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Geospatial skills are key for improving our built environments – here’s how we get them

Profile of By Damien McCloud
By Damien McCloud
Associate Director, Advanced Digital Engineering, ArupDamien leads a team of data, analytics and GIS specialists within Arup’s Advanced Digital Engineering group. Previously he worked for Transport for London, the Environment Agency, KBR and BT. Damien is also a Chartership assessor for the Royal Geographic Society and an Honorary Professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London.

We’ve seen numerous stories of how data scientists and the democratisation of data and technology are poised to transform industries, from healthcare right through to automotive. Take financial services, where insights from mathematical models using both historical and real-time events data are combined with social media analysis to inform stronger investment decisions and better service for customers.

For the built environment, the challenge of adopting such an approach and reaping the benefits lies in the complexity of the industry and how it operates. Construction and infrastructure projects, when done well, can better support society and improve efficiency, for example, by reducing our carbon footprint.

At the moment, these industries rely on traditional materials and traditional skills and require a myriad of different parties – from subcontractors to consultants to local teams. What’s needed in response to this is an infrastructure to support a diverse set of data skills, so all these parts can work together – and this is where the geospatial industry has a crucial role to play.

Women in an office looking at a computer screen
The geospatial industry can play a crucial role in supporting a diverse set of data skills.

Geospatial specialists use some of the latest technologies and skills available, such as large-scale geo-analytics imagery and hyperspectral laser scanning, to facilitate better decision making. We tend to think about data differently to data scientists, putting location at the heart of any project or analysis to create a project that best serves a city or community. As such, we can bring a vital perspective to the spaces in which we live.

Geospatial data skills and technology are integral to modern-day engineering projects. Far from a ‘bolt-on’ or afterthought, they are key to the successful delivery of our major infrastructure projects; helping identify timely opportunities, mitigation and better understand local and regional context.

Any built environment project, such as the masterplan for a city, will have a dependency on the use of geospatial data, that is essential to understand the interdependencies of space, systems and context. The ability to interrogate and visualise multiple and disparate datasets together enables greater comprehension of the space and designs available, resulting in better design choices.

By way of example, Arup was commissioned to deliver the design for part of the Great Western Main Line electrification programme; the UK’s largest electrification project since the 1980s. The design and construction of the overhead line equipment required changes to and the build of a variety of supporting infrastructure along the route. Central to this project was the geospatial data skills and technology that enabled the creation of a set of data visibility tools and processes to improve the accuracy and speed of design and construction, as well as the reduction of health and safety risks. These award-winning tools and processes created several efficiencies; including an estimated 13,667 of working hours saved as well as a significant reduction in design team site visits.

Liverpool skyline
Geospatial data skills and technology are integral to modern-day engineering projects.

We need to ensure those typically doing a geography degree or a Geographic Information System (GIS) masters understand their skills are highly sought after across the built environment and that they can play a central role in our infrastructure and how the cities of the future are shaped. It is essential to the future of the industry we have a pipeline of the right skills available and that a new wave of data science skills is balanced with those from geography and geospatial backgrounds.

Geospatial data skills and technology must permeate across sectors and projects in the built environment. The most successful projects are those that combine both geospatial data and data science skills to find the value in the spaces between them. Planning teams, therefore, need to hire a diverse range of digital skills to remain competitive and support future growth. As professionals in the built environment, we need to think about how to better collaborate to facilitate stronger decision-making and deliver the most efficient outcome.

The road ahead for the UK geospatial sector is an exciting one – as geospatial experts, we need to shout more loudly about what