Comment: Plans of action

6 Jul 2005

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One of the really interesting possibilities that the internet opened up for e-government was the prospect of being able to show data in a spatial context in that it is possible to show information and data about places on maps. What’s exciting about this is I suppose it can make it very meaningful for people to see data displayed in circumstances that they can relate to. So, in the case of planning information — whether housing or infrastructural development — it makes a lot more sense to people to see it in pictorial form.

But it doesn’t just end at planning because, if data can be shown in a spatial way, it becomes possible to layer different sets of data on a map to give a more comprehensive view of what the combined data means to a particular place. For instance, in the case of the Meadowlands project in New Jersey, the authorities had succeed in layering information about toxic waste disposal, population concentration and disease on a single map and it became very easy to detect a possible link between the location of particular types of material and the incidence of cancer.

Of course, it goes without saying that great care has to be taken about the quality and range of data and, perhaps most importantly, the way the correlations are interpreted. It seems all too easy for people to jump to conclusions about coincidences and you can very easily see how particularly mischievous people could juxtapose different information sets to suggest cause and effect. But there are always those who are prepared to get up to that kind of mischief, whether the data is in spreadsheets or on nice colourful maps. So that shouldn’t be an argument against moving in that direction.

A number of local authorities are using maps to show planning proposals and that trend should continue. A big issue, however, for all public authorities is the cost of maps because they have to pay Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI) for the use of its maps. And I suppose the difficulty is compounded by the fact that they are obliged to use OSI maps in the planning processes. Indeed, it seems strange that people applying for permission to build are still in the position of having to pay one arm of the State — OSI — for information maps that they then hand back to another arm — the planning authority. Those of you who have been following the ‘progress’ of e-government over the past half decade will have heard many of its exponents extolling the benefits to people of not having to act as couriers between state agencies — and having to pay for the privilege of doing so. So in that respect, one of the key messages of e-government mightn’t yet have gotten through to the people who run OSI or who are giving it its mandate.

Another interesting dimension to this is OSI is now being run as a commercial semi-state body and is expected to make money. In that latter respect it is not any different from the situation before its status changed, but there were a lot of question marks about their charging policies.

I haven’t followed progress on that situation since the change of status, but I wonder if the shift to a more commercial style of operation has impacted on the way it is operating internally. We know OSI has a couple of aircraft that cost a lot to keep and that are not being used that much anymore. We also hear some suggestions OSI is carrying some ‘passengers’ in its workforce since the old days, which by pure commercial standards, would not be in keeping with best practice.

In recent years with more high-quality information becoming available from satellite sources and private sector mapping organisations making the whole business very competitive. So, while a lot of the agencies that currently have to use OSI maps could probably do the whole mapping thing much cheaper themselves, they are not encouraged do so because of the effective monopoly OSI has on this market.

But from a national strategic perspective, we need an OSI in state control. But does it have to do the entire mapping itself if private sub-contractors can do it more efficiently? If the rationale for the charging regime that operates is related to the cost of having and running OSI, should it not look at how those costs might be reduced given its new commercial status?

The reason I ask these questions is that there are many commercial and community enterprises that could make very good use of the maps that OSI has if only they could afford them. In fact, the question of using maps is the subject of a draft directive — the Inspire Directive currently under consideration at the EU commission and parliament. It is raising questions for all public authorities across Europe about who can use maps, what they should pay, and how people who can’t afford to pay or who would use maps for non-commercial purposes, can access to these very valuable tools as they build virtual communities or put new meaning into local democracy in the so-called information age.

Many people are not best pleased with the growing influence of the European centre in their lives. But for many, the continued appearance of draft directives and their subsequent adoption has meant a lot of progress. True enough, it has sometimes brought us such gems as straight bananas. I suspect this current directive on mapping and the use of maps may bring us much some changes. But who will be the real winners? We will see.

By Syl O’Connor