[geo-discuss] article in guardian yesterday on geodata

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Fri Apr 8 10:38:54 UTC 2005

The awaited article from Sean Dobson came out in the Guardian yesterday. 
It was great to see quotes from everyone and the case well-put for 
opening geodata -- just too bad he didn't take up my suggestion to 
mention the forum next week!

Date: 20050307
Paper: Guardian UK
url: http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,1453293,00.html

Get mapping

As mapmaking becomes big business, citizen cartographers are creating 
free personal alternatives, reports Sean Dodson
Sean Dodson
Thursday April 7, 2005

The Guardian

In February, Google unfurled its latest big idea: an online map of the 
entire surface of the United States and Canada that you can search. 
Google Maps is simple, intuitive and free of charge. It links the mighty 
search engine to an inventory of postcode data, letting you scroll 
across almost an entire continent while searching for the nearest 
neighbourhood coffee shop. Americans can now use Google to search local, 
as well as global, net listings, and Google Labs' new RideFinder service 
even maps the location of moving taxi cabs.

Sadly, there are no plans to do the same to the streets of Europe just 
yet, but it could be just a matter of time. Not since the 16th century 
has the production and use of maps changed as rapidly as it is changing 
today. Real-time property information, the routing of business 
deliveries, and the technology underpinning 3G mobile services means it 
is boom time for cartographers.

For this we can thank the Clinton administration and its decision to 
descramble the global positioning system (GPS) in May 2000, which 
allowed the first civilian use of military satellites. Government 
mapping agencies have long used these satellites to produce 
three-dimensional sets of "geodata". In doing so, they exchanged the 
parallel universe of gazetteers and card files into a global topology of 
zeros and ones.

And so, almost unnoticed, mapping has become a massive global business. 
According to one independent estimate, the data supplied by Britain's 
Ordnance Survey (OS) adds an annual value of more than £100bn to the UK 
economy. Moreover, the digitisation of mapmaking means maps can be 
produced in far greater detail, and cease to be static objects. At their 
best, some maps, such as dashboard navigation systems, are now live 
events that constantly update people in a way paper maps never could.

Mapping systems are developing rapidly. Last week, Microsoft announced 
it is developing an application that will offer travel directions, 
details of traffic conditions and live images of destinations to mobile 
devices — a world away from a carefully folded piece of paper.

This five-year boom of digital cartography means more than big business. 
Maps also shape our view of the world. The art of mapmaking predates the 
written word by several millennia and provided humankind with the first 
opportunity to read and write. When our maps change, our world view changes.

About the time of the French Revolution, the science of cartography 
became a responsibility of government and a duty of the military (hence 
Ordnance Survey). But the compass has revolved 360 degrees, and a 
combination of the internet, cheap computers and even cheaper GPS units 
promises to turn ordinary citizens into mapmakers once more.

It is tempting to call it the march of amateur mapmakers: armed with 
cheap satellite-tracking handsets, teams of civilian surveyors are out 
in the field recording casual journeys and sharing geodata with each 
other to produce their own maps. Their aim is to build a set of people's 
maps: charted and owned by those who create them, which are as free to 
share as the open road.

There are at least a dozen free maps in Britain. The London Free Map, 
for instance, covers 30 sq miles of the capital. Compared with the A-Z 
it is no more than a skeletal sketch, but one that is developing 
swiftly. And because anyone in London can make and maintain the map, it 
has the potential to become even more useful. You can't, for example, 
find a map of the best pubs in London in the A-Z. With the London Free 
Map, however, you can. Other free maps — for towns and cities, such as 
Banbury, Birmingham, Bristol and even Wokingham in deepest Berkshire — 
are also being built by amateur teams of community cartographers.

Steve Coast, a London-based programmer, is making a free map of his own. 
It's easy, he says, just a matter of placing a GPS handset in your 
pocket and going for a stroll. The ideal time is between 7 and 9pm, when 
three satellites are overhead and GPS coverage is at its peak. "Even 
with a cheap £25 handset, the accuracy is about 10 metres," Coast 
explains, "roughly the same width as an average street."

