William Priest Geospatial Commission
William Priest heads the government's Geospatial Commission

Industry calls for clarity on geospatial data

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Paul Unger

More than 150 organisations including Knight Frank, Atkins, Deloitte, Jacobs and Costain have submitted concerns about the current value and relevance of geographic information, such as addresses and maps on titles, to the government’s UK Geospatial Commission.

The commission issued a call for evidence last summer to feed into its annual plan. The full response from industry has now been published online. The document of all the answers to the set of 20 questions runs to more than 2,300 pages. The majority of respondents were niche information handlers, local councils and universities. There was a minority of private companies including those above, as well as trade bodies the RTPI and the RICS. The three reasons for doing the report were to help the commission set a strategy…

Supporting innovation in the geospatial sector, exploring how to secure cutting edge skills, the right access to data, and opportunities from emerging technologies for the geospatial sector itself

Enhancing the UK’s geospatial assets, looking at how best to align interests, avoid duplication, and instill best practice across the whole public sector

Driving investment and productivity in geospatial applications, asking in which wider sectors the most value lies from better exploitation and use of geospatial data, in the UK and internationally

Here is a sample of answers provided by the property companies:

On the professional impact of geospatial skills

Knight Frank: Too many candidates that we have interviewed have jumped from one GIS [geographic information system] role to another, bouncing between industries demonstrating knowledge and experience of the systems and methods, but little commitment to (or passion for) the subject matter. If they fail to fully understand and engage with the subject matter of the organisation their capability supports, they will have limited success in owning and disseminating actionable insight from that capability.

On changes needed to address data and the wider address system

Knight Frank: The ability to establish links from address data across other government point and polygon data is key, and we are largely able to achieve this using Ordnance Survey AddressBase. Limitations of this database are exposed for apartment buildings, where multiple address points will appear on the same building centroid. These points are also not differentiated by floor. This causes issues during [Text redacted] assessment, where a building might contain 20 addresses, 5 of which have been classified as commercial and the remainder residential. It is not possible to estimate the volume or percentage of commercial use within that building using the floorplate in OS MasterMap because a database user cannot tell if a commercial unit is ground floor only or is occupying multiple floors. If it was known that residential addressing began at floor 3 for example, then an accurate determination of the retail component could be made.

Additionally, if all residential addresses contained a link to floor number, much better density figures and ceiling height estimates could be determined. A conceivable mechanism for gathering this information would be through the voter registration teams in individual local authorities.

On defining geospatial applications

RICS: The Geospatial Commission should support the concept of applications that lead customers (citizens and professionals) through a business process and provide them with answers rather than expecting them to perform the analyses themselves using geospatial information. A great example is the assessment of solar energy potential application developed jointly by the Swiss Federal Energy Office, MeteoSwiss and swisstopo (National Mapping Agency). The user is unaware that the application makes extensive use of geospatial information. It is the answer that the user is interested in.

Which datasets are currently challenging to access or use?

RICS: HM Land Registry holds a substantial portfolio of commercial property leasehold information (all seven years-plus leasehold data can be tagged as confidential) – we are aware of the legislative changes needed to release this data but are of the view that this might be something for the commission to lobby HM Gov on. As already mentioned, the UK is bereft of any kind of coherent national planning geospatial framework

How could public sector organisations invest in maintaining and enhancing data assets?

RTPI: There are a number of ways in which the land market could be made more effective with new data which could easily be mapped. The organisations involved in the Geospatial Commission should link up with others including the MoD, NHS, and ONS, to collect and publish data on a range of things, including: comprehensive and transparent ownership data with key identifiers; Beneficial owners of land, and options to purchase land; Land prices by site and by hectare; Mapped planning permissions with dates and details.

The Geospatial Commission was created in April 2018. The commission is currently working with govtech advisor Public on an overiew of the investment landscape for geospatial technologies in the UK, with findings due to be published in the summer.

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