Rory Cellan-Jones

The mapping mess - Google v OS

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    The OS is taxing the economy. There must be lots of small and not so small web projects that could boost the economy if only this data was back in public ownership.

    It maddens me to see how they frustrate innovation and the public good for private ends.

  • Comment number 2.

    I strongly suspect that OS are worried about deficiencies in their published data being exposed.

    I have worked with GPS survey data for some years and have often had problems when clients wish to overlay results on their purchased OS data. Funny how it always fits perfectly on Google Maps, though!

  • Comment number 3.

    The problem is not with Google's terms and conditions - it is with the OS, because the Government wishes them to make a profit, so they see Google as competition. If the Government would return the OS to being a tax funded non-profit organisation, the data could be made available at the cost of reproduction (effectively nothing).

    This would have enormous benefits to local government, who would no longer have to pay large licencing fees to the OS, and also pave the way for private companies to use the data in imaginative ways, generating profits and paying more tax to the Government. Benefits all round.

  • Comment number 4.

    I can't see why the government doesn't make it a requirement for data such as this to be publicly available.

    As groberts2001 states, restricting data of this sort severely taxes the economy. Surely the public availability of mapping information should be a fundamental objective of a government in a civilised society.

  • Comment number 5.

    OK, I admit it, I'm lost (pun intended!) With the availability of Google Maps and Google Earth why would I need any other information, from OS or anywhere else?

  • Comment number 6.

    I am somewhat surprised at the comment by 'johnpipe'. From my experience with GPS data the opposite is always true. Also please bear in mind that Google maps have nothing beyond roads. For anyone venturing off the beaten track the lack of any other features such as footpaths, bridleways etc, makes Google maps all but useless.

  • Comment number 7.

    Being someone who has worked within GIS for a number of years, i am on the side of the OS here.

    The data held by the OS is more than just lat lons. It comprises whole sets of information that require formatting and work. To let Google have this information for them to monetise through Adwords with no kickback to the UK government and tax payer is a joke.

    In the WEB2.0 economy, Google Maps is a platform and when it uses other organisations content on those maps, that company should receive a fee or a royalty. Yes, let the end user have it for free, or restrict certain data sets to the paid for GE products and give a rev share back to the owner of the content.

    The OS is doing important work and by them putting their heels in, we could see the exporting of UK data as a new way for UK PLC and the taxpayer to make money.

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree with the above commenter that google shouldn't be profiting from a tax payer funded organisation. However, OS need to ask why people aren't using their web based free products.

    The OS website is hopeless. The maps you get are small, lack AJAX dragging and zooming and features like directions. On top of that when you get the website it's not entirely clear you can even get that without coughing up some cash.

    As an aside's new beta provides some OS quality maps for free at their default zoom level.

  • Comment number 9.

    It always struck me as as odd that we had to pay for os maps. This is a govenrment funded org which we have paid for through tax.

    However, today I was trying to locate sewage/ drainage systems or a property and between Severn Trent and the local authority I may as well be living on Mars. Google has mapped that I believe, and there is proof that Martians didn't .....

  • Comment number 10.

    The best way to respond to commercial constraints from both Google and OS is to use the Open Street map ( The data is available for anyone use, is generally much more up-to-date than either Google or OS and if there is something wrong or missing you can change or add it because it is a wiki. Only Open data will truly free the web for all.

  • Comment number 11.

    6. At 7:14pm on 17 Nov 2008, runnerbean wrote:

    I am somewhat surprised at the comment by 'johnpipe'. From my experience with GPS data the opposite is always true. Also please bear in mind that Google maps have nothing beyond roads. For anyone venturing off the beaten track the lack of any other features such as footpaths, bridleways etc, makes Google maps all but useless.


    You have missed the point completely. Google wants to include this information but the OS is blocking it.

    The best way to respond to commercial constraints from both Google and OS is to use the Open Street map ( The data is available for anyone use, is generally much more up-to-date than either Google or OS and if there is something wrong or missing you can change or add it because it is a wiki. Only Open data will truly free the web for all.


    How naive. Do you honestly think it ould still be free to use if everyone was using it? No of course not, the bandwidth would be through the roof and avertising would be brought in to pay for it and then you are back to square one.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm a regular contributor and user of openstreetmap and I think that has a lot of potential, though it's a number of years away from having a reasonably complete UK road map.

    I'd love it if OS would make their data publicly available at not cost. In the US this data is available, as with a number of other countries. I love OS maps, and wish more online maps could be like them in terms of visual appeal and detail.

