A sense of place

Geographic information also plays a substantial role in public policy, finds Chris Holcroft, director of the Association of Geographic Information.Most of us never think of geography or ourselves as ‘geographers’, but the question “where?” is always present in managing and interacting operational data in the public and private sector. ‘Location’ or ‘place’ really does matter.
    
When you think about it, 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 business premise, a telegraph pole, a man-hole cover, a path, a parliamentary constituency, a railway line, the position of an ambulance and so on.
    
Over recent decades, as information has become digitally encoded and stored, its positional importance, compounded with the need for better integrated management processes has fuelled the rise of computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Geographic Information (GI). The public sector was an early adopter of this technology and information, but to date this has been fragmented and has not attained its true potential.

A valuable market
Today, the value of sales and services in the UK Geographic Information market is estimated to be between £650M and £900M per annum depending on the source. That said the ‘value-add’ is significant. Ordnance Survey data, for example, has been claimed to underpin £100Bn of British economic activity. Today, very few branches of industry and public administration are not touched by GI and GIS somewhere and its importance is growing.
    
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, articulated this point in the UK Location Strategy1 which was published in November 2008:
    
“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.”

The UK Location Strategy
The UK Location Strategy placed GI and GIS squarely within government policy 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 which had emerged over recent years. Since then we’ve seen the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in late 2009 make some profound ‘making public data public’ announcements concerning the supply of certain Ordnance Survey data free-at-the-point-of-use to help make government more transparent, empower the citizen, foster innovation and grow the digital economy.
    
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 of this PSI is geographically referenced.
    
The challenge remains that a lot of geographical information is still often held in silos, often duplicated and not easily shared by public bodies for the purpose of better governance.
    
The UK Location Strategy, through its executive body the UK Location Council, plans to deal with many of the obstacles to maximise the use of geographic information for the benefit of the nation.
    
It will do this in part by building a national ‘metadata service’ infrastructure that will allow public and private sector users to search and locate geographical information to exploit and share. It will also allow, and indeed expect, users to publish information about their own geographic information (metadata) holdings too for the benefit of others. This can help break down walls. It has the potential to usher in a new era of better data sharing, cost savings and assist more effective decision making. These are highly pertinent benefits at this time of financial constraint in the national economy.
 
INSPIRE – 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). In other words, 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. Outside the EU much success in this area is being recorded in North America, China, Japan, Korea and Australia.
     
The initial catalyst for creating a spatial information infrastructure in Europe was environmental. Environmental impacts do not respect borders. Flooding, coastal erosion, extreme storms, pollution and others can impact many nations concurrently and mitigating those needs joined-up up thinking and thus joined-up systems. INSPIRE plans to be better able to formulate, implement and monitor environmental policies, bearing in mind these massive cross border environmental impacts and the changing climate. The environment remains at the heart of the directive, but environmental factors cross into so many other policy areas it will be used more widely.
      
INSPIRE is a European legislative instrument to which all EU member nations are bound. It has the following salient aspects:

  • INSPIRE lays down a general framework for a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) for the purposes of community environmental policies and policies or activities which 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 in 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.

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 already been realised with the UK highly influential in the detailed process planning and implementation processes. Significantly the INSPIRE Directive was transposed into the respective laws of the United Kingdom at the end of December 2009.
    
The nation has now moved into a long term implementation programme for INSPIRE under the UK Location Programme and as part of the UK Location Strategy.

The UK Location Programme
Like INSPIRE at the pan European level, the UK Location Programme, www.location.defra.gov.uk, a product 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.
    
The UK Location Council provides the governance structure and includes members reporting to Ministers from the LGA, Defra, MOD, BERR/DECC, CLG, The Devolved Administrations, The Association for Geographic Information (AGI), NERC, ONS, Environment Agency, Ordnance Survey, Cabinet Office, Land Registry and OPSI. Two subsidiary boards additionally provide importance steers on data standards and broad stakeholder engagement.
    
Over the last 12 months many achievements have been made, not least in structuring and funding the project team and governing bodies, outreach and communications activity, plus the transposition of the INSPIRE Directive itself. A useful overall perspective of these recent achievements can be found in UK Location Programme first Annual Report2 which is referenced below.

The importance of location
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. For the first time domestic affairs ministers have officially agreed on the importance of location for good governance. In addition Gordon Brown has recently acknowledged the importance of geographic information within current policy drivers.
    
With the burgeoning of geographic devices in modern society – SatNav, Geotagging mobile phones, web-mapping and so on – plus wider use of geographic information not just by organisations, but also the consumer, government in the first decade of the 21st century has hopefully sat up to recognise and embrace the potential.
    
Many other policy drivers, for example, the Operation Efficiency Programme, Data.gov.uk, the Pitt Review – following the significant flooding episodes of 2007 – and the pending Marine Bill, have geographical information at their heart. Additionally preparations by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for the next national Census have also highlighted the vital importance of unified address infrastructure in the UK.
    
There is an oft-repeated truism that 80 per cent of information relates to place. All things happen somewhere. Geography, or more simply ‘where’ is fundamental to public policy and the move to common public sector frameworks to better obtain, use and share location information can only be welcomed by increasingly financially-constrained public bodies.

References:

1 Place Matters: The Location Strategy for the UK, CLG, November 2008
2 UK Location Council Annual Report 2008/9, Defra, January 2010

For more information
Web: www.agi.org.uk

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