Spatially for you

25 Apr 2007

One of the most useful things about the internet is that the limitation of location is no longer such a serious issue (except, of course, if the particular location that you are interested in is still not in anyone’s loop, local or otherwise!).

But assuming that we see the rate of progress with the spread of broadband infrastructure continue or even increase, pretty soon all of us can experience the power and pleasure of always-on access to the internet and the liberation that this means.

Everything that occurs by or to anyone happens in a place. And as people move from place to place in their daily activities the nature of their current place can change in terms of terrain and environment, their relationships to people and things in that space — and the type of other activity that is going on there, from commercial to public, to community and down to the individual.

Being fully aware of where you are, or want to be, is a tremendous advantage in that you can decide to stay away or leave the space, to remain and do nothing or to listen, to watch or to do a whole host of other things. And your behaviour can be very much influenced by what or who else is there and what they happen to be doing. A lot of people now appreciate this and consider it a part of the internet age — to get location-specific information so that they can widen their options for behaviour.

Spatial relations

Location-specific information, or ‘spatial data’ to the people who live in the obscurity of technology speak, is the kind of information designed to be shown on maps. Over the past several decades a number of organisations have been creating this spatial data about their own activities and the way they relate to space — people such as the ESB, the county council planning authorities, the gas and telephone people, the land registration authorities and so on.

Having this type of data and being able to overlay it on maps makes their lives a lot easier because they know where they can find the wires, pipes and ducts that they need to access for maintenance and development work (not to mention, of course, where they can cause traffic chaos on the odd occasion!).

There is an issue for all of these players in that the basic maps they use have to be purchased from the Ordnance Survey Office and that, I’m afraid, tends be expensive. The need to pay for the maps is directly related to the cost of maintaining an up-to-date national base map set, which is costly (or, at least, it used to be before we had high-level aerial scanning and satellite facilities) and the Ordnance Survey Office has a mandate to recover costs through charges.

However, having said that, I’ve just been using Google Earth to find my way around Edinburgh quite successfully. I like to walk when I can and using Google Earth (free of charge) I was able to zoom in on that part of Edinburgh where I was located and actually measure the path distance to where I wanted to go to make sure that I could get there in good time.

Not only that, but I was also able to get an aerial photographic view of where I was planning to go and therefore a very good idea of what to expect along the way – in fact when I actually walked the mile and a half, I had absolutely no difficulty with the route having seen and studied the aerial photograph beforehand. I doubt very much if the folks at Google buy their maps from any ordnance survey office anywhere.

Common mapping

Another issue that needs to be addressed is that for all of the different types of information (wires, pipes, buildings, etc) to be simultaneously shown on these maps they must be compatible with each other. Hence the need for common formatting standards for the many creators of map information, or at least for some sort of translation procedure to allow them all to eventually co-exist intelligently on the same map.

A number of countries have already addressed this by adopting spatial data standards and it is an issue that is being addressed here too — but is not sorted out quite yet. The EU’s Inspire Directive calls for governments to get such an infrastructure up and running, giving fresh impetus to the issue.

In Ireland, the Department of Environment and Local Government is working with other spatial data creators with a view to coming up with a spatial data strategy. Wouldn’t it be tremendous if you could do a search on an area where you might be thinking of setting up home or a business and check out all the facts about the location — from environmental conditions to industrial activities, to demographics and hot spots of activities like sport, agriculture or even crime (although I’d say that the property vendors might cast a cold eye on something like that)?

From a public policy perspective, the availability of that type of joined-up information is proving to be a great advantage in many countries for policy makers, politicians and citizens — and is reshaping the relationships between all three as the quality of location-specific knowledge and connected insights informs discussion and debate on policy options.

Spatial information is relevant in many applications from the basic land registration and management, infrastructure, health monitoring, socio-economic planning, monitoring the environment, statistical analyses, conservation and development and natural resource management. And in the era of evidence-assisted policy-making, the availability of spatially relevant information is extremely useful. It is an area where we can expect to see further developments over the next few years.

To get a closer look at the issues around spatial data infrastructures, I would recommend the Spatial Data Cookbook, available in PDF for free from It gives a very comprehensive picture of the requirements for a spatial data infrastructure, with good case studies on where spatial information has improved the quality of information and public service responses at local, regional, national and global levels.

By Colm Butler, director of information society policy, Department of the Taoiseach