Ordnance Survey

Making maps

Ordnance Survey is well known as a mapping organisation and it's paper products can be seen in any good bookstore. What is less well known is that the bulk of its activity has always revolved around the detailed "plans" it has prepared and published since the middle of the 19th century.

When I left home in Slattocks in March 1969 I was going off to join over 4,000 other people working on a vast project to survey, professionally draw and print the maps of Gt Britain. That number would exceed 5,000 before the year 1980.

By the end of the century the organisation had changed beyond recognition with new technology and the transition to digital mapping inflicting a revolution on all aspects of the data capture, update and publication process (for both OS and it's customers). The OS workforce had dropped to less than 1,500 by 1999. The following decade witnessed accelerating external change.

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1970's: The "1980 Programme"

When I joined OS in 1969 there was a major recruitment drive on - primarily to complete the “1980 programme” on time. The aim of the programme was to complete the agreed modernisation of OS surveys as set out in the Davidson Report of 1938. The work had been curtailed during WWII but it’s products were in demand as Gt Britain set about a national regeneration programme in the 1950 (housing, roads etc).

You will find more about the OS in the 1970's along with descriptions of several field office operations here..

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1980's: Change becomes a way of life

The 1980s arrived with a change of Government and some nervousness around the public sector about the longer term. Digital mapping had started as an experiment and was now starting to develop as computers became more affordable and were no longer constrained by "mainframe" technologies.

I spent the majority of the decade making maps using aerial photographs. Following an MSc in Photogrammetry at Univeristy College London in 1985-86 I returned to air survey to redesign and develop new digital map creation and update processes using new technology.

You will find more about the OS in the 1980's along with descriptions of surveying by aerial photography here..

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1990's: Map data comes of Age

After slow adoption digital map data finally took off. Public utilities had been privatised in the 1980's and now needed detailed maps to records to use as a refenece base their assets and so this is the decade that paper was overtaken by digital . The world wide web was also born which would have a major/disruptive influence on the location data industry, along with everyone else.

The words "spatial data infrastucture" entered common usage in 1995 when it was realised that anyone could now publish map data. OS had to recalibrate it's role in all of this and in 1999 it discussed and published an outline of the role it planned to play. Most people with a little foresight recognised that the information industry was about to turn upside down.

You will find more about the OS in the 1990's along with descriptions of research and major data developments here..

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2000's: Beyond the Mapping Agency

The web had an immediate impact on Government Data Policy, which was struggling to keep abreast of the rapidly expanding post-"dot.com" era. Several bodies identified income streams from data and different parts of the public sector found themselves in competition with each other.

Elsewhere the campaign for "OpenData" gathered pace. Ordnance Survey found itself at odds with the prevailing winds of change. New developments such as "OpenStreetMap emerged and have been amazingly successful

To help avoid fragmentation across key public sector datasets, and relieve the user of the arduous task of joining up their disparate datasets several collaborations flourished across organisations and countries. The EU INSPIRE Directive sought to address many of the prevailing key issues which individual Member States were struggling to address.

You will find more about the OS in the 2000's along with descriptions of collaborative and associated external developments here..

Life and work at Ordnance Survey 1969-2011

After spending 42 years at Ordnance Survey - covering the final three decades of the 2nd millenium and the first of the 3rd, it is now possible to look back with a more "adjusted perspective".

Overall: personally I believe it was an amazing time when just about every aspect of "making maps" was completely transformed. There were ups and downs, as always, and the final decade was definitely in that category. Thanks to Ordnance Survey's staff development policy - particularly during the 1970s & 80s many of us were able to ebjoy several careers within the organisation..

The cultural and technical changes we addressed as an organisation and individually over this period would have challenged most organisations. But OS enjoyed a workforce who saw it as more than "just a job". It was a fact that people who had worked there for more than eight years more often stayed on indefinitely. Many of these people were were trully dedicated to their roles, instinctively carring forward the objectives of Ordnance Survey embedded in everything they did. With so many staff leaving over the last decade this is perhaps less the case now.

In trying to capture some of this story I can only reflect my own experience, as a witness to, and as a participant in the events of the time. It is not meant to be a story of “my life at OS“ - although the events will inevitably be through my eyes and experiences. The social history of life at OS, and latterly beyond, is rich and I hope to reflects aspects of this as well.


Gt Britain


Start: March 1969
End: June 2011


Ordnance Survey web pages: home page

Updated KJM 20 Aug 2017