After years of pressure, the UK government announces a step forward in opening up geospatial data, but there is a lot more to do. The Geospatial Commission needs the power to do its job, and public sector data stewards need new business models to keep up with rapid innovation

By Jeni Tennison, Peter Wells and Leigh Dodds

On Wednesday, the UK government announced that "key parts of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) highly detailed OS MasterMap are being made completely open under the Open Government Licence (OGL), with the remaining data being made freely available up to a threshold of transactions. This work will release £130m pa of economic value."

This is significant, not only for us geospatial data fans but for the UK economy and its citizens.  

It means that property boundaries, derived from OS Master Map, will be published as open data, for anyone to access, use and share. It also means that OS will start adding Topographic Identifiers (TOIDs) to OS OpenMap-Local, which contains street-level data, making it easier to create links with other datasets.

The data community have pressed for open geospatial data for the UK for many years. This announcement shows government is starting to deliver on commitments made in the 2017 Conservative manifesto.

A step forward, but a lot more to do

Property boundaries are important data to inform construction and planning decisions. They are used extensively in other datasets, such as in the data Land Registry publishes, and in planning processes within local authorities. Opening these up could help meet government priorities to build more houses where people need them.

Much of the rest of OS Master Map will not be opened at this stage. However, there will be further investigation of how to open UPRNs (identifiers for addresses) and USRNs (identifiers for roads) along with useful information about them. There will also be new guidance on derived data, a pesky legal grey area that affects lots of possible uses.

Other topographical features will also not be opened. This includes building heights (which are also useful for planning), data about green spaces (which enables physical activity); details about road layouts, access points and our path network (useful for routing); and data about waterways (useful for understanding flooding).

For now, these will be made available through a freemium-style API (application programming interface). This will let users who only need small amounts of data to access it for free, on demand. It does not help those who need larger volumes or who want flexibility in what they do with the derived data they create.

So this step will satisfy some businesses and use cases, but won't support everything that people have been clamouring for for many years, or the change that is necessary if the UK is to lead on building 21st century services, powered by emerging technologies, such as driverless cars, drones and artificial intelligence.

There is a lot more to do.

The Geospatial Commission needs the power to do its job

Almost all data is linked to a location. This makes geospatial data a key part of our data infrastructure. Great institutions like the Ordnance Survey and Land Registry were founded when the government saw how important data was to making better decisions, for the public sector and for those outside of it.

This data infrastructure needs to be updated to meet our 21st century needs, technological capabilities and competitive climate. The ODI would like to see national mapping agencies adapt to become stewards for national mapping data infrastructure. They should have the public task of making sure the data is available to meet our country’s needs: from city planners to fitness providers, from logistics firms to farmers, from flood risk analysis to highway routing.

Given the historic public investment in this data, we think the best model is one where all of Ordnance Survey's data is made open. We think OS should offer paid-for service-level agreements to users like large companies who need guaranteed access or availability. We think OS and others should compete fairly to provide the best APIs, support, and other services over this public data.

Of course, changing to a new model like this is not easy. It was spelled out over a decade ago in the Office of Fair Trading’s 2006 study on the Commercial Use of Public Information (CUPI), but the progress towards it has been limited. Taking this step requires a broader view than one focused on a single Autumn Statement commitment about geospatial data. A strong vision is needed for the future role of public data stewards across the whole public sector and their role in making both the data and the market work for citizens and businesses. It now falls on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as the department that owns data policy, to provide this vision.

But with the rapidly growing innovation in geospatial technology and increasing competition amongst providers of geospatial data, we hope the Geospatial Commission will be up to this task and given the powers they need to deliver change in this sector.

Rapid innovation means new business models

It is increasingly easy for organisations to collect geospatial data with low-cost satellites, cheaper LIDAR sensors, machine-learning to extract features from images and GPS-enabled devices. Technologies, tools and platforms help us make better use of geospatial data – we can now render complex 2D and 3D maps in our browsers, for example.

These changes create both challenges and opportunities for mapping agencies in countries across the world.

They have to adapt. Otherwise, we risk geospatial data infrastructure becoming controlled solely by the private sector, meaning that unprofitable parts of the market, or country, could be left underserved. As well as tackling the challenge of digital exclusion we already find ourselves needing to focus on data exclusion, with some parts of the country unable to benefit from the services and insights received by the people who live in cities.

At the ODI, we will continue to advocate for geospatial data to be as open as possible, and for new, sustainable and collaborative models to be adopted for its maintenance. As part of our global mission we will advocate for this around the world. In our innovation project focusing on geospatial data, we are already examining the variety of ways open geospatial data is being collected, published and used.

We will be identifying new guidance and prototyping new tools and approaches that will help make geospatial data as open and accessible as possible.

We will also continue to advocate for and explore changes to the 20th century business models that governments asked their national mapping organisations, like the Ordnance Survey, to adopt. We need them to become public data stewards.

These issues and this debate does not only exist in the UK. Countries around the world need to be doing the hard job of working out how to make the stewards of our data infrastructures fit for the 21st century. Ordnance Survey, and other data stewards, must innovate to keep up with the private sector.