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Ordnance Survey: mapping the UK for over 225 years

Image credit: Ordnance survey

Over 200 years has passed since Ordnance Survey first began mapping the UK. Now its work will underpin 5G networks and smart cities.

Maps, apart from helping travellers, could also be powerful weapons. All maps in the Soviet Union carried deliberate errors to mislead mysterious Western spies with purposeful paranoia-driven deviations. There were no mistakes – deliberate or otherwise – in the Soviet cartographers’ military maps of the West; the Maps of the 20th century exhibition in the British Library holds a 1980s map of Brighton as a possible nuclear strike target, describing every single dwelling, warehouse and workshop in minute detail.

Still an important part of our culture, it is hard to believe that maps (online and printed) constitute just five per cent of the Ordnance Survey’s (OS) annual revenue alongside digital, GPS and geospatial data products, mobile apps and so on. Despite that, the OS, Britain’s national mapping agency and a world-famous brand, still employs 300 full-time surveyors across the UK. Tony Vanderhoek is one of them. “In our daily surveying, we do not use satellite mapping,” he says. “Imagery is still the key. We map the minute details no satellite can pick up, and the Land Registry solicitors rely on us solely.”

Field surveyors like Vanderhoek, who joined the OS straight from college in 1980, pick up primary features such as dwellings, roads and railways to appear on maps. Despite the seeming conservatism of OS surveyors’ activities, the kits they carry have changed dramatically. They used to work in teams, carrying measuring chains, heavy theodolites and lots of other bulky equipment. These days, they mostly operate alone with portable items such as a tablet computer, coupled via Bluetooth, and a survey-grade GNSS unit mounted on a pole.

The primary features get regularly updated with aerial photography from the OS’s Remote Sensing team, which has two Cessna 404 planes based at East Midlands airport in Leicestershire, so that all areas of the UK can be reached within a day.

The 404s, equipped with 196-megapixel cameras, capture about 50,000 aerial images every year, covering 40,000km2 of Britain’s urban, rural, moorland and mountain terrain. The 100,000 features are updated, added or deleted daily in the company’s core database, including 10,000 updates to the OS MasterMap database – the bible of the UK’s emergency services, police and estate agents. The OS guidelines dictate that all primary features should be mapped within six months of appearing on the ground. 

Explorer House – a modernistic boat-shaped structure at the very edge of Southampton – houses the new offices of the OS. The organisation moved here a couple of years ago, the second major move in its 225-year-long history (in 1841, it relocated to Southampton after a fire in its original London headquarters).

Although only a handful of the Explorer House staff are actual cartographers, with the majority being technicians, engineers, software writers and computer programmers, maps are everywhere: on walls, floors, ceilings and on countless computer screens. This is where over 450 million geographic features are kept in the regularly updated database. The location of every fixed physical object in Great Britain (the OS has not done foreign countries’ mapping since the 1880s) from the ground upwards has been mapped to within one-metre accuracy, and of late, not just the grounds of Earth.

Back in February 2016, to mark its 225th anniversary, the OS, for the first time in its history, took a leap off this planet to produce a one-off paper and digital map of Mars. The aim was to show that OS mapping could be used in future Mars missions.

The new map, which immediately became a coveted collectors’ item, covers a 3,672 x 2,721km extent of the Mars surface and has been produced to a scale of 1:4 million.

Christopher Wesson, the map’s designer, says: “[It is an] OS map of an area of Mars known as Western ArabiaTerra. It was produced to prototype the ability of a company with origins in traditional mapping of the British landscape to apply its expertise and style to planetary mapping, an activity usually undertaken by geologists, universities and space agencies.

“It was created largely from height data extracted from Nasa satellite imagery. Cartographic styling was done with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) within the GIS (Geographic Information System) software. I also used a command-line library called GDAL (Geospatial Data Abstraction Library) that allows reading, transformation and writing of geographic data. To my knowledge, the map is the first of its kind.

“It is encouraging to see that the power of a simple map has not been lost on those in the ultimate high-tech world of space exploration.”

Wesson says the map data was already used to approximate the Rover route in ‘The Martian’ film and assures that it can be helpful in a real landing on Mars when it happens. 

“We were asked to map an area of Mars in an OS style because our maps are easy to understand and present a compelling visualisation,” explains David Henderson, OS director of products and innovation. No wonder that, when put on Flickr, the OS map of Mars had 50,000 views in the first 48 hours.

The map of Mars was warmly welcomed and not just by space explorers, filmmakers and collectors outside the OS offices; it inspired Christopher Wesson’s colleagues from the company’s Tech Labs team to come up with the map-related Mars Augmented Reality (AR) Experience.

Layla Gordon, a Technology Labs engineer, says: “The first step was to create some 3D content for augmenting the map. Using a set of height data from the planet captured by Nasa, and with advice from Peter Grindrod from the UK Space Agency, I produced a height map in greyscale. Using Blender, I created a 3D terrain model of the Schiaparelli crater and its surroundings.”

