Dr Vanessa Lawrence, Co-Chair UN-GGIM: Exclusive Interview

By on 28/10/2014 | Updated on 18/01/2017
Dr Vanessa Lawrence, making a global impact at the United Nations

Dr Vanessa Lawrence CB, is Co-Chair of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM)

Dr Lawrence is a CB, a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, an order awarded for conspicuous service to the British Crown. She is also the GeoSpatial Personality of the Decade (2000-2010). According to her entry in Debrett’s, she likes collecting antique maps. She holds a host of doctorates and awards and is also Honorary Colonel of 135 Geographic Squadron, Royal Engineers, a part of the British Army. Clearly this is someone who is interested in the world, who is keen on geography and who is leaving her mark on it.

Before being elected by the Member States of the United Nations (UN) in 2011 to be the inaugural Co-Chair of UN-GGIM, Dr Lawrence was not only one of the longest serving Directors General of Ordnance Survey, she was also the first woman to hold that office. While leading Ordnance Survey she oversaw many new programmes and improvements; the most notable being the creation of what is now known as the MasterMap of Great Britain. It is the largest geospatial database in the world containing over 450 million features within it, including of course every house and every road in Great Britain. According to the Women’s Engineering Society: ‘This is an accomplishment unique among the world’s major mapping agencies, and the task was thought by many to be impossible.’ One suspects that last word is not one she ever uses.

Visitors From The UN

Then, in 2011, Dr Lawrence received some senior visitors from the UN: ‘They told me they had spent the last two years founding a new part of the UN, and that it was very unusual to establish a new part of the United Nations. This new area was to focus upon geographic information management; and they explained it had this focus as there was a lack of strategic leadership in this very important area, across the globe. They also explained that, along with good governance, adequate fiscal systems and good statistical systems, it was deemed that accurate and reliable geographical information was of assistance to nation building.’

Naturally Dr Lawrence agreed and wished them well, and so was surprised when they suggested she might be elected by the Member States into a leadership role as one of the first co-Chairs of the UN-GGIM. So what does she see as the primary purpose? She is very clear on the mission of UN-GGIM:

‘The primary purpose is to give leadership to governments and other institutions concerning the creation of accurate, reliable geographical information and, in turn, using that geographical information to solve local, regional, national and global problems and be able to measure and monitor the changing world. Geographical information is at the heart of the infrastructure of a country.

‘There are however many countries where there is just insufficient investment, often due to lack of strategic recognition of the importance of geographic information.  Once the importance is explained, it often seems to make a difference to the investment profile.

‘Authoritative, accurate, reliable geography can be used in every-day decisions in every country; whether it be to underpin construction, monitor sustainable development, assist resource planning or facilitate transport management. Everything revolves around that question: “where?” You cannot measure and monitor anything in this world unless you understand the “where” aspect.

‘What we are talking about is an investment for a nation in what is often known as “place-based information” or “authoritative geospatial information”.’

Making It Happen

But how do you bring that about? In UN-GGIM’s case it had no intention of creating data, just leading by good example. Having good ideas is terrific, but making them happen on the ground is another matter. Fortunately, the Member States had chosen well because their inaugural Co-Chair brought more than passion and energy to the task.

Before she worked at Ordnance Survey, itself a business that has independently been calculated by OXERA to underpin £100bn of the British economy, she worked in publishing. Naturally it was in the area of geographic information, following on from her degree in Geography. The publisher Longman is the world’s oldest commercial imprint and Vanessa Lawrence founded a geospatial business for them at a time when it became apparent that digital data was the future for all large publishing houses. Both sides benefitted:

‘Longman gave me a fabulous business training and a fabulous insight in how to commercialise and enhance intellectual property.’ That expertise, one could surmise, gave her an edge in getting all aspects of UN-GGIM up and running, as she explains further:

‘When you establish something the first thing is to get an identity. A UN colleague, Greg Scott, and I created everything from the design guidelines to how we would establish the brand, how we would host the first meetings and how we would work operationally. So all aspects were considered by the early initiators.’

I Do Believe In It

Today it is a well-functioning entity within the UN system and UN-GGIM is now dependent on many volunteers from across the globe. It has produced useful ‘thought-leadership’ including the publishing of a document which is being used by governments all around the world called Future trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision.

Dr Lawrence worked with colleagues around the globe on UN-GGIM while still working full-time as Director General and CEO of Ordnance Survey. She acknowledges she has had a ferocious workload.

‘The last three years have been enormously busy. Very, very long hours, but it has been very worthwhile.’ She resigned from Ordnance Survey on 1 April this year after 14 years as Director General and CEO to focus on other projects, including UN-GGIM. As she says, ‘I do believe in it. I have always done things I believe in throughout my whole career.’ When asked if it is too grand a way of putting it, that the work of UN-GGIM saves not only money but lives, she said:

‘No, it is not too grand. We know that if there is a natural disaster, better mapping is necessary for all kinds of humanitarian work.’ Along with her work for UN-GGIM, Dr Lawrence is also a patron of MapAction, a charity dedicated to helping with geospatial information whenever there is a humanitarian crisis. This first-responder charity also has, among others, Prince Harry as its Royal Patron, and works all over the world.

Everyday Applications

But she is keen not to simply focus on the major disasters and crises. As she points out, geospatial information helps us all in our daily lives. She gives the example of simply driving somewhere to a location you are not certain of. A few years ago you would have hauled out a map book which, inevitably, would be slightly out of date as so often there was a bypass road built around a village which was not marked on the map. She describes that this often led to people being ‘a bit lost and having an inefficient journey’.

She contrasts this with current satellite navigation which can also incorporate real-time events so you will be alerted as you approach a congested area that traffic is slow due to a local thunderstorm.