    This endless war between OS and everyone else is really limiting some potentially amazing applications. It's down to the government to sort out, the OS are just following their mandate.

    Make the OS part of the government again and not a for-profit company. UK councils spend thousands of pounds each, each year to have access to OS data, which seems stupid...

  • Comment number 13.

    The real point here is that OS are trying to say they own the physical relationship between all points on their map. (i.e. they own the fact that my house is 2m from the road, 3.2m from the street light, etc, etc)

    If I use their map to draw an overlay of, lets say crime areas (so that I get them in the right place), they say I can't use that overlay on another service, because I used thier map to draw it.

    That's crazy. If I reproduce their map, then I expect to pay to use it. I expect to pay to have their map in the first place, in order to be able to draw my overlay. But my overlay should be my property, and should be for me to decide what I do with it. (If I trace a load of streets or houses directly off their map, then I think they have a point)

    You want to start with an OS map, because you know that it is more likely than not accurate, and that it is kept up to date. Fine, I pay a fee to have that on my GIS system, sat nav or I buy a paper map.

    I used to work in GIS for a County Council some years ago, and it was always a question before we published anything, will we get in trouble from the OS for publishing this map with OUR information on it which we have plotted in and collected ourselves - and we WERE paying them their fees!

  • Comment number 14.

    Am I the only one who saw the heading and wondered about operating systems battling google maps?

    I fully agree with OS charging companies for the cost of producing detailed data, but surely as a govt agency it should be serving the govt and councils, emergency services etc. unfortunately it charges even them rather a lot and fails to publish maps, even electronic maps fast enough.

    If the govt handled their own map data better it would help for a start. I recently looked at MAGIC to find cycle maps, the national & regional data is there but is only displayed if one zooms out to the sort of map one has in a car road atlas not a typical landranger or explorer background let alone a street map. A national picture can be seen but one doesnt get the local data one wants.

    If councils etc wanted to publish some local data on google maps there are other sources than OS, send someone out with a gps camera phone to walk the streets for a week and every school, library, postbox, lamppost, telegraph pole, etc could be recorded with a geotagged photo. Perhaps they could use their street wardens? Else sponsor all the local scout groups to work on their "guide" activity badge?

  • Comment number 15.

    Why is everyone knee-jerking to Google's defence?

    As far as I can see the OS has access to a huge amount of commercially valuable data, that Google wishes to use in order to sell advertising.

    Please don't confuse Google's service with altruism, they are there as a vehicle to sell advertising and therefore to generate revenue.

    If the OS was to hand over this data without requesting decent commercially realistic terms, and councils handing over data for free undermines this, I would suggest that the OS would be using tax payers money to subsidise a foreign company.

    I applaud the OS for standing up to a company which is increasingly showing itself to be a very sharp operator. Yes hand over the data, but carry on the good work and get a good deal for the British tax payer in return.

  • Comment number 16.

    "Why is everyone knee-jerking to Google's defence? "

    I think it's because people are fed up with the OS making it difficult to use data, and with the high cost of licence payments. It seems to me that there must be a better way than the current Trading Fund status. The OS also "stand up to" other Government departments, local government, NGOs, and private British companies. This mires everyone in copyright issues and slows down innovation.

    A company like Harvey Maps has to bend over backwards to prove that they are not using OS-sourced data for their outdoor leisure maps.

    I suspect that eventually the OS will find themselves overtaken by a combination of private commercial mapmakers and openstreetmap. There is already reasonable SRTM-derived contour mapping freely available. With GPS it is fairly easy to map linear features on top. The OS may end up with a niche market of very precise mapping. They appear to be trying to protect their very privileged near-monopoly.

  • Comment number 17.

    Huh? What's with this 'Google making money at OS's expense'? So I generate a crime map layer using OS base data (that I paid for the right to use) to plot the police provided crime stats, then extract that layer and publish it on my website over-top of a Google Maps inteface because it's more user friendly. Google puts a few adword links up to pay for my use of their basemap and servers to show the map on my website. How is Google profiting from OS here? They NEVER get to see the OS base map, I'm not putting the OS base map onto Google, and yet OS reckons they have rights over my work? Perhaps Intel, Microsoft, or Arc want to get in on the action too?

    And yes, I'm well aware that Google tries to claim rights over my work too, but that's a slightly different debate...

  • Comment number 18.

