Ordnance Survey is close to granting the higher education community a national site licence to its digital map data. But the details of the deal will not be fixed until the HE sector's needs have been established by a market research exercise.
Joe Hutcheon at the funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee office in Bristol explained: "It would be a national site licence between the JISC and Ordnance Survey. There would also be individual agreements between universities and Ordnance Survey about the security of data. The aim would be to make it free at the point of use."
A similar deal already exists for census data, and in January three publishers are to begin an experiment in national site licensing of electronic journals.
Ordnance Survey's Jim Page confirmed the form of the proposed deal: "JISC would fund the data. It would then be available to JISC funded institutions for no further charge."
Ordnance Survey already has a similar agreement with local authorities.
The value of the contract, expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, will depend on negotiations after the market research firm Strategy Research and Action has filed its report. Questionnaires are going out this month for return in November, and negotiations will begin at the start of next year.
The research will establish current and potential usage of Ordnance Survey digital map data in teaching and educational research by JISC funded bodies within higher education.
Advice and support in setting up the research was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council and Natural Environment Research Council.
Many university departments are believed to have uses for Ordnance Survey data.
"It is very broad," said Mr Hutcheon. "It could be departments such as archaeology. Social sciences are interested, and people like geologists and marine biologists. It is far wider than just geography."
Ordnance Survey's Pounds 58 million turnover comes from the sale of printed maps and, increasingly, from licensing digital map data.