Interview: Caroline Bellamy, chief data officer at Ordnance Survey, says it wants to collaborate with other organisations in identifying the importance of datasets
It’s inevitable that many people see Ordnance Survey (OS) as a map organisation: after all, it is the publicly owned mapping agency for Great Britain. But Caroline Bellamy says there is a growing appreciation that it is a data organisation, and it’s her job to develop its contribution to the country’s data infrastructure.
She is just a few weeks into her role as OS’s chief data officer, and while she is still working out the priorities she clearly sees the future in partnering with other organisations, from public and private sectors, to exploit the value of the data held by all parties.
“The trend is about how do we more effectively use the data to drive insights, decision-making and opportunity,” she says. “Specifically thinking about the role now, it’s about how do we bring those tools and techniques in a collaborative way into the science of ‘Where?’.
“It’s about integration, partnership, collaboration, not about building technologies, big boxes and big data. It’s about ‘What are we going to do?’”
Bellamy has spent nine years in a series of roles at mobile networks operator Vodafone, most recently as director of business intelligence for its German operation, and says it has given her a very broad perspective on the commercial value of data, but also for society’s good. “That’s what I’m going to be leveraging,” she says, and that the important factor is about how and the purpose for which it is used.
Adding spatial value
OS’s strength is in providing the spatial data that can add to the value of other data from a wide range of sources. It can have as much value in combination data from new sources, such as internet of things (IoT) devices, as with the more traditional sources, more less frequently updated sources.
“It’s been recognised that the thread that holds much of this data together is spatial, geographic data,” she says. “We have to recognise the relationship between virtual and physical data, and it’s about joining these datasets together.
“There are vast possibilities around what we can do to understand our population.”
She points to the possibilities around the IoT, and the development of smart places with new features such as autonomous vehicles and smart buildings, but suggests there is no need for a preoccupation with real time data. Near real time data, with frequent rather than continual updates, is probably more relevant in fulfilling the analytical potential.
The crucial factor is one that she repeatedly emphasises – that what you can do with the data is more important than how it is collected or a perceived need to break new ground.
“The challenge is about how we turn that into useful deployment for the public sector,” she says. “The data is here, and it’s about working in partnership and establishing the priorities.
“There’s no point in the analysis if there’s not a meaningful deployment. Whilst innovation and analysis is a great thing, it also has to be relevant and you have to do something with it.
“It’s no good being too leading edge; we’re about making a difference.”
Identifying the areas in which it’s possible to make the difference is one of the prime elements of the partnerships OS looks to develop. Again, Bellamy emphasises that the key factor in these is what information the two sides can provide and the value it can create, whether that’s commercial or for society.
“We have to collaborate across agencies,” she says. “It’s not about building technologies but partnering with the information we have, statistical, land information, customer information on who is where.
“All these datasets are relevant and it will come down to the most important priorities from a societal and commercial point of view.”
Bellamy is confident there are private sector companies that see the value in collaboration with OS, especially those involved in developing the infrastructure for smart places. She points to the potential to work with utilities and telcos – companies with physical assets at fixed locations – and those developing IoT technology and autonomous vehicles.
Despite its background as a public service OS probably has more flexibility than most others – owned by government but with a duty to pay for itself – to develop commercial partnerships. Bellamy says it comes down to what makes sense and what is appropriate – and that this can apply equally to the academic and research sectors.
There are already examples of partnerships with a mixture of public and private sector involvement. OS is providing data to the Geovation Hub in London – a data lab for experiments with location information and technology – and working with the CityVerve project in Manchester.
The latter has involved using a number of methods to map the city centre corridor to include fine details such as street bollards and bus shelters. It has now provided the data to the project partners and they are looking at ways it could be used to the best effect.
It has been working with a consortium to build maps to support the future roll out of 5G networks, with an initial focus on Bournemouth as a test bed. And it recently announced plans for a new greenspace map for Scotland, to be made available to the public sector through the One Scotland Mapping Agreement next year.
Open data question
A question that hangs over future projects is how far OS will go in making its data open. Historically it placed a heavy emphasis on its need to raise revenue from its data, although it made some datasets openly available. It increased the number two years ago, with the creation of its OS OpenData stream, including the Open Map, Names API and VectorMap District.
Bellamy says OS will continue to be “at the forefront” of the movement and that it will take feedback from partners on what data should be open. But she suggests that it would involve a selective approach, again determined by what is useful.
“It’s about exposing data when we are ready to start talking and engaging with the customer,” she says. “Just throwing data out is often not useful. We need to understand what is needed, but we are absolutely committed to it.”
Overall it is clear that the priorities are still taking shape, but also that the emphasis on the importance of location data will continue to at least match the provision of maps. It will be interesting to see a couple of years down the line if OS is widely perceived in terms of its data rather than as a mapping organisation.
This article was amended on 22 July on receiving information that some OS data was open for re-use before the creation of its OpenData stream.