    1. Surely OS was paid for by the public in the first place? It's an Executive Agency of HMG, paid for by the Treasury out of Public Funds, and is part of the Department for Communities and Local Government.
    2. One evident constraint is that Google's stitch-together isn't always perfect, and suffers from parallax drift at the edges of the photography it's based on. On the other hand, some OS data is rather out of date, as the world itself bulges and flexes continuously, if only in respect of continental drift - data 50 years old is rather out of date.
    3. Ultimately, neither is the ultimate guarantor, however: the Land Registry is, and they use their own polygon-based version of GIS, see the Commercial Services section fo their website. As their approach is radically different from OS, there's an interesting question to be resolved whether OS might not be in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, as the two Agencies both seemingly presenting correct yet disparate data cannot both be right, which thereby subverts the OS copyright.

  • Comment number 19.

    Any Police Force can display our mapping data within the terms of their current licenses to show crime mapping information on the web. Many are already successfully doing so and we will continue to support them. We are also supportive of the opportunities offered by platforms such as Google Maps. We believe that geographic information, in any form, is a useful tool to aid communication with the public.

    However, the current Google Maps licence grants Google the right to reproduce, modify, publish and distribute royalty-free, any data displayed in conjunction with their maps.

    Ordnance Survey operates primarily though our partners in this area and it is important that we provide equivalent terms to them all so they can maintain vibrant businesses. Providing unconstrained rights would be seriously detrimental to the work they do.

    Ordnance Survey’s business model allows us to maintain a highly accurate and up-to-date mapping infrastructure but this is not compatible with the granting of in-perpetuity royalty free license terms.

    We are in ongoing dialogue with Google and are aware that they did recently revise their terms. However, these changes have not significantly addressed the problem and the rights granted to them. We have given feedback to Google and we are working hard to find a resolution that satisfies the needs of all the parties involved.

    In relation to the “Show us a Better Way” competition, Ordnance Survey is very committed to supporting the winning entries and developing their proposals. We are working with the organisers of the competition and are offering extensive support to all the competition winners.

  • Comment number 20.

    Why do people think that because IP isn't a physical object like a television that it should be freely distributable? Many peoples livelihoods depend on the protection afforded to IP they created.

    Using OS IP to create a data set and then using that for profit as Google Maps intend is no different to taking a printer from a shop without paying for it, using it to print books you will sell for profit then taking the printer back to the shop. Understandably the shop will be upset you have used something they own for your own gain and haven't paid them. OS feel the same.

    If people wish to use OS data they can pay for a license. If they don't wish to pay then they can map areas themselves. I'm afraid you can't have it both ways.

  • Comment number 21.

    IP isn't a physical object and the rules about enforcing ownership are different for a reason.

    If you have a physical object of a certain value, then it would cost me that value to obtain a copy of it.

    However in IP, once the original has been created, each subsequent copy can be made for nothing.

    Theoretically IP should be charged on how many people have the item in question at that moment, as well as how many people want it, as that is the only value IP.

    A physical object however, they are a limited number. You can not copy a physical object - merely create a new one which costs the same amount as it did in the first place.

    Since the world is moving to a place where copying is even more abundant, people who believe that once you have given someone a copy of your IP, then you can stop them giving it to other people are foolish.

    The second major point of discussion is the nature of dual charging employed by the Ordnance Survey and this is primarily the gripe of the Guardian etc. They suggest that because the mapping of the UK has distinct commercial advantages to the UK, and is almost entirely only of commercial advantage to the UK, and since the UK pays the said data via the various tax regimes in this country, they should be entitled not to have to pay again to use this data. They argue that Ordnance Survery should give out this data for free. The result would be economic output, which would increase the amount of tax generated, which would provide more money to potentially fund the Ordnance Survey.

    The current arrangement prohibits organisations such as Google using the data to benefit UK homes / schools / local organisations / government because the Ordnance Survey revenue model is entirely incompatible with Google's free usage / advert based scheme.

    If Google were to exploit the power of the data provided by the UK (via OS) to generate profit then:

    a) Good for them. We live in a capitalist world. Get used to it. That is what capitalism is about.

    b) Nothing prohibts someone else from using the Ordnance survey data, adding a spiffy front end, and providing it at a reduced profit marging - potentially using Google AdSense to generate revenue.

