Opinion: the ‘power of where’ – realising the potential of geospatial data

By on 06/12/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022

For millennia maps have guided exploration, supported trade and allowed us to defend our nations and maintain the social fabrics of our societies. They tell the story of human endeavour and they demonstrate enormous socio-economic value. And, now that modern mapping techniques are becoming more sophisticated aided by technology – unlocking a myriad of benefits that we are only just beginning to understand – that value is set to grow exponentially.  

At the crux of it is ‘fundamental geospatial data’, a subset of location data, which allows us to collect data with associated time and place. This has replaced maps as our digital representation of the physical world – significantly boosting what I call the ‘power of where’.

The data collected from GPS, and GPS-enabled technologies such as drones and sensors, mean governments can harness the power of earth observation, re-energising geography – one of our oldest disciplines – as the means to integrate data.

Think of good quality fundamental geospatial data as the digital scaffolding upon which other location data can be integrated and analysed. ‘Created once, used many’, this data and the insights derived from it can greatly benefit governments, business, academia, citizens and communities. It is a valuable national asset – the data equivalent of a road or telecommunications network – and should be recognised as such. 

For governments, perhaps the most important aspect of fundamental geospatial data is the role it plays in evidence-based policymaking. Trusted location data enables the unseen to be seen and can be applied to make predictions and establish cause and effect, helping to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges such as climate change and the rise of automation. Though artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will one day help, it is location intelligence and geospatial technologies that are currently leading the way – enabling governments to effectively model, plan and deliver policy and investment decisions.

Data-driven service delivery  

It isn’t only informing policy and tackling global challenges for which geospatial data can be invaluable. It can help deliver more effective public services too.

Uber is a company I believe absolutely demonstrates the ‘power of where’.  Founded on geospatial tools and analytics, it integrates driver and customer locations with route networks, live traffic alerts and other useful information.

Government may lag behind private sector companies when it comes to utilising geospatial technologies and the resultant data to provide services, but huge strides are being made. For example, geospatial data enables ambulances to get to the right location first time and at quicker speeds – this has been shown to reduce heart attack deaths in Ireland by 7-10%. In Lithuania, meanwhile, the government is working to integrate many of its 600 e-services using real-time data and a geospatial approach.

Barriers to adoption

There’s no doubt that geospatial data can benefit governments and their citizens greatly – studies in New Zealand and Canada show widespread geospatial adoption could boost each country’s GDP by between 0.6% and 1.2%. But there are challenges to overcome before it is used to full advantage.  

A simple lack of awareness of geospatial applications and benefits is one. Another is lack of political will and/or the means to invest in it – particularly in developing countries, which could arguably benefit most from a geospatial approach.  

Another major hurdle experienced by many governments is enabling the secure sharing of data between departments. Technical, policy and legal constraints must be overcome.

The UN’s 14 fundamental geospatial data themes. (Logos developed courtesy of Geospatial Frameworks, Australia; designed by Creative Loop, United Kingdom).

Opening up national datasets associated with the 14 United Nations (UN) fundamental geospatial data themes – which include land use, infrastructure, population distribution, transport networks and water – is a good start. The UN encourages governments and organisations to maintain, and allow access to, national datasets across these global themes so that they can be used for evidence-based decision-making. The greater the use, the more their value. Even if incomplete, there is strong reason to make such datasets available.

Preventing data from being accessed and shared in the interests of national security is one of the obstacles but, on balance, I would argue that releasing good data across government and society helps to enable the very social, economic and environmental benefits that improve long-term security. There are, of course, associated privacy issues but these can be managed through the implementation of a sensible, coherent government-wide approach to data ethics.

Realising the potential

Despite these barriers, progress is being made. The governments of Mexico, Ireland and others are integrating statistics and fundamental geospatial data to better understand progress towards sustainable development goals. For example, by looking at population distribution, water supply infrastructure and other location-dependent factors, governments can work out what proportion of the population has access to clean, safely-managed drinking water.  

In addition, e-government benefits are being realised. The UK’s ‘Tell Us Once’ service uses addresses – an important component of fundamental geospatial data – as the unique ‘data key’ that ensures multiple agencies are informed of someone’s death through a single online report by next of kin. This is estimated to save government £25m (US$32m) a year whilst reducing the burden on grieving relatives.

The UK government is also currently resourcing projects through the Geospatial Commission, which was launched last year to help unlock an estimated £11bn (US$14bn) in economic value. One such project aims to improve and integrate underground utility location data to increase safety and to reduce roadwork congestion that costs London alone £100m (US$129m) a year.

And, as climate change continues to affect the UK, meteorological data and data from the Environment Agency and Ordnance Survey is being integrated to help predict flooding, allowing local authorities and the emergency services to plan evacuations and insurance companies to prepare.    

The UK is using geospatial data to help predict flooding, allowing local authorities and the emergency services to plan evacuations and insurance companies to prepare. (Image courtesy: Steve./flickr).

Meanwhile in Zanzibar, the government is using land use, fishery and property rights data to balance the conflicting demands of coastal communities and offshore gas extraction companies whilst taking the environment and need for economic growth into consideration.

And in Arusha, Tanzania, a comprehensive fundamental geospatial data set has been created to enable municipalities to collect revenue from business permits.

Signalling governments’ growing awareness of the advantages of location data, progressive geospatial data agencies, such as Geosciences Australia, loan geospatial experts to ministries to help inform policy and service delivery. And some countries are setting up location innovation centres, such as Singapore’s GeoWorks, to help digital businesses to grow using geospatial approaches.  

Initiatives such as these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible. 

Why does all this matter?

Location data allows us to understand our complex world, make evidence-based decisions, implement plans and measure outcomes. Integrating a geospatial approach into a nation’s data strategy and bringing together trusted fundamental geospatial data, people and technologies is invaluable in informing government policy, driving efficiencies and delivering innovative public services. And it will become ever-more important as the rise of automation takes decisions from human hands.  

Good governance, good leadership and collaboration are needed for its full potential to be realised.

The United Nations and World Bank have made a bold move by producing a member-nation-endorsed Integrated Geospatial Information Framework – a handrail for governments embarking on their location data journeys – in a bid to globalise the ‘power of where’.

For governments that take heed of the guidance and fully embrace the power of geospatial data, the possibilities – and benefits – are almost endless.

The Geospatial Framework’s Implementation Guide is to be released at the United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management forum in Windsor, UK, 20-22 April 2020.

Writer: John Kedar is a former director of international engagement at Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain. He now independently advises governments globally.

About John Kedar

John Kedar is a former director of international engagement at Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency for Great Britain. He now independently advises governments globally.

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