaps cost!

This is good news but let’s keep the champagne uncorked for a while yet. The OS and others may yet put a spanner in the works.

On another (but related) topic. Bing maps now serves OS 1:25,000 and 50:000 raster mapping. Is Google going to do this anytime soon? Bing is not much use to a Mac user as I can’t use it’s import kml functions. But if Google were to serve 1:25,000 mapping I’d be very happy!

This article from The Register highlights the contradictory nature of Google’s practices…

I can see a certain logic in the argument that UK citizens should have a right to certain map data, but Google is a commercial organisation and should have to pay for it. After all, Google will benefit from increased ad revenues by using OS data to attract people to its services.

Good quality mapping doesn’t come cheap. Expensive things that are given away don’t automatically become cheap to produce. The costs are just recouped elsewhere (or other services are compromised).

British citizens will benefit far more from the data by using it on Google and other mapping systems then if it’s left in the bottom draw of a government office. By allowing people to use the data it gives fuel and energy savings that will save the country 10 times what they’d get from licensing fees to a few private companies.

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