Ordnance Survey

How Ordnance Survey will use 250 years of data to support startups

Ordnance Survey is embarking on a project to foster startups, applying its vast repository of data to solving emerging challenges around urban spaces and smart cities

With a history dating back to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, it would probably be fair to say that Ordnance Survey, the government-owned national mapping agency for Great Britain, is not the likeliest startup incubator.

However, with hundreds of years’ worth of data at its fingertips, the organisation is now embarking on a new startup project, called the GeoVation Hub, through which it hopes to bring its expertise to bear to help a new generation of tech startups leverage geographical information to provide innovative services.

Ordnance Survey recently moved a specialist team of startup experts into new London offices in Clerkenwell – a far cry from its Southampton home – and with the paint on the walls barely dry, is already fishing for new ideas.

Moving with the times

Alex Wrottesley, manager of the Ordnance Survey GeoVation Hub, and himself something of a startup veteran, says that with a growing number of tech innovators turning to location data to run their services – Airbnb and Uber being arguably the sector benchmarks – Ordnance Survey recognised it had to change the way it interacts with the tech industry.

Up to now it has run a successful programme called the GeoVation Challenge, which was open to anybody who cared to engage with Ordnance Survey, through which it set a number of problems for entrants to solve, each using geographical data as the glue around which a solution could be built.

However, Ordnance Survey now believes that this approach, while worthwhile, is still geared more around the problems that its own people came up with, as opposed to real-world challenges.

“We realised we had to skill up and reframe our GeoVation Challenge to gear it more to customer challenges,” Wrottesley tells Computer Weekly. “We wanted to engage with startups on their terms. And ultimately all this information is there and has been paid for, so we also wanted to extract some value from it.”

GeoVation Hub

The GeoVation Hub, which conveniently shares a building with the Future Cities Catapult, is a “distillation of the GeoVation Challenge” according to Wrottesley, and is built around four main concepts: Providing workspace for startups; maintaining the GeoVation Challenge; an accelerator programme; and developing Ordnance Survey’s own in-house projects.

The accelerator is a funded six to 12-month entrepreneur programme, open to around eight to 10 people per annum, which will provide both project and business support.

Ordnance Survey is also empowered to pay those taking part in the programme the London Living Wage, or up to £20,000, in exchange for a 20-hours per week commitment, giving participants a chance to pursue their day-to-day careers or academic study, adds Wrottesley.

“The goal is that every month we would want something new released from the lab, whether that’s a business or a proof of concept,” he says.

Smarter cities

A currently unpublished report on the UK geo-services industry, produced by kMatrix, has estimated the potential value of the sector at £2.2bn, with a potential wider economic impact of over 10 times that.

With this in mind, a major aspect of the GeoVation Hub’s activities are likely to focus on mobile applications that play a direct role in further developing the internet of things (IoT) and smart cities.

Spatial data has already proved to be vital in pilot projects relating to, for example, autonomous cars, or waste collection and other council-led services.

Downstairs from the GeoVation Hub, the Future Cities Catapult has already been working on using IoT wayfinders to help cyclists navigate their way around London, and Ordnance Survey’s own team has developed an app to help people who enjoy open water swimming find safe rivers and lakes to do so.

“However, when we talk about spatial data we’re trying to establish that it’s not just about maps,” says Wrottesley. “We have to leverage the insight spatial data provides and layer it with other information, and then help people understand what kind of businesses that can empower.”

Indeed, the data held is so granular that it can, for example, reveal the location of dropped kerbstones along pavements, seemingly irrelevant until you consider the value of that information to a wheelchair user or a parent with a buggy.

Currently, a hot topic when it comes to smart cities is the development of standards and unified approaches linking the public and private sectors. Wrottesley hopes the GeoVation Hub can play a part here, helping keep its participants informed on what’s happening, and positioning itself to react appropriately to developing codes of practice.

Making life better

Ultimately, spatial data sits at the heart of many well-known and well-used mobile applications. Ordnance Survey believes it could sit at the heart of many more.

Many of the projects already up and running centre on fitness and leisure. These include Run an Empire, a Hoxton-based social enterprise which was awarded £26,000 through the GeoVation Challenge to develop an exercise strategy game that uses Ordnance Survey data to record how people move around their space, using local neighbourhoods as an “arena” in which players compete to capture and control territory.

At the more sedate end of the spectrum is OpenPlay, a web and mobile platform born out of frustration at trying to find a free football pitch for a South London under-15s team, which connects the public to local sports facilities and allows people to book tennis courts, sports halls and so on.

Then there are environmental applications. Thanks to GeoVation, a startup called AR Carbon has already captured government funding with its Carbon Prophet project, which gives farmers and landowners the ability to sell captured carbon to parties that want to offset their emissions. It uses spatial data to measure and map the carbon content of soils in the UK to offer a trading scheme that unlocks the value of sequestered carbon.

Element Green Recycling, meanwhile, has used spatial data to develop The Green Alchemist, which enables businesses to sell recyclable waste, recognising that virtually everybody fails to recognise any financial value in the rubbish they produce.

However, clean separated waste is in demand by the reprocessing industry, believes project founder Ayo Isinkaye, and is prepared to pay for it because it saves them money further down the line.

By entering their postcode into The Green Alchemist, the service connects people with rubbish to burn to organisations and licensed waste couriers in their area who are happy to take it off their hands.

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