Guest post: Five years and 1 million downloads – Ordnance Survey's open data journey

In January 2015, the BBC reported The World Wide Web Foundation was rating the UK government as the most open and transparent in the world. A key player in helping this happen has been Ordnance Survey (OS), who in 2010 were one of the first government agencies to make its data freely available when it released 12 open data mapping products.

Since 2010 the use of OS OpenData has increased rapidly. Indeed, often unrecognised by the hundreds of thousands of end users through its inclusion in most popularly served digital maps of Great Britain, such as Google and OpenStreetMap.

By March 2015, downloads of OS OpenData products exceeded the one million mark, and in addition to the members of the public, the diversity of organisations and businesses downloading and using this data is staggering.

It is not just Google, OpenStreetMap and navigational devices from the likes of Ordnance Survey partner Garmin that are using our open data to good effect. Applications today vary across the delivery of public services, high-level planning, retail and logistics and support a number of local initiatives by community groups and local developers.

The last five years have been a learning curve for the organisation, so what lessons have we learnt that have enabled OS OpenData’s widespread use?

Supporting developers

OS has a global reputation for high quality and innovation, built on a heritage of over two hundred years of map making. To support developers unfamiliar with its data and digital mapping products, OS has held regular OS OpenData Masterclasses across Great Britain over the past five years and made documentation and guides available online.

This exposure to OS’s practical help has made it easier for developers to use OS OpenData, to play with it, to discover the data’s potential and to integrate it with their own datasets and software.

Understanding the potential power of maps

Maps convey an enormous amount of information that can be taken in with just one glance. Compare the visualisation of information on a map to sitting through a PowerPoint presentation, or wading through the pages of an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document, and it is easy to see why business is now using maps in a big way to communicate ideas, to reach a better understanding and to help them make effective decisions – a picture really does say a thousand words.

Innovation challenges to solve real life issues

Further encouragement to spark innovation has come through the launch of OS’s GeoVation Challenge, which was launched in 2010 around the same time as OS OpenData.

GeoVation Challenges award funding for ventures that use OS’s OpenData and other open data to solve real life issues.

In March 2015, the winners of the latest GeoVation Challenge, which asked how Britain could do housing better, were announced. This took the overall number of new ventures created through the GeoVation process to 31 and the total amount funding awarded to £718,000.

Where next?

In March 2015, we announced that we will be opening an Innovation Hub this summer on the edge of London’s knowledge quarter in Clerkenwell.

As the first resident innovators of Future Cities Catapult’s Urban Innovation Centre, the aim for OS is to energise innovation in the UK geospatial industry and to attract new players, new visions, new thinking and new markets through best use of open and licensed premium OS data.

Earlier this year we also announced a programme of further Open Data developments including the open release of the valuable UPRNs, relaxed terms around derived data produced by its 3,000 plus government customers (PSMA) and the adoption of the Open Government Licence to make its data even more accessible and easier for start-ups and others to understand and use.

And, we have just released another four products through its OS OpenData platform. These include free to use location, roads, rivers and map products.

As ODI Co-founder Sir Nigel Shadbolt said recently:

“Geospatial data, in particular, has enormous potential to transform people’s lives,”

For OS, this has been more than simply making some of our data available for free. It is a commitment to developing and stimulating the economy through digital innovation and to making the licensing of all OS data easier for use.

Publishing and maintaining high quality open data on this level is a response to a rapidly changing digital marketplace – a critical component that is sure to help the UK maintain its global position as the leader in open data.

David Henderson is Head of Data Products for Ordnance Survey.