Northern Ireland’s 2009-2019 Geographic Information Strategy is releasing the practical potential of spatial data across government. agendaNi brings together specialists and clients from the public and private sectors, to examine how the way ahead for an important area of innovation.
Why do we need the GI strategy?
The Northern Ireland Geographic Information strategy is very similar to strategies in Europe and the rest of the world in that it is trying to co-ordinate the use and dissemination of geographic information.
There’s a lot of spatial and non-spatial data in government which has a great value. There’s also a high cost if we don’t use it correctly i.e. collecting it many times, not re-using it, not being able to match it and combine it.
In the UK we don’t have a mandated spatial data infrastructure. We have to rely on co-operation of the data holders, and that’s what the strategy is trying to address.
In Europe there are 20 strategies like this and I was very impressed with this strategy. It is comprehensive. The issues that you are tackling are really wide, for example, business and case studies of GI in practice.
Across the world, not just in Europe, the UK strategy is recognised as being an exemplar of what a strategy could do. I’d like to think that Northern Ireland is leading in the UK in the development of this GI strategy.
There are challenges with implementation, particularly in ensuring significant senior ownership for it. The implementation of GI strategies in Japan, Australia and Canada are advanced in this regard.
In terms of leading LPS for the past four years, I’ve seen the huge value that can be released in having a GI strategy and making use of the spatial data and information. My role is championing this at departmental board level and also amongst the Permanent Secretaries Group in Northern Ireland.
Over the last 12 months we had one of our GI targets – the delivery of Inspire – as a key target within the departmental business plan. A year ago, we renewed the Northern Ireland Mapping Agreement on the use of GI and spatial data across all of the departments.
More recently, I’ve been involved in the development of next year’s business plan. I’ve talked to colleagues about getting GI onto the forward strategy for the department, and making sure that we keep this on the agenda.
The big change has been opening new channels into GI data outside the old proprietary technology routes. Organisations that own the data should see that once they invest that effort into it, they can recoup the costs and can add new value by being able to combine it with new data sets.
It is important to understand the currency, accuracy and the access and licensing considerations around that data, rather think too much about the technology.
The biggest issue for the private sector is being aware of what data exists and having access to it. That kind of data has exceptional value in the market place. We need to make it accessible, but because it has value, there is an opportunity for government to offset cost by charging for that information.
I don’t think the private sector would have any issue with that. It’s about access to information and understanding what information is there, how you can use it and the power of that information.
Terence is right. People don’t know where the data is or whether there are licensing implications. Even if they do get data, they can spend a lot of time having to cleanse it.
A lot of the thirst for data has been driven by the smart phone market. Half-a-billion smart phones were shipped this year and this will rise to 1.5 billion in 2015. In America about 50 per cent of the use is connected with location-based activity.
Google led the way on the widespread use of mapping. Our frustration is why the good spatial data that’s available from government is not so widely used.
The Location Council’s user group includes members from the public and private sectors, academia and the third sector. It’s interesting that all of those sectors see the potential in GI. Some are quite new to the scene but as soon as it’s presented in terms of the opportunity, they are keen.
There’s quite a lot of movement at UK Government and EU level on open-data initiatives. That’s about repositioning government and how it should break down some of these barriers to access such as pricing, licensing and technical challenges, such as ensuring that the standards are being dealt with appropriately and that information received fits together and makes sense together.
Licensing, pricing and accessibility are still seen as the significant barriers. Technology has moved on; now it’s about reducing the organisational and institutional barriers that exist.
When I was reading the strategy, what struck me was how to govern this? You have highlighted three ways of governance in the product management: by hierarchy, by networks and by market.
By hierarchy, there are a lot of rules. I like the approach of networking corporations. The markets, as a governance mechanism, are quite weak in this strategy. I would like to see more about how the markets can facilitate an environment where we meet the markets.
The Northern Ireland Mapping Agreement means that it is free at point of use for government departments. That’s fine within government, but it doesn’t get it to the wider sectors. The difficulty is that the update and maintenance of the mapping has to be paid for.
Where some other initiatives involving free data have succeeded, the data itself has quickly become out of date. If the data is going to be used effectively, it has to be up-to-date and accurate, and that’s difficult in free or low-cost licensing models.