To get more extensive data, he cycles around central London, taking 
alternative routes where he can. When he gets home, he connects his GPS 
to his laptop and the handset uploads the latitude and longitude 
coordinates of his journey. He then posts the data on the internet and 
his peers share his routes and add to the growing database of 
information that communally is creating a free map of central London. 
But, he explains, there's still work to do. "You pick up the lines of 
the streets with a GPS, but someone has to manually input the street 
names," Coast says.

So why would anyone want to make their own map, especially when abundant 
geodata already exists? The main reason is cost — geodata is expensive. 
With the exception of the US and Denmark, all the world's major mapping 
agencies copyright geodata. In Britain, all government documents are 
controlled by crown copyright. The weblogs of community cartographers 
are calling for Britain to adopt a mapping strat­egy similar to the US, 
where the government publishes all non-classified documents in the 
public domain, including highly accurate geodata.

And although it might take the fun out of community cartography, many 
think that the OS of Ordnance Survey should, in fact, stand for open source.

"In the US, you can download road segments for most of the country, 
literally gigabytes upon gigabytes of road data," says Schuyler Erle, 
co-author of forthcoming book Mapping Hacks. He thinks there is a hard 
economic argument to be made for open geodata: "Over the next few years, 
the economic benefits of freely available, high-precision geographic 
data will be amply demonstrated. Free markets rely on the flow of 
information, and anything that provides better information to market 
players, consumers and businesses alike, makes that market more efficient."

So why now? "The art and science of cartography have traditionally been 
the sole domain of a few experts, people with advanced degrees in 
geography or cartography," says Erle. "Because of the advantages in 
computing power, suddenly cartography has gone from a read-only medium 
into being a read/write medium."

Although government-owned, OS has transformed itself into a cutting-edge 
public sector trading fund. Last year, it turned over £116m and added a 
surplus of £5.4m to the exchequer's purse. OS does this by licensing 
mountains of geodata to local councils, schools and businesses. The 
financial question posed by the rise of community cartography is whether 
opening up UK geodata would provide an even greater boost to the UK economy.

"There's a huge issue of quality assurance," says OS's Scott Sinclair. 
"We make an average of 5,000 changes to the database every day. It's 
very high quality data and someone has to pay for that. If you were to 
give that data away, you would have to change the business model and the 
only alternative would be a tax-funded model."

According to Jo Walsh, co-author of Mapping Hacks, mapping agencies face 
greater uncertainty in the long run. In her essay, What to do if your 
government is hoarding geodata, she says maps are an "an essential 
public service … along with roads, streetlamps and schools … But mapping 
agencies are squeezed by commercial pressures; because they have a clear 
potential revenue model, they are liable to be privatised.

"Citizens who paid handsomely in taxes for the initial data collection 
now pay to have it sold back to them piecemeal, without access to or 
means to contribute to the raw data from which the maps are generated."

Ordnance Survey continues to develop its OS Master Map, described as the 
"definitive digital map of Great Britain". This map is so detailed that 
it can display individual bay windows on houses. But an even more 
detailed map is under discussion in Strasbourg.

The Inspire Directive, adopted by the European Commission in July, aims 
to establish a "spatial information infrastructure in Europe". 
Essentially, it is the stitching to bind all the geodata from each of 
the EU's national mapping agencies. If the directive becomes law, every 
house, lamp-post, phone mast, roundabout, river, mountain — you name it 
— will be connected with data on transport networks, names of places, 
postcodes, population statistics and environmental indicators.

Critics are already arguing that the directive gives too much power to 
central government agencies, and will impose huge and unnecessary costs 
that will benefit the state rather than ordinary citizens. But if the 
Inspire infrastructure comes into being, it could even rival the mighty 
VMAP1, classified by US intelligence as the most detailed map ever drawn.

It takes only a small leap of the imagination to consider an even more 
detailed map in the future. Such a thing has long existed in fiction — 
Lewis Carroll invented a map whose scale was a mile to a mile in his 
short story Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.

It was, so the story goes, never unfurled: "The farmers objected: they 
said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!"

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