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The Geospatial Commission - don’t miss the big opportunity

Posted: 14 March 2018

By Steve Brandwood, Executive Director of Engagement at GeoPlace

SBr GeoPlace blog

I noted the announcement of Government plans to set up a Geospatial Commission in my last blog post in November last year - https://blog.geo.place/2017/11/23/the-budget-housing-the-digital-economy-and-a-geospatial-commission/.

At the time there was little information about the role of the Commission and the rationale for its creation was limited to a few lines in the Autumn Budget.

There was subsequently a press release with a little more detail on what the Commission was being set up to achieve - https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-to-unlock-hidden-value-of-government-data

… and adverts for Commissioners - https://publicappointments.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/appointment/geospatial-commission-co-chairs/

All this follows a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to improve access to ‘digital land’ information to support the digital economy - and the subsequent report created by the Boston Consulting Group for Government. Although not published yet - Treasury responses to FOIA requests state that it will be published later this year, suggests several barriers to ‘unlocking up to £11 billion of extra value for the UK economy every year’.

So, I was very interested in attending a recent AGI breakfast briefing on the Geospatial Commission to hear from the Cabinet Office official who is responsible for setting the Commission up and the views of the AGI members who could make an 8am meeting in Westminster (breakfast rolls and coffee were thankfully provided).

William Priest has been appointed as the First Commissioner in his capacity as Director of the Geospatial Commission Unit, and Thalia Baldwin as Deputy Director at the Geospatial Commission. Further appointments will be made soon, and it aims to be operational by the end of March. The establishment of the Commission is being led by the Cabinet Office.

Points worth noting, at least from my perspective:

The first step will be to develop and implement a UK Geospatial Strategy with the aim of:

  • establishing a workplan for the Commission
  • working with Ordnance Survey to establish how to open-up OS MasterMap data, in particular to UK-based small businesses

From the information available, there seems to be a big focus on improving access to OS MasterMap – particularly for small and medium sized businesses. At the briefing, I asked the question as to whether the term ‘MasterMap’ referred to the suite of OS products – specifically AddressBase and Highways or was the term limited to the Topography layer. There wasn’t a clear answer to this and I assume that the Commission will consider this as part of their initial deliberations.

I made the point that whilst I support the notion of better access to OS products, I would be concerned if the Strategy didn’t address the fundamental issues associated with geospatial information and primarily focus on the open data issue.

I am not anti-open data or open MasterMap per se, but I do think that the commercial framework that that OS (and by implication GeoPlace) operates under drives quality and efficiency. Reductions in revenues brought about if funding is moved to a government budget is a big concern. I am interested to see how this pans out with respect to Treasury reaction as it goes without saying that they are a big beneficiary of OS’s commercial position.

The bigger prize in having a Geospatial Commission is the development and support (in terms of policy commitment, operational frameworks and even statute) of a Spatial Data Infrastructure for the UK. This has been tried a number of times but driven by the organisations that have a direct interest in a specific outcome and therefore initiatives failed as these organisations defend their ‘space’ and ways of working.

The comment was made at the briefing that there had been many ‘battlegrounds’ for these discussions in the past, and I, having been a ‘foot soldier’ at most of them, have had first-hand experience of the deep trenches that can be dug. Leadership from Government provides the opportunity to put in place a SDI which would enable the public sector to work more efficiently and effectively and enable other sectors to benefit through definitive standardised data being available from the public sector.

Concentrating on the short-term goal of ‘open MasterMap’ may, in my view, misses a huge opportunity. I am not convinced of the arguments made at the AGI briefing that the Commission should be defining how data is made available (APIs etc) as I think the market will drive this – OS are moving towards a more flexible delivery/access to data and away from the historic epoch delivery as a result of market development. I feel that the Commission shouldn’t lose sight of more strategic goals over the tactical priorities that seem to be being discussed.

Take addressing as a key example – there is nothing by way of policy or direction from Government on how the various organisations involved in the property lifecycle work together to ensure that the UK has and uses the best and most up to date data. This will have significant positive economic impact if it were tackled as part of as SDI.

The National Infrastructure Commission, who I visited a couple of months ago, have already reported to Government on the importance of data as part of our national infrastructure - https://www.nic.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Data-for-the-Public-Good-NIC-Report.pdf. The report makes many references to the importance of geospatial information as a key part of a wider digital framework and states in its first recommendation - The Government should task the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) with the establishment of a digital framework for infrastructure data, drawing together key organisations and existing initiatives both large scale and smaller scale [a Digital Framework Task Group] – which should have close links with the new Geospatial Commission.

I would recommend Leigh Dodd’s blog on the building blocks of data infrastructure as a nice introduction to the topic - https://blog.ldodds.com/2018/02/23/the-building-blocks-of-data-infrastructure-part-1

The AGI is well placed to provide industry views to the Geospatial Commission – I understand that they will be collecting views and insights from members over the coming months – if you are a member, be sure to contribute, if you’re not a member, well join up and contribute.

It will be fascinating to see how things develop as the Commission takes further shape over the coming months. I’m always interested to hear views, so please leave a reply below!

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