Biggest Changes to UK data provision ever contemplated as OS MasterMap becomes free and open

The UK Government made its most important announcement ever today in relation to spatial data provision in the UK when it agreed that “key parts” of the Ordnance Survey’s MasterMap will be made openly available for the public and small-businesses to use.  MasterMap is the definitive detailed base map of the UK and until now has been the  OS’s closely-guarded crown jewels.  Coming remarkably quickly after the UK Government’s enthusiasm to set up a Spatial Data Commission, and a pledge  “to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular” in Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Autumn 2017 Budget, the Government is determined to “drive forward the UK as a world leader in location data, helping to grow the UK’s digital economy by an estimated £11 billion each year.”  The AGI welcomed this new initiative.

Of course, the devil is in the detail: not all of OS MasterMap will be given away for free.  The focus is on land and property, so it is property extents and topographic indentifiers (TOIDs) which form the basis of this announcement.  There is little doubt that a significant driver here is maximising the amount of land available for house-building.  Other datasets that will be made available for free up to a threshold of transactions through OS-managed APIs, effectively restricting free use to small businesses.  These components include Topography Layer (including building heights and functional sites); Greenspace Layer; Highways Network; Water Network Layer; and the Detailed Path Network.

In many ways the announcement is remarkable.  Reducing the cost of MasterMap was seen by many observers as the new Geospatial Data Commission’s most difficult task, yet the announcement comes almost before the Commission has been set-up and certainly before the Commissioners have been appointed.  It will change the way Ordnance Survey does business, taking away at least some of its main source of revenue and making it forever reliant on government funding.  The government has put aside £40 million per annum for the next two years to fill this gap; it remains to be seen how this will be funded in the longer term.  Given this seems to be a significant announcement at the start of the Geospatial Commission’s journey, there is a degree of excitement as to how this will develop over the coming years.  It comes down to economic benefit; if this benefit is proven and the UK economy is richer because of it, then there must be more to come.

Regardless, this development will provide an enormous boost for our students as they go out to work in a world where the costs of spatial data have dropped drastically, and gives genuine opportunities for them to create their own small businesses, based on free and open-source software and free data.  It also challenges those who have promoted the Open Street Map (OSM) project.  This crowd-sourced data generation project was undoubtedly one of the drivers which have led to the freeing-up of the OS MasterMap data, but its modus operandi in the UK is changed overnight.  The OSM project already had to adapt when the Labour Government under Gordon Brown decided in 2010 that OS should give away its small-scale data for the national good.  OSM adapted by increasing its scale to provide a free alternative to the more detailed data maintained by OS.  It will now have to adapt again and may become a niche product without a USP and never seen as definitive.



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