The Ordnance Survey and the Private Sector

The business practices of the Ordnance Survey vis-à-vis its private-sector competition are being criticized. Thierry Gregorius’s so-called “hard-hitting analysis” is actually fairly even-handed: criticizing the rather two-faced nature of the OS as both government agency and commercial enterprise, but also pointing out that the OS does not have any clear rules to guide its operations.

What has struck me in many meetings with OS is that you never quite know who you are talking to. Is this OS, the government agency, or OS, the business? They can’t do special deals with you because, as a government agency, they have to treat everyone equally — which is fair enough. But at the same time OS remains at liberty to pursue any commercial opportunity that takes their fancy. There are geospatial companies that have been badly burnt by this, especially aerial imagery folks or online mapping providers who dared to compete with OS’s almighty mapping machine. In many cases, even today, OS is still competing with its own business partners.

For an example, see the Andover Advertiser’s coverage of the complaints of Getmapping CEO Tristram Cary, who’s had to cut jobs in the face of competition from the OS.