Is OS MasterMap really going to be open?

Ordnance Survey MasterMap is to be released, for free, as open data it was announced in the 2017 Autumn Budget. Woo-hoo, right? Hold your horses, Tim.

The announcement is rather unclear, but my understanding from news articles is that it will be released as open data under an Open Government License, which means anyone can use, remix, and republish the data at no cost – even businesses. That’s the best case scenario, at least, and a big deal if it happens. But the announcement is unspecific in several aspects.

What’s unclear about the announcement:

  1. It says: “the government will work with the Ordnance Survey (OS) and the new Commission, by May 2018, to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular.”

    Under an open data license like OGL, there is no way to explicitly limit it to “small businesses in particular.” An open data license like OGL is all or nothing. That is the point. It makes things concrete, explicit and clear. This announcement is none of those things.

    I would lik'e to think the point they are trying to make is that, under current arrangements, only large businesses can afford MasterMap, thus by making it open, small businesses (and everyone else) will be able to afford it, too. I don’t think they are making that point, though.

  2. They say they will release it “under an Open Government Licence or through an alternative mechanism”. Through an alternative mechanism? Now that’s cause for a raised quizzical eyebrow, is it not? If it’s through an alternative mechanism then it might not be a true open data offering at all. It’s all a bit fishy. Why the equivocation?

  3. They say that OS and the new Geospatial Commission will work together “to establish how to open up freely the OS MasterMap data”. How is the key word there. They’ve not worked out what they’re doing yet, what they’re opening or when. Hmm.

  4. What happens after two years when the £40m a year is spent? How does OS recoup the inevitable loss of income should the data become freely available? Mapping is like tending a garden: it’s never ending and requires resources. Where are those resources going to come from?

I don’t think this wooly positioning is accidental. I imagine there’s a debate behind the scenes between OS, et al. and this new Geospatial Commission (or key actors that will form it). OS almost certainly want to keep charging big business for the data because they make a lot of money doing so, which is no bad thing as it sustains them and big business should bloody-well make a contribution (especially seeing as they so often struggle to contribute via regular taxation routes – poor things). On the other hand, the Commission want to make the data open so small businesses – and others – can access it. These are two incompatible positions. They’ll have to spend considerable time bashing heads between now and May 2018 to iron out that all important how.

My guess would be that they make a limited subset of the data open, but not all of it, thus protecting the Tory manifesto promise, but also hedging the offering so OS are able to go on charging for some of it. Even if that’s the case, something is better than nothing, despite the result not being entirely what we were originally promised. Ah, politics.

The ODI is talking up this announcement, which is a good thing. It’s putting the pressure on Government to deliver something equitable and sustainable for both OS and the people, which can only be good for everyone. Ordnance Survey, on the other hand, is oozing equivocation in its announcement. In contrast to the ODI’s gushing welcome of the news, Nigel Clifford, Ordnance Survey Chief Executive, sounds stiff at best. He finishes with a paragraph that reads distinctly like a negotiation stance:

Above all we will continue to maintain the high-quality data our customers expect and ensure we remain a mapping agency with data and expertise fit for the future.

I’m imagining some weary editor had to remove an emphatic or else! off the end.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and if the economic benefit of free mapping data for all is to be fully realised, someone has to pay. Roll on May 2018 for the real announcement, eh?

Update: Ed Parks has a more detailed analysis of the situation here. Worth a read.