Friday 26th Jan 2018
Managing Director, Ordnance Survey Great Britain
The day after Burns Night, David Henderson (Managing Director of OSGB) came to deliver a talk billed as ‘Beyond GB and Geo: National Mapping in Transformation’, kick-starting the 2018 contributions to the EEO-AGI(S) seminar series. With our speaker extolling the virtues of Scotland’s ‘other’ national drink – incidentally available on the night in our Old Library venue at the University of Edinburgh – we took our seats for a wide-ranging overview of the role of the OS in the rapidly changing geospatial industry both nationally and, increasingly, internationally.
Paying loose homage to the famous “The economy, stupid” phrase coined during the successful 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, we were introduced to the reality that, increasingly, now “it’s digital, stupid”. Another key tenet of the Clinton campaign – that a failure to embrace change was not an option – seems to reflect the current reality in the geospatial industry.
To aptly demonstrate this, we were shown the front cover of an edition of The Economist (May 2017, pictured) showing modern day tech giants sitting atop oil rigs. David took issue with the message inside that the “…world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data” due to the conflation of a finite commodity with another – data – that we seek to invest in, curate, maintain and (crucially) re-use.
Notwithstanding this misgiving, we were left in no doubt that now we need to ‘think digitally’. The concept of the ‘Digital Twin’ – rather than ‘mapping’ or ‘geospatial technologies’ – reflects the new reality. And therein lies a dichotomy: the geospatial industry has to simultaneously service current demands while keeping abreast of rapid technological developments and the opportunities arising from them.
The axiomatic ‘Everything happens somewhere’ likely needs no introduction to the GIS enthusiast but remains as valid as ever. The OS has, David argued, spent 225 years ‘trying to simplify the natural complexity of the real world’ – traditionally into map form and – increasingly – into data form. Now, a real paradigm shift is taking place with the tantalising prospect of vastly enhanced capabilities to abstract and model the real world (inside and outside) in near real-time. Encouragingly, now we should think more of outcomes (what can we ask of the data?) rather than outputs (the means of delivering the data) given the ‘data-as-a-platform’ capabilities that now exist. Key outputs from this include so-called Smart Cities, with mention made of Singapore as a city with a highly developed digital infrastructure.
The phrase ‘Digital Twin’ popped up frequently during the talk. So, what is a Digital Twin? And how does this relate to agencies such as the OS tailoring their offerings in a rapidly evolving world? Digital Twins are assets such as devices or buildings that exist both physically and digitally, the concept being that the assets and their operation and maintenance (e.g. planning builds, isolating faults, doing repairs…) are best understood and managed when the assets exist in this twin form. This is inextricably linked to the overarching ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) phenomenon, where ubiquitous sensors provide frequent updates on, for example, current environmental conditions associated with individual assets. The OS, David argued, is adapting to this rapidly evolving world with its innovation agenda (e.g. OS OpenData and OpenSpace APIs) being made available to developers.
Geospatial data are being exploited nationally and internationally, and the OS has reached out in collaborations worldwide with other agencies to mutual benefit. Governments have their own drivers (economic, environmental, social) with these affecting the focus on certain areas (e.g. issues of land tenure dominating in many developing countries).
In the domestic sphere, the Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in November 2017 the creation of a new Geospatial Commission . Although David jokingly commented that this was possibly the first time the word ‘geospatial’ had been used by a minister in the House of Commons, it is clear the OS sees opportunities in the Government’s stated aim of exploiting its location data – held by various agencies such as the HM Land Registry – to support economic growth.
Internationally, in his role as UK lead in the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM), David described ongoing collaborative efforts to effectively use geospatial data on national to global scales. Also at the UN level, the Sustainable Development Goals have geospatial at their core; asking for example where the most disadvantaged communities are located is fundamental to taking action.
David mentioned two domestic developments in the OS of particular interest. The first was the OS embracing earth observation (EO) technologies. The new reality is that EO is proving very useful in supervised classification for improved thematic mapping. The OS is well-placed to reference change data derived from EO satellite data to its existing high quality real-world data, especially for documenting change (e.g. in land use).
A further example was OS input into the rollout of 5G technologies, notably in the context of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs). We learned that the propagation of high-frequency signals in 5G is highly sensitive to lines-of-sight. Consequently, a whole host of features of urban micro-geography – ranging from the presence of reflective surfaces to the presence of trees – can affect service quality. Again, with its existing detailed real-world urban mapping the OS hopes to assist in the provision of live data feeds to make the safe use of CAVs a possibility.
David concluded by making mention of the OS and HM Land Registry role in the Geovation Programme  (recently crowned Geospatial Hub of the Year)  and its pivotal role in assisting tech startups to exploit location and/or property data. The argument was made that the geospatial industry has a key role to play in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, a call echoed elsewhere by other influential players in the geospatial industry such as Google .
Dr. Jonathan Henderson  works for Information Services at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Geographical Information Science in 2016, and is not related to the guest speaker!