By Colin Marrs

04 Aug 2015

Ordnance Survey is learning to navigate a new digital landscape. But that doesn’t mean paper maps are folding for good, new CEO Nigel Clifford tells Colin Marrs

The origins of the Ordnance Survey (OS) can be traced back to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, after which a detailed map of the Highlands was commissioned to help quell troublesome clans. Theodolites from those earliest days are displayed proudly at the organisation’s state-of-the-art head office, which opened on the edge of Southampton in 2011. The contrast between the pre-industrial and the modern is striking – and symbolic of the challenge facing the new man at the helm of the organisation.

Nigel Clifford’s arrival at OS came just two months after its status changed from a trading fund to a government-owned company (GovCo). He joined from his previous role as chief executive of e-procurement firm Procserve Holdings, and has an impressive track record that includes a spell as senior vice president of Nokia and chief executive of mobile operating system company Symbian Software.

He says the status change gives the organisation more flexibility to act quickly in the marketplace, with most operational and policy decisions now devolved to the OS board, rather than having to be referred to Whitehall. The shareholder executive representative can still take decisions into government, though. “I think one of the phrases he uses is ‘novel and contentious’ – if we are discussing something that falls into that category then it would be entirely appropriate for that to be referred for a conversation at a higher level,” Clifford says.

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The structure, says Clifford, means he hasn’t experienced a huge culture shock after moving from industry into a government-owned body. “It is not that different to having a shareholder who is a private equity company, where you have got a representative on your board, but back at the ranch you have got fund managers and you have got analysts and operating partners, all of whom will have a view on how you do things. In both cases, there is a huge interest in what we do, a huge amount of negotiation and mediation in terms of threading the needle of what is the best thing to do,” he says.

On the day of our chat, Civil Service World is not the only media organisation visiting the OS offices. A crew from BBC One’s primetime magazine programme The One Show is filming a feature on a competition it ran to come up with 10 new symbols for the famous OS maps. Clifford says the interest in the competition shows the nation’s affection for his organisation’s most famous product. 

The depth of the nation’s feelings towards OS maps was demonstrated in 2014 by the furore caused by an article in the Daily Telegraph claiming that the paper product would be phased out. Clifford says there was no truth whatsoever in the suggestion. “That was a completely false story, but what was encouraging was the passion of other media and key stakeholders on how much they love paper maps,” he says.

The incident also highlighted one of the main issues facing OS – the rise of digital technologies, and where they leave organisations which grew up producing paper products. Clifford is keen to emphasise the complementary nature of the two formats. “Like Amazon, where you buy the CD and also get the MP3, now you can buy an OS map and you have got a code which means you can redeem the smart version.

“It is not an either/or world, and we recognise that sometimes it is very convenient to mark something up on a paper map, and that is what all the family can gather around. Other times you have got 10 minutes on the Tube and you want to plan your weekend or plan your journey there, and there is your opportunity to go and do it on your smart device.” Sales of paper maps rose above 2m last year, after years of decline, he stresses.

Digital is, however, gradually altering the make-up of the OS workforce, Clifford says. “We have 460m data points, and if we look inside the organisation, more and more people are focused on taking that data, connecting it with other data sets and then presenting that data in a digital format. So now we have multiple different ways of presenting the traditional ones and zeros which are in our repository.”

Most government organisations sit on a wealth of data, but Clifford – who graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Geography and is a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society – believes the OS is in a particularly privileged position. “Someone once said geography is the preface to human events: everything happens somewhere, therefore you can always tie things back spatially, even in the digital world.”

This, he says, has helped OS form powerful partnerships both within government and externally. “We operate across a world where we can argue an interest and people can argue an interest in us from any dimension.” One partnership has seen OS create a “bed-blocking” map combining OS and NHS data, allowing managers to see where pinchpoints are building up, and allocate bed space accordingly.

Another provides a tool for emergency services to deal with crisis situations. It allows the user to draw up a radius around an incident and immediately pull in other government data sets to guide the response. “Data can be used for anything from a possible earthquake to a zombie attack,” says Clifford. “You can bring in other government data sets like Office for National Statistics census data, so you could work out that, actually, we have got 200 addresses in there, the average age of the population is 80 plus, therefore we are not going to be able to evacuate these on foot, we are going to have to get some kind of transport in there. It just paints that picture.”

