New Vision for Ordnance Survey [page under development}

Ordnance Survey as an enabler

Dr Geoff Robinson started as Director General of Ordnance Survey in October 1998. It was not well known at the time but he had limited himself to two years at OS, having been a non-Executive Director prior to that time. He was well aware of some, but not all the internal and external challenges. Other changes were also unfolding as a result of the enabling and disruptive technology of the web.

%Opening new entrance%
28 June 1999: Minister Nick Raynsford opens the new front entrance at Ordnance Survey, Romsey Road supported by Geoff Robinson. The event also renamed the building as the William Roy Building (from the utilitarian "Central Block") - hence the four onlookers who had suggested the new name.

The landscape that Ordnance Survey operated in was becoming turbulent:

  • Ordnance Survey's customers, partners and wider user base were more demanding
  • Ordnance Survey partners and customer relationships were deteriorating as a result of the charge for full cost recovery*
  • *prices had gone up, communication poor and Ordnance Survey's remit was increasingly seem as ambiguous externally e.g. the scope of activity was growing with greater involvement in the National Land Information Service [NLIS] & publications sector.

  • disruptive and accelerating changes in the use of the web, data collection methods and the variety of applications;

Ordnance Survey was involved in all of the imaginatively named "N Projects", many of which had been running for several years:

  • National Land Information Service [NLIS] - led by HM Land Registry,
  • National Land & Property Gazetteer [NLPG] - led by OS to support the NLIS pilot,
  • National Street Gazetteer [NSG] - led by the Local Government Information House/IDeA,
  • National Geospatial Data Framework [NGDF] - led by Ordnance Survey
  • National Land Use Database [NLUD] - led by Dept Environment, Transport & the Regions

The new Labour Government was very strong on "joined up government", e-delivery and better information to support decision making. Geoff had already recognised the benefit of promoting "joined up geography to support joined up government".

These cross government initiatives were often supprted by newly available "Invest to Save" funds, However they were consuming more and more internal staff resources and as new Director General he asked the basic questions around all OS's major undertakings: "why was OS involved in them ?", "how did they fit with future [OS] strategy?" and "why were was the organisation deeply involved in applications while our basic data was still a long way off being able to support some of these developments?" and so on.

Cracks in the Framework

The NGDF had been established in 1995, as much in response to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure [NSDI] established in the US some years earlier. It had moved slowly and unsurely but had set about building a metadata service (a web service to discover what data was available and who had it). Work on the UK Standard Geographic Base progressed - but lacked the ambition to tackle core issues from role/user needs to how to solve known data integrity issues.

However NGDF did bring together a number of players within the location data industry, public and private, with some potential to influence change - for the first time.

In particular a discussion paper "Cracks in the Framework" was developed in early 1999 by Bob Barr and Chris Roper [% a copy will be available shortly - see references below%]> This paper raised concerns about the nature of the UK georeferencing framework, the variety of components and the fact that they collectively fell short of being fit for purpose in supporting applications from statistical research to the commercial developments. Developers [public & commercial] had to invest considerably in cleaning/adjusting or even creating data - to build a simple application. Following feedback the authors followed this paper up with an outline of what was needed: "Building a National Spatial Referencing Framework" soon afterwards.

These papers helped raise the basic concern at national level and across the geoinformation industry, that as more geographic data was collected it's benefit was diminished by the inability to use it in an economic and timely way.

As the mapping agency, the heart of the issue for Ordnance Survey was: 1) do we continue as we were? - or 2) redefine the focus of the role of OS?
The former was clearly unsustainable and the shift was towards a change of direction: OS enabling it's data users, not competing in the commercial applications markets; all cast within the changing technological environment. This was to be underpinned by being "easy to do business with" to remove the barriers to wider data take up.

Withdrawl from the applications end of the spectrum was not intended to diminish the work and applications of third parties - but to better support them. It was clear that OS had to be much clearer about it's remit and how it supported the commercial applications market place in future.

Internal Reorientation

By February 1999 there was a major overhaul of the OS internal structure with production and product management being brought together.

The main work also started at this time: with the data, e-delivery and pricing and licensing work developing within a new framework where OS maintains the core locational reference data, within an online environment supported by a simple pricing and licensing regime.

  • Data Strategy
  • As noted in the previous section work on the new data structure [ Topo96. ] was well advanced when the new DG arrived, but he wanted to see where it fitted within the bigger national picture and in turn - how it would support a sustainable Ordnance Survey?

  • Electronic Delivery
  • The world of the web was developing rapidly at this time, yet public organisations had not really grasped the potential and impact on the way they were to operate within this environment in the future.

  • Pricing & Licensing
  • The drive over the previous decade towards cost recovery targets, set by Government, had left many OS customers disillusioned and some of these angry with the way OS operated by raising prices, offering little new in return and the restrictions it placed on what a user could, and more likely what they could not do, with the data. The aim was overhaul this thorny ground and reduce licenses to a manageable level - an ambitious target of two sides of A4.

Iain Greenway picked up the P&L task. Duncan Shiell the e-delivery work and myself the data strategy. The direction was already gathering momentum - Ordnance Survey should be the enabler, supporting third parties who had applications and services to deliver in the public and commercial domains. If it performed that unique role well - it would be a chance it would have a sustainable future.

OS was scheduled to commence Trading Fund operation from the 1st April 1999. The National Interest Mapping Service Agreement [NIMSA] and the first edition of the Pan Government Agreement [PGA] were also finalised and implemented on April 1st that year.

