By Joshua.Chambers

05 May 2012

The government is keen to give away public data in an effort to stimulate private business. But Ordnance Survey chief executive Vanessa Lawrence tells Joshua Chambers that it must also guard the golden egg-laying goose

In an age when many specialist organisations are run by generalist managers, it’s somehow reassuring that the Ordnance Survey (OS) chief executive is a career geographer who’s so enthusiastic about the topic that she collects antique maps in her spare time.

Vanessa Lawrence is the first female head of the publicly-owned mapping company, and giggles at the mention of her hobby, slightly put off guard. “Yes, I do,” she says: “I have lots of interests in my spare time but it happens that collecting antique maps and also going hiking are two of my passions in my private life.” This newspaper has limits on what it investigates and how, but cut Lawrence open and it’s likely that she would have the word ‘geographer’ running through her core.

Indeed, back in the 1980s, Lawrence wrote a report predicting that geography would become crucial to decision-making, particularly in government. “Along with revenue, time and cost, the ‘where’ question is very, very important,” she says. From calculating the best route for water pipes, to tackling fraud or understanding crime patterns, geographical information can be hugely helpful for the public sector. The tricky conundrum facing Lawrence’s organisation, however, is how much of its data to give away free to the wider economy – helping firms reap those same rewards but losing much-needed revenue for the trading fund, which reports to the Shareholder Executive in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Surveying the surveyors
Interviewing Lawrence is a bit like trying to steer an aircraft carrier; she is rather difficult to deflect from her intended course. Indeed, she even has maps, charts, and a bound and highlighted copy of a PowerPoint presentation defining her planned route, through which she flicks to relevant sections marked with well-thumbed sticky notes. “We’re very visual here at Ordnance Survey,” she explains. That said, as the interview continues, Lawrence starts to open up and the notes gradually get pushed to one side.

Her generally forthright approach is certainly paying dividends – literally. Last year, OS paid the Shareholder Executive £6.4m. And, as the organisation’s spiffy new Southampton headquarters suggest – its Eames-style chairs and acres of open plan space reminiscent of a Manhattan advertising agency – the publicly-owned company has a handsome turnover. Last year, it was £129.4m; this year, Lawrence is predicting more.

The company is best known for its paper maps, but they account for only seven per cent of the business, Lawrence explains – about £10m turnover a year. “However, they’re very important to us because everybody in Great Britain knows us through our paper maps,” she adds.

In fact, the OS flagship product is its MasterMap; this isn’t just an image but a full spatial database, she stresses. Simply put, it’s a constantly updated map of the United Kingdom in which every single feature, from manhole covers to front gardens, has a unique 16 digit code that allows other information – such as crime statistics or road works – to be set against it. In the movie The Matrix, the characters look at lists of numbers and see a whole world contained within them. The MasterMap – one example of a Geographical Information System (GIS) – helps civil servants do the same, enabling them to put dry statistics into the context of the real world.

While the MasterMap delivers about 85 per cent of Ordnance Survey revenues, OS also has other income sources. Working with local government and the Royal Mail, it maintains the official address system for Great Britain. Also, OS is the official correction authority for Global Position Systems (GPS), increasing the system’s accuracy by providing fixed points that give GPS users a triangulation point.

What does this mean for me?
Our civil service readers might be wondering how mapping affects their job – but OS works extensively with central government, Lawrence explains. For example, it works with the Department for Transport, mapping the most efficient routes for buses, and provides for all of the Ministry of Defence’s UK geographical needs.

Meanwhile, in the National Health Service, mapping provides a useful way of placing alcohol and drug rehabilitation centres where they are most needed and in accessible locations, she says. Also, some Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) have used postcode data to map the people registered with GPs against the number of properties in an area, discovering areas with far fewer people medically registered than there are residents. The PCTs then posted registration forms to unregistered residents, who are more likely to wait until a problem becomes acute before presenting themselves to the health service, missing opportunities for the better options of preventative work or early intervention.

