More must be done to realise the value of geospatial data

Written by Leigh Dodds on 29 May 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

Government’s Geospatial Commission has made some promising progress but Leigh Dodds of the ODI believes that increasing the openness of data and enhancing support for local government should be among the next steps

Credit: Pixabay

Last month brought the announcement of the New Public Sector Geospatial Agreement from the Geospatial Commission. 

It lays out the detail on some big changes to the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure, ahead of the publication of the Government’s Geospatial Data Strategy later this year. The plans look promising but there are also some gaps that could mean the national potential of geospatial data is a while off being realised.

Last month’s agreement came with more information about the OS Open MasterMap programme launched two years ago by Ordnance Survey. 

This was intended to enable the opening up of more highly useful mapping data. At ODI, we participated in the Customer Advisory Group, which offered suggestions to Ordnance Survey on implementation. Part of this programme included the creation of a new data portal – currently in beta phase – for directly accessing OS open data. 

Set to officially launch this summer, it will become the primary route of access. Ordnance Survey will also be releasing open data sets for Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs), and street identifiers, along with a much-needed clarification to policies governing how derived data sets can be enriched with these identifiers. 

Geospatial identifiers provide a key link for data sets across both public and private sectors, as we obtain most value from data sets when and where they can be readily combined. 


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At present, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government publishes energy performance certificates for properties across the UK, and HM Land Registry publishes the prices paid for property. To join these data sets together is difficult – not to mention time-consuming – because the addresses are not usually given in the same format. 

By using UPRNs, this task becomes much easier. And, with more freedom to include UPRNs in openly licensed data, it will become easier for the public and private sector to link together and enrich other data sets. 

Amendments to derived data policies will enable the publication of property extents data – such as information from OS MasterMap on fences, paths and driveways – that should support the publication of more open data from other organisations.  HM Land Registry and local government, in particular, should be able to publish data sets that describe the geospatial extents of properties – which is useful for planning permissions – as well as including identifiers for them.

Relaxing derived data restrictions will enable local authorities to publish more open data, and can give them greater confidence when making devolved decisions about their strategic use of data.
 
More work to do
Over time, we hope to see a new range of products, services and insights using geospatial data from across the UK. Examples might include the broader digitisation of the planning system, creating a greater understanding of the impact of climate change, or mapping out safer routes to schools. However, despite these welcome changes, in some ways they do not go far enough.

The new data hub offers a set of standardised APIs and services to access OS data sets and maps, and a free usage tier enabling some businesses to access data for free. The public sector has long benefited from access to OS data under the Public Sector Mapping Agreement, but the new APIs and services are likely to bring additional benefits.

Yet the existing terms and conditions outline that the new services can only be used for certain purposes. They can currently be used to build public-facing products and services, but not as a useful internal analysis tool for organisations. So, for example, they cannot be used to support an internal customer service application, or back-office applications of machine learning or artificial intelligence. 

There is also little in the way of new open data. Free access to data is not the same as open data, as OS still restricts what can be done with the geospatial data it stewards on behalf of the UK. The APIs, reduced pricing and freemium model should attract developers and encourage some competition, but the original aim of unlocking £130m per year of value for the economy will require greater use of geospatial data, not just more competition in an existing market.

We are confident the National Geospatial Strategy later this year will build on this announcement, but would like to see a more ambitious long-term vision. This should ideally incentivise OS to ensure its data is used as widely and effectively as possible, delivering broad economic benefits. 

We would also hope to see a commitment towards a more open future, and the sharing of “new, richer data” referenced in the recent announcements. This might include clarity on address data becoming open data. It has an estimated value of up to £1.32bn per year to the UK economy, but was privatised in 2013 with Royal Mail. As such a crucial part of our national geospatial data infrastructure, it should be available as open data. 

We would like to see a more ambitious long-term vision, which should ideally incentivise OS to ensure its data is used as widely and effectively as possible, delivering broad economic benefits

Much more can also be done to support local government. Given so much geospatial data is stewarded by local authorities, we hope the Geospatial Data Strategy later this year explores strengthening their capacity. To realise the full value from the announced changes will require the public sector, and local government, in particular, to open up additional data. This is the intended outcome of the changes to licensing and policies. 

Our recent work with local governments has highlighted that issues with legal rights to share data are a key barrier to opening up data. These changes will go some way to address those concerns, but they need to be backed by a plan to support and enable that to happen. Other blockers, for example on skills and technical capacity, also need to be addressed.

In short, the PSGA announcements are welcome developments, but fall short of a true map for the future.

 

About the author

Leigh Dodds is director of advisory at the Open Data Institute 

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