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Map data is wrongly handled

There are a surprising number of business applications that require access to map data. The creation of maps and related data is the responsibility the Ordnance Survey in the UK and some form of license is required. Steve Barrie comments in this column.

Market Analysis

Map data is wrongly handled
There are a surprising number of business applications that require regular access to accurate map data. Invariably, the creation of maps and the generation of map data is the responsibility of a government agency (the Ordnance Survey in Britain) and some form of license is required to reproduce maps without infringing copyright restrictions.

The big users of this information are government departments - both local and national - who need to manage the land and buildings within their regions of responsibility. However, there is an increasing demand for map data in the private sector as businesses are linking property investments into their asset registers and seeking to create seamless systems to manage acquisition, use, maintenance and disposal. A quick tour around most major GIS solutions vendors will confirm that sales into the private sector are increasing.

The problem for the private sector is that it is being ripped off when it comes to buying map data. Government agencies, such as the ordnance Survey, are used to dealing with local governments and others that have interests only in a very restricted area. For a private business that needs map data for the whole of the UK (and probably beyond), the costs can be extortionate because the pricing structure is not geared up for this kind of use.

As a result, these organizations usually end up using an 'on-demand' mapping service that restricts the way that data can be used. The data comes either as an image or in vector form. The former is just like a standard paper map or aerial photograph and if it is drawn upon, using a CAD or other system, then it can not be used again without incurring another download charge. Vector data can be fed into a GIS or similar application and rendered as often as necessary but the charges are higher because the data has to be licensed for a period of time. Some of the 'on-demand' services do not allow data to be saved at all so that a new chargeable download is necessary every time. Even between applications there are some issues of interoperability that affects the formatting of map data for download. There are standards that allow asset information to be shared between estate management packages. PISCES is an XML dialogue that enables such activity. The Open GIS Consortium (OGC) has a similar XML dialogue, GML, that allows geographic information to be exchanged. However, it seems that these initiatives are being threatened by ESRI, a dominant vendor whose internal format is being used as the preferred format for some mapping applications.

As all boys know, maps are incredibly interesting and they can be used to add great value within business applications. However, the development and growth of the use of mapping data is being held back by poor commercial sense on the part of the agencies that own the data and poor implementation of standards from solutions providers. It appears that the market domination of ESRI may be partially to blame for this.

Copyright 2003. Originally published by, reprinted with permission. provides IT decision makers with free daily e-mails containing news analysis, member-only discussion forums, free research, technology spotlights and free on-line consultancy. To register for a free e-mail subscription, click here.

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