Geospatial data - why we need new maps for a new world

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton February 16, 2021
What value does geospatial data hold and why might it be critical to the UK’s and others’ future success?

Image of a town centre mapped in 3D
(Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay )

You can't use an old map to explore a new world.

So says Thalia Baldwin, Director of the UK's Geospatial Commission. The need is for new maps that pinpoint rich data at specific natural or manmade points on the Earth's surface - countries, cities, parks, transport networks, buildings, rivers, natural habitats - and thus zoom in on the impacts of human activity on the planet. Some of that activity may need to be encouraged, some of it dramatically reduced.

For ‘maps' read both actual cartographic resources, and open data plus analytics tools. To capitalise on that trove of data about places, socially and economically, is both an opportunity and a challenge, she suggests - the latter because usage may be restricted, and so the data may not be open, linked, or standardised. A key strategic objective is removing those obstacles. Baldwin said: 

We are really keen on making sure that there is a coherent approach to assessing the case for investment, definitely in the public sector. 

I think there's a common thread at the moment across the public sector, particularly to do with investments around data-related opportunities. It's not just replacements of legacy platforms, but figuring out whether investments in different kinds of things will bring about benefits that support the market more widely, and the efficient running of the public sector. 

In the Geospatial Commission we have a key role in working with different departments in the Treasury to ensure that economists are thinking about the value of geospatial data.

Part of the UK government's Cabinet Office, the Commission provides strategic oversight of these issues, setting strategy, policy, and standards. It also holds the budget for the public sector's biggest investment in geospatial data to date - £1 billion over 10 years - and makes targeted investments itself in a variety of data projects. 

The Commission has mapped out a national geospatial data strategy for the UK until 2025. Alongside the Industrial Strategy and its associated Challenge Fund, the government's focus on AI, robotics, green energy, new transport solutions, and more, this forward-looking document makes the UK's decision to blunder about without an administrative map, post Brexit, seem especially tragic. So many opportunities for leadership and partnership have been made more difficult by an act of economic and (it should now be obvious) bureaucratic self-harm.

But what is the bigger picture for geospatial data? For centuries our view of the world has been resolutely two-dimensional, in the form of maps accessed on paper or onscreen. But in the 21st Century that view can be explored in much greater depth, through layer upon layer of rich information, by combining different types of geospatial data. These create three-dimensional or rich-data pictures of places and objects - in some cases via sophisticated digital twins.

In this way, locations' paths through time can be projected long into the future - or at least anticipated in terms of policy making and strategic planning. And if you can predict something with reasonable accuracy, then you can ensure it is protected and maintained. 

As the Open Data Institute (ODI) explained in its own 2018 briefing on geospatial data opportunities:

We can use geospatial data to analyse elements of the natural environment which can help us understand causes and impacts of climate change and flooding. Geospatial data also helps us build models of what is likely to happen in a given location over time. 

For example, Global Positioning System (GPS) data collected from mobile phones can help predict future commuting patterns and the physical infrastructure improvements needed to manage them. Geospatial data can enrich other types of data - data about the social, economic, and cultural aspects of a population.

Data opportunities

Look at a city, for example, and the layers of data we could gather about any square mile or metre of it might include: population; land use; property information; terrain data; political boundaries; pollution statistics; or information about waterways, transport networks, demographics, education, local utilities, and more. 

The Geospatial Commission believes there are nine big location data opportunities for the UK: infrastructure; transport; housing and local planning; the environment; public health; emergency response; the ocean economy (also a major focus for robotics investment); retail; and finance. 

These layers of data and the relationships between them can provide vital insights to policymakers, populations, and organisations, of course, but also to machines, such as autonomous vehicles and drones. As aviation authorities begin to grant permission for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and as driverless cars and trucks make their way onto our roads, those layers of information will be essential.

So it is clear that geospatial data has economic value at both macro- and microeconomic levels, and machines are also helping humans to gather it: satellite constellations, autonomous vehicles, robots, phones, sensors, and LiDAR-equipped devices among them. Via the Internet of Things, geospatial data now stretches from the location to the edge environment - where intelligence is increasing - and from there into the cloud. In many cases it reaches down from near-Earth orbit too. But all of this top-down and bottom-up opportunity for insight demands one thing: openness.

The greater good

So how are different countries doing in terms of opening up their data to this type of analysis? While the UK is ranked third globally in the Open Data Index - behind Taiwan and Australia, and above France and Finland (the US is joint 11th, Japan 16th, India 32nd, Russia 38th, and China is not even in the top 100) - it fares badly in areas that are rooted in its feudal past: open data about property and land. 

To really succeed in this new economy, therefore, Britain will have to do the one thing it finds most difficult: think collectively for the greater good, rather than for the benefit of landlords of every kind, including data landlords.

In the US, the Obama administration's 2009 Open Data Policy, which defined data as a "valuable national resource and strategic asset" that should be made "available, discoverable, and usable" (i.e. open) was instrumental in unlocking greater economic and social potential on that side of the Atlantic. 

Alongside China, the US is currently taking the lead in opening up its airspace and road networks to autonomous traffic, so openness about a variety of different geospatial data types must be the direction of travel. 

But there are challenges for any economy that seeks to capitalise on geospatial data. In every case, there needs to be dialogue between public and private organisations so that everyone can benefit from an opening up of data resources, rather than locking it in proprietary boxes. 

For example, ride-sharing firms such as Uber and Lyft all benefit from open geospatial data. But equally they should be persuaded to open up their own data about how and where transport services are being used, so that local authorities and policymakers can use it to design better public spaces and infrastructures. 

These types of porous relationships will be critical in the future. However, the tendency for commercial pressures to create data fiefdoms remains high. To counter this, we need to move towards a digital culture that recognises the economic and social potential of opening data up. That isn't easy in an economy in which many still see data ownership as the sole route to wealth, rather than providing targeted services that meet people's needs on all sides.


For the Geospatial Commission there are several strategic goals: promote and safeguard the use of location data; improve access to better location data; enhance capabilities, skills, trust, and awareness at national, local, and organisational levels; and thus enable innovation to take place around it.

Our vision is that by 2025 the UK will have a coherent national location data framework. Future technologies will be underpinned by data about events occurring at a time and place. Location data will be the unifying connection between things, systems, people and the environment.

Six trends have an impact on that vision and may help to deliver it, says the Commission: the rise in real-time data; the proliferation of sensors, both moving (on drones, vehicles, or people) and fixed at locations; the growth in AI and machine learning, which help to identify trends or patterns in data; the spread of cloud platforms and the edge environment; growing connectivity and 5G; and the spread of new forms of data visualisation, such as immersive 3D and augmented reality. 

All of this makes the Internet of Things (IoT) and embedded intelligence at the edge critical to successful geospatial innovation. It also demands that we have a working 5G infrastructure.

As with AI, there are ethical and privacy dimensions too, in terms of the responsible use of location data and technology. These need to be balanced with the social, economic, and environmental value.

Overall, the challenge is tough. The Commission's strategy document says:

The UK will need a coordinated approach to achieve the vision of a location-powered UK. [...] One of the challenges we've seen is the complex and fractured location data policy landscape in the UK. This incoherence is leading to market uncertainty that could constrain investment in the location data assets that the UK needs to support its critical national infrastructure. It could also limit the UK's ability to anticipate and address future opportunities and risks in the rapidly changing digital environment.

The good news is that the UK is in the vanguard of developing a set of harmonised data licences for the use of public sector location data, which are due this year - Covid delays permitting. Meanwhile, the Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PSGA) is designed to provide location data expertise to developers and the public sector. 

Also on the agenda are improved access to the Ordnance Survey MasterMap. The combined work of the ‘Geo6' is important here. These are the six partner bodies of the Commission, namely the Ordnance Survey, the British Geological Survey, the Coal Authority, HM Land Registry, the Valuation Office, and the UK Hydrographic Office. There is a joint Data Discoverability project between those organisations. 

The Commission's Baldwin says:

Our partner bodies don't need any encouragement from us to develop best practice and make sure that they're working well with others across different different parts of the public sector. What we're here to do is make sure that we work together to understand common purposes that haven't quite been focused on before. 

For example, we've done a lot of work on the technical side with partner bodies. And we've published some guidance at a basic, but necessary, level for people working in the public sector on how best to access location data. And we've also brought together data that sits inside the partner bodies within one government licence.

So we're doing a range of things with those partner bodies, and using their experience and capability to point us in the right direction for the future.

Meanwhile, industry body techUK also has a Geospatial Data Campaign, so there is a lot of positive, directional activity within the UK.

Another issue is to do with skills: the UK's geospatial strategy commits the government to producing a study that pinpoints sectors and roles that need geospatial skills. These include establishing geospatial apprenticeships. She says: 

We all benefit from having people interested, at the start of their careers, in working with different bits of government and industry. We've made some commitments, some pretty early commitments in the strategy, to explore what geospatial apprenticeships would look like, and we're in the middle of that work. 

It's really interesting for us, because the way that apprenticeships are defined is necessarily specific, because they need to attach to the industry the ability for companies to understand exactly what they are training people to provide. 

Geospatial skills, and what those will look like in future, is a big question.

My take

It is good to know that the UK is more on top of the strategic agenda in this field than it is given credit for, just as the government has set out clear, ambitious goals in other technology areas, such as robotics, AI, green energy, and new transport solutions. So it is unfortunate that all of this good work takes place at a time of broader economic and political chaos. 

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