GIS can also be used to tackle fraud, Lawrence says, a problem that – according to the recently published Government Fraud and Error Strategy – costs the public sector £31bn a year (p1, CSW 8 February). For example, geography has been used in the private sector to tackle motor insurance fraud by identifying misleading claims; and when combined with information from the Met Office, mapping can tell whether someone’s home really would have been damaged by strong winds or a storm.

In the case of freak weather conditions, OS has a team of 24-hour emergency mappers on standby, Lawrence says. While this may sound a little unnecessary when compared with, say, emergency doctors or emergency fire-fighters, it can save lives. A few years ago, one town’s emergency centre was flooded and rescuers were struggling to organise an evacuation, she explains. The dedicated team at OS provided geographical information directly to rescuers.

However, while GIS is clearly of great value to the public sector, Ordnance Survey doesn’t have a monopoly on it. For example, the Home Office recently published crime maps – but instead of using Ordnance Survey software, it plumped for less-detailed Google Maps instead. CSW understands that OS software wasn’t used because it was seen as trickier to code with, although a team at Ordnance Survey is working on usability issues.

Here’s the deal
All Ordnance Survey mapping information is free to public sector users, under the terms of the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA). Signed last April, it gives all agencies, local authorities, and central government departments the right to access OS datasets. “They can use it on their websites; they can produce products from it as long as they are for public service use; they can use it in literature; they can help communities build small applications with it; and schools can get the data too,” Lawrence explains. She adds that back in 2011, there were around 510 public sector users, but now the figure is put at 2,081.

Ordnance Survey does get paid for public sector usage. Its owners, the Shareholder Executive, negotiate on behalf of the company for a fee from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which then approaches all government departments seeking a contribution. Each department pays the same amount, regardless of how much data it consumes. In future, the negotiations and co-ordination will be with a Geographical Information Group, which will include representatives from departments, including the police, the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport.

In its work with the private sector, Ordnance Survey has to abide by some rules set by government. OS can’t crowd out the private sector, for example, by producing its own satnav systems. Instead, it licenses geographical information to private sector companies which then use it in their own work – from construction site mapping, to designing computer games set in real-world environments. This change has occurred under Lawrence, who says that when she took over in 2000, the private sector was not a major user of OS products. The growth in private usage began rather abruptly after 2009, when then-PM Gordon Brown made an announcement that would shake OS employees’ confidence in the future of their organisation.

Open data difficulties
Brown announced that Ordnance Survey would give away some of its data as part of an ‘open data’ initiative to boost the economy by allowing private sector companies to build businesses on the back of public sector information. “The prime minister made an announcement rather unexpectedly,” Lawrence explains. “I didn’t have any knowledge that it was to be made, and the minister of the day didn’t seem to either.” (Ian Austin of the communities department oversaw OS at the time.)

The OS, working with the Cabinet Office, had to “determine which products the prime minister intended to release; and then it was decided that, of course, we needed a financial settlement, because they were effectively buying out the intellectual property forever,” she says. “Once you give data away for free, you can’t put it back in the bottle – there would be persistent use, updates and commercial reuse, to stimulate innovation so that companies perhaps would start to develop products using this data.”

When Brown made his speech in November, staff thought it might threaten OS’s entire income, “because it hadn’t been a very specific announcement,” Lawrence says. Ultimately, “it took [ministers] until the end of February” to decide that Ordnance Survey should provide a third of its data for free by 1 April 2010, giving OS just one month to prepare.

Now, therefore, OS does provide a good chunk of its data and products to the general public without charge. This includes mapping for satnav systems: “Many [satnav companies] were paying us millions of pounds, but many of the products they required and used to pay us for are in the OS Open Data suite of free products now,” Lawrence says, somewhat ruefully.

The cost of open data
As readers will have sussed, Ordnance Survey is not particularly keen on the new government’s ‘open data’ agenda, nor the idea that yet more data should be given away to stimulate business growth (see news, p3). “There is a real cost to collecting this information accurately, and it would be important to understand how that cost will be borne going forward,” Lawrence says. “Now some people say to me: ‘Can’t [mapping] all be done by satellites?’ but they might notice that we have cloud in this country, so the answer is no. It took us something like ten months to get an image anywhere north of Newcastle that was cloud-free.” Given the need to constantly update maps, satellites cannot be relied upon to meet OS’s needs; the organisation has to employ teams of surveying staff on the ground.

The information gathered by Ordnance Survey is vital, she adds; perhaps even a matter of life and death. “If you buy a property in a new housing estate, you need to know that it’s on the MasterMap of Great Britain – not only for your land registration title, but also so that if you have a heart attack within a week of moving in, you can get an ambulance there.”

Lawrence is clear that the private sector could not be trusted to step in if Ordnance Survey didn’t do this work. “Great Britain is not actually profitable to map as a whole, but Ordnance Survey maps the whole,” she says, adding that the private sector is “only interested in mapping the urban areas for the professional market, or the most rural areas for the leisure industry.” Lawrence cites California as an example of free-market mapping. There, she says “there are several utility providers in the state and they each have to do their own base-mapping. They’re spending more than $20m (£12.6m) a year to create and maintain the data.” Further, they do not share the data between themselves, creating gaps in provision and duplicating costs unnecessarily. Ordnance Survey didn’t respond to the government’s open data consultation (p5, CSW 8 February) but it’s clear from Lawrence where it stands on the issue.

Recently, OS was placed in a nascent ‘Public Data Group,’ alongside the Met Office, the Land Registry and Companies House, but at present this group exists only to seek synergies between the organisations. The government is expected to set out its views on whether it should open up more public data sets soon, in a white paper that’s being developed by Cabinet Office transparency director Tim Kelsey.

Agile reactions
When Gordon Brown made his 2009 announcement on open data, OS staff had to move quickly to create an open access data set, and a website via which it can be accessed. Lawrence says that failure “could have ruined our brand overnight, so the system had to work”. The IT team used an iterative, piecemeal system of development called ‘agile’, which is now being adopted across Whitehall; and Lawrence is enthusiastic about the approach. “The IT team had an operational system through test within about a month,” she says, adding that the method “empowers the staff; they feel a part of the development; everyone knows what is their responsibility; and everyone knows that they mustn’t get distracted.” A particular benefit, she says, is that often only one member of the team has to attend bigger company meetings, while the IT team can get on with delivering their specific targets for each day.

Lawrence also enthuses about the professional improvement technique ‘lean’, which OS has been using since 2009. “Like many large organisations, we had organically grown with lots of different processes. What we started to do was map them to understand how they integrated with each other, and whether we had any places where there was significant overlap or a lack of ability to join up,” she says. “What became exciting was that, very quickly, we realised that making sure that lean underpinned everything we did not only drove efficiency but drove a happier workforce, because from the workforce’s point of view, making sure that there weren’t inefficiencies in their own systems just gave them a better rate of working” and removed unnecessary frustrations.

It’s the future
This year, as Olympic athletes win medals in front of the world, spare a little thought for OS surveyors, Lawrence says. They have mapped every water stopcock, every tree, every lamppost and every grate in Stratford, so that the security services have a detailed and accurate picture of the local landscape.
But in the future, there will be an even more accurate way of understanding a landscape. “All of the national mapping agencies are very clear that the next significant innovation is three-dimensional mapping. It’s the future, and absolutely that’s the direction of travel for Ordnance Survey,” she says.

That shift from 2D to 3D will see place-based budgeting and geographical information systems move a step closer to a Matrix-style model, under which statistics are no longer rows of numbers set out on spreadsheets but start to inhabit an environment of their own.

The possibilities are huge, but Lawrence perhaps shouldn’t be completely enthused by the prospect. After all, while digital 3D maps are the future, they aren’t as tactile or collectable as their old-fashioned, crumpled, 2D counterparts.


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