… Ordnance Survey

March 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm 8 comments

I don’t know how actors do it.

Having to play emotional scenes where you cry-on-demand must be incredibly challenging. I don’t know anything that is soooo upsetting that it would squeeze real tears from my eyes just by thinking about it.

That is, until I started looking at Ordnance Survey Licensing Agreements.

(This is a screenshot of Ordnance Survey’s ‘open’ maps for public use. It’s a screenshot because there aren’t simple instructions to embed it in a free WordPress blog. What’s more, the ‘public use’ maps aren’t relevant to this post, and (still) don’t show the public toilets. But it Looks Pretty.)

This trauma began a month ago when, in my innocence, I tried emailing some more ‘open councils’ from the OpenlyLocal.com Scoreboard. These new councils had just published a few bits of spending-related data, but no school locations, no library locations, no ‘dataset of the location of the 120 000 lampposts in Lesser Hampton’, and certainly no toilets.

[Context: In order to make The Great British Public Toilet Map I’d like councils to publish information on where their toilets are as ‘Open Data‘, meaning the type of file that anyone can download (‘open’) and that’s compatible with computer-programming (‘data’).

To you and me it would look like this…

OpenData .csv file for (doomed) Manchester Public Toilets

…which might not look that exciting, but magical computer programs could join together all 300-odd local council datasets and display it on one map!

This would make it easier for people to find out where public toilets are (and if they’re open and what facilities are provided) without having to check 300-odd council websites]

So, I asked these new ‘open’ councils if they’d considered publishing open data for public toilets and sent my email to the attention of their web/data enthusiast (who doesn’t have one of those?!)

In return I got lots of replies from very nice GIS managers explaining that this was not possible. Or, more to the point, not legal.


But why?

  • In order to publish the dataset, the council first has to create it.
  • They know when the toilets are open and what facilities they provide….
  • …but they don’t have a way to describe where the toilets are. Toilets don’t have addresses, and postcodes can cover an area of several hundred meters or more. If the toilets are in the middle of a park or car park, neither address or postcode exists.
  • So… latitude & longitude coordinates are needed to position the toilets accurately…
  • How does the council find these coordinates? By looking it up on their GIS.


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is the name given to all the maps and the data behind them that councils use to find stuff. (A GIS does not look the same as the map at the top of this blog post, but then I’ve never seen a GIS so…)

Imagine you want to make a map.

You would go out and collect lots of measurements about where stuff was, how big it was and how it all related to each other. Basically, a lot of Data.

You then want to know what all this data looks like, so you draw a Map. The map is the visual representation of the data.

Councils need to know everything about the geography of their area, in particular all the buildings and boundary lines (so they know who owns what, down to the last tree stump). Ordnance Survey has all this information, so the councils pay Ordnance Survey a fee and license both their maps and data.

This allows the councils to look things up, but also to plot their own information on the OS maps.

You and I can add information in a similar way using Google Maps (with a bit of effort). We can add a marker describing, for example, a business. We could also (with more effort) find the latitude / longitude co-ordinates for that location.

But we could also do this on the old OS paper maps, if you think back to your geography classes at school where you’d have to come up with co-ordinates for a location on an OS map using the grid references and a ruler (and these co-ordinates can in turn be translated into Latitude and Longitude using scary maths and algorithms .. but the point is that it’s possible)

So what’s my point?

Basically, the problem that councils have with the OS licensing agreement (and thus the legal issues) all comes down to what it is that you’re finding the co-ordinates for.

If you dug a hole in the middle of a field and called it a toilet then you could figure out the co-ordinates of the middle of the field using an OS map and use that to describe your toilet’s location.

OS would be fine with this, because whilst you have used the information on their map to find the co-ordinates (such as the position of the field), the toilet’s location is still your data. (Isn’t that nice of them!)

But if your toilet is already shown on the OS map then your co-ordinates will describe a feature that Ordnance Survey have already plotted. Somehow, you’re now stealing their data.

Or at least you are if you’re a council.

OS have licensed their maps and data to the councils and are very strict about what the councils can do with it. Ordnance Survey will not allow the councils to publish data that is owned by OS, and because OS got there first and plotted the toilets and show them on the map, OS own the public toilet location data.

So the councils cannot look up the co-ordinates on the GIS and publish the data.



It wasn’t long ago that councils were breaking the licensing agreement if they shared data derived in any way from the GIS, including our unmarked hole toilet in the field. This was because we would have used other OS features to figure out the position of the hole (e.g. the boundaries of the field). The toilet location in this case is called Derived Data: data that is derived from other existing features.

[Back in these dark days The Guardian published this article about how OS licensing was stopping councils from making, for example, Toilet Maps. The fact that 3 years later they still can’t is the sort of irony that can only be truly expressed by sobbing into your soup]

All the current information on what derived data councils can (or cannot) reuse is described here on the OS website, a link provided by the extremely helpful Stuart Harrison (@Pezholio on Twitter).

(…and if you want to know more about what on earth OS is in general then the start of this document by Simply Understand is great. It’s a re-written ‘Plain English’ version of the public consultation into OS back in 2008 when they were worrying about what to do with regard to OS & Open Data…)

I also learnt that there’s a new licensing agreement coming into force on April 1st 2011 that aims to make the use of OS data and maps easier for public sector organisations – aptly called the ‘Public Sector Mapping Agreement’.

So I read the ‘Transition Plan’ for this new licensing agreement, from the Department of Communities & Local Government (published August 2010), which is basically a report on what the new agreement aims to do.

Sadly the agreement is mostly about making it easier for public sector organisations to share OS data between them.

