The importance of place

Virtually no piece of business or public sector information exists without a position locating it to a place on the world’s surface, be this a house, a telegraph pole, a man-hole cover, a path, a parliamentary constituency, a railway line, the position of an ambulance or whatever.
We may not all think of ourselves as ‘geographers’ but the question “where?” is ubiquitous in managing and interacting with most of our operational data in the public and private sector. Location really does matter.
Over recent decades, as information has become digitally stored, its ‘geographic’ or ‘location’ importance compounded with the need for better integrated management processes has powered the growth in use of Geographic Information Systems and Geographic Information.

Computer based systems
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are computer based systems that are used to input, store, retrieve, manipulate, analyse and output geographically referenced or geospatial data. They have been used in the public sector for many years – in fact public sector was an ‘early adopter’ in places – but GIS is still not pervasive in all areas where it can and should be used.
Geographic Information (GI) is digitally stored data with a position. At minimum it consists of an X/Y co-ordinate, but sometimes it includes a Z co-ordinate for height too. GIS is found today on servers, PCs, hand-held machines and is widespread on the Web too.
The UK Association for Geographic Information (AGI), the umbrella organisation for all with an interest in GI and GIS, estimates that the value of UK GIS sales of software and services is over £130 million per annum and growing, despite the current economic climate. For data, the value of sales is several times higher again. Today, very few branches of industry and public administration are not touched by GI and GIS somewhere in the mix.
Effective use of GI and GIS can make a tremendous contribution to the delivery of private and public services and is central to effective administration. This includes the management of resources and the development and dissemination of policy, supporting decision making for a wide range of applications including targeting and assessing public policy, identifying areas of social need, increasing efficiency of public service delivery, managing land use and natural resources, optimising and planning transportation, managing health resources and predicting disease, powering police and security applications and use by the emergency services.
In the public sector, the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) reported in 2006 that there are thousands of public sector information (PSI) holders in the UK, for example, in local authorities, emergency services, trading funds, and central government departments. Much of this is data is geographically referenced.
That said, approximately 75 per cent of total public sector information income is derived from the activities of a relatively small subset of such bodies e.g. Ordnance Survey Great Britain, Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland, The Meteorological Office, UK Hydrographic Office, HM Land Registry and Companies House. The further evolution of some of the business models for these public bodies as recently mentioned in the 2009 pre-budget report should see more progress in making public sector data easy to access, use and share.
INSPIRE is short for Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community. It seeks to create something called a European Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI). In other words a common way to identify, classify, store and share geographic/location information across public bodies. SDI creation is an activity taking place throughout the globe and at all spatial levels.
The initial motivation for creating a spatial information infrastructure was to be better able to formulate, implement and monitor environmental policies, bearing in mind the costs and upheaval related to cross border environmental impacts and the changing climate. This environmental orientation is still very much a driving force in the Directive but environmental factors cross into so many other policy areas it will be used more widely.
For example, the European Joint Research Centre (JRC) states that between 1998-2002, 43 per cent of disaster events in Europe were floods, leaving 700 dead and 500,000 displaced persons. Furthermore, over the last 50 years, population on European coasts has doubled, whilst coastal erosion has increased substantially creating huge implications. Natural phenomena in air, land and sea knows no boundaries – international river basin districts, for example, cover more than 60 per cent of the EU territory. The environment and its impact do not respect man-made boundaries.
INSPIRE is a European legislative instrument to which the UK and other EU member nations are bound. It has the following salient aspects:

  • INSPIRE lays down a general framework for a SDI for the purposes of community environmental policies and policies or activities that may have an impact on the environment.
  • INSPIRE is based on an infrastructure for spatial information established and operated by the Member States.
  • INSPIRE does not require collection of new spatial data.
  • INSPIRE does not affect existing Intellectual Property Rights.
  • INSPIRE is entering transposition phase and will be fully implemented by 2019.
  • Data interoperability and data sharing are prime objectives.
  • Future UK GI/Location Strategy will have to meet the needs of INSPIRE.
  • INSPIRE is most relevant to the public sector. 

To manage the environment effectively, the EU needs the better provision of spatial data provision to support environmental policy making, better spatial data flows between systems to support these policies and better sharing of this data between governments, agencies and the citizen. Currently Europe has a lack of standards for the provision of spatial data and no pan-EU directives for sharing or coordinating the use of this. These highly significant factors have driven the need for INSPIRE.
It can be seen that INSPIRE will exert a top-down influence on UK public policy and geographic information, be it strategy, data sharing and address infrastructure.
If successfully implemented, the EU INSPIRE Directive will be very significant on the one hand, but should be quite unintrusive on the other. The reason is that the standards being adopted are being created through widespread consultation and seek to adopt established best practice. In addition, new data should not need to be collected in order to implement INSPIRE.

Location matters
The UK Location Strategy, published in November 2008, will see GI and GIS even further up the national agenda, as well as being the UK setting for implementing INSPIRE.
In the words of Baroness Andrews, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government: “Good maps and location intelligence can help determine how quickly our ambulances turn up, where a policeman patrols, how we act in a national emergency. Knowing more about where we live can help us make the best decisions. But across the country there is still too little sharing of the best practice and we are wasting time and money trying to find the information we need. The Location Strategy will ensure we make better use of information already held so we can use it faster and with less expense."
Like INSPIRE at the pan European level, the UK Location Strategy aims to provide a consistent framework to assist initiatives and service delivery through more robust geographic information across national, regional and local government.
Successful implementation of the strategy will be of great benefit to local authorities, businesses and communities through better targeted and integrated services. Significantly, the strategy is not about individuals or personal information. It is about objects, their position and information about them.
Implementation involves cross-government funding and co-operation. Stakeholder interest is even wider ranging including private enterprise and the citizen. The lead department for this is Defra and a dedicated team within it – The UK SDI Programme Team - is conducting the mechanics for both the Location Strategy and the UK INSPIRE implementation.
The Location Strategy is the most significant development in modern UK government concerning the importance of location. For the first time a coherent national framework has been identified and for the first time domestic affairs ministers have officially agreed on the importance of location for good governance. With the burgeoning of geographic devices in modern society, SatNav, Geotagging mobile phones, web-mapping and so on, it was perhaps easier for the whole of government in the first decade of the 21st century to recognise and embrace the potential.

Other drivers
Many other drivers including the Pitt Review following the significant flooding episodes of 2007 and the pending Marine Bill (which will have a massive impact on the UK’s coastal zones and with it many terrestrial UK public bodies, particularly in the realms of planning and conservation) have location at their core. Additionally, preparations by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for the next national Census have also highlighted the vital importance of unified address classification and use by government in the UK.
There is an oft-repeated statement that 80 per cent of information relates to place. True or otherwise, ‘where’ is fundamental to public policy and the move to common frameworks to better obtain, use and share location information can only be welcomed by increasingly financially-constrained public bodies.
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