[UPDATE] It looks like the Ordnance Survey are going to be releasing maps in a Google Maps style interface / license with an API. See the “Ordnance Survey mash-up takes on Google Maps” article on Silicon.com. It should be much better for rural areas than Gmaps… [/UPDATE]
On March 9 2006 the Guardian’s Technology supplement carried an article called “Give us back our crown jewels”. The argument is simple: government-funded and approved agencies such as the Ordnance Survey and UK Hydrographic Office and Highways Agency collect data using our funds, but then charge users and companies for access to it.
That restricts innovation and artificially restricts the number and variety of organisations that can offer services based on that most useful data – which our taxes have helped to collect.
So how does this affect archaeology? We rely on maps. We need them to survey, we need them to record where we find things, and we need them to publish where things are. Archaeology is always short of money. It’s also the lowest paid graduate profession in the UK (but that’s for another post). We all have to license Ordnance Survey mapping, which we all have to pay for (most of the time) and come with restrictive licenses on how you can and cannot use them. We certainly can’t use street level mapping on our website as that data just isn’t affordable.
There are movements afoot to address this issue, however, and the Free Our Data blog is chronicling them as they happen. Some methods involve lobbying government bodies, some methods involve gathering volunteers to help make open source streetmaps, and others want to free the postcode.
An interesting way of getting postcode data (the postcode database is owned by the Post Office), is to use out of copyright maps, and allow people to plot known locations onto it with their modern postcode. The “New Popular Edition Maps” website is one such website that are helping the cause. If the house that you live in, or your workplace, were around in the 1940s, find them on the map, click on them, and add their postcode.
Apart from creating our own, what are the alternatives? Google Maps is often used, but the way it is licensed is still quite restrictive. Despite popular belief they’re not totally “free”. You are bound by a usage agreement that says how you may and may not use them, and they’re only “free” for non-commercial use. But it’s a start, nonetheless.
It’s just a shame that data owned by the government (OS mapping and postcode locations) aren’t available to the people who paid for it all in the first place. It’s a very complicated issue, and one I hope will be addressed in the near future.