    A license is unnecessary as everyone would benefit from free data provided by the OS, as local organisations such as the Police / Local Authority / Education / Charities could use the data to benefit people in their area, whereas the BBC License fee is required because only people with televisions benefit from the existence of the BBC (as well as the employees of course). Personally I also feel that the current structure of the license fee will be gone within the next 20 years, to be replaced by a tax based system, for several reasons, mainly the lack of accountability in finding out who pays, secondly due to the wide range of mediums (cable / satelite / digital aerial / internet / radio / worldwide) to which the BBC now broadcasts.

  • Comment number 22.

    Ok, so I need to declare an interest at the outset. I am a retired OS surveyor with over 40 years experience. When I started as a very young surveyor in 1964 everyone at OS regarded the organisation as a service to the public, paid for by the Treasury.

    However, successive governments, of both persuasions, have regarded OS as a drain on the public purse and have required the organisation to recover more and more of it's cost by commercial means. Eventually OS has had to become fully self supporting from its own sales of mapping and data, with nothing coming from the exchequer.

    The result is that, regretably, standards have slipped, manpower has been reduced resulting in a reduction in the standard of service available, and long standing customers have seen their expenditure on mapping rocket.

    It's all very sad. At its worst OS only ever cost the taxpayer per year less than it cost to recover one grounded Royal Navy warship to UK from the southern hemisphere.

    I for one bitterly regret the political decisions to make OS more and more responsible for covering its costs from revenue.

    Large Scale mapping has never been a commercial proposition. yet it is a vital resource for efficient government, both local and national. OS has performed wonders in achieving what no other mapping organisation in the world has achieved, namely a consistent national series of mapping at all scales at no direct cost to the taxpayer. However, this has only been achieved by rigorously enforcing copyright and increasing prices for paper maps, data and licences well ahead of inflation.

    You can't have your cake and eat it! If you want OS to not be a drain on the exchequer then you have to put up with the situation as it exists.

    I only wish OS was still a publically funded organisation in which the value of its products was seen as well worth the funding invested by the taxpayer.

    That's it, I'm off my soapbox now; back to the slippers and cocoa!

  • Comment number 23.

    OK, I'm back again.

    Just a comment having read comment 18 above. Land Registry's plans are required by the Land Registration Acts to be based upon Ordnance Survey large scale mapping. Land Registry overlay them with their polygons showing registration titles, so there are not two sets of maps, only one.

    This time I really am off for the slippers and cocoa!

  • Comment number 24.

    If I bang pegs into each corner of the housing estate I live on, and connect them with pieces of string, then tell everyone that within the string the crime rate is 4% only my neighbours might get upset.

    If I draw dots on a map (Which I bought legally) and connect them together with lines then the OS claims they own that.

    What's the difference?

  • Comment number 25.

    The quality of OS mapping has plummeted in recent years as a direct result of the organisation's hierarchy being encouraged to act like a business. OS is not a business, but a public body. Information gathered by the Ordnance Survey belongs to the taxpayer. It should be freely available to all who wish to make use of it.

  • Comment number 26.

    I fell foul of the OS attitude. I started developing an online map of all the major UK renewable energy projects using the OS online mapping system. Shortly after starting I had an email saying it looked like a commercial activity and to stop (or pay loads of money).

    I've since restarted using Microsoft maps. Thanks to some initial practical support from True Energy Ltd I have now developed what I believe is the most complete and up to date catalogue of the UK's main renewable and alternative energy projects .

    Its a personal project, I don't make any money from it, its a pity its on an American map of the UK when it could have been on a British map of the UK.

  • Comment number 27.

    Too much is made of the "tax returns from the profits of companies using OS data" if that data were distributed for free.

    MS and Google register in Ireland for their European activities for a reason - they don't fancy paying UK taxes. You can give them the OS data for free, and they'll make money out of it, but HM Treausury won't see a penny of it. A few smaller UK outfits may use the data and pay their taxes here in the UK, but do you really think that they can compete with Google or MS? The increase in their tax payments won't come close to what OS can generate using their current model.

    Is there room for improvement? Certainly, but giving away their crown jewels means the UK tax payer (i.e. you and I) subsidising Google. It'd be bad enough if they were a UK company, but using UK tax payers money to subsidise a US company beggars belief.

  • Comment number 28.

    Comment 22 nails it for me. OS mapping is a national resource and we should treasure and nurture it. As a taxpayer I'd be happy to know that I was funding it.

  • Comment number 29.

