'X' No Longer Marks The Spot - Transforming The Public Sector Using Geospatial Insight


Almost all data generated today has some form of geographical reference.1 A-level results, crime statistics and even well-being survey data can all be tied to a location and plotted on a map.

Our digital world would have been the envy of many ancient civilisations who struggled to create even the simplest representations of the planet's geography. We have become masters of cartography, capable of crafting maps that show places and things and other abstract concepts in precise detail and in various hues.

Geospatial analytics should, therefore, be radically transforming the public sector. However, the explosion of data – from official sources as well as from the proliferation of smartphones, social media updates and the vast array of internet-enabled devices – presents challenges and opportunities that cannot be resolved with cartographic skills alone. While the fundamentals of mapping have never been more important, geospatial insights can only be uncovered by more sophisticated analysis, which is now being enabled by greater access to tools and skills, and through instruments such as the Public Sector Mapping Agreement for Ordnance Survey data.2

This paper presents a step-by-step approach, illustrated with examples, to help public sector organisations understand how geospatial analysis can be used to derive insights that:

focus on efficiency and deliver cost-savings improve service quality and effectiveness engage the public enable collaboration with other organisations. Analysing data from a geographical perspective can help organisations paint a more detailed picture of the issues and events that affect public service delivery. Connecting seemingly disparate data points by referencing their location can reveal the relationships between public services, businesses and citizens. The context of place is a universal language that everyone can understand, enabling organisations to cut through the noise, break down data silos and get to the root causes of the challenges they face. In short, public sector bodies can use location data to develop geospatial insight that reshapes how decisions are made.


Location, location, location

People have always been fascinated by their physical environment. Since the dawn of civilisation, attempts have been made to portray on maps the geography of continents, countries, cities, landscapes and a host of other natural and man-made features. These attempts have contributed essential knowledge about our planet over the ages. One of the earliest known maps dates back to the fifth century BC and takes the form of a clay tablet depicting the world as the Babylonians saw it. As time unfolded, and as humankind's thirst for exploration and discovery advanced, so too did the cartographic tools and skills needed to render their new discoveries on stones, silk and eventually paper.

Over the centuries, surveying techniques were perfected to produce much more accurate maps that captured the precise scale and location of physical objects. These skills also made it possible to add more abstract data to maps – data that did not necessarily form part of the physical landscape but nevertheless could be associated with a particular position in three- dimensional space, even if it were only transitory. People were starting to use maps to generate new ideas about the intersection of significant events and geographic location, and thus the concept of geospatial insight was born.

For example, in 1854, a particularly severe and virulent outbreak of cholera swept through the Soho district of London, killing hundreds of people in a matter of days. Against the prevailing theory of miasma, or 'bad air', a physician named John Snow – already certain of the waterborne nature of the disease – marked the location of each death as a dot on a map centred on Broad Street in an attempt to identify the source of the epidemic. His map clearly showed large clusters of fatalities in the vicinity of the Broad Street pump, from where the majority of residents drew their drinking water and which he suspected of being the source. But far from being conclusive, Snow's map also showed a number of deaths elsewhere, closer in proximity to water pumps on other streets. This, he feared, would undermine his theory for how the disease was spread.

Snow therefore added a further line to his map – an irregularly shaped loop that marked the boundary between the Broad Street pump and other pumps in the same district. This, however, was not a physical feature; it was, instead, a line that depictedtime. For every resident or worker within the boundary, the Broad Street pump represented the quickest walk.

Snow's map now much more clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of deaths had occurred within this boundary and that the Broad Street pump was indeed at its centre. Ultimately, this map became the central piece of evidence that convinced theauthorities of cholera's waterborne transmission and of their need to improve London's sewer system. As a result, the city managed to fend off subsequent outbreaks and its new infrastructure became the model for cities all over the world.3

Fast-forward a century and mapmakers had begun to make use of revolutionary computer technology to digitise their maps.5 From these efforts emerged the new field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – systems that capture, manage, display and analyse geospatial information in digital form. These modern technologies allowed organisations as well as individuals to not only map physical objects and non-physical attributes of a place, but also visualise how these things changed over time, whether the objects were above, below, or on the surface.

In the 1970s, most national mapping agencies around the world were creating some form of digital maps, with Ordnance Survey Great Britain, for instance, beginning to digitise its 230,000 base maps from 1973.6 By the 1980s, the use of GIS became more common in commercial and public sector organisations, thanks largely to the costs of computer hardware and software packages falling below a critical threshold.7 By the time Ordnance Survey had completed its digitisation process in 1995, 80 per cent of UK local authorities were using digital maps in some way.8

In 2011, Ordnance Survey data generated almost £1 billion of related spending on services, software and hardware such as satnav devices.9

Today, such is the explosive growth in geo-referenced data – derived from everything from RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and satnavs to smartphones and billion-person social networks – that up to 95 per cent of data can be located on a map.10 However, although digitisation has enabled more efficient and effective mapping, extracting valuable and actionable insights from the enormous volume and complexity of data, often with location reference, requires a more sophisticated approach. While 'X' used to mark the spot, simply plotting objects on a map does not meet the multifaceted needs of organisations today.

Just as John Snow learned that geospatial insight was needed to rid the world of the scourge of cholera, so must the modern public sector adopt the same approach to create opportunities for growth and form new perspectives on the country's pressing fiscal and societal challenges.

Drivers for a new generation of geospatial insight

Despite an increase in the use of GIS in pockets of the public sector over the past two decades, the analysis of geospatial data still plays only a relatively minor role in policy setting and decision making. But the 'landscape' is changing rapidly: the availability and improved performance of new technology, in the form of computer hardware and software, and the myriad ways that now exist for people to create and consume geospatial data are factors that drive the business case for greater uptake of geospatial analytics.

Hardware – Costs are falling while performance is increasing; changes in technology mean organisations have the processing power they need to analyse geospatial data or can turn to cost- effective cloud-based processing solutions. Software – Many applications, once regarded solely as consumer products, now offer enterprise solutions; traditional mapping companies and firms offering business analytics capabilities are also innovating, developing new features such as web- based geospatial analytics and self-serve dashboards. Data – Vast quantities of geospatial data, from social media in particular, are being generated by individuals when they 'check-in' at a venue, tag a photo with location data from their GPS-enabled smartphones, or send a 'tweet'; the public's appetite for geographic information also extends to volunteered geographic information (VGI) for the public good. People – Widespread use of mapping platforms, such as Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, and satnav services on mobile devices have rapidly increased everyday familiarity with geographic information; consumers are living in a new hybrid world – part physical, part digital – where manipulating digital maps is no longer the sole domain of highly trained cartographers with expensive tools; this increased map...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT