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British mapping agency takes on Google Maps

Ordnance Survey is opening up some of its secret code to allow software developers to create Google Maps-style mashups.

Ordnance Survey, the United Kingdom's national mapping agency, is opening up some of its secret code to allow software developers to create Google Maps-style mashups.

Dubbed OpenSpace, the project will initially launch as a closed beta test with up to 12 volunteers and will run for around three months before the Ordnance Survey (OS)--one of the world's largest map producers--makes a final decision on releasing the code.

The JavaScript application programming interface (API) will give individuals access to the OS' mapping data and allow them to develop applications with style features like the click-and-drag "slippy" map, markers and bubbles.

But it will only be available for non-commercial use so that it doesn't compromise the OS' relationship with existing commercial partners, which pay for mapping information.

Ed Parsons, chief technical officer at OS, said the aim is to encourage people to find new and innovative mashup-style uses of the OS' mapping data, some of which could then be turned into revenue-generating commercial applications.

The potential value in the OS' mapping data is that it is more detailed for rural areas than Google's maps.

Parsons told Silicon.com: "It shows things like footpaths, which are possibly not the equivalent of Google or Yahoo Maps. It's a Google Maps for the U.K. If people can develop applications for ramblers, those ideas could be turned into commercial applications."

Apart from the likes of Google, other organizations such as the open-source OpenStreetMap--which is using volunteers with GPS devices to create a digital map of the U.K.--are also encroaching on the OS' traditional business.

But Parsons said Google Maps has been good for innovation and that there is room for all models in the market.

"There will always be a market for closed-source data. I think the two will co-exist," he said. "I could easily see OS making use of open-source data or providing open-source data. We are not closing our eyes. There will be the person who wants to create maps for the parish council but the utilities, for example, won't use open source data."

Doug Ricket, a software engineer for Google Maps, agreed. "Our strategy goes back to Google's mission to make information universally accessible. I don't think we view OS as a threat," he told Silicon.com.

Andy McCue reported for Silicon.com in London.