Under the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA), a 10-year deal which began in 2011, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills pays OS an annual fee on behalf of almost all public sector organisations. In return, the organisations can use mapping and postcode data. But Clifford says that the structure has a built-in “deflation factor” meaning a constant reduction in the amount paid. “So we have had to absolutely think hard about how we run this more and more efficiently.”

Despite this, OS has not faced the pressures experienced by most other government bodies – indeed, in commercial terms, OS is doing rather well. Its most recent annual report, released in June, showed that revenue in 2014-15 was up 1.7% over the previous year – from £144.2m to £146.7m. Operating profit reached £47m during the year, beating its target of £45.8m. In March, the dividend returned to government – OS’s single shareholder – was £21.0m, up 8.2% on 2013-14.

Clifford says that the remainder of the profits are put to one side to enable the organisation to look at capital investments or joint ventures. However, the move to a GovCo model will mean that, in future, OS will be liable to pay tax, meaning a greater benefit for central government in future, but less of a surplus for Clifford to play with.

Decisions on the release of OS data are finely balanced. More than 350 businesses pay to license its data, while other information is released for free. “It is a discussion that is constant around here,” says Clifford. “How do we stimulate the market by releasing appropriate levels of open data which can be used, but do that in a way which still maintains the value for those organisations that themselves are going to turn it into a commercial product?”

Clifford certainly favours the partnership principle, and doesn’t see OS building enough internal capacity to become a competitor to the Apples and Googles of the world. He says: “There are limits to how much you can do, and therefore partnering with others is wise, because you increase innovation, you increase touch points out there in the community, and you increase learning because you get more touch points talking to you. 

“I think working closely with partners also helps because you are then getting far more pulls from different directions for your data and you can start thinking about, ‘well, how do we mould and manipulate it for different uses?’”

Such collaboration also extends internationally. In 2013, OS announced a five-year framework agreement with the Survey and Land Registration Bureau of the Kingdom of Bahrain, covering a number of projects including long-term strategy. “We can’t talk about them, but we do have a pipeline of discussions in other countries,” says Clifford. “It is a competitive world, so just because you are having a discussion that doesn’t mean it is going to fall into your lap; you have got to compete. But there is a good set of options out there at the moment.”

Two years ago, OS took a 51% stake in aerospace start-up Astigan in a partnership with technical experts to research new ways of collecting data from remote areas. And Clifford says he would not rule out investment in similar ventures in future. “OS has always been at the leading edge of technology. There are going to be opportunities to get an insight into what is coming down the pipeline through strategic partnering or incubating companies. We need to ask where we can do so to maintain an authoritative picture of the British Isles by investing now.”

One form of incubation is OS’s recently launched “Geovation” hub, which will offer support to budding developers and entrepreneurs dreaming up creative geospatial solutions to everyday problems. The hub, based in an old industrial building in London’s Clerkenwell, will provide onsite access to OS experts through an education process aimed at developing the next generation of geospatial specialists.

Some in the private sector have raised questions about OS’s unique position in the market. One firm, GetMapping, has lodged a complaint to the European Commission that OS effectively received illegal state aid through two deals (including PSMA) it has signed with government. Clifford plays a straight bat when questioned about the case: “Of course we want to behave in the right fashion. I’ve got no interests in trying to bend the rules at all. We will operate fairly.”

Similarly, he is unwilling to be drawn on the suggestion from some quarters that the transition to a GovCo model is simply a preparatory move for a forthcoming privatisation. “That is someone else’s decision. I’m just running the OS.”

Higher up his current priority list is enthusing his staff with a vision of what OS is for. The 2014 Civil Service People Survey found satisfaction higher than the civil service average in almost every category. However, the notable exceptions were understanding of the organisation’s purposes and objectives (10% and 12% lower respectively than the average).

“There is no shrinking away from it – whether perceptions or reality, that is what people are saying, therefore we need to change it. So part of the work, which I’ve kicked off, is we need to address that, we need to have a clear sense of purpose. That will help then guide priorities. I think it is clear that we can’t just assume that because people like working here, that we automatically have a sense of purpose.” 

But what is that purpose, in Clifford’s view? “I think the ambition is that, yes we are universal, we are ubiquitous, we are the authoritative model and you are using it whether you realise it or not. Again, whether you realise it or not, you are living a better life because of what you are consuming from us, because you are getting there faster, the ambulance is arriving faster, you have invested in the right retail location, you have bought the right house and it is not going to flood. It is those kind of benefits that you want people to experience. And it would be nice if they attach all of those benefits to OS, but the benefits are a good starting point.” 

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