Ed Parsons is the former chief technology officer of the Ordnance Survey, and one of the most knowledgeable people in the UK’s geospatial industry.

Before his much talked about departure last month, he was one of the central figures in the debate over the Ordnance Survey’s licensing regime – i.e., whether it should offer low cost access to mapping data to encourage the development of applications and mash-ups. He had also been pushing for the organisation to launch an API for non-commercial services and to adopt an open source model in some of its projects.

I caught up with him last week to find out more about internet mapping and his plans for the future…


What are you up to at the moment? Any interesting job offers?

At the moment, I’ve got a number of options. I’ve got my consulting business, which is to do with open geo-spatial technology – open source data and open source software.

Obviously, there have also been a couple of companies on the phone and I’ve been talking to them about possibilities, but I’m not going to be making any knee-jerk decisions. I’m in-between things.


Can you expand on what you would like to have achieved at the Ordnance Survey, but didn’t?

For me, innovation was one of the primary elements of the job, and trying to identify different ways of people exploiting geographic information.

Innovation took place within our partners and within uses of our data, so we needed to make that information as widely available and as easy to access as possible. There were huge struggles around that. The licensing regime at the Ordnance Survey was incredibly complex and still is, and is perceived as being expensive and difficult to use, and there’s probably quite a lot of truth in that.

So the biggest frustration for me was trying to get OpenSpace (the Ordnance Survey’s yet-to-be-launched API for non-commercial application developers) out there. We’d been working on that for well over a year and it’s sitting there on a server, ready to be opened up to people, but we couldn’t manage a licensing regime where we could make that available to people.

It may come at some point in time, I don’t know. But I think it would have helped enormously in starting to innovate in our partner community and make more applications appear, in the same way that we saw a huge blossoming when the Google Maps API came out.


How did you want it to be licensed – who would you have liked to have had access?

Well, the aim was to make it available to individuals and under non-commercial terms, so there would be no commercial exploitation of it.

If there was a commercial opportunity, part of what OpenSpace was about was identifying potential partners the Ordnance Survey could then work with and get a commercial return from. So it wouldn’t have been that different to how Google and Microsoft license their APIs.

The idea was that OpenSpace was to be a kind of kindergarten for our partners. A lot of partners don’t get to ‘step 1’ – they don’t get access to the data in the first place.


What was the problem then?

Well, the Ordnance Survey has in the past year been under an awful lot of external criticism – various elements of sort of bad press in The Guardian, then there was the analysis done by the Office of Fair Trading.

There was a lot of focus on the Ordnance Survey and I guess our legal teams were tied up doing other things which were deemed to be more important.

Also, I guess it was something new, something different - something very different from the Ordnance Survey, so it was always down on priority lists. It may come out in the future, who knows?


Now you’ve left, can you lay out your stance on the debate about whether the Ordnance Survey’s geographic information should be more freely available?

Well, as far as the big picture is concerned, I’ve always been clear that the model where the user pays for geographic information is the right one.

As much as in my heart, I would like geo-spatial data to be free of charge to everybody – the American model – I could never put my trust in government to see geographic information to be enough of a priority to maintain the level of funding that is necessary.

Everyone draws comparisons with the US, where the information is available at no cost to citizens, but very little funding is made available to the US’ equivalent of the Geological Survey. That means the mapping is out of data and really is not fit for purpose. The data that is free in the States tends not be used, and people like Microsoft and Yahoo! have to use commercial data anyway, so are they really that much better off?

There is an argument that if you can make data available to people for very little money, it is easier for them to develop ideas and be innovative. That, I can see. So if the Ordnance Survey could identify ways of freeing up licensing to make people see the value of the information more easily, the world would be a better place.

If the API was launched, the point of entry would be lower. Commercial deals would probably come at the end, but it would allow you to start the process.

At the moment, people just can’t take that first step, because if you want to take a developer license with the Ordnance Survey, you have to pay £500 and  expose your business plans, which, quite rightly, many individuals and organisations don’t want to do.


So if the government guaranteed that for the next 50 years, the Ordnance Survey would be funded at an appropriate level – and the government would get its money back through the tax returns from all the new services that would be developed – would you agree to the data being made available for free?

