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In the last few days there has been a blaze of activity around the long-awaited changes by the Government to the way the Ordnance Survey’s data is controlled. A significant number of its excellent datasets have been freed up, which we think is excellent news for the UK geographical community.

The principle at stake is whether collected at public expense should be available to the public (including businesses) free of charge. This is a principle increasingly being accepted in the UK, through the launch of the excellent data.gov.uk and London Datastore portals, and throughout the US where public data has long been freely available.

This change – strongly welcomed by many in the web mapping community – follows years of pressure by the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, and by many others who, like us agree that public data should be public.

The government announced the outcome of its consultation, to which we also responded, and the day after, some of the Ordnance Survey’s datasets were freed up, so they can now be freely downloaded. (Other more detailed datasets, often for more specialised uses, remain restricted.)

Creating value through open data

Although Ordnance Survey data collection/management is partly also paid for by license fees (many of which come from Local Authorities, i.e. from the government anyway!), ‘the Cambridge Study’ effectively argued that freeing up such data and paying the remaining costs through taxation would lead to increased taxation from businesses who are able to create innovative uses of this data. The quality of Ordnance Survey’s data has a reputation as being amongst the best in the world, and it is important that government funding remains so that quality remains high.

Open data facilitating community-based innovation

Furthermore, it has also been argued by some (ourselves included) that making data open means that private/community-sector groups can more cheaply and quickly create products that traditionally the government would spend millions creating in a ‘top-down’ fashion. As community-based social entrepreneurs, we believe that community-led projects are more likely to work most effectively.

An example of this is our own project, CycleStreets, which has been achieved at a fraction of the cost of the Government’s Transport Direct project that is competing with us and whose costs, usage levels, and restrictive data access terms have just been revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information request.

‘Derived data’ issues

One issue which many respondents to the government’s consultation raised is the problem of ‘derived data’. This is the way that the Ordnance Survey’s license believes that placing your own data over one of their non-free datasets, e.g. overlaying a set of crime points, gives them rights over your data. (This is a different issue to wholescale tracing of non-free maps, which is indeed copying.) The Ordnance Survey’s rules effectively create lock-in, because having overlaid data over a dataset, it then becomes non-portable to use elsewhere.

This kind of restriction is unacceptable in a world where web ‘mash-ups’ are widespread and where there is ever-increasing competition. Issues relating to derived data have yet to be tackled, but the consultation response acknowledges that this needs to be tackled.

What happens now?

We moved our own postcode finder to the OS Code-Point database within hours of it being released, and we believe we are the first public user of OS Free data (albeit only for postcodes).

Some of the new OS street data may well make its way into OpenStreetMap (whose data CycleStreets uses). The new data will surely help OSM achieve completion of UK street data more quickly, as there are still areas of the UK where OSM data is not sufficiently complete, though that is changing rapidly. CycleStreets currently suffers considerably from the lack of even basic data in some areas still.

We have no plans to move to Ordnance Survey mapping data, because the OpenStreetMap data is often richer than the data that has been released, and OSM has the benefits of being community-based. Crucial amongst this is ability for the cycling community to update and augment the data themselves.

Roll-call

We think there are several bodies who have been instrumental in getting the OS’ data release terms changed:

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