Will the last GI Professional please switch out the lights

Guardian Technology ran yet another article about the wonders of Google Maps and how one Council is using GM to provide map based information to the public.

Navigating your way around a local authority’s websites can be a painful experience, especially if it involves maps. Perhaps, for example, you are looking for a school on an online map that is generated by survey data from Ordnance Survey. This can be particularly frustrating, with data fields going missing as you zoom in, maps updating slowly and overly complicated interfaces.If that’s your impression, it’s backed up by a survey carried out for the Society of Information Technology Management. The society tested local authority websites against four key indicators: only 56% of councils had clickable maps; just 35% offered a way to find schools on a map. And only 13% offered a help facility

But while maps and geographical information are vital to local authorities and their websites, the prices and licensing policies of Ordnance Survey, the government’s mapping agency, mean that some councils have decided to bypass OS and use free maps from Google to create mashups of information for their websites.

Traditional geographical information systems provide “complex data, complex systems”, said Dane Wright, IT service manager at Brent council in north London, at the annual conference of GIS in the Public Sector earlier this month. Google Maps, by contrast, provides “complex data, simple systems”.

Someone needs to speak up for the large number of counclis who have built highly effective sites using mapping technology from the traditional vendors including the company that I work for.

  1. Poor web site design has nothing to do with the selection of OS data
  2. Failure to include schools data is an example of poor concepts rather than the choice of technology or underlying data. You could implement a site using GM and still leave out schools!
  3. Poor zoom layering is another example of poor design.
  4. However it should also be noted that for some aspects of a local authority web site such as delivering online planning information and regulatory advice large scale MasterMap data is essential and you don’t get that on GM.
  5. The licensing of OS data to local govt means that the use of the data on the internet incurs NO additional cost to the council so I am baffled as to why this would drive councils to use free GM?

On the other hand if the point that the representative from Brent was trying to make was that using technology from traditional GI vendors is more expensive than GM and a good bit more complex, then I agree. Let’s see

  • 80,000 planning boundaries stretching back over the last 40 years presented as a searchable layer in GM and being maintained in real time by back office systems
  • Or a complete Local Development Plan presented for interrogation and consultation
  • Or all of the street lights within a borough available for online fault reporting

Perhaps the mashers can point me to examples on the Brent site that I missed or similar functionality being delivered by GM elsewhere.

I thought I ought to have a look at what Brent were doing in case I was being unfair to them so I went to their Postcode Map Entry Page and they offer an enormous range of point information only it doesn’t use a free Google service it uses a paid for service from Multimap! A rather different story.

I think we need to start to understand the power and the limitations of the Google API, from my experience a great deal of what local govt is trying to achieve in its online presence is way more complicated than push pins.

If Ed Parsons is reading this perhaps he or someone from Google might comment on whether the free service from Google is really intended to be used in this way and whether charges or adverts might appear in the future? This debate will run and run and if you want to hear some of the leading speakers from the established GI industry debating with new agers like Ed from Google then you should come and join in Building a GeoCommunity at the AGI 2007 Conference in Stratford-on-Avon on the 19th and 20th of September. you can get more details and register here.