Geospatial Information Management – Why Time and Place Really Matter

By on 04/06/2014
Greek taxpayers will be required to submit a 56-page digital tax form, from this year, to combat Greek tax evasion. Image: iStock

How geospatial information management is changing the world

What is geospatial information? Basically, any information that has an element of location about it. For example, knowing where the nearest hospital is in relation to where you are is geospatial information. So too is plotting the geographic extent of a drought in relation to the people living in the area.

Geospatial information is a subject of exponential growth that has immense implications for both governments and its citizens. Which is why, in 2011, the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC) established the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). UN-GGIM was established to play a leading role in setting the agenda for the development of global geospatial information and to promote its use to address key global challenges. Its aim is to provide a forum to liaise and co-ordinate geospatial information activities among UN Member States, and between UN Member States and international organisations.

In 2013 at the Third Session the Committee of Experts endorsed and adopted the report ‘Future Trends in Geospatial Information Management: the five to ten year vision‘. The committee had commissioned the report during its First Session in 2011. It documented the thoughts of leaders in the geospatial world  about the future of the industry over the next five and ten years.

What is surprising is how little coverage the resulting paper has had since it was published in the latter part of 2013. But the UN-GGIM has highlighted a sector that is evolving at unbelievable speed. Governments, NGOs, the private sector, private citizens – this affects us all.

Using and Emitting Information

At one level, many of us use geospatial information every day. When you turn on the sat-nav in your car. When you search online for a restaurant near you and then use something like Google maps to see where it is. When you put up a photo of you on holiday on Instagram, telling everyone where you are.

Governments use it for everything from anti-terrorism operations – locating communications from suspects, often in remote parts of the world – to planning infrastructure projects. But the point is the sheer scale of what’s happening, everything from the speed with which the technology is changing to the increasing volume of data.

The paper describes what it calls ‘data overload’ from ‘analytical superfood’. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider this: every single day 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. This leads to the first of the trends forecast in the UN paper.

Big Data

They see ‘big data’ as a growth industry, with an increasing use and reliance on big data to plan and manage projects. This of course already exists but nothing like on the scale required over the next decade.

As the paper says:

Looking forward over the next five to ten years, new massivelyscalable, distributed systems for processing unstructured and semistructured data will emerge, and will become widely accepted and relied upon in the management and interpretation of geospatial information.

Use of these technologies will facilitate the effective use of the reams of raw data being generated by the increasing number of geospatial sensors, eliminating ‘the white noise of excessive data’, enabling us to locate the right information at the right time, thus driving effective and wellinformed decisionmaking.

With the increasing use of mobile phones and other devices, the amount of geospatial data generated is rising at colossal rates. For example there are about one billion devices already in the world that are either Kindle or Kindle-enabled devices. But managing all that data comes at a cost that some may find prohibitive.

As with most new technologies, there is a risk that a gulf will appear between countries that can manage the data and those that cannot. What the paper calls a ‘digital geospatial divide’.

They explain further:

Technologies, and the financial resourcing required to access such technologies, are not available equally across the globe. Although many developing nations have leapfrogged in areas such as mobile communications, the lack of fibreoptics and core processing power may inhibit some from taking advantage of the opportunities offered by some of these technologies.

Positive Trends

But there are some very positive trends which will go at least some way towards countering that scenario. Trends like greater outsourcing, and offshoring of processing and analysis, as well as a greater use of the cloud.

Another substantial area of benefit to all areas of the world is the increasing use of open-source software. There is already the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). A number of government bodies have already adopted open-source solutions and more will follow. This will lower any perceived barriers to using free open-source, rather than proprietary, software.

The paper highlights three trends which should ensure open-source has a very viable future. Clearly, the fact that it’s free-to-use is a massive benefit for countries with limited resources. Secondly, the ability to share and modify the software helps build communities and exchanges of knowledge. And, thirdly, younger graduates will become familiar with the protocols and technology and will take it forward into their professional lives.

Gaming The System

Other trends highlighted include influences brought in from other areas, everything from drone technology to the gaming industry. Again, it’s the speed which is liable to catch many people and governments out.

We’ve gone from 2D – the map you unfold – to 3D onscreen, giving us intricate views of, say, a city. Much of that development has come from the online gaming industry so far. And 4D – adding time – is upon us and due to accelerate quickly over the next five to ten years. That means we will be able to look back in history on a timeline as well as model effectively for the way things will change in the future.

The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is rolling out and by 2015 the UN estimates there will be 100 satellites in orbit. This will result in faster data collection, higher accuracy and greater integrity. While this is progress, it also comes at a price.

Who Pays?

Cost is a difficult issue since so many end-users, if they are the public, expect data to be free. Things like Google Maps have helped cement that idea in the public consciousness. But clearly launching satellites, having the computing power to crunch colossal amounts of data, having skilled staff to interpret that data and to recommend outcomes does cost a considerable amount.

So far that has come from governments. Or, to be accurate, from the public, who paid the taxes to the government which it then spent in this way. With this situation unlikely to change in the immediate future in any major way, this does raise some serious concerns.

With governments effectively bankrolling most of these projects and thus asserting some ownership, this raises fears both about the governments and also on their behalf.

Quis Custodiet Ipsops Custodes?

The use of CCTV in Western nations has already caused concerns over personal privacy. But we are moving to a situation where vast swathes of some populations are carrying devices which broadcast their geospatial position 24 hours a day. The state will have access to this data. What it does with it clearly needs to be covered by national laws and oversight bodies.

What happens, for example, when a businessman equipped with his laptop and smartphone goes from his office in his home country, where his privacy is covered by law, and he flies to another country that has no such laws? And a criminal only needs two pieces of geospatial information: where that businessman is abroad, and where his home, now empty, is situated.

Cybersecurity is another major issue, both for the individual and the state. Those working in sophisticated encryption technologies will have plenty of work in the future. So too will many others, from NGOs to private companies.

Employment Opportunities

Many of the most critical issues where geospatial data can help tend to be in the less well-developed countries. Potentially there is a major role for NGOs and other agencies to help with the relevant skill sets. Without this there may be a brain-drain as that nation’s most talented staff relocate to wealthier nations which have more advanced structures in place.

However, it’s almost certain that many of the skill sets will be found in the private sector. For example, defence strategies are being reconfigured to use more technology, more satellites, more big data, much of which will be paid for by governments, but created by private companies. These technologies are becoming more important in dealing with counter-terrorism and the kinds of wars which are becoming the norm – asymmetric conflicts.

Geospatial technology and data is rapidly becoming a core tool for governments to use in every theatre, from defence to flood prevention. Governments have been, and remain, the main source of funding for such projects. So to gain maximum value, there is a need to understand the implications and possibilities and to start training and implementation now.

The UN-GGIM paper sums up the situation:

In the next five to ten years an understanding of what skills are required and what training is needed will be an important component of ensuring the value of geospatial information is maximised. Early determination of, and action on these issues is vital, as the time needed to develop an appropriate training capability and then train the individuals is at least five years.

The demand is highly likely to exceed the pace of development. This is being taken seriously and, in some quarters, is evidenced by recent pronouncements from the governments of some of the largest and fastestgrowing economies of the world that have made substantial investment commitments in geospatial information in the last 18 months.

Extracts are from: Future trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision, July 2013

Do you have programmes running within your country? We’d be interested to hear how governments and their departments are dealing with this issue around the globe. Please either email us or leave your views in the Comments below.

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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