The government has said that it will "explore ways" of making the Ordnance Survey's maps of the UK freely available on the web from April 2010. Gordon Brown announced the change at an event also attended by web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee who is now the UK's information tsar, advising on the handing over of private government data to the public.
The government has apparently been impressed by the successes of handing over crime data to the public, which has led to various user-created maps that help citizens assess the safety of particular areas.
In the new year, Brown has promised to fully publish 2000 sets of data. That could include all legislation, as well as road-traffic data over the past 8 years, property prices yield, and motoring offences with types of offence and the numbers, by county, for the top six offences.
Previously mapping data was available, but only to companies who wanted to pay a fee of £5000 per usage. When that price is combined with the ease-of-access of the Web, it makes any internet application employing the maps prohibitively expensive.
However, Ordnance Survey staff aren't happy. They said, earlier in the year, that moving to a free model would cost the UK between £500m and £1bn over the next 5 years. A treasury study put the price at more like £12m, with a net gain of £156m to the UK economy. The staff said that Brown's move was in "complete contradiction with the OS's own plans to explore commercial opportunities and find new ways of raising revenue".
Still, given that many believe that Brown will be exiting Downing Street at the next election, what does he have to lose? Especially as the Conservatives support the data-sharing initiative, too.