So for everything from mundane daily tasks to international humanitarian disasters, there is a clear and necessary role for Global Geospatial Information Management. The task of UN-GGIM is to make that role a reality, while at the same time battling with the fact that it is a nascent part of the United Nations.

For The Long Term

The Member States, when they voted to establish UN-GGIM, did not vote to give it a budget. As a result, UN-GGIM has established itself with a small number of staff funded by the Member States and a Trust Fund to support developing and transitional countries. Dr Lawrence is looking to the future:

‘We are working very hard to establish UN-GGIM for the long term. The reality is that the majority of our current work is fulfilled by goodwill and with very high quality work being undertaken by everyone. The way to build trust in UN-GGIM is through quality and delivery. We have to report back in 2016 to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) and at that stage the Member States will decide how we should develop UN-GGIM going forward.’

Dr Lawrence is certain that creating and maintaining geospatial data and improving data quality and accuracy within the Member States will be beneficial:

‘Acquiring information and geographic information is going on all the time. It is how people use that information that is important.

‘The acquisition of so much data is starting to raise issues of people’s privacy – the concerns over Google Streetview mentioned in national newspapers is one example of this – and this debate on the public benefit of the use of such data versus the impact on individual privacy is one which UN-GGIM is well aware of and is actively discussing. When I think of the public well-being that our information brings – whether it be better traffic flows or understanding what is happening in a particular area in an emergency – I personally think this far outweighs the implied privacy issues.’

The licensing terms for the release of the data can differ between countries; some release the data for use by citizens and others choose not to. However, many countries now support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and through that initiative many countries now make their ‘place based information’ available to their citizens.

There is still an ongoing debate as to how to fund the long term sustainability of the mapping organisations as maintaining the mapping data is expensive – some countries choose to charge their citizens for use of the data and others decide that it is a ‘public good’ and arrange for it to be free to use.  Great Britain, for instance, has been using a mixed model within its national mapping agency Ordnance Survey since 2010. Some of the data is free of charge at point of use to assist citizens to make decisions and certain data is released under the paid-for model – this data is mainly for institutional and business use.

UN-GGIM has no intentions of collecting global information but is keen to ensure that global technical standards and good standards within capacity building are adopted all over the world. But to make this a reality is what the leadership team of UN-GGIM is attempting to do.

UN-GGIM Goes More Global

There is now a programme set up to create regional structures of UN-GGIM.  Very effective mechanisms have already been established by the creation of UN-GGIM: Asia Pacific, UN-GGIM: Americas and UN-GGIM: Europe.  Over the coming year UN-GGIM: Arab States and UN-GGIM: Africa are expected to move from their transitional set-up phase to being fully operational.  These regional structures tailor their outcomes to meet local requirements and share considerable regional learnings of best practice between each other. The Fourth Session of the Committee of Experts at UN-GGIM (UN-GGIM4) held in August 2014 in New York moved forward events further. Dr Lawrence explains the current position:

‘We all feel very strongly about trying to move forward to assist more countries to invest in authoritative, maintained geospatial information. We are working all the time towards that. We are seeing more governments understanding that they need to increase investment in mapping data within their national investment budgets.

‘Quite unusually for such a small, new group in the United Nations, we have already come to a consensus as Member States on a particular issue: to assist greater accuracy to be embedded in “accurate positioning technology” across the globe, so that all places can be registered accurately on the ground, within one global framework known as a Global Geodetic Reference Frame. We agreed at UN-GGIM4 to ask the Secretariat to take a Resolution on this firstly to the Economic and Social Council this autumn and then, should they ratify it, we hope the Resolution will be taken on to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

‘The Resolution would change the current position where contributions to the development of the Global Geodetic Reference Frame are undertaken on a “best efforts” basis to one where they are made through a multilateral collaboration under a UN mandate.

‘This is vital for many aspects of nation building and long-term sustainability from managing water resources, enhancing farming systems and monitoring urban and rural outcomes to traffic management.  At the same time, it will assist in times of crisis. For instance it will make sure that if you have rivers and river basins in several countries they are actually aligned on the map. This is terribly important.’

Strong Messages

Long term of course one of the goals is to get UN-GGIM on a proper budgetary footing; this may happen in 2016. By the Fifth Session of the Committee of Experts on UN-GGIM, which will be held in August 2015, the aim is to have some very strong messages endorsed by Member States that will be presented to the meeting of ECOSOC in 2016.

Dr Lawrence sums up what those messages should be: ‘What I think is the ultimate aim is to make sure that, as I said earlier, along with good governance, adequate fiscal systems, good healthcare, good statistics, people add good mapping information, otherwise known as authoritative, reliable, geospatial information, to that list. It is an essential part of any nation, rather than it sometimes being seen as a project-based activity to assist the building of a road or to assist the building of a new dam.

‘When you start to think about it, you realise how much everything depends on “place-based data” to underpin essential services such as the mobile telephone network, utilities in the road, sustainable development and emergency management. How can we make sure more people understand that?’

Questions and Perceptions

Dr Lawrence, together with other colleagues working on UN-GGIM globally, is putting her considerable energy into answering that question, but to her it is all happening rather faster than she imagined.

‘It is very interesting. I was told, although it is not what I found personally, that moving people’s understanding that geospatial information was a technical subject to something underpinning central government policies around the world would be very challenging. Through UN-GGIM, we are finding that governments around the world are receiving strong messages, often from their UN Ambassadors, and as a result the perception of how this technical field can enable decision-making for nations is changing very rapidly and positively.  We are very grateful to the Member States for the work they are investing in this important area.’

One suspects that, before she is finished, Dr Vanessa Lawrence will have made an even bigger mark on the planet, she is so dedicated to understanding.

About Graham Scott

Graham is an experienced editor and publisher and an award-winning writer. He has travelled extensively and is interested in world cultures.

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