Cautious Optimism O'clock - Ordnance Survey Opening Up Data

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If you have an interest in open data, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard today’s announcement that the public will have more access to Ordnance Survey data. Details are a bit sketchy at the moment, but data set to be released includes boundary data, postcodes, and mid-scale mapping.

Consultation will start soon on exactly how this will happen, but it’s about bloomin’ time. It’s especially good to see Stephen Timms, the Minister for Digital Britain ticking all the open data boxes with this little tit bit:

About 80 per cent of public sector data mentions a place. Making Ordnance Survey data more freely available will encourage more effective exploitation of public data by businesses, individuals and community organisations.

Which is exactly what a lot of ‘us lot’ have been saying, open data is all well and good, but if the tools that we need to make the data really useful (such as postcode and boundary data) are locked up, then what’s the point?

The two datasets that really piqued my interest were boundary data and postcodes. Boundary data is probably one of the most ridiculous examples of OS’s derived data conditions, because all political boundaries (local authorities, parish councils etc) were originally plotted on an Ordnance Survey map, this is classed as derived data - because it’s derived data, OS own the copyright, so you can’t legally use it in any way you choose.

Even walking a boundary with a GPS device and plotting the output is verboten, because how would you know where a boundary was without looking at an OS map?

Postcodes is an interesting one, and one I’d like to know more about - If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ll know that my folk devil de jour is the Royal Mail, who are the copyright holders of postcode data, and recently shut down - provider of postcode data to many useful non-profit sites. Now, if the Royal Mail have exclusive rights to postcode data, where do OS come in?

My guess is that this dataset is the Codepoint product. I’m not sure how Codepoint differs from the Royal Mail offering, but it’ll be interesting to find out. It could also be a potential use of the derived data rule for good, instead of evil - after all, the Royal Mail use OS maps to plot postcode data, so surely this is derived? (and therefore the intellectual property of OS, rather than the Royal Mail)

This announcement also comes off the back of the ongoing plans to privatise Ordnance Survey, and hopefully means that lessons have been learned from the earlier ‘sort-of-kind-of’ privatisation of the Royal Mail in 2000, which pretty much means the Government have little say in what the Royal Mail does with regard to PAF licensing.

If Ordnance Survey do become a private organisation, then it’s essential that, before selling them off, we make sure that any socially useful data they hold is put back into the hands of the public.

I’m excited (but cautiously so).