PR -260 years ago, as Bonnie
Prince Charlie’s defeated Jacobite army scattered across the Scottish
highlands, King George III sent a mapmaker called William Roy to chart
the caves and crofts, hills and glens where they might be found.
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
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
“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.