    The OS rebuttal does not chime with the real issues which our membership - mainly PSI Value Added Resellers - encounter in their dealings with OS. Can it really be acceptable for the OS licensing terms to be unfair or restrictive on condition that the terms are equally unfair and restrictive in order to protect existing customers?

    This is hardly likely to encourage innovation and consequently the majority of OS revenue is from direct sales from OS and not through resellers. Although the restrictive terms may ensure that OS easily achieves its financial targets, they also stunt opportunity, usability, fair competition and enterprise for others. These problems have been apparent for many years with little or no movement from OS and a growing level of pressure from elsewhere as the Web develops. The UK may (or may not) have the finest mapping in the world. It is a shame that its citizens cannot benefit from it more easily


  • Comment number 30.

    The OS are floundering because they have been left with an unworkable business model. There is no way in the current environment to make money without these kind of ludicrous conditions. They should be taken back by the government and the data made freely available as it is in the US.

  • Comment number 31.

    Your blog has widened the circle of those aware of problems with the re-use of public sector information, particularly geographic information. That is important and timely.

    However, we shouldn't just portray this as a battle between two titans - Google and OS. In reality, there are other ways that crime maps and the implementation of Show Us A Better Way competition ideas can be displayed on the web. Google Maps just happens to be the most common and well used interface.

    The underlying problem is all about OS. They have an anachronistic business model which restricts many ways that GI data can be used even when other public bodies have collected the base information. The local authorities and police are bound by their contract with OS - a major contract worth almost 20% of OS's revenue. OS have consistently refused to slacken their control over the use of what they define as derived data. OS's terms are take it or leave it, and, since much of the data was collected before full electronic mapping was established, OS's terms lock the user in to OS as a supplier.

    Time really has come to think of ways to bring OS into the era of Web 2.0. Government may see this as a technology squabble, but they need to dig deeper into OS's anti-PSI stances to correct the problem.

  • Comment number 32.

    Two things are missing from this debate so far:

    (1) How much of OS is or isn't paid for by 'the taxpayer'?

    (2) Were 100 per cent taxpayer funding to be resumed, what would be the net annual cost to the taxpayer?

    Re (1): All OS 'data collection costs' were covered by the taxpayer up to about 1965, and a considerable part of the OS's databank consists of information originally gathered before 1965 - some as far back as the 1840s, though more recent 'validation' means that it is of quite recent currency! Up to about 1965 map prices were based on recovering only the cost of printing and distribution, and did not include anything for any 'intellectutual property' element. From about 1965 onwards the OS was obliged by central government to recover an ever increasing proportion of the annual cost of survey, revision and (latterly) database maitenance, and 'full cost recovery' finally seems to have been achieved in the autumn of 2006. It follows from this that the extent to which any particular element of OS data has been 'paid for by the taxpayer' depends on when it was surveyed, and what maintenance it has been subjected to since: not the easiest of sums to do!

    Re (2): OS annual income at present is of the order of GBP 110 million. As previous contributors have noted, other central government departments, local government, and bodies such as the police and emergency services are big customers of OS data. As all these are funded by national or local taxation, the 'headline figure' of 110 million includes a substantial amount which has been contributed by these taxpayer-funded agencies. Various figures scattered about OS annual reports, contributions to the Guardian's Free Our Data Campaign, and elsewhere suggest that, were 100 per cent taxpayer funding to be reverted to, i.e. the pre-1965 funding model, the net annual cost to the Treasury would be of the order of about GBP 60 million.

    What it comes down to is this. Those arguing for OS to be 100 per cent funded by the taxpayer, and the whole apparatus of licences, etc, to be swept away, need to be able to demonstrate convincingly that the additional business activity would generate at least GBP 60 million in Corporation Tax. Corporation Tax is, I think, 20 per cent, so that means GBP 300 million of activity by firms in the UK. This is of course peanuts compared even with normal government spending, never mind recent bank rescues, but the Treasury is bound to ask why a guaranteed system that covers the costs of an organisation that has now been around for so long that it would be politically nigh-impossible to abolish it, should be replaced by a system depending on generating a certain amount of Corporation Tax.

  • Comment number 33.

    It's funny that Ordnance Survey forgets to mention that they get paid several million pounds a year for the privilege of using OS intellectual property. They obviously like playing the injured party ("big American company walks all over lovely British institution") but the reality is very different. There is no British company that pays as much into the OS coffers as Google does.

  • Comment number 34.

    This a mapping mess...

  • Comment number 35.

    In the future, when there are updates...use BOLD and or highlight the information.


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