OpenStreetMap is a project whose aim is to make a free map of the world. It’s extremely impressive: as well as searching the map in a normal way, the data is exportable via XML, PNG, JPEG, SVG and more, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.
But it shouldn’t need to exist.
In the US, federal government-created maps (and other data) are considered to be public information, and released freely. In the UK, such maps are subject to Crown Copyright, and the Ordnance Survey has been set up as a trading organisation that legally must make money from its efforts.
This was an archaic idea at its inception, but makes even less sense now. The economy is in dire straits, and what it should be doing is providing taxpayer-funded data for use by companies; this kind of data in particular could give British businesses a flying start. Instead, it chooses to make money from them instead, and web services are left to projects like OpenStreetMap, as well as US businesses like Google, in order to source information.
The Guardian’s Data Store is one British attempt to rectify the situation, but ideally all data in the public interest should be released in a format that is easily consumable by third-party applications. As well as helping entrepreneurs and small businesses, it’ll allow for a deeper understanding of, and participation in, how our country is run. Which can’t be a bad thing – can it?