Within the UK Location Programme’s user group there is a real expectation that data should be free. Where government is already paying to collect data for its own business purpose, what is the argument for not making it available for free elsewhere? Particularly in these straitened times where you wish to encourage the development of the economy.
The key thing is deciding whether government is paying fully for its data collection needs today. Reflecting on the users’ perspectives on this, where government enters into the market, sometimes government gets confused between its public purpose and these revenue generating measures. There are examples across the world where the revenue generating activities create commercial behaviours that actually distract from the public purpose of what the agency was set up to do.
Many users, particularly in the third sector, have concerns about the Government making money in this way because they are, particularly in today’s Big Society agenda, being expected to provide things on a not-for-profit basis but having to pay commercial rates in order to access the information that is of value to society.
One of the things we are interested in is opening up new channels for land and property data and new revenue creating opportunities potentially for our LPS partners. At the same time we’ve got confidentiality and copyright issues. The existing access routes in also have revenue streams that pay for that service to the people of Northern Ireland and pay for the maintenance of the assets; so there’s a balancing act.
People are coming to the Land Registers and saying: “We’d love to look at your data through Google Earth or through this other map that we’ve built: if only we could get at it, if only we could licence it.”
To be honest, access to a live picture of the Land Registry or Ordinance Survey large-scale map base is quite easy on the internet because so many interoperability standards have been adopted by third-party vendors, such as Google, ESRI and Oracle.
Is this part of a wider trend? Clinton’s Digital Copyright Bill in 1998 moved the value from the publishing to the telecoms industry i.e. people have value and lose it.
Business understands that if there is value, we expect a cost.
You have to let them know the information is there and explain to them what it can do for them. Then, you need to make it accessible and have a reasonably straightforward way of paying for it.
By not changing, I believe the information will not get the maintenance or recognition it deserves and will not be valued in the way it should. The private sector won’t leverage it in the way they could either.
A vital point is the ability to explain the potential and government should incentivise creativity and innovation in the use of information.
Selective availability on GPS signals was removed by President Clinton in 2000. Look at the explosion in navigation applications since. Up until that point, it was not in the public interest to free up access to those signals.
Mapping agencies had been talking for 15-20 years before that about the potential of navigation systems but had failed to come up with an application. Releasing GPS-selective availability is a classic example of where innovation can generate economic value.
It also generates problems, of course. You can now get a very accurate reading of where you are on the Earth’s surface and the mapping agencies and Land Registry have been challenged with position improvement. They’ve got to get their data as good as the signals. That requires huge investment.
The cost and licensing of data is just one particular strand. The UK Government have recognised the value locked up in government data. Northern Ireland may be slightly behind in that although our ministers are now starting to realise the benefit of getting data into wider use.
Most of government data has a locational element and we hope to leverage that in the GI strategy.
There needs to be a clear view of the direction of travel. I agree with Mick’s point in terms of what are you doing this for and what’s the value?
The delivery mechanisms through LPS, the Land Registry, HMLR and OSGB are all very different. For example, in terms of investment in IT, you need the capital to do that. Those four bodies have different capital allocations and different capital investment strategies. There’s so much variation and I am slightly concerned at the speed at which this is all moving.
The big change has been the explosion in mobile devices and new tools like Google Earth. BT could certainly do more with its own spatial data assets. My interest has ended up moving away from the consuming applications and to the quality and availability of the data – the brand and reputation of the organisation is part of this. For example if you want a reliable source of news, you’ll go to the BBC. The web hits will follow the quality.
What I find striking is the poor link with the users. We did a survey for the Commission and asked all the national contact points in Europe about whether they had a precise idea of the use of infrastructure and information. They have no clue, in general. They are so involved in establishing and implementing it but not about use.
The Inspire Directive is possibly one of the most significant enablers in that it legislates and forces public authorities to make information available through a standard infrastructure. However, it’s a Directive to meet environmental information needs for the EC. The infrastructure is being created by data publishers but the users’ voice is not clearly being articulated.
I’ve heard the same charge levelled at the data.gov.uk portal. There is a lot of data available but at the moment it’s difficult finding out just what data is most appropriate for a particular use. Metadata is the key to discovery.
