Free Our Maps (well, in the UK anyway)

[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 It should be much better for rural areas than Gmaps… [/UPDATE]

I’ve been reading the Free Our Data blog for a while now. The Free Our Data campaign is organised by the Guardian’s Technology supplement to free public access to data about the UK and its citizens.

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.

5 Responses to Free Our Maps (well, in the UK anyway)

  1. paul c 8 November, 2006 at 11:50 pm #

    Indeed, you are spot on. Geographic data should be available for use without prohibitive license fees being payable. The only problem is the funding for the bodies which maintain the primary data… The Ordnance Survey makes a fortune in licensing fees but equally spends a fortune on its various roles; for example, the OS not only manages the primary map data for the UK but undertakes research into most if not all aspects of mapping, survey and other relevant technologies (see their research pages for more details) and there is an obvious danger that such activities would suffer if their funding is not guaranteed.

    For archaeology, there are various sectors of the broader discipline which already have access to most if not all of the complete range of maps from the OS. Those in higher education (at subscribing institutions) can access the Edina Digimap service which offers everything including historic maps ,all scales of modern maps and other geographic datasets. Local authorities generally have access to various maps often now including mastermap but often the historic maps too. Similarly, English Heritage and I imagine other similar bodies have a complete set of OS data. I appreciate the licensing arrangements are restrictive in terms of reuse and provision of data to third parties, but it is certainly possible in certain circumstances; perhaps what is needed is more cooperation and flexibility with licensing…? Or the government to find a way of increasing funding to the necessary bodies to compensate for the loss in revenue so the maps can be free to all; they’ve managed it in the United States after all, where geographic information is free to all.

  2. Andrew Larcombe 9 November, 2006 at 4:06 pm #

    I saw the OS ‘OpenSpace’ API being demo’d at the recent UK geospatial mashup event. Sadly it looks as though the license is likely to be more restrictive than Google’s in that it’s limited to ‘non-commercial’ use only. What the definitions of non-commercial are, are AFAICT, not finalised yet.

  3. Tom 9 November, 2006 at 4:31 pm #

    That’s a shame. It sounded promising from the sketchy details on The definition of “non-commercial” could indeed be a grey area, especially if you work for a charity that operates in the commercial sector like many archaeology units…


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