Interview: How Ordnance Survey supports geolocation startups

Ordnance Survey has named three budding geolocation startups as winners in its latest Developer Challenge

Ordnance Survey has been working with technology startups for several years, since the launch of its GeoVation innovation challenges in 2010. 

In each of the seven GeoVation challenges over the past four years, the national mapping agency for Great Britain posed a "big question", such as how to improve transport or how to help Britain feed itself.

“These were big questions to which we asked people to come up with ideas and solutions,” says Ordnance Survey director of products and innovation Peter ter Haar (pictured). “GeoVation was less focused on technology, more on solving a real big problem. The startups we funded were not all technology companies – some were learning and teaching initiatives.”

The organisation has funded more than 30 ventures, helping to launch apps, websites, community services and educational resources discovered through the innovation challenges. 

Ordnance Survey provided generic business support for the successful geolocation startups, as well as angel-type investment funding totalling around half a million pounds.

The Developer Challenge

But this year the organisation decided to run a challenge specifically for developers, without a theme or big question, which brought about a wide range of ideas from flooding and local advertising to using Bluetooth beacons.

Ordnance Survey Developer Challenge winners

The winners of this year’s Developer Challenge won a flex TechHub membership and mentorship from Ordnance Survey.

Downstreams is a service to connect communities along rivers. The application will help people to identify, incubate and crowd-fund flood prevention and environmental improvements on river systems. The team plans to use a range of Ordnance Survey products, including OS MasterMap Networks – Water Layer to make flooding and water quality impacts on downstream communities explicit, explaining to these communities the value of collaborative investment in their river.

The Locappy app aims to connect small, local businesses with their local customer base via digital marketing. Ordnance Survey data can help the Locappy team to effectively define and cluster neighbourhoods across London, and eventually wider, so that customers and businesses can choose the areas relevant to them to advertise in or receive information on.

Tindre is aimed at mobile app developers and iBeacon integrators/owners. It is a service that enhances situational and location awareness of mobile apps which work with Bluetooth beacons (iBeacons) and a platform for iBeacons owners to manage them and connect with developers. Tindre will use OS MasterMap dataset as a foundation for the back-end solution.

“We recognised that developers are often the people in organisations who strongly influence technology decisions, and we wanted to make sure we stayed in their good books,” says ter Haar.

The Ordnance Survey team had also noticed the government’s push to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to Tech City and the efforts to help developers in Silicon Roundabout flourish

Part of the Developer Challenge is about giving back to the community and helping to grow awareness of all things geospatial, says ter Haar.

“We wanted to grow awareness of the importance of location, mapping and information in the developer community,” he says. “As well as the growing awareness that professional geospatial information gives real tangible business benefits, there’s a difference to professional information versus using Google.”

There’s also a business case. Ordnance Survey hopes that by supporting small businesses when they are startups, they will be used to working with the organisation and continue to do so when they become big businesses, bringing with them large licence or service revenues.

The Developer Challenge invited seven finalists to pitch their business ideas for a geo-app or a geolocation product using Ordnance Survey data at its core. Three winners were chosen, each receiving a year’s access to the Tech Hub community and full access to Ordnance Survey resources, data and mentoring.

“A lot of these entrepreneurs have fantastic ideas, but organisations with fantastic ideas often have a solution to a problem they haven’t really defined yet, and they also don’t really know how to execute on their venture,” says ter Haar. “That’s where we try to help them.”

Through the Developer Challenge and GeoVation programmes, Ordnance Survey helps potential candidates by linking them with other entrepreneurs and helping them focus on their business venture and the problem they’re trying to solve.

“Many developers don’t really speak business language or have the [business] skills,” he says. “We want to make sure they don’t get eaten up by people who will abuse them. And we certainly want to make sure they see the execution, sustain their venture and make some money out of it.”

Open source

Ordnance Survey has two approaches to making its data available to developers and entrepreneurs: an open data approach and a premium data approach.

The open data programme makes available cross-sections of useful datasets from across all of Ordnance Survey’s data sources. It is available for everyone to use for free.

“It is useful sets of information – many organisations could run their business on that data, and many do,” says ter Haar.

There is also a premium data paid-for option which developers can access for free and only pay for once a solution goes live and is sold. ter Haar describes this as a pay-per-use model, and says many developers only pay back a few hundred pounds per year. 

Not only do developers have access to the data, but they can also manipulate it themselves, rather than just viewing it through an application programming interface (API).

As an example, ter Haar explains that the model could perhaps incur a charge of 5p if a developer was producing and selling a satellite navigation system, but if a million were sold it would add up to a lot of money. “But once you've sold a million, you're no longer an entrepreneur – it’s really a ramp based on usage,” he says.

There are around 20,000 developers in the community supported by Ordnance Survey, according to ter Haar, but some only need the APIs of the data, not the premium option. He estimates that around 100 companies are using the pay-per-use model to create applications using Ordnance Survey geolocation datasets.

“If developers used all of our data, there would be a stack of 1TB hard drives – it’s a significant amount of data to internally manipulate in their solutions,” says ter Haar.

Emergency data and sustainable hackathons

The Developer Challenge final comes a couple of months after the government launched a Flood Hack using open data to get startups coding to help the UK flood relief effort.

Ordnance Survey has its own fast-help systems that kick in at times of emergency, which provide mapping for emergency teams to help the Environment Agency with disasters such as the 2014 flooding. 

While the organisation was not involved with the Flood Hack, it plans to take part in the next hack, which will look at how the UK can prepare for emergencies.

But ter Haar says, as a citizen, he sometimes asks himself, "What have we actually delivered in these two days? Were they useful applications, or were they nice press?”. He says the importance of these hacks is longevity and whether they can be sustained over a longer period of time.

“I’m more in favour or what we’re doing with future cities hackathons in Glasgow, not just one- or two-day hackathons, but programmes that span weeks or months.”

Startups versus big suppliers

Internally, Ordnance Survey uses a mixture of traditional enterprise suppliers, such as Oracle and IBM, and startups for its software architecture. It also uses a lot of open source technology, which ter Haar finds often comes from smaller organisations and startups.

We feel very comfortable using startups

Peter ter Haar, Ordnance Survey

“We feel very comfortable using startups, especially in an open source context where the community works together – they help out each other and check each other’s work,” he says.

By using smaller companies, ter Haar says Ordnance Survey can mould them to its needs. “You can shape them slightly more to focus on a lot more of your own requirements rather than focusing on the requirements of the rest of the world. It’s useful if you want to do something quickly,” he says.

One example he uses is a “true developer” from Southampton. “This small software provider spun out of Ordnance Survey originally. It had nothing to do with us for quite a while, and is now one of our leading tech providers."

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