New technologies are powering the maps of the future – and the UK is leading the way

AI minister Viscount Camrose offers an insight on how government’s new plan for geospatial data could help support crisis response and future transport networks

Credit: Tumisu/Pixabay

Like billions of people across the world, I began this morning by grabbing my phone and plotting the route to my first port of call, be that a work meeting or coffee with a friend. 

With that one simple action, I am already relying on geospatial data – a vital, but often invisible part of our everyday lives. Beyond mapping, geospatial data is crucial to growing the UK’s economy and benefiting society. It gives businesses the insights to monitor their local, national and international operations, manage sustainable supply chains and to geographically target their products and services. 

Boundary data and postcodes ensure parcels reach our doorsteps and that local public services are delivered effectively. Data on land use determines the ideal location for electric vehicle charge points, new renewable energy sites and more in our agricultural and environmental sectors.

Building on the launch of the UK Science and Technology Framework and our continued drive to support innovation throughout the country, the UK Geospatial Strategy 2030 renews our commitment to remaining a world leader in the competitive geospatial arena. 

But geospatial data isn’t just about the technology of today.

It’s the linchpin of future technologies too, with applications revolutionised by advancing artificial intelligence, quantum, computing and cloud technologies changing how location powers our economy. AI is transforming the way location data detects changes in aerial photographs of the UK for example, to quickly update maps. To take a simple example, such advances could help us identify land at risk of flooding and intervene before it happens, saving lives, livelihoods and homes.

Real-time location data produced by phones and smartwatches enables the apps and services we use every day and, when anonymised and aggregated, forms a picture of population movements that allow us to plan transport networks and crisis response. During the pandemic, this data helped the government model the spread of Covid-19 and respond to outbreaks in different parts of the country, giving us a major insight in the role it can play in tackling the toughest challenges we face.

Technology is changing how we use location data and transforming our lives from the sports field, where sensors track the movements of the ball and players, to the battlefield where drones and satellites track the movements of troops and artillery. 

The UK’s new geospatial strategy positions us to take advantage of these advances, but true success will depend not just on the actions of the government, but on building on the UK’s long legacy of innovation to ensure the UK is at the heart of geospatial innovation going forward. That means backing world-class geospatial research across the country, including Southampton University’s new geospatial institute and Leeds University’s digital twins spin-out, Slingshot, which raised £3m earlier this year. 

It also means backing R&D more generally, with the government investing a record £20bn a year by 2025 and supporting the over 100 earth observation companies currently located within the UK. 

We are focused on making the most of the transformational opportunities that location data technology offers and ensuring the UK is supported to be in the right place, at the right time, creating the UK into a science and technology superpower by 2030.

Viscount Camrose

Viscount Camrose is minister for AI and intellectual property. The UK Geospatial Strategy 2030 can be read here.

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