Roy’s name is now carved above the entrance of Ordnance Survey’s HQ in Southampton, the organisation that grew from his careful, accurate survey. By the 1790s, the Board of Ordnance was commissioning maps to hold off the threat of invasion from post-Revolution France and the armies of Napoleon, and the Ordnance Survey spent the next 200 years becoming an internationally recognised byword for mapping excellence.
Today, though, the modern successor of the Board of Ordnance is among those unsure that Ordnance Survey is maintaining the public service for which it was built. The Ministry of Defence, which “requires access to a reliable national database” to respond, among other things, to “civil contingencies and crisis response tasks” says obtaining information from OS has become more difficult since OS became a “civilian government body”.
The MOD told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that the “stringency and complexity” OS applies to use of its data has meant uncertainty about how it can be used. OS was taken out of direct government control in 1999 when it became a commercially operating Trading Fund. Since last year, it has been required not just to fund itself without taxpayers’ money but to return a profit (£7.9 million last year) to the Treasury.
The Committee, in a Report issued today [Saturday 2 February 2007] says OS must make the licences it offers its partners and competitors as simple, cost effective and user-appropriate as possible.
Committee Chair, Dr Phyllis Starkey said: “We are concerned that organisations charged with carrying out vital public services sometimes find OS’s licensing conditions too complex and inflexible.
“The fact the Ministry of Defence is uncertain what use it may make of the data it buys from OS displays some lack of clarity in the licences OS offers customers.”
The Committee calls on the Government to tighten public information regulations and recommends that OS distinguish as clearly as possible between the its functions as a national mapping agency and those it conducts as a commercial, profit-making body.
Although OS is best known for the detailed maps on sale in High Street bookshops, this is a tiny part of its business. The agency is responsible for creating the Great Britain master map, to which changes are made daily - sometimes up to 5,000 of them - as the landscape changes and areas are re-surveyed.
From this master map, OS derives both paper and digital products, including the famous Landranger maps, global positioning systems software and information sets such as address lists. But most of its revenue comes from licensing data.