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Cartography, the science of map-making, has come a long way since the efforts of the Babylonians, who used clay stones to depict crop fields and settlements. The oldest surviving road map of Great Britain dates back to the 14th Century and was designed to depict roads and distances in order to get people from one place to another. Advances in technology have meant we are able to use maps and other data in a far more innovative way.
Geospatial technology encompasses the collection of digital data from a known location, the processing of the data and the analysis by geographic information system (GIS) software. Whether the data is collected, processed and analysed in real time or offline will depend on the application.
Geospatial technology answers the question where? Where is the nearest hospital or school to home? Where are the houses most at risk to flooding? Where is this or that happening to crops?
Data collection can depend on application; for example an environmental application might need the collection of CO2 levels, temperature and wind speed. A navigation application might need road layout and notification of road works. Although many people see Google Earth as just a bit of fun, presenting data geographically can deliver tremendous value to both the service provider and the citizen.
Improving the business process
Satellite navigation combined with intelligent route planning can select the journey with least fuel and CO2 emissions. In Teignbridge the quantity of waste varies from season to season and area to area due to its transient tourist population. Introducing a geospatial technology system has enabled the authority to adapt their collection service accordingly. This improved service has significantly reduced administration time as well as providing a fuel saving and environmental benefit.
Geospatial technology also made real savings when the alliance of North London Authorities issued their Street Enforcement Officers with a mobile GIS system. Using a PDA with GPS, officers are able to compile electronic reports that have reduced office based administration time freeing up more time to be out on patrol. In particular the Alliance found that the efficient reporting and timely removal of abandoned cars resulted in significant savings.
The police have applied geospatial technology to crime mapping. Much of crime mapping is devoted to detecting high crime density areas known as hot spots. Hot spot analysis helps police identify types of crime being committed and the best way to respond.
Presenting data geographically can significantly increase its value to the citizen. Crime mapping and hot spot analysis is also a useful service for the citizen when choosing where to live, schools, shop and where to spend their leisure time. The information also allows local people to assess crime levels in their area and hold the police to account.
Both Braintree District Council and the London Borough of Lambeth have improved their service to residents by introducing geospatial technology. Using the service called LocalView, Braintree residents can perform searches to find the nearest schools, libraries, councillors, police stations, GP surgeries and pharmacies etc. Residents can also use LocalView to report faults, incidents or problems online.
This citizen centric approach to service delivery has received an enthusiastic reception from residents. In particular, they appreciate being able to obtain information and contact the council in the evenings and at weekends.
In 2003, the London Borough of Lambeth made the strategic decision to replace its separate call centres for Housing, Social Services and Environment with one central call centre. While the new system was being implemented, Lambeth Council took the opportunity to expand its database of geographic information. In total it created 20 different categories of data from the locations of schools and GP practices to road maintenance responsibilities, mental health offices and housing estates. The new call centre, opened in March 2004, gives all of the council’s customer service staff access to up-to-date maps and geographic information at their fingertips.
The Lambeth Service Centre currently handles 4,000 to 4,500 calls every single day, and around 40 per cent of these queries are answered with the help of geospatial technology. More recently Lambeth has introduced a system for managing potholes and trips. This solution enables call centre operators to identify the precise location of a fault in a road or pavement by talking with the person reporting it on the phone and viewing detailed street maps and aerial photographs of the location. Once the exact location is pinpointed, the operator clicks on the location on the map and a service request is automatically generated in the back-office system without any further manual intervention.
Flood prevention, illegal logging, observing changes in terrain, emission monitoring, weather prediction are all examples of where geospatial technology has been applied. In March 2007, London saw the launch of a new pollution monitoring system. Targeted at suffers of asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease or angina, it alerts subscribers to dangerous levels of air pollution allowing them to organise their day to avoid the worse of the pollution.
MESSAGE, a research project jointly funded by Department for Transport and EPSRC is aimed at reducing traffic pollution. It uses pedestrians and vehicles to act as mobile sensors collecting real time air quality data and using these to show how variables such as weather, street design and driving behaviour affect traffic pollution levels.
The Pitt Review of the 2007 floods identified flood risk as being a threat to society on a par with terrorism. The report made 92 recommendations, many of which require organisations to improve the way they use and share geographic information.
The Stern Review estimated that deforestation is responsible for 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity. Illegal logging, which contributes significantly to deforestation in the vast forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia, needs to be arrested. Satellite surveillance combined with graphical information system software is at the heart of the world’s fight against illegal loggers.
Implementing EU directives
Geospatial technology has a role to play in both the implementation and enforcement of EU regulation. The Forestry Commission is putting together a highly accurate and detailed digital map of woodland cover across Scotland, England and Wales. This map will help the commission to assess change and develop plans to meet new EU Directives and other national and international policy commitments. Comparing this up-to-date information against older data will help to track environmental change over the last decade.
DEFRA applies geospatial technology in many areas and it has only been possible to select a few examples. The Noise Mapping England Project is central to DEFRA meeting its responsibility for the European Noise Directive. It aims to gather strategic information on the ambient noise climate in England, determining the number and location of people affected sources (i.e. road, rail, air and industry). The central date service is designed on industry best practice and delivers legacy value as the data inputs and outputs will be available to support noise and other DEFRA policy areas in the future.
DEFRA also uses geospatial technology to identify crops and field sizes. The system is used to validate farmers’ claims for subsidy vastly increasing the automation of the process
Significant benefit has been gained to date by government and the citizen from the take up of geospatial technology. The challenge now is to raise awareness of what geospatial technology can do and extrapolate this into innovative applications. Maps and a myriad of sensors already in place provide relevant data and many government departments and local authorities are already licensed to use this data.
There are, however, hurdles to be overcome, including encouraging the sharing of data sets between different bodies and agreement of data standards.
Collection of high quality data remains the backbone of geospatial technology solutions. Crisis management, traffic management and some weather related applications are dependent on the collection of real time data. For systems looking at the environment, accurate data collected regularly over a period of time is essential. If the UK is to benefit from geospatial technology these data must be collected and shared.
There is no question that advances in technology, coupled with changes to business processes, have the capacity to improve the delivery of services. A truly transformed government must ensure that the benefits of current information and communications channels are used to the benefit to the citizen and the officials serving them. The government must continue to build on the successes that have taken places and continue to look at innovative solutions to service delivery.
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