Government analysts use Google Street View to map urban greenery

Use of search engine’s imagery forms part of the era of ‘data abundance’, according to the UK’s national statistician

Credit: Byrion Smith/CC BY 2.0

A new age of “data abundance” will transform the way the government gathers information, according to the UK’s national statistician.

John Pullinger, chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority – the executive arm of which is the Office for National Statistics – told PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World that government analysts now have access to a growing arsenal of ready-made data that can supplement the information gathered through dedicated research.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find something out you had to design a survey, send questionnaires out, wait for results then analyse and publish them,” he said. “Most of our systems are based on that idea, yet now there are so many sources of real-time data – whether government or satellite images or transactional data they are all sources we can use.”

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ONS analysts are already exploring how to make use of external sources of information, such as incorporating VAT data into GDP calculations and using border exit checks to feed into immigration data. Shipping data can also play a role in understanding trading patterns, Pullinger said.

“Data abundance turns things on their head, starting from the question then thinking what are the data sources that can answer that question, rather than ‘here’s a survey, what can it tell you about the world?’” he added. “It’s a fundamental change in our way of thinking. For example, in the Industrial Strategy government is not interested in average productivity but in how we could design a regime that encourages investment in those likely to succeed.”

The national statistician – who announced this week that he will be retiring next summer – said that information that has already been gathered by the world’s largest search engine could also play a role in helping the government plan how best to direct investments in green space in UK cities.

“We created a machine learning algorithm that uses Google Street View to identify greenery and then work out the carbon capture potential and value of investing in green spaces in our cities,” Pullinger said “I had not immediately thought of Google Street View as a data source, but it is good for that kind of thing.”

Click here to visit Civil Service World to read the full interview

Sam Trendall

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