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There is no point in having great content and then not liberating it

Nigel Clifford, CEO, Ordnance Survey

OS is bridging the gap between large companies, who have got GI experts and where there is a lot of innovation, and smaller organizations and individuals, who got ideas but don’t know quite how to start and access the data

How is Ordnance Survey achieving the remarkable feat of making several updates every minute about the changing landscape of the United Kingdom?

It is quite a complicated chain of activities that starts with change happening in the real world and our job is to capture that change and make it as real-time and as quick as possible. We do that in several different ways. The most traditional is that we have 270 surveyors, who go out in the country and each of them have a series of tasks for a day which will be sweeping their particular patch. We also use aerial imagery and have a couple of aircrafts that are constantly flying and capturing ground imagery when the weather permits in the UK.

We collect the geospatial data ourselves, but we work closely with others in our addressing work. For instance, we work with our local government colleagues, where they have information from electoral registers or community charge departments about changes to address data. We also work closely with local government when it comes to spotting changes. What we are most particular about is maintaining authoritative quality — how do you signal the quality level of the data that we are presenting to our customers.

OS is much more than the traditional maps. What are the other location-based products OS produces?

There are different layers starting with the base layer or the master map, which is the core description of Great Britain. Then we have different layers that we can put on that, such as water or transport layers, that allows people to use most uncluttered or pure view of the world that they need for their particular purpose. We also have other products that we can portray, such as points of interest, like banks, hospitals, supermarkets, addresses — which is a very significant part of what we have in the 40 million addresses.

I think the most interesting part we are developing now is individual components. Rather than the maps being topographic or one on water, we break them into individual components like walls, hedges, fields and boundaries, so those can be used by different agencies. For instance, our farmers need to have a very clear view of the scope of their land to obtain farm subsidies. OS helps the agencies that are responsible for sending out those payments by ensuring that we have got the most accurate view of their land which takes into account the individual components where you can get a clear view of the area being cultivated.

So you also have maps for consumer grade as well?

I think, last year, we sold something like 1.9 million paper maps and we are continuing to innovate there as well. OS is probably very well known for its paper maps. We have moved into digital representation as well. If you buy a paper map, you can also get a digital download inside it. So, for the same price you get both paper and digital. Consumer mapping is about 7% of our revenues and it actually grew last year.

How does OS provide its services to small business?
Ordnance Survey’s Geovation Hub is a well known centre for developers and development. This was an innovation we put together last July to bridge the gap between large companies, who have got GI experts and where there is a lot of innovation, and smaller organizations and individuals, who have got ideas but don’t know quite how to start and access the data. We are hoping that many of these ideas will move through the evolution recycle and move from innovators, entrepreneurs to real businesses generating real income. We have got some who are really making that transition, are raising money and have moved from being in their bedrooms to actually in their offices. So, this is one example of how we are supporting those small, budding businesses.

Any initiatives in providing map data as a service to small businesses?
Increasingly, I think it will be as a service very much like any other content business. We are looking with interest at Cloud, SaaS… buy per sip or buy per drink rather than having to buy the entire product. There will be more and more of that kind of innovation coming and more flexible licensing around that.

We have got a very clear and strong part to play across the spectrum. We have got 270 surveyors, making 10,000 changes every day. Our open data is used by a number of platforms. When data has to be absolutely right, you can’t do better than going to OS

Is OS also getting into business consulting to support small businesses?

No, I don’t think so. The support that we provide generally is pretty good online. We have got facilities where people can come and have a conversation. But in terms of that being a line of business for us, creating new businesses… not so much. Yes, we do have very active partner base, inside OS that helps bridge between the two organizations. We have got about 350 business partners. We are very active there, but we provide support as part of that relationship rather than as a big line of business.

How are you competing with commercial map providers?

Some of it is competition, some of it is partnering, some of it is supplying. If you look at the alternative mapping sources, then you will see they actually have OS data inside them. Our open data is highly attractive and is used by a number of these platforms. And when we are competing, the critical thing that we bring is that we have got 270 surveyors, making 10,000 changes every day. We have got a very clear and strong part to play across the spectrum, and when it is about life and death and when data has to be absolutely right, then you can’t do better than going to OS.

What is your take on the demand for making the mapping data free considering that OS functions as a limited company?

There is no point in having great content and then not liberating it. I think the number of geospatial answers that can be provided is growing exponentially, and we want to participate in that. We want to be an innovator and pioneer and to do that we want to work with innovators and pioneers who are also thinking what the next 10 years are going to bring in terms of change on the planet and how collectively, we can help people make sense of that change.

OS has three or four different funding streams as an organization. So we have contracts with the government as well as individual departments to provide a general mapping service, like emergency services, etc. Additionally, we have clients whom we are selling our products and services to. For instance, an insurance company which is looking at flood risk; it wants authoritative data about flood plain analysis and it is here we can help them. We have a partner community, where if they are successful, we are successful. And finally, we have a consumer market, which is about 5-7% of our revenue.

Therefore, we have a number of different ways of funding OS. It also relieves the pressure on the government from having to fund the whole of OS. They fund about 55-60% of our costs. This kind of a model also enables us to give some of the data for free. So, we have made money and we are also giving some of that back to the community. We will be doing more and more of free data release and thinking of different ways of doing so. We have unique model. It may not work for others, but it is certainly working here for us.