Five difficult problems solved using digital mapping

John Drever | 28 Nov 2014 | Comments

Geographical maps have been used throughout history as a way to solve difficult problems. These have included finding your way across terrain when you cannot see your end point, agreeing borders between countries and even determining how best to organise and move your army before a battle, hence the derivation of the name for the UK’s mapping body: Ordnance Survey.


When I first started in my post as innovation director I interviewed staff across our Communications business to gather examples of particularly innovative ideas. Coming from a systems engineering background I was aware of mapping for situational awareness, but I was hugely surprised when I found out the variety of other clever uses our Geospatial team have been making of spatial data.

Thanks to advances in digital mapping (Geographical Information Systems) and information manipulation there are a whole range of problems we can now solve. These include:

Optimal siting of large and complex engineering projects

Finding the optimal location for large engineering projects like wind farms, nuclear power plants or complex road/rail routing is essential to ensure that they have good transport links, appropriate access and are sympathetic to any local population centres.

Traditionally this has been achieved by using Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis spreadsheets, which are large and unwieldy, paper maps and physically visiting site locations during the early stage of site selection – the equivalent of a desk based study in today’s money.

However, our Geospatial team has taken spatial data from a variety of sources and layered them upon one another within a Geographical Information System. Some of the criteria taken into account include locations of international designations under the European Habitat directive (e.g. Special Areas of Conservation), listed buildings, slope gradients, population centres or the proximity of existing highway infrastructure.

Identifying the best roofs for siting solar panels and power calculation

Working out which roofs will enjoy the most uninterrupted sunlight is key when determining where to place solar panels. To achieve this we used stereoscopic imagery and mapping to create a 3D topographical map. This allowed us to model shadows and incident lighting on sloping roofs, providing a much higher level of accuracy in calculating the possible power outputs. It also allows us to optimise the types of solar panels installed.

Other uses of these techniques include:

  • determining line of sight for communications and CCTV siting
  • assisting with flood prediction
  • Forecasting the effect that changing a city’s skyline would have on existing infrastructure.

Identifying which houses are most at risk from lead piping

One of our most innovative uses of mapping came through a project to identify which of over 2 million homes might be most at risk from old lead plumbing. Lead piping is a real public health issue because it increases the level of potentially harmful lead found in drinking water. Given the sheer volume of properties involved it would take forever to sift through all the land registry archives to find out when a property was built and whether lead piping was in use at that time.

To address this challenge, we obtained and digitised maps from various eras and used a filtering engine to identify where new properties first appeared. We could further filter this data for dates when lead piping was phased out helping to highlight ‘at-risk’ properties.

Measuring cable lengths required for railway systems without going track-side

Historically any measuring, installation or repairs to rail trackside cables have been undertaken by people in often dangerous environments. The aim of this project was to help remotely assess the lengths of rail trackside cables more accurately in order to improve efficiency, reduce trackside side time and thereby reduce risk to rail infrastructure staff as a result. This solution involved layering 3D terrain mapping over existing 2D maps to identify accurate slope lengths.

Understanding the past to build the future

We are also undertaking research in partnership with the British Library to analyse the value of historical vectorised (each building being its own entity) mapping data by digitising the 1886 City of London.

The results of this project will not only be interesting for residents who want to know what their street was like in the past, but might also be relevant for various specialists such as planners who need to better understand the status of the ground under existing buildings and any potential contamination that might exist.