Where are we going to in the future? Are we at an inflection point?
A lot of the future requirement for spatial data is going to be driven by social applications because more and more of those type of applications are linking to spatial data. With government releasing its data and recognising that it is good to open up data there is also a recognition that the best way for people to understand the data is in a spatial context because people can immediately relate to it.
We are very fortunate in Northern Ireland in that the education sector has realised the power of GI, not just in geography, but across the whole curriculum, and have put initiatives in place to educate the children of today. It will deliver the skills in 10 years time but in the meantime we have a skills gap.
I know BT’s investing quite heavily into research in linked data and the map then becomes an index to the data not a thing in itself. Standards, once they become embedded, become forgotten about. Like the light bulbs in this room, for example. You can buy a light bulb from any vendor and plug it in and it should work. That will start to be the case with access to information as well, and it will be the quality and the performance of the data that get that counts.
What the public sector needs that information for and the way in which it needs it will often be very different from the private sector. From a private sector perspective, creating value from a revenue stream will allow you to keep the data right up to date and bring in the right kind of infrastructure behind it to keep the power of it going. You’ve got a great brand because data’s very important only if people believe it to be correct and true.
Inspire is creating the infrastructure through which this will be accessible. And part of that is that there will be recognised core reference data that everybody requires, and that is the definitive authoritative source of government-created data. Mapping is a classic example of that.
As information’s becoming available on this infrastructure, people are realising there are other obstacles such as licensing.
In Open Street Map, lots of enthusiastic individuals go around and create an alternative map. If they had access to the authoritative map, they would still be enthusiastic and use GPS to collect information on top of that map; that would be far more powerful.
A very good example of benign crowd sourced enthusiasm is all these 3-D models that people have built within Google Earth right round the world, but they’re actually sitting slightly above or slightly below the surface of the Earth or not quite aligned with the true street map. So they might be beautiful but they’re not useful. If they were aligned with the true base map, that would open up a whole new world.
How do you see the governance developing?
Often GI strategies have been led by one enthusiastic individual. They move on and somebody else comes in their place. With this latest strategy, we’ve tried to put governance in place that takes it beyond the individual, additionally, if the user is not represented the strategy will not achieve its aims.
The future’s going to be dictated not just by the demand and the use but also the ability to supply. In terms of refreshing the mapping, we’re going to do that more quickly with the new camera.
What advice would you give about engaging the private sector?
If you own something that has a value, then you need to get out there to realise that value. The only way to do that is to engage with the private sector, but in a very broad sense, and understanding: “Who will it have value to and in what forms?”
That value can be anything from making you more efficient, to making you more competitive and making value for you in terms of a product, or it can give you an edge in the marketplace. It’s actually understanding what that can do for you as an organisation. You need to engage on a sectoral basis because the private sector will not easily understand what you’ve got and how you can use it.
Some of the big retail outlets are very smart in the use of GI. The whole Nectar system is underlined by a huge amount of spatial analysis. They get it.
The people who already have significant advantages are, in the main, external private sector parties but yet our home-grown talent are not getting use of that data because they don’t know that it exists, how to access it or understand the value.
My vision for it would be to release that creativity in the small to medium enterprises (the apps and so on) and encourage people to develop those opportunities, and I think there’s a lot of potential for the economy there.
What one issue is key for the future development of GI?
Enabling the use through training, development and spreading knowledge and awareness.
Incentivising people to actually start to use the information. Create a small innovation fund. Put it out there.
Recognise the value of the public sector in data quality and delivery. Addressing (gazetteers) is a role that government organisations should look at taking on.
I see an e-government world and a GI world, and we can both learn from each other. The GI sector is very strong on sharing and so is government. Why not integrate those initiatives?
Northern Ireland has a great advantage in that it’s small enough to enable us to engage locally and it’s therefore easier to bring people on board. I would like to see the same investment of resources in shared data as we see in shared services.
In these economic times, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that for things that don’t have a recognised value, there is a risk of them withering on the vine. I would be concerned about a lack of continuing investment that would be required to keep this at the leading edge. If you release the value, you create the opportunity for the ongoing investment.