City from above at night

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has today published two papers looking at geospatial data, like maps, in the UK. The first is its response to the Geospatial Commission’s call for evidence towards the UK’s Geospatial Strategy which will be published in 2019. The second is a report: The UK’s geospatial data infrastructure: challenges and opportunities, produced for an innovation project exploring the challenges faced by the UK’s geospatial data users, and the opportunities to support the publishing and use of openly licensed geospatial data. Both papers were launched today at the ODI Summit 2018.

Why is geospatial data important?

Geospatial data describes places including the address of a building, the boundaries of cities and regions, and the extent of flood plains. Geospatial data helps people, communities and organisations make decisions in almost all aspects of life and across all sectors of our economy. It is a crucial element of our national infrastructure.

Geospatial data drives many of the services we use everyday, including helping food travel from farms to shops, helping parcels get to our houses, and apps that help us make journeys such as Apple Maps and Waze. Analysing geospatial data can help us understand and increase access to health facilities, schools or public green spaces.

The UK Government has estimated that maximising the value of such data could generate £6–11bn each year and has committed to making the geospatial data it holds more openly available – particularly that held by Ordnance Survey. However it is still hard to get hold of geospatial data from both the public and the private sectors. Government agencies charge fees that make it hard for startups to get started; rights over UK address data were privatised with the Royal Mail, and Google Maps recently increased its pricing by over 1000%. Making data from both the public and private sectors openly available and interoperable will mean more organisations can access data from different sources and combine it to build new services and technologies.

Technologies that could stall without open geospatial data

The report and response to the call for evidence both highlight how a number of technologies and sectors are heavily reliant on geospatial data from the public and private sectors. These include:

  • Autonomous and connected vehicles that use geospatial data in services such as in-car navigation and driver assistance systems like lane departure warnings, parking proximity, and cruise control.
  • Drones which rely on geospatial data for geofencing, for example to stop them flying over airports.
  • Transport services that use geospatial data to help people find their way to work, model traffic flows and manage highway resources.

The consultation response also shows how geospatial data has contributed hugely to the creation of new services which we now take for granted, including:

  • Commercial satellite imagery helping governments to plan for and respond to disasters.
  • Earth observation data helping human rights campaigners to track population flows or environmentalists to track deforestation in remote wildernesses.
  • Supply chain data data enabling the tracking and improvement of the production, processing and delivery of food from field to factory to supermarket to plate.

Commercial online giants now dominate control of the UK’s geospatial data

The UK’s geospatial data infrastructure: challenges and opportunities shows how commercial organisations now collect geospatial data quickly and at scale. This is made possible through technological advances in satellites and GPS-enabled devices. National mapping agencies and other public bodies need to respond to the increasingly large role played by commercial organisations as collectors, aggregators and stewards of geospatial data.

The response suggests that, to avoid commercial organisations hoarding national geospatial data, the Geospatial Commission should:

  • Work with public sector organisations to explore different business models - in particular those that represent alternatives to paying to use and share data.
  • Support broader debate around the respective roles of public, private and third sector organisations in maintaining and enhancing the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure.
  • Consult on whether public sector organisations should have powers to mandate access, use and sharing of data - in defined ways - held by large firms.

Jeni Tennison, CEO at the ODI said:

“Like other parts of our data infrastructure, we believe that geospatial data should be as open as possible while respecting privacy, national security and commercial confidentiality. In many cases, geospatial data can be open data for anyone to access, use and share.

“Our report shows that open geospatial data is necessary to enable innovation and growth in key sectors. To deliver this, the Government must engage and work with private companies, who are creating and collecting geospatial data as part of their businesses, to explore how that data can benefit everyone.

“The UK needs an effective geospatial strategy that looks beyond geospatial data holders in the public sector. Without it, the UK will fail to meet commitments to industries that rely on new technology, such as driverless cars and drone delivery.”

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash