- 17 Nov 08, 15:25 GMT
Mapping has always been a vital part of new web services - and it's getting more important as the web goes mobile. In the UK, there are two powerful forces in web mapping - the Ordnance Survey and Google Maps - and now they are squaring up in a battle that could have serious implications for those trying to free up all sorts of public data.
The Guardian, which has run a long campaign to encourage public bodies to "Free Our Data", has got hold of a document from Ordnance Survey which warns local authorities about the implications of taking information gathered from OS data and plotting it on Google Maps. The basic message is "that's our intellectual property - don't think you can simply get away with handing it over to our deadly rival."
The Guardian thinks all sorts of new public data projects - especially the winners of the government's Show Us A Better Way competition - are going to be hamstrung because they are likely to want to use OS data and then plot it on Google maps. The Ordnance Survey - which is now an arms-length government agency - reckons it's just doing its job by defending its property rights. It's also keen to point out that Google is simply a commercial organisation that will seek to profit from any data handed over by advertising around it.
One casualty could be the Home Office's Crime Mapping initiative. As police forces use Ordnance Survey data to map information about crime, it will now be impossible to take that and put it into Google maps.
An Ordnance Survey spokesman told me the real problem was in Google's terms and conditions which allow the search company, in his words, to "reproduce, modify and distribute content that is entered into their maps." The spokesman said talks had been taking place between the OS and Google about changing those terms, but in the meantime, "We won't allow people to overlay our information onto Google maps. We have to protect our information."
So we have two commercial organisations at loggerheads and at least one very cross politician looking on from the sidelines. Tom Watson is the cabinet office minister on a personal mission to show that the government can be smart about breaking down the data barriers and letting the public in. The cabinet office tells me that the move by Ordnance Survey "came as a shock" and "doesn't fit in with our openness agenda". Apparently Mr Watson is in a series of meetings trying to get this sorted.
One arm of government has told Ordnance Survey to make a business out of its data, another has decided that data should be "free". And should ministers really be backing Google in any battle with its own agency? I don't envy Mr Watson - finding his way through this mapping mess is going to be a struggle.
Google have just phoned to stress that they believe Ordnance Survey has misrepresented its terms and conditions. They say that when we hand over data to Google Maps, they are not claiming ownership of that information, just the right to crawl it and use it for marketing purposes. I'm not sure that will settle the row.
ANOTHER UPDATE - 24th November
Buried in the Pre Budget Report is a line about the Ordnance Survey, whose future is being examined in a review of all "trading funds", as this kind of agency is called. The Treasury says it's considering "the potential for innovation and growth from increasing commercial and other use of public sector information" and that "for the Ordnance Survey, this will involve consideration of its underlying business model." Sounds like those who want the OS to be far more free and easy with its data may be close to victory.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites