Geographic Data that Should be Free (In All Senses of the Word)

The problem of the status of public service geographical data that we have discussed could be fixed by the Ordnance Survey simply declaring that certain categories of data are completely free for re-use even if they have been derived from OS maps.

My candidates for this are:

All government administrative boundaries – e.g. constituencies, wards, super output areas, health authorities, school catchments etc.

All point data for the location of public service outlets – e.g. schools, hospitals, public toilets, daycare centres etc.

I can’t think of any good reasons why such data should not be declared as free for re-use in all senses of the word, i.e. that no license fee should be payable but also that no restrictions should be placed on how it is re-used so we stop worrying about Google Maps terms and conditions etc. for this class of data.

The major advantage in doing so is that anyone who wants to experiment with this data, both inside and outside government, is able to get on with innovating without having to worry about legal problems.

I could only see a potential disadvantage if this data brought in significant revenue for Ordnance Survey that they would then miss out on. I may be missing something, and please tell me if I am, but I can’t see there being a lucrative market for this basic public service location data.

So the balance of public interest here seems firmly in favour of making this data as widely available as possible. And this does mean lifting any cloud around licensing for re-use from it by declaring that derivation is not an issue in these particular circumstances.

Richard Allan, Task Force Chair



Filed under Enabler

15 responses to “Geographic Data that Should be Free (In All Senses of the Word)

  1. Census output areas (from which you can get constituencies, wards, super output areas, health authorities, at least as they were in 2001) are already free for “internal business use” so long as you have a free “click use” licence. So there is no income from those, unless more recent or more accurate data is required.

    We use the census area data in this way to estimate the relevant highway authority for a given location on It works for most locations, although census area boundaries are not quite the same as highway authority boundaries as the former tend to travel down the centre of roads.

    Google have updated their Terms again, today, and I’ve asked OS if that changes things…

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  3. Rob

    I agree that access to half of the digital geography of the country would be an improvement on zero access, but it’s only half of the answer.

    So I know a school catchment area, but I can’t calculate the density of dwellings that fall in that catchment? I know the location of a hospital but I can’t calculate the travel times to individual residences? I know the location of a daycare centre but I can’t generate a route and directions to the daycare centre?

    There is value in access to this data beyond just its display onto of Google Maps, as I’m sure the task force is aware.

  4. Bill Chadwick

    A distinction can be made between the provision of bulk GIS polygon data sets and the provision of georeferencing web services.

    For example, it should be easy for OS to provide a REST type web service to geocode a lat/Lon to a local authority. This would be an enabler for sites along the lines of FixMyStreet.

  5. Bill Chadwick

    We might expect the OS to provide online WMS map layers for use with Google/Yahoo/MS/OpenLayers/etc. web map APIs that show coloured, semi-transparent and bordered administrative UK areas.

  6. Robert Barr

    Richard, this is an eminently sensible idea however it is aimed at the wrong target. The Ordnance Survey business model was laid down, presumably by the Treasury, when the route towards Trading Fund status was laid. Essentially OS acts as a colonial power, capturing various bits of essential information infrastructure and exploiting it as a commercial resource to fund its existence. If anyone encroaches on the territory, the gunships (lawyers) are sent in.

    If we want boundaries to be in the public domain we need to fund and force the Boundaries Commissions to pay for the initial digitisation and they should then place the data on a public server, which could be run on their behalf by OS for a service fee. Because OS would be paid for the service they would have no need to sell the data, and if they didn’t offer value for money the service could be put out to tender to other providers.

    The cost of the service would be related to the cost of making the data available i.e. the cost of changing the database and maintaining the servers. Once this is in place the incremental cost of each additional user of the data is effectively zero. It makes a lot more sense than charging for the data which is expensive, cumbersome and limits the use of an effectively infinite resource.

