The importance of place

We may never think of ourselves as ‘geographers’ but the question “where?” is always present in managing and interacting operational data in the public and private sector. Virtually no item 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.

Computer-based information
Over recent decades, as information has become digitally stored, its locational importance compounded with the need for better integrated management processes has powered the growth in use of computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Geographic Information (GI). The value of sales and services in the UK Geographic Information market is estimated to be worth in excess of £600m per annum, but the ‘force multiplier’ is significant. Ordnance Survey data, for example, is claimed to underpin £100bn of economic activity. Today, very few branches of industry and public administration are not touched by GI and GIS somewhere.
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. Baroness Andrews, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, CLG, put this well in the recent UK Location Strategy: “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.”
At the heart of policy
The UK Location Strategy, published in November 2008, placed GI and GIS squarely within government policy making and made it a vehicle to deliver not only better public services through better data discovery and sharing but also to deliver the mandatory EU INSPIRE Directive.
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; in local authorities, emergency services, trading funds, and central government departments. Most data is geographically referenced.
Nonetheless this information is often held in silos, often duplicated and not easily shared by public bodies for the purpose of better governance, not least through difficulties in achieving common licencing terms. The UK Location Strategy seeks to deal with much of this to maximise the use of geographic information for the benefit of the nation.
The EU Dimension
INSPIRE is short for Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community. It seeks to create a European Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) – a uniform way to identify, classify, store and share geographic/location information across public bodies. SDI creation is now a global phenomenon and considered central to enabling 21st century policy making.
The initial motivation for creating a spatial information infrastructure was environmental. To be better able to formulate, implement and monitor environmental policies, bearing in mind massive cross border environmental impacts and the changing climate. The environment is still a driving force in the Directive, but environmental factors cross into so many other policy areas it will be used more widely.
INSPIRE exerts a top-down influence on UK public policy and geographic information, be it strategy, data sharing and address infrastructure. It will be a major part of the UK Location Programme.
Much progress has been made in 2009 with the UK highly influential in the detailed process planning and implementation processes. The UK plans to have INSPIRE transposed into law by the mid December 2009.

Delivering the Location Strategy
Like INSPIRE at the pan European level, the UK Location Programme, born out of 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 cooperation. Stakeholder interest is even wider ranging including private enterprise and the citizen. Defra is the lead department 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.
In 2009 many achievements have been made. One has been securing funding to deliver stages of the Location Programme. In spring the UK Location Programme team, assisted by the Association for Geographic Information (AGI), engaged widely around the country seeking input on the transposition of INSPIRE to UK law. In late summer a ‘blue-print’ for the Location Programme Infrastructure – including details for a national spatial data discovery service and portal – was circulated in a national consultation exercise. This drew in a broad range of contributions from public and private bodies. The UK Location Council continues to provide governance, reporting to report to UK Ministers and has embarked on setting up the two subsidiary boards – the Location Interoperability and the Location User Group. In November, the UK Location Programme Team will be running a briefing event with the AGI in London for private sector GIS data, service and system suppliers.

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.

Many other drivers, including the Pitt Review following the significant flooding episodes of 2007 and the pending Marine Bill have location at their core. Additionally preparations by the Office of National Statistics for the next national Census have also highlighted the vital importance of a unified address infrastructure. All things happen somewhere.

‘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.

Chris Holcroft is the director of the AGI. He is also a member of the UK Location Council. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the AGI or the UK Location Council.

For more information

Please register to comment on this article