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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Private vs Public Mapping

There is a very interesting story in the Guardian about the rise of Google and fall of Ordnance Survey (OS) in mapping for the public sector. I suspect the picture in the private sector is even grimmer for OS.

For as long as I can remember, I have always thought that the price of OS hard copy maps has been overpriced. I think that OS also seems to have missed out on a huge opportunity to digitise the data and make it available on the net for a reasonable price to the public. It is hardly surprising that Google is steeping into the void with an ad-funded model, albeit currently subsidised by annoying little search adverts.

OS is effectively the government’s preferred cartographic service owned by the Great British Public. In the 2005/6 OS accounts turnover was £118m with a surplus of £5m. OS had net assets of £60m. As far as I am aware no direct subsidy is provided and OS instead relies on trading to keep the wolves from the door.

Of course, the Guardian being the Guardian has a socialist view on the brewing troubles – make the data opensource and fund OS by general taxation. However, I have a more simple market-based solution – privatise Ordnance Survey and run periodic Dutch auctions for the any data collection which is still deemed necessary by the government or local authorities.

I suspect that many of the OS current problems are going to impossible to address whilst it remains as a slow moving quango – the likes of Google will always run rings round it commercially.