OS maps its digital future

Rebecca Paterson, Ordnance Survey’s chief strategy and marketing officer, tells Tim Wickham how the venerable cartographer leads the world in geospatial data gathering and mapping.

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Ordnance Survey: No 21

You’d expect a mapmaker to find a handy location for its head office. The impressive Ordnance Survey (OS) building on the outskirts of Southampton is conveniently close to the motorways, and purpose-built for collaborative working by its technology-focused 1,000-strong workforce.

Ranked 21st in the Solent 250, OS is a limited company wholly owned by the Government.

Commercial outlook

Paterson explained the rationale behind OS’s corporate structure: “The Government, and the OS board recognised the value which the geospatial data we gather delivers to commercial organisations, and the vital role it will play in the technology and future markets of tomorrow. Setting up a Government Company (GovCo) enables us take advantage of opportunities both in the UK and internationally.”

Annual turnover of £157 million still comes mainly from government contracts, but revenue and royalties from licensing data to 350 partners and hundreds of direct customers, ranging from utility companies to internet platform providers such as Microsoft, is growing. And the much-loved OS leisure maps for walkers and adventurers retain their popularity, with the traditional paper map finding its place alongside OS’s popular outdoors app OS Maps.

Strategically, the company’s recently appointed CEO Steve Blair was chosen for his commercial background.

OS has evolved in recent decades. A direct military connection dating back to its creation in 1791, when it was set up to map the country during the French revolution, came to an end in 1983.

“Our heritage is in paper maps and we still have a cartography team, but we are now a digital and technology-based organisation,” said Paterson.

Geospatial specialists

Digitisation of OS maps began in the 1970s, making the company an early pioneer in the digital world. In 2001, the flagship OS MasterMap was launched. It records over 500 million man-made and natural features in Great Britain and is updated over 20,000 times every single day.

“OS MasterMap is still the most accurate and detailed geospatial dataset in the world,” said Paterson. “It sets a benchmark as a ‘base map of Britain’.”

OS welcomed the news last year that the Government was setting up the Geospatial Commission to oversee digital mapping that combines geographic as well as location data. “It shows the Government recognises geospatial capability is critical to the future of the UK, and the role it plays in growing the economy, delivering efficiencies and underpinning citizen services,” noted Paterson.

OS recruits locally in the Solent region, with tech wizards as much in demand as geographers. Creating and updating digital maps involves the OS’s 230 field-based surveyors wielding GPS ‘Gandalf sticks’ that communicate location data to orbiting satellites and deliver near pinpoint accuracy on the ground. OS also has a continuous flying programme surveying Great Britain from the sky, which takes about three years to complete.

The next big step in digital mapping and surveying has just started. In February, OS announced the launch of Astigan, its lightweight solar-powered fixed wing ‘pseudo satellite’ that will fly at 67,000 feet. The platform will be fitted with cameras and sensors to collect information and data, including mapping updates, for businesses to use.

“We believe Astigan will be the first commercial use of this technology and will change the way which businesses and government look at Earth,” said Paterson.

Technology leader

The technology breakthroughs keep coming. OS, and its data, is at the heart of several smart projects. OS recently worked on a 5G test project in Bournemouth to help the Government identify the infrastructure needed for the next generation of mobile communications.

The mapping agency is also working with Mobileye, an Intel company, on real-time mapping using artificial intelligence from in car dash cams. The dynamic roadside data captured from the cameras will be essential for the self-driving cars of the future.

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“Autonomous vehicles are an exciting new area for OS to get involved in,” said Paterson.

Another exciting project is the work led by OS in the northeast of England, in partnership with utility companies, to develop an underground asset register.

OS is set to continue making innovations as transformational as its first maps were in the 1790s. “The future is very bright for OS,” said Paterson. “After all, everything happens somewhere and location data is at the heart of that.”

Global direction

OS says it is recognised as second only to the US for its geospatial data capability. It helps other countries, especially in Africa and Asia, to realise the same benefits which Great Britain is getting from having a national mapping agency. OS provides expertise in surveying, data management and support on emerging markets. OS also supports the United Nations on work towards meeting its sustainable development goals.

“We are helping the UN fast-track geographic data gathering that helps countries improve their economies, for example, by knowing who owns land and accurately mapping borders,” said Paterson.

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Astigan

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