Location, location, location

Richard Budden | 22 May 2014 | Comments

Working in a technology driven sector, I find the pace of change both fascinating and challenging. This is certainly true in the world of geospatial services (interactive digital mapping and information about location). This used to be the domain of experts with costly computing systems and access to the right data, but increasingly this is no longer the case.

Whether location tagging a Facebook or Twitter post, using your smart phone to find a nearby cafe, or mapping out a running route, many of us now use geospatial services without really thinking about it. The likes of Google Maps, GPS-enabled smart phones and a rise in the availability of open data are all playing their part in taking geospatial to the masses.

It’s clear to me that the greater availability of geospatial services is having a positive impact on society through increasing awareness of the world around us, and empowering us to make better decisions where location is involved. When was the last time you planned out a route using a paper map? Could a paper map show you the time required for your journey, the current levels of traffic on the way, or a zoomable photo montage of your destination? The use of these kinds of tools and services is clearly on the rise, increasing the levels of spatial literacy whether people realise it or not.

This trend is having a hugely significant impact in business and government as well. Geospatial information is being used to create efficiencies, make more strategic decisions, create leaner operations and better target customers across a range of different industries, including engineering, transportation and retail.

A study by Boston Consulting Group revealed that geospatial services generated $1.6 trillion in revenue for US businesses in 2011, and enabled savings of $1.4 trillion [1]. Those are big numbers, and as the BCG themselves say, geospatial services could be the biggest industry that no one has heard of [2]. Yet, geospatial tools are used for all manner of purposes: for master planning and site selection analysis; environmental tracking and monitoring using satellite data and remote sensing; and disaster planning and emergency response.

As BCG also reports, this emerging industry depends on continued public and private sector cooperation and partnership to sustain continued growth. Governments need to take the lead and set the agenda for a range of related issues, including enabling and providing access to open data, supporting businesses to nurture innovation, and promoting education and technical training. Government will rely on the private sector to help drive this into their agendas and we must be ready to advise and support.

In recent years we’ve seen moves from western governments that do support this. Open data initiatives in Canada and the United Kingdom, to name just two, are enabling access to a wealth of previously restricted or expensive information to both businesses and the public. That coupled with rapidly developing technology (web, mobile, databases, analytics and more) is driving innovation and opening up new ways of using this information for all manner of different purposes that benefit people and businesses alike.

Focusing on the Middle East, governments here have an opportunity to follow this lead and develop similar approaches to providing access to data for public consumption. Typically shy at sharing information, there is clearly great benefit in doing so and my hope is to see this develop over the next few years. The government of Abu Dhabi’s Spatial Data Infrastructure, which enables data to be shared and coordinated decisions to be made, is a great start for the UAE emirate and provides a fantastic framework upon which to build. Further up the coast, geospatial is integral to Dubai’s ambitions to develop as a smart city, and they have a great opportunity to lead the Gulf region and ensure that people are aware of this innovative and exciting industry.

So, when was the last time you used geospatial services without realising it?