This is great and makes sense, but publishing data that anyone in the world can use (‘open’), is a different kettle of fish.

(Which is pretty much what the GIS managers at the reluctant councils said when I asked them about the new agreement – “For your request it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference”)

So what does this mean?

No idea.

But there’s still an elephant in the room, which is that a dozen councils have published public toilet open data.

So I asked some of them how they got around this.

Option 1: Don’t use your GIS to determine the co-ordinates of the public toilets.

Instead, you could:

  • Plot them on Google Maps, then download the dataset (which Google let you do). Manchester City Council took this route.
  • Use a GPS and go to the toilets to find the latitude / longitude co-ordinates. (I really can’t see a council doing this…)
  • Use other existing free maps, like OpenStreetMap, which, somewhat ironically, is data that has been crowd-sourced by the public and which was created due to frustration caused by Ordnance Survey’s legal ownership of the country’s official mapping data. I’m now going round in circles

All of these are an added hassle for councils who would rather just click a couple of buttons and get the information from their super-accurate GIS, and which already allows them to make their own maps of public toilets and display them on their website, like this example from East Northamptonshire.


Option 2: Dispute whether public toilets are in the OS data.

I found at least one very helpful council that had used their GIS to determine the public toilet locations.

Council 1 said:

“We as a Council can now make this data available as part of the Free-to-Use data because the toilet (point) data is not a direct copy of the OS MasterMap data or any of their data.

What we do is use the OS data (MasterMap or any other of their data sets) as a guide when we digitise the point data. In other cases like school buildings which are displayed in the OS data we again use it as background information to digitise the point location. We cannot copy the buildings and make those available.

The story of GPS is only true if we want to recreate the boundaries which are also displayed in the OS data.

So whilst the outline of the public toilet building is shown (the ‘boundary of the field’ in our example), the pinpoint location that we want is somewhere in the middle of that building (the ‘hole in the field’). So our toilet data is derived data from the OS map, which we’re now allowed to publish under the new rules.


So I mentioned this to the most helpful of the (refusing) GIS managers, who had already patiently explained to me most of the contents of this post, albeit in about 5 concise sentences.

Council 2 said:

Welcome to the confusing world of copyright and Ordnance Survey!

…the data becomes derived if you use OS mapping (other than open data) to locate a particular object already on an OS map, which is not then free to use, [council 1] admit this themselves when they state :“What we do is use the OS data (MasterMap or any other of their data sets) as a guide when we digitise the point data”.

Public Toilets are points on the map with the text value of PC, which is used by OS as a classification for public toilet on the OS Mastermap so would fall into the category of derived data.”

This also made sense at the time, but now I realise that it’s still an argument about whether or not it’s OK to publish Derived Data, which I’m pretty sure it (sometimes) is.


The point that I originally thought Council 2 was making was around the issue of ‘are public toilets in the OS Data or not’.

Does a text value of ‘PC’ infer that there’s point data for the toilets?

Or just the boundary of the building?

If it’s the latter, doesn’t Council 1’s argument stand up?

The only way that I can see to solve this is to get confirmation one way or the other from Ordnance Survey themselves.

Confirmation, hopefully, in writing, with an OS logo on it, that I can forward to GIS managers that promises them that they won’t get fined £Thousands if they tell the public where on earth the public toilets are.

In the meantime, I would really welcome any thoughts, ideas, sympathy…

Thanks x


Entry filed under: Open Data. Tags: , , , , .

… Broken Locks … Open.Up

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. julian  |  March 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    well done for following up on your emails and adding to the growing debate about derived data. I’m not sure council 2 is correct in being allowed to publish coordinates of derived data but I sincerley hope I’m wrong and council 2 is not.

    Oh, and best of luck getting confirmation from OS. Maybe the new PSMA will allow publication of derived data (according to the gov open data license) but I’m skeptical and the silence from OS doesn’t really help.


    • 2. Gail Knight  |  March 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

      Thanks for the comment Julian and for the email help too! I’ll do my best with OS and getting some sort of answer that’s slightly clearer, else I’ll just have to come up with a plan B.

      If you (or anyone else reading) has any ideas from a local gov perspective on alternative yet feasible ways to plot / get long & lat locations then I’d welcome any suggestions!

  • 3. Tine Müller  |  March 20, 2011 at 8:16 am

    What a lot of trouble you got. Haven’t heard of anything like this in Denmark – yet :-)

    Councils in England should read this EU directive here http://www.epsiplatform.eu/psi_library/reports/european_commission_communication_on_re_use_of_psi_directive_may_2009

    On my map the councils can find coordinates with diff. geocoders both internally and external as this video show http://www.tinemuller.dk/findtoilet/VIDEO/MapchannelGeocoder/MapchannelGeocoder.html and paste them in my drupal-site which will be seen on the map immediately and smartphones too.

  • 4. Toilet Data - Loose Wire Media  |  April 28, 2011 at 3:48 am

    […] (and why creating a map of toilets isn’t as easy as it sounds: … Ordnance Survey « Public Toilets and … […]

  • […] in the spirit of transparency, I’ve been blogging about OS and toilet data, firstly here and laterly here. Apologies for any excessive sarcasm :) […]

  • 6. .. Freedom of Information | Public Toilets and ...  |  June 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    […] exception would be Ordnance Survey location data. I’m also not sure about toilets provided by a third company, e.g. the Superloos. Could they […]

  • […] exception would be Ordnance Survey location data. I’m also not sure about toilets provided by a third company, e.g. the Superloos. Could they […]

  • 8. .. Ordnance Survey – Part IV | Public Toilets and ...  |  September 24, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    […] …Ordnance Survey […]


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