[geo-discuss] article in guardian yesterday on geodata
rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Fri Apr 8 03:38:54 PDT 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!
Paper: Guardian UK
As mapmaking becomes big business, citizen cartographers are creating
free personal alternatives, reports Sean Dodson
Thursday April 7, 2005
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!"
More information about the geo-discuss