The Geospatial Commission, a government agency set up in 2018 to develop the UK’s location data as a national asset, this week provided an update on its progress to date. The Commission shared how the NHS has been using geospatial data to tackle Covid-19, while Northumbrian Water Group explained how a registry of underground assets is helping it cut maintenance costs and avoid accidents.
The Commission also provided new guidance on the ethics of using geospatial data, and warned that the public’s trust must be earned for its full economic value to be realised.
What is geospatial data?
Also known as “location data”, geospatial data describes the physical location of an object, person or place. It comes in various forms, such as ‘foundational geospatial data’, which can be used by multiple parties to map natural and manmade geographic features, and ‘identifiers’, which describe the location of specific assets.
In 2020, the UK government announced a strategy to “unlock the power of location data” by creating “a coherent national location data framework” by 2025.
“Valuable data that currently sits locked in silos will be easy to access and combine securely to create new insights, new services and new businesses that are almost unimaginable today,” the strategy asserted. “Innovation across the economy made possible by better location data, skills and tools will help drive economic stability and national productivity.”
This week, the Geospatial Commission provided a progress update for this strategy. Key achievements to date include an assessment of how accessible the UK’s geospatial data assets are, various initiatives to promote the use of location data to optimise transport, and the launch of the National Land Data Programme, a project to use data to inform planning decisions.
Location data has been instrumental in the fight against Covid-19, the Commission said, allowing the NHS to track the spread of the disease, predict outbreaks, and identify services that are nearest to affected communities.
Geospatial data also underpinned the NHS Volunteer Responders service, which was used to assign 2.2 million tasks to 200,000 volunteers in the early part of the pandemic. The platform is now being used to coordinate vaccinations.
Rolling out the National Underground Asset Register
The Commission’s priorities for next year include the roll-out of the National Underground Asset Register (NUAR), a “digital map of underground pipes and cables” in the UK. One aim of NUAR is to reduce accidental damage to underground utilities infrastructure caused when digging holes to perform maintenance, which costs an estimated £2.4bn a year.
Speaking at the launch of the Commission’s progress report, Heidi Mottram, chief executive of Northumbrian Water Group, explained how the company is using NUAR to plan maintenance. The risk of accidental damage is especially high for water companies, she said, because water pipes often sit below other pipes and cables.
In the past, data on underground assets has been hard to come by, Mottram explained. Although asset owners are legally obliged to share information on where their underground assets are located, this data was often provided in a variety of formats and so hard to integrate. And some utility companies were reluctant to share their data, Mottram added.
The NUAR follows a federated data model, meaning that the asset owners control the data about their assets. “The fact that this asset register works in a federated way, so nobody has to give over their information permanently… was the big, big breakthrough,” Mottram said.
So far, 35 organisations have signed a data distribution agreement with NUAR, meaning their data can be shared on the platform, while 119 have signed agreements that allow the NUAR team to inspect their data without it being shared on the live platform.
Lisa Allen, head of consultancy for data programmes at the Open Data Institute, told Tech Monitor that the non-profit advisory welcomes the national roll-out of NUAR, but hopes it can find new business models that encourage data sharing.
Allen added that there is still work to be done in unlocking the UK’s geospatial data assets. “We would also like to see other datasets unlocked, for example address data, which is a key part of the UK’s data infrastructure that has yet to be taken forward.”
The ethics of geospatial data
The Geospatial Commission also unveiled a new report on the ethics of location data. “Users of location data must be transparent, and the benefits delivered must be clearly stated and adhered to,” explained Edwina Dunn OBE, commissioner of the Geospatial Commission, in her foreword to the report. “This will help government and industry to win the hearts and minds of those sharing their location data – building long-term trust and support from the UK public.”
The report, entitled ‘Building public confidence in location data‘, advises organisations handling geospatial data to focus on accountability, bias and clarity. But it observes that doing so is becoming harder as geospatial technology advances. For example, location data is increasingly available in real time; sensors providing geospatial data are proliferating; and machine learning and AI are being used to process and analyse it.
Each of these trends increases the risk of ethical breaches, the Commission warned. “The impact of poor data management or bias may be magnified because of the speed and automation of decision making. Increased automation may mean poor data management and that bias is harder to spot. And faster, more prolific, and more automated use of data means there is more data use to explain, and the use is more complicated, so clarity for data subjects is harder to realise without conscious effort.”