The Changing Face of UK Geo Data ... But Changing With a Bang or a Whimper?

This is not the blog post I set out to write. The one I set out to write was about Flickr, about machine-tags, about noticings and about transport data feeds. I had it all mapped out in my head during one of those wide awake in the middle of the night and your mind's buzzing moments. But as I started to research the blog post that I had set out to write, it mutated.

So with the caveat that I'm well aware that I'm making a sweeping generalisation whilst simultaneously doing a large disservice to a lots of specialist UK data providers ... 

Until recently, if you wanted a source of geo data in the UK you had three choices.

Choice One. Go with one of the big global players, who primarily specialise in the personal navigation market. You could go with the chaps with the blue and white mapping cars, Navteq, who were acquired by Nokia in December 2007. Or your could go with the chaps with the orange and white mapping cars, TeleAtlas, who were acquired by TomTom in July 2008. The pros? Great global coverage, maybe lacking slightly outside of the traditional US heartland. The cons? It comes at a price and with a whole set of derived data and associated licensing restrictions.

Choice Two. Go with OpenStreetMap, the freely available, user generated, maintained and contributed wiki-map of the world. Launched in 2004 and contributed to and supported by invididuals, and by companies such as AND and Yahoo! OpenStreetMap is the antithesis of proprietary licensed geo data and offers an open licensed data set downloadable at a variety of granularities. The pros? Ever expanding coverage and freely and openly available. The cons? Dependent upon the OSM community and with limited coverage outside of urban areas when compared with competitors.

Choice Three. Go with The Ordnance Survey, the UK's national mapping agency, which covers the country in totality at more levels, representations and data forms than most people would ever need. The pros? Amazing coverage with resolution down to a few metres. The cons? One of the most restrictive data licensing regimes, claiming ownership of derived data and with often heavy handed enforcement.

But then, to clumsily paraphrase a certain 70's album ... and then there were five.

Choice Four. Go with The Ordnance Survey. Yes, you read that right. Earlier this month the UK Government announced that many of the Ordnance Survey's data products were to be made available as open data and for free download. Whilst it's not the complete opening that the Guardian's Free Our Data campaign has been, err, campaining for, it's a start. It's taken a while but as ex-OS and Google Geo Technologist Ed Parsons put it "Now why was that so difficult"?

Choice Five. Go with UKMap. This new UK geo data source, built from scratch the old fashioned, man on the street with pen, paper and GPS way, first surfaced early this year, launched at the British Computer Society in July 2009 and was at the Society of Cartographers Summer School in September 2009. Whilst not free, not open and not even with total UK coverage, UKMap is the first major player in the UK geo data market since OpenStreetMap launched in 2004.

So here's the questions that have yet to be answered. Who does UKMap threaten? Is it a challenge to The Ordnance Survey's lucrative government, local authority, surveying and emergency service market. Will UKMap open up some of their data to challenge OpenStreetMap's position as the geo data source of choice for the geoweb developer community in the UK? Or will UKMap, The OS and OSM form an uneasy alliance for UK geo data? As 2009 comes to a close it's too early to say but 2010 will allow each of these valuable data sources to reposition and prove themselves as the geo data market grows and reacts to change.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user