Open Season: Open Source and Open Data at the Ordnance Survey

by Matt Ball on September 15, 2011

Peter Ter Haar, director or products at Ordnance Survey, gave the opening keynote this morning at the FOSS4G event. The organization is responsible for the most accurate and up-to-date map in the world, with half a billion data points, making five thousand changes every day, with 99.9% of real world changes represented in the database. The sum total is 750TB of data. However, the Google purchase of Keyhole in 2004, with launch of Google Maps in 2005, was a watershed moment that not many responded to, and now they are catching up.

Ordnance Survey has gone through a change recently with a mandate to increase the use of Ordnance Survey data, and promote innovation and economic development. The move has been made to provide free data, and make all data more easily accessible. Two programs have risen from this initiative.

OpenSpace is an OpenLayers implementation with an API for developers to stick a map on their website. There is a web map builder to simply create a map and produce html and javascript that can be easily added to any website. The site includes forums and other elements to create community and interaction. The OSGB web map tools have also been made available as open source.

GeoVation is the second program, and it’s run as a challenge to bring communities and solution providers together. Needs are identified, they are fed into a GeoVation camp, and campers. The organization has spent 250,000 Pounds to seed the creation of geo-enabled applications such as London Cycle Map, the Mission:Explore effort to get kids outside and interested in geography again, FixMyTransport allows users to log problems that they see with the public transportation network.

The Ordnance Survey is tackling major change and addressing licensing problems, pricing issues, and partnering issues. They have significantly opened up their products for resellers and developers with new licensing. They were told to open up their data by the government, including a high profile meeting between the prime minister Gordon Brown and the founder of the World Wide Web Tim Berners Lee. Subsequently, they made a subset of their data for free, with no restrictions. To encourage more use, they are running master classes to teach developers how to use this data. Since the launch, they now serve more than 1,000 packets of data per week to various applications.

The Ordnance Survey has a freemium business model, where some data is free, and premium data has a license with charges. Given the recent change, they are still working through the revenue and benefit issues to understand exactly where to draw the line between what is free and licensed, as well as the overall impact to the British economy.

Over the past few years, Ordnance Survey has learned some things. Rather than just releasing data, they realize they need to provide support and need to engage. They also learned they need to be brave, where some uses of data are going to be for things that they don’t like, including a few downloads from Yemen. The “innovate or die” slogan has become very important for the organization, and Ter Haar encouraged the community to be patient, and help us.

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