Surveying Ireland’s digital future

28 Jan 2003

When work on surveying Ireland was completed in 1846 at a scale of six inches to one mile, it was the first country in the world to be mapped in such detailed manner.

The body responsible, Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSI), is proud of its long history of embracing innovation and technological change.

Since the Seventies, OSI has invested heavily in the use of developing mapping technology. Today the organisation is one of the most technologically-advanced organisations of its kind in the world, according to its director Richard Kirwan. The geographical information industry is becoming increasingly important in the modern world: it is estimated that 80pc of databases include geographical information.

Kirwan is the man largely responsible for handling the transformation of OSI from a technical civil service department under the Department of Finance to a semi-state body dealing with commercial realities.

“We were probably one of the very early adopters of digital mapping. One of the reasons we did that was mainly to make the organisation more productive and more efficient…We have continuously upgraded our systems and software as the industry has developed to bring them to state-of-the-art, to bring them to open systems and to ensure that the information we can supply to our customers is more user-friendly,” he says.

A new online interactive mapping system is to come on stream next month. Despite project setbacks and launch delays, Kirwan believes it will be the most advanced mapping system in the world. “We view e-services as another channel, an electronic channel to the market,” he says. “The main benefits for the corporate customer are instant access to the data and being able to pull data as they need it, as opposed to us having to send it to them every few months. Part of our strategy is to continually update our mapping products and with this e-strategy, when our mapping products are updated, they will be instantly available to corporate customers, so better information in shorter time,” he adds.

This e-business venture, which costs over €2m, will enable the online provision of up-to-date spatial information, including hard copy maps and aerial photography, to the organisation’s growing customer base.

The project will take existing geographical information systems (GIS) data that will be converted from a file-based system on Windows NT and Compaq VMS platforms to an open database using an Oracle Spatial database.

“We are now storing our data in an open format using Oracle. A suite of Esri GIS software is used to serve this data on the internet such as Esri ArcIMS (internet map server). The sales and accounting function of the supply system utilises Microsoft Commerce Server. Mentec, which is the prime contractor for the implementation of the project, has provided its Web Adaptor software,” says, Cormac Clancy, IT manager for OSI.

As well as selling these digital products to local authorities, land registries, the Department of Agriculture and the Central Statistics Office, there is a growing demand for the products from corporate customers such as telcos, architects, building contractors and engineers. It is also targeting non-traditional customers such as banks and insurance companies.

“Our customer base has developed over the last number of years. We have our traditional customers of engineers, architects, lawyers and so on, but we have an additional band of customers coming from the non-mapping commercial side of things, such as insurance companies, supermarkets, people like An Post, transport companies and security companies. They are all people that would not normally use products in the past, but with the digital data they can now incorporate and update that data on commercial systems for planning and so on,” says Kirwan.

To reach out to customers, OSI has established a network of agents at six regional offices – Cork, Ennis, Kilkenny, Longford, Sligo and Tuam – that will be connected by the high-speed, high-capacity system to the Dublin headquarters in the Phoenix Park. As a result, all offices have online access to the main databases, intranet and internet.

Since transforming from a public service to a semi-state company last year, Kirwan says that the new status enables OSI to develop new products and services in a more efficient manner than before, and he is not shy about divulging the state of its finances.

“We are receiving funding from the Government to the tune of 30pc to carry out necessary public service work. But, the reliance on Government is reducing considerably,” he says. “In the last number of years OSI’s income has increased significantly. For the last year, OSI has had a 10pc growth in income,” he adds.

And for the future, it seems, OSI’s opportunities are endless. Kirwan believes that map location-based services, where maps can be supplied via Wap or a mobile phone have great potential, but freely admits that the return on investment may not be as great as its digital products.

Clancy is more optimistic. “There is enormous potential for future use of the database and the data that OSI provides. Value-added resellers in the future, for example, could include suppliers of systems for car navigation.”

In the coming times, there will be no excuse for getting lost if OSI has anything to do with it.

By Lisa Deeney