As I say, conceptually, and in my heart, that would be the best solution. But if you can get The Treasury to sign and guarantee anything, you are a better man than I am. I’d be surprised, although the argument there is probably a valid one. It would increase tax returns that would pay for itself. But this is about politics, not economics.

Political imperatives will always dictate that politicians will spend their money not necessarily based on economics. How much of your road tax goes on funding roads?


How did you feel on the day you left? Were you relieved?

An element of it was relief. Also disappointment – there are some fantastic people that work there.

Everyone there wants to see geographic information used more widely, but they’re in a box and it’s hard to break out of. So there were definitely mixed feelings. Part of me was sad to be leaving a group of really bright individuals, but there was an element of me being free of that now and perhaps I could influence the Ordnance Survey from outside more than I could from inside.

The Ordnance Survey is vital to the success of Great Britain, so I wouldn’t want to see it broken up or split or privatised or something nasty. So I haven’t left and said, ‘right, I’m going to destroy the Ordnance Survey’.


What would be your advice to a web start-up currently looking around for geographical information to add to their site or develop mash-ups? What are the different sources of mapping data good for?

Well, it depends what the actual needs of their business are and what types of mapping they need, but you can’t go wrong by playing with the likes of Google, Microsoft or Yahoo! to get an idea of what you need.

Also, don’t be put off by the bad press the Ordnance Survey has had – you can talk to them and they aren’t as expensive as people perceive them to be. Perhaps Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are your foot in, and you can then talk to Ordnance Survey. Also look at some of the open source data that’s around now as an alternative.

You have to shop around and accept that you will perhaps have to bring in data from different places.


Do you have an opinion on which has better coverage of the UK, out of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft?

They are all probably much of a muchness. But it’s interesting that in the UK, the most popular mapping sites are still probably people like Multimap and Streetmap. They are more specific to UK content, and familiar with it.

The cognoscenti probably speak more about Google and Microsoft, but the reality is probably that most people are using Multimap and Streetmap. It will be interesting to see what those organisations do from a developer’s standpoint.


Do you see


and other open source projects becoming a useful resource for developers?

Absolutely. Within a couple of years, they will probably have a complete streetmap of Great Britain, and I guess it remains to be seen whether that can be maintained, but certainly it’s good enough for any cartographic purposes.

I don’t see TomTom adopting it in its navigation systems in the near future, but I wouldn’t say it was impossible in the long term.


Did you ever suggest that the Ordnance Survey do something similar?

I did. Certainly, some of the smaller scale data that the Ordnance Survey maintains – one of the ways you could do that is through open source. Maybe someone in the future will go down that route. You could see Ordnance Survey data supplementing OpenStreetMap in an open source way, but it wasn’t one of the ideas that was particularly picked up on.


What kinds of commercial opportunities do you think there are around open source in the mapping sector?

I think OpenStreetMap is doing a fantastic job in a particular niche – a street database – and there’s massive potential to build commercial models around it. I also think there’s a lot of potential in community-generated data of other sorts.

Here we are in the Slug and Lettuce in Putney – I kind of knew where it was but I didn’t know what it was like and how good it is. So if we could build tools and services that could collect that kind of information from real users and make it available on multiple channels, there would be huge value.

That’s the sort of information that commercial or government organisations that collect data would have great difficulty in capturing and managing. If you want to know about a bar in Putney, the Ordnance Survey is the last place you would go to. But nonetheless, it’s really useful information.

In location based services, there is a class of data called points of interest. For example, where is the nearest cashpoint? Where is the nearest Indian restaurant that specialises in North Nepalese cuisine?

At the moment, those data sets are produced by commercial companies, people like Thomson and Michelin. They basically farm other commercial databases. But they tell you little more than the name and address. Also, high streets change quickly, and locals are the best people to keep that information up to date.


What do you think has held up location based services so far?

For me, all the components are there – multiple wireless access, smartphones, and many of the phones have GPS in, and increasingly they will all have GPS in because legislation demands it.

You have all the building blocks there. But what has been restricting it is the business model. Most of the operators are still trying to manage it through walled gardens. If you buy a Vodafone contract phone, all the services that come to you will be provided by Vodafone and if you want to go outside, it will cost you much more.

It harks back to the days when AOL tried to manage the internet as a walled garden, and in those days you didn’t see a lot of innovation – the eBays and Googles and Myspaces. I think you will see the same in the mobile space – it will need to become an open platform for location based services to take off.