UCL News


Press cutting: Copyright fight sinks virtual planning

4 January 2007

Imagine flying at rooftop height up the Thames.

You dive under Tower Bridge, then twist between the Gherkin and Tower 42 skyscrapers. As the London Eye looms, you bank right and dive into a translucent globe which transports you into the middle of St Paul's cathedral.

This is an inadequate verbal description of the experience of using Virtual London (though you can click here for a clip). It is a dramatic 3D computer model showing every single building inside the M25 as at least a shaded box; some are in almost photographic detail. The model is being developed, with government money, to help Londoners visualise what is happening to their city.

What Londoners cannot do, however, is experience Virtual London on the web. …

Virtual London is based partly on a database created by Ordnance Survey, a state-owned body which has to generate commercial returns. Although Virtual London was funded by another state body, the computer model cannot be posted on the web without infringing Ordnance Survey's copyright.

Virtual London is one of a new generation of geospatial information products being made possible by the free availability of the Google Earth mapping software (earth.google.com). The model was developed by the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL. …

Besides being a stunning visual experience, the model has a serious purpose: to engage Londoners in the future of their city by enabling them to see what new buildings or developments will look like. …

To create the model, UCL's team took data on heights collected by laser-sensing radar (Lidar) at a resolution of one metre and overlaid it on building outlines from Ordnance Survey's MasterMap database. MasterMap is Ordnance Survey's crown jewel - a constantly updated database of more than 450m geographical features, on which all its other maps are based. Into this model can be inserted lifelike representations of individual buildings and even 360-degree photographic panoramas.

Virtual London (some of whose highlights are at yourlondon.gov.uk/virtual london/index.jsp) now covers 2,000 square kilometres of the capital. The map can be populated with almost any data, from air pollution monitors for example. The team has also posted a dramatic (and spooky) simulation of how London's South Bank would be flooded if sea levels rise as expected.

Virtual London was created for professional geographic information systems as used by planners and architects. However, Google Earth's arrival in mid-2005 opened up new possibilities. "I'm passionate about democratising the planning process," says Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith, a senior research fellow at the centre. "Free software makes that possible."

Google was equally enthusiastic and approached the university about incorporating Virtual London into its city maps.

At the moment, London boroughs can use Virtual London under licences they have with Ordnance Survey and Infoterra, which supplied the Lidar data. What nobody can do is put the model on the web for all to see. …

The sticking point is understood to be Google's attempt to negotiate a fixed fee for the data, rather than accepting Ordnance Survey's practice of charging by the number of transactions. Ordnance Survey would not comment on the specific case, but said that a fixed fee would "wreck the level playing field for other partners" - and it should be noted that it is obliged to treat all customers (including itself) on the same terms. …

The web revolution in geographical data marches on. Last month the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis launched another potentially disruptive technology. Google Map Creator is a free application.

It provides a quick and simple way of taking any computer data with geometry and spatial attributes and posting it on a Google Map web page. "We'd like to do the same as YouTube, only with maps," says Professor Mike Batty.

The centre is buzzing with other ideas, such as gaming, in Virtual London. This, however, will depend on the licensing question being resolved. In the meantime, says Hudson-Smith, the reality is that: "We can display Virtual London, but we can't put it where any member of the public can interact with it." Public money funds it, yet "public" copyright keeps it shut away. …

Michael Cross, 'The Guardian'