How the Geospatial Commission is putting the UK on the map

As new rankings name the UK as a leader in geospatial capability, Caitlin Ballard explains what this means and why it matters to policymakers
The Geospatial Commission's Public Sector Geospatial Agreement enables 5,500+ public sector organisations to access Ordnance Survey data and maps.Photo: zoompics/Alamy Stock Photo

By Caitlin Ballard

18 Nov 2022

Last month, it was revealed that the UK has retained its position as second in the world for geospatial capability, behind the USA.

This is great news for the UK but some CSW readers may be wondering what exactly “geospatial” is and what it means for the UK to be world no.2.

Geospatial data, AKA location data, is data with a location or geographic reference – most commonly experienced as part of maps which are products containing location data.

Location data is a significant part of our daily lives. There are countless apps and smart devices that have inbuilt location features to enhance their service and the user experience – from personalised travel plans to recording our runs and delivering parcels.

With so much data having this attribute, location is a thread that allows us to connect different datasets together to make them more useful. Geospatial technology is going to be increasingly embedded in our digital lives. Some commentators have recently coined the phrase ‘geoverse’ to articulate the critical role location data will play in our future hybrid reality.

As well as its uses for us as customers and consumers, geospatial data is also crucial for many areas of the public sector and wider economy, such as in transport and urban planning (by helping to decide where to deliver new housing, cycle paths, international shipping lanes or local amenities), environmental monitoring (by tracking wildlife numbers or illegal poaching), public health (such as the Covid-19 cases interactive map) and emergency response (to pinpoint where a casualty needs help or a crime has been committed). It also came to the fore in planning and monitoring of the queue for Queen Elizabeth II’s lying-in-state.

The UK’s high geospatial ranking is a result of an assessment of several areas but some key points to draw out include:

The UK has a world class set of public sector geospatial and mapping institutions

The Ordnance Survey was established in 1791, the UK Hydrographic Office in 1795 and the British Geological Survey in 1835. These three and several more are world-renowned for their history, as well as their future-oriented approach, and they have extremely strong sets of foundational geospatial data to put to many uses.

Many of us have used OS maps, whether in paper or digital form, over 90% of the world’s shipping uses UKHO’s navigational data and technology, and BGS is a sought-after authority on all subsurface information, including on ground source heat and critical minerals for a sustainable future.

Countless other countries look to the UK’s public sector for insights and expertise, and many benefit from UK capability and development work carried out in their own organisations, for example via Official Development Assistance programmes. The UK is also closely involved with the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management, the leading global forum for all things geospatial, as a founding member.

The UK has a thriving private sector geospatial scene

In the private sector, the UK can boast some incredible geospatial innovators and disruptors, such as What3Words, Citymapper, Dynamon and Gaist. These organisations and many others are making use of the increasing availability of location data to deliver cutting edge products and services with uses across many different sectors from infrastructure to the environment.

There are also important links with innovative companies which may not be labelled as ‘geospatial’ but make use of geospatial data and technology as a core part of their business. The space sector is a whole other sector in itself that produces geospatial data via satellites and other space-oriented equipment. The UK’s private sector space organisations are undoubtedly amongst the best in the world.

Collaboration and formal partnerships between private, public, academic and charitable institutions are enabling innovation, economic growth, skills development and greener outcomes. One example is the Location Data Scotland initiative which facilitates collaboration between Scottish industry, academia, public sector and the third sector to drive innovation, unlock skills and enable economic growth.

So it is an innovative and diverse picture or, as we like to call it, a geospatial ecosystem.

The UK is world-leading in the technologies that are fuelling innovation with location data

The global data ecosystem is transforming with a wave of new technologies that are creating new opportunities to innovate with location data. The UK is set to build and maintain its status as a science and technology superpower – a world-leader in these technologies.

With the Internet of Things, sensors are everywhere – from our watches to our cars. These are creating new datasets with location attributes that enable real time insights. Cloud services are enabling this data to be stored cheaply and processed more effectively. The UK is also a world-leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which sit behind these technologies, making it possible to process massive volumes of data quickly.

We have a UK government Geospatial Commission and geospatial strategy for the UK

The UK is recognised internationally as being fairly unique for having a dedicated central co-coordinating government body for geospatial policy. Sitting within the Cabinet Office, the Geospatial Commission is an expert committee aiming to unlock the power of location data and technology across the economy, connecting where relevant with government data, innovation and sector-specific strategies. We set the UK’s Geospatial Strategy, and work towards four missions: promoting and safeguarding the use of location data; driving forward better access to high quality location data; boosting geospatial skills and capabilities; and enabling innovation.

Some of the Geospatial Commission’s most cutting edge projects include:

  • The National Underground Asset Register, which is bringing together information about the location of underground infrastructure, like pipes and cables, to enable better planning, efficiency and safety for construction works.
  • The National Land Data Programme, which aims to demonstrate the value of enhanced geospatial capability to inform future land use strategy and scenario planning.
  • An electric vehicle infrastructure data discovery project, exploring how location data can be better utilised to support planning and delivery of electric vehicle charge points by local authorities.
  • The Transport Location Data Competition (run with InnovateUK) that invested £5m in projects to stimulate commercial innovation to help create geospatial solutions to key transport challenges.
  • A policy paper providing ABC guidance on the ethical use of location data based on public dialogue.

The Geospatial Commission has also created and implemented critical contracts supporting data access, such as the Public Sector Geospatial Agreement. This enables more than 5,500 public sector organisations to access key parts of Ordnance Survey’s data and maps to help provide more effective and efficient public services.

Location is a key insight in policy work and the delivery of public services. The UK is a world leader in the use of location data, skills and knowledge and we have the opportunity to leverage this as a strength that will support our journey towards a modern, digitally-enabled civil service. However, there are still many areas where the opportunity to use location data is not yet being realised – could it be used in your area of work?

The Geospatial Commission currently has a call for evidence open for responses as part of its work to refresh the UK’s Geospatial Strategy. We would encourage you to consider responding if your work is relevant to location data, technology and services and, if not, consider which of your stakeholders and contacts may be interested. The call for evidence is open until Monday 12 December 2022. A refresh of the UK’s Geospatial Strategy is due to be published in spring 2023.

Caitlin Ballard is international policy adviser at the Geospatial Comission

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