Skip to the content

The challenges for the Geospatial Commission


Mark Say Managing Editor

Get UKAuthority News


William Priest believes there is plenty of good geospatial data in public sector systems, but organisations can find it hard to get hold of and use.

He cites a recently completed Cabinet Office study that identified 21 barriers to realising the public value in the data, of which 20 were related to friction in the system, linked to accessibility, interoperability or discoverability (the other was in the quality of the data).

As chief executive of the Geospatial Commission one of his big challenges is in finding ways to reduce that friction.

“If we could use the existing data more effectively by taking away the barriers and the friction, we could see our way to realising a huge amount of economic value and optimisation of some of those public services,” he says.

Priest moved into the role early this year, following an interim stint as chief executive of Broadband Delivery UK and before that a long career in telecommunications, civil engineering and management consultancy. The commission was set up at the same time as an expert committee within the Cabinet Office with decision-making powers for geospatial policy and strategy and a budget – £80 million over two years – for implementation. (It will pitch for future funding as part of the next Spending Review.)

The body currently has about 30 staff with a few more to join in the next six months, and is taking on a chair and commissioners with experience in geospatial, business and the public sector. It will report up to a ministerial steering group chaired by Cabinet Office minister David Liddington and with representatives from all the big government departments.

Strategic objectives

It amounts to a major investment that was identified as a priority in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2017 general election, with a forecast that it could provide £11 billion per annum for the UK economy. In turn, it has seeded three strategic objectives for the commission: unlocking economic value in the private sector; social value through optimising public services; and environmental value.

The commission has begun to work with the relevant departments on the public services angle. Priest cites a collaboration with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on the use of geospatial data in flood prediction and prevention, and more surprisingly in the payment of agricultural subsidies.

“We need brilliant and accurate real time information on what farmers are planting and growing, and that comes from Earth observation data from satellites,” Priest says. “This is within our remit and plays very strongly to farming and agribusiness.”

He also points to the potential in policing – supporting the concentration of resources in areas that most need them – and emergency services – providing optimised routes for responders. “There are multiple use cases we are exploring through all walks of the public services,” he says.

But to make this happen it is necessary to overcome those barriers, which are familiar to anyone involved in public sector data sharing.

Improve sharing

“There are organisational, cultural, system and process barriers,” he says. “We all know some of the challenges in terms of the siloes in public services, and in the private sector. What we can improve is the sharing of data across departments and between public services and the private sector.

“It’s a classic change management opportunity and challenge: process change, better use of the data, maybe some cultural and structural change to drive more open sharing of data. We will be looking at all those kind of barriers.”

He cites the example of possibly making it easier for the private sector to use more Ordnance Survey (OS) data, and says there are questions about the structures in the leading producer bodies such as OS and the UK Hydrographic Office.

This relates to another significant barrier in how much data can be made open when the producers run on a business model that expects them to bring in revenue from their datasets. A significant step was taken in June with the announcement that the Geospatial Commission would work with OS on making data from the latter’s OS MasterMap more freely available for individuals and businesses, followed by plans to pump £5 million into unlocking data from other sources.

But Priest acknowledges there could be limits on further initiatives: “There is an ongoing question about how much more open some of the datasets should be, so from a policy and strategy perspective we will look at what’s best for the producer organisations versus what makes sense from an economic and social value perspective. If you open up everything there’s a danger we destroy the strategic assets that we have, which is in no-one’s interests.”

Action plan

The commission has also run a consultation that will feed into an action plan to be published next spring, then a five-year geospatial strategy, expected around six months later. It included questions on regulations, legislation, innovation, skills and technology, and Priest says the exercise received 220 responses, many in line with the prior thinking.

More details about what was learned should become public in the new year, but for now he says: “There is a huge appetite and realisation that geospatial data can and will drive and empower the digital economy, internet of things, smart cities and other areas. The specific learnings were absolutely concurrent with our views on what the barriers are.”

He adds that the consultation has also confirmed the need for skills that bring together geography, computer science and data analytics, and that there is a challenge in cementing the position of geospatial data in education and training.

“There is a huge importance around the skills base. What is the future skillset we need in terms of producing and using world class geospatial data and information? How do we build and close the skills gap starting at age 11 in schools? How do we get geospatial deeper into the curriculum? How do we drive geospatial apprenticeships effectively? How do we provide more and better on the job training?

“I’ve been fascinated by breadth of geospatial skills in the public and private sectors. Insurance companies, retail companies have people with the capabilities. We want to learn from the ecosystem to get people’s views on what we need and what we have.”

Obtaining value

Major steps for next year will include a parallel review of how to develop the geospatial technology sector, estimated to be worth about $300 billion per annum worldwide, and the development of the action plan and strategy. This will come with a focus on how to obtain the value to the economy in five vertical markets: infrastructure and construction, telecommunications, natural resources, forestry and farming, and retail and logistics.

“We’ve got line of sight on where the £11 billion will come from, and in the three months before the plan comes out we will be nailing that down more clearly and firmly,” Priest says.

“That’s the headline goal. It won’t happen next week or next year, but we’re beginning to build the timeline to achieve that and we’ll certainly see significant economic value in the next five years, which is vastly in return to the cost of getting there. The core elements of that will be in the strategy.”

Image from Cabinet Office

Amended 10/4/19 to change figure on geospatial tech sector value from $300 million to billion

Register For Alerts

Keep informed - Get the latest news about the use of technology, digital & data for the public good in your inbox from UKAuthority.