Ordnance Survey releases data, but stops short of radical change

The UK’s Ordnance Survey mapping agency has (almost) come to its senses and announced that it will allow non-profit making organisations and individual developers to display their own data on OS maps for free. The OpenSpace product makes maps available from the 1:1m outline of Great Britain, up to street level (1:10,000). It provides all the necessary functionality to interact with a map such as panning, zooming and adding markers and polygons.

The JavaScript API gives developers free access to OS mapping data for experimentation in web applications. The platform will be in closed alpha from the 14th but they are planning a beta release early in the new year. Until this point, charities and private individuals republishing OS data have been required to negotiate licences if they wanted to stay on the right side of the law. Now they will get it for free. This is great news for lone developers.

However, it is not great news for startups. The OS has “almost” come to its senses because there remains the issue that startups will not be able to create commercial businesses out of this data from the word go. Even though these are businesses from which the government could potentially extract tax revenues, again.

As the Guardian notes, last summer, a report commissioned by the Cabinet Office identified the lack of free data as a barrier to the knowledge economy. The Power of Information review said that “by virtue of their status as individuals or organisations wishing only to experiment, not build final products ready for market, they often do not have the resources to pay for expensive data”. The trouble is, the expensive data looks like it will remain expensive if you want to do a startup with it. Perhaps they think the word “economy” has nothing to do with money?

There is some small hope, however. At the moment the service is for non-commercial experimentation only, but the OS is expecting partners to provide a commercial version of the API in due course. Here’s hoping it will be affordable for startups.