Allegiance Only to the Best Data

by Matt Ball on January 14, 2008

There’s an ongoing dialog between Jeff and I about the viability of national mapping agencies. Jeff’s recent post refutes my claim that Google and Microsoft will gobble up a large portion of the data licensing business of map agencies that still charge significant licensing fees (Ordnance Survey, etc.).

A distinction that seems to be missing in Jeff’s argument is between maps and data. I content that in the digital map data era, there’s much less need for a national arbiter of maps or a producer of map products. Instead, the agencies that need the information subscribe to various data feeds and compile their own information and map interfaces. Consumers simply rely on the data provided in their GPS devices with map data from large international providers. With greater realism and accuracy of the base maps, there’s far less need of data creation, interpretation and standard mapmaking by a state-run agency.

In a previous post I argued that a central government simply can’t make the same investment in geospatial data as the private sector, and that their maps can’t come close to the quality and realism without a huge investment. In light of this argument, what’s the need for national maps given excellent publicly available data that far outstrips the quality and capability of a national agency?

For many years the national agencies in the United States have been their own map makers, without a reliance on a central map agency. I think that this model of data integrator vs. data creator will expand globally as better global data sets become available to compete with what can be found locally.

Jeff indicates that there are increasing roles of a national map agency, but I just don’t see it. National research efforts in research institutions and higher education have long relied on base map data from national mapmaking agencies, yet they’re now flocking to Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth in droves due the excellent quality of their base map data and the flexibility that these mapping platforms provide. There’s no allegiance to state-owned data when better and cheaper data can be had from the private sector.

The major target of this ongoing debate is primarily Ordnance Survey, as they’ve garnered the most heat from the public about fees and access to their data, and have the most accurate and up-to-date data. I can think of no other national mapping agency that even comes close to their data quality. And, their quality far surpasses any commercially available data for any region.

Will the Ordnance Survey continue to justify their high-quality data and closed licensing practice far into the future? I’m sure they have many years to run, but I’m not so certain that their new £40m headquarters will see full use by the end of the next decade.

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