    But why stop at boundaries? Street centre lines, all address points, perhaps even land parcel boundaries (I know, Land Registry not OS) could all be provided on the basis that those who cause the data to change are charged not those who use it. That ensures both a fair charge for the one off service (with some element for maintaining the servers) rather than speculative and counter productive attempts at deriving revenue from data sales.

    It works for the Land Registry and the Domain Registration System on the Internet, why not OS?

  7. Some excellent points here. These data sets primarily focus on public sector areas of local government, election information, health, and education. It makes great sense for these to be in the public domain. It’s analogous to the ‘open source’ model, which works well across information technology where it is applied.

    Perhaps there is something of the idea of the American model here; ‘usual’ data is free, but higher resolution data is at cost? For instance, if a company needed more precise, rather than overview data, it could purchase the costed version of the data.

    Further to these data sets, and in these ‘difficult times’, I wonder if there any other enablers. The obvious candidate is postcode areas/districts/sectors. These is currently prepared by different organisations to the OS, but still data sets that are fundamental to business processes of others. Information, that is key to the function of different and diverse organisations, becoming free and available, will spur business and activity onward.

  8. Christopher Roper

    Three cheers for these posts. Ordnance Survey does need to be funded, and the two wrong ways are: either a central grant from the Treasury; or sales of data with prices based on those that can be paid by a narrow professional market. One way or another, over the next five years, through the activities of Google, OpenStreetMap and others, the current OS business model will break down. Fee for service does seem to be the best way forward.

  9. It is possible for contributors to OpenStreetMap to collect a great deal of original data about geographic features, including roads, rivers, parks, building and letter boxes by primary survey using GPS and aerial photography. It is not, however, possible to gather administrative boundaries using these means. Some mappers gain clues about some boundaries by looking at who supplies the bins in the areas where they are surveying, but that only gives a partial picture. Others mappers use out-of-copyright OS maps dating from the 1950’s, but that is only useful where the boundaries has not moved in the mean time. It is sometimes possible to get a rough boundry by researching villages on the boundaries to see which authority the settlement is in but this doesn’t work in built-up areas and works poorly everywhere. One can ask a councillor, but they have a tendancy to pull out an OS map when one a wants to know details which is of course not allowed but how else is one meant to know? Even with these difficulties the OpenStreetMap project is collecting useful boundary information for the UK, but it is a strange way for citizens in a democracy to have to behave to get a usable source of information about their own political boundaries and many other countries make this boundary information available without charge. The UK government should release boundary information as a matter of urgency to support fundamental democratic processes and citizen activism. This dataset should include ward boundaries, borough, district, county and parliamentary constituencies and others as supplied by the OS in their boundary-line product ( The data should be released as public domain, not under some restrictive licence with complicated rules about what is and is not allowed designed to ensure that some people have to buy licences. The data should be avaiable at full resolution, not at some carefully crafted reduced accuracy, designed to make it unsuitable for professinal use. It should be possible to download fresh data from the web at any time without charge or restriction.

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  12. It is unarguable that core democratic and public administrative boundaries should be freely available for public use. In the short term the OS could earn some much needed goodwill by relinquishing its IPR in these boundaries and in the long term the boundary owners should ensure that they use source maps that will be free of IPR restrictions.

    The next area of contention will be the issue of OS IPR in the NLPG and NSG databases. These are national databases for all property and streets in the UK and the bedrock of local authority back office systems. Potentially they could be the source for a wide range of public GI projects but currently local authorities are prevented from providing any of their data for public re-use or display on Google maps if it originates from these systems.

  13. Gary F

    That would be a good start. Then they must go further and make all OS data free for all government business – councils, schools, NHS, police forces, etc. Government paying for government (or “the people’s”) data is poor use of tax payer’s money. Sure the data has huge value but it doesn’t need to be paid for by struggling councils, over budget police forces and so on.

  14. So what about roads? Public service, already paid for by taxpayer. Shouldnt we be allowed freely to know where these things we’ve paid for are?

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