The OS’s first foray into virtual spaces was in May 2015, when the company sponsored a Digital Shoreditch event in London. OS supplied a virtual version of a Victorian basement with corridors and rooms, to help visitors locate exhibits before the actual exhibition opened. That kind of AR app could steer patients to the right section of huge modern hospital complexes, which are sometimes very difficult to navigate. Not much to do with mapping? Yet hasn’t finding directions always been the primary purpose of maps? In a way, all cutting-edge technologies fit very neatly into the main mission of the OS – orientation: both external (in a landscape) and internal (inside a building).

Gordon tells me of a recent meeting at the OS Geovation hub in London, where they discussed the potential of mashing AR and virtual reality (VR) with geospatial data and future digital possibilities. Geovation is a new OS London-based commercial branch devoted to innovation and testing digital OS maps and other products. Alex Wrottesley, head of Geovation, says they provide an experimental environment for OS to explore new working styles and practices that will help the latter to succeed in an increasingly competitive technology marketplace.

Among its ongoing projects is Flock – a pioneering AI platform that uses big data to make drones safer and smarter in urban environments. Flock calculates the risks of using drones by tracking and analysing real-time positions of people, vehicles, structures and weather in an urban location – data which contributes to safety and defines ‘intelligent’ drone insurance. Flock aims to create autonomous mapping software and automatically calculate drones’ safest flight paths over London and other cities.

Another Geovation project is OpenCapacity – the first ever real-time public transport capacity forecast. It aims to predict how full trains, buses, trams and other modes of public transport are likely to be at different times of the day in urban areas. The data will determine frequency and accessibility to guarantee a smoother flow of passengers, much to the relief of the long-suffering city commuters.

Travellers will also be able to make informed decisions based on, for example, how full an approaching train is and thus where to stand on platforms. To achieve that, OpenCapacity uses existing public transport data sources (like CCTV cameras) combined with novel sensor innovations and machine learning technology.  

With one challenge for the OS being the creation of a 3D map of the whole of Britain, another will be to create its digital twin – a groundbreaking planning and mapping tool for the rollout of a future 5G communications network, taking account of everything that will affect the wireless signals. A pilot based on Bournemouth has even had to include the town’s Christmas tree and lights.

Last year, OS became part of the Atlas consortium to research and develop communication between autonomous and connected vehicles and roadside infrastructure. Driverless vehicles will, of course, need to find their way safely through a vast network of motorways and streets, and the OS will supply all necessary geospatial data for such a safe passage.  

There’s a lot of talk about smart cities these days, and it is often forgotten that to be truly ‘smart’ a city – first and foremost – has to process lots of precise geospatial data on ‘what, how, who and, most importantly, where’. OS is the only organisation in Britain capable of providing such data in abundance – from mapping references to geolocation information – and connecting all data flows. The plethora of existing and future OS maps and apps to track assets and resources, and assist intelligent transport networks, will be essential for calling any city ‘smart’. 


Ordnance Survey: Facts and figures

  • The birth of OS is generally agreed to be 21 June 1791, as that was the day that Master General of the Ordnance, the third Duke of Richmond, agreed on a payment of £373.14s to commence a survey of the whole country.
  • The first OS map is a one-inch map of Kent published in 1801.
  • When OS maps were hand-drawn, cartographers would sometimes subtly write their own names in while drawing cliffs and other features.
  • 342 million OS maps were printed for use by the Allied Forces in the Second World War.
  • 123 Ordnance Survey staff lost their lives during the two world wars while mapping trenches.
  • OS is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest real-world place represented in ‘Minecraft’.
  • Since 2010, there have been over one million orders for OS Open Data products.
  • In the past financial year, OS has supplied energy and water companies with 124 terabytes of data.
  • On 17 December 2014, OS made 383,889 changes to its database – a record number of changes for one single day.

Mapping the streets

Like Tony Vanderhoek, Jeremy Thompson has been an OS surveyor all his working life. He uses a Total Station, which is a Leica TS06plus theodolite, connected to a laptop via Bluetooth. He regularly surveys and prepares for mapping of new office buildings. When there is insufficient satellite signal, he uses trilateration – points from three surrounding buildings – to do the required measurements. A shape materialises on the laptop screen which goes straight to the OS database.

If there are changes in an area, such as a demolished traffic island, Thompson registers them and brings the data up-to-date using an app known as Object Editor. “If a traffic island has been taken out, we have to show it immediately, for numerous emergency services rely on our data for access,” he explains.

Modern technology is amazing, but it is never entirely fail-proof. Thompson confesses that in case of a failure of all laser measuring instruments, most surveyors, including himself, are still carrying a 20-metre tape measure in their pockets.

Trap streets to catch copyright cheats

It is common knowledge that mapmakers used to add fictitious features to their creations to protect copyright. In 2001, the AA (Automobile Association of Great Britain) paid out £20m in settlement to OS after it was caught plagiarising the agency’s maps for its own travel guides.

The OS was able to prove its maps were stolen due to deliberate small errors it had placed outside the maps’ nominal coverage area. The AA then admitted to copying the OS maps of 64 British towns.

These days, technology and readily available open source maps have all but eliminated the need for ‘trap streets’. “We don’t do this anymore, for, with plenty of open data, people these days can reproduce almost anything,” the OS says.   


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