Several new projects were initiated to test and demonstrate the new approach. Ian Evans undertook four external projects aimed at helping data users solve long standing issues [%list 1-4%]. A meeting with senior Land Registry managers led to OS establishing LR as a large scale data online update channel since their surveyors made modifications daily to OS data but had no immediate way of channeling those changes back to OS.

Thought Processes and Consultation

The initiate the process Geoff also several discussion papers himself and invited comments:

  • Paper1: Joined Up Geography for the New Millennium
  • Paper6: Gazetteers and Land & Property Identifiers

Paper 1 was also reviewed at the NGDF executive meeting and then updated and issued in the summer as an indication of the new direction Ordnance Survey was seeking.

The proposals of Paper 1 were widely broadcast and discussed face to face with DETR, HMLR, NLIS project managers and several other organisations. We also arranged a couple of informal evening meetings: one with Michael Nicholson of Property Intelligence and an active player in NGDF and a second with Chris Roper, Bob Barr and Hugh Neffendorf (a consultant actively involved in address projects). The discussions took place in mid May 1999 in Romsey [Nicholson] and in London [Barr, Roper & Neffendorf] at the Basil Street Hotel on 26 May. The meetings all focused mostly on georeferencing, datasets and gazetteers.

It probably seems strange to many today that a lot of fuss was made over the N's projects when professionals in the industry now may have never heard of them. The land and property sector, driven on by a buoyant housing market, at the time and an articulate land surveyor community within the GI industry, had pushed some of these developments to the centre of attention. The [GI] industry and OS had also been attracted, almost blinded by them and the potential they claimed.

At the same time several other diverse initiatives were just as active: Cabinet Office PAT-18 [Social Exclusion] Study; MAFF and Scottish Office [agricultural subsidy monitoring & animal diseases]; Transport [network maintenance as well as navigation early growth]. It seemed to me that these developments were of equal value as the thought-to-be commercial land and property targets. Therefore OS we to populate identifiers on all features to support a wide range of applications; not just land & property but statistics, environment, transport, local community, e-Government and so on. Georeferencing does not revolve entirely around addresses and never has done. This was a significant step forward and it was generally accepted after some debate. It was also agreed identifiers should be free to use by anyone.

The new approach emerges

From the May meetings events quickly flowed with the role of OS crystallising as [reference] data provider but working with customers to help them facilitate their business goals. The "TOID" as a term was born in late May and most of the principles of what was broadcast later in the year as the "Digital National Framework" were developed. While the e-delivery project complemented the data strategy developments the pricing and licensing still had a lot of work to do.

A short summary of the origins of the Digital National Framework can be found here.

However some difficulties had already emerged around the change of position OS took regarding NLIS. As part of the reduced role in NLIS, OS had stated that they saw the development of the NLPG continuing within OS - primarily as part of the reduced core data remit; but still working very closely with local authorities, LR and the Valuation Office. The IDeA/LGIH were unhappy with this and probably by OS's reduced role within NLIS. Hence the issue of "addresses" became a serious stress point.

Launch of the New Ordnance Survey

Despite this growing tension there was a lot of support for the new OS direction and this was evident at the GIS'99 - AGI Conference at Olympia, London on 28-30 September 1999. Geoff presented the new plan for OS in the opening plenary (using presentation slides for the first time ever) to an appreciative audience.

In an interview with Mapping Awareness Geoff is quoted as saying "I am determined to work with the industry to make the most of this flexibility and grow the market. Our key aim is not to maximise profit, but to contribute to national development by maximising the benefit derived from the use of Ordnance Survey data. We want more people to use more of our data for more purposes." Stephen Prendergast hails the announcement as a "huge shift in orientation for the OS" as part of a "positive series of announcements" and he even suggested "Dr Robinbson's dramatic speech at the AGI'99 Conference looks set to mark the demise of a well known sport within the industry - OS bashing."  in his Editor's Notes of the edition shown below.

I did a session on the N's strategy later in the day and briefly introduced the Digital National Framework and Barr & Roper presented their paper. The session was held in a large but packed room facilitated by Robin McLaren and included Lord Chorley in the audience. There were plenty of questions and although we were still evolving the details of the model the general direction of travel appeared to be appreciated.

%Mapping AwarenessCover page

Following the conference there was a great deal of optimism, which was typified by the positive Edinburgh meeting we had with members of AGI Scotland chaired by Mike Traynor on 13 October 1999. During that trip he expressed reservations about the longer tern sustainability of the Pan Government Agreement and knew that sustainable funding was the next item on the list and he also disclosed the plan to hold assessment centres from all Senior Managers and Heads with a view to refreshing OS senior management.

Implementation ....

Geoff Robinson resigned as DG of Ordnance Survey with no notice a week or so later. He had 12 months in charge - attributing the difficulties with the N projects as the primary factors.
It is less widely known that two immediate members of his family became seriously ill in the summer of 1999..

It had struck me then and still holds true, I believe, that the fundamental changes were developed and articulated over those few months were equal to and had the same potential for positive change as the Davidson Report in 1936 - which had set the direction for Ordnance Survey in a different age but had lasted for several decades and still largely guided the survey work undertaken.

The next steps were clear but the question was whether the organisation was willing to maintain the momentum and would a new Director General continue the same direction with equal clarity and transparency?


Date Title of Reference
2014MMDD Cracks in the Framework paper [Not yet available]
2014MMDD Building National Georeferencing Infrastructure [Not yet available]
20140331 NIMSA Reports

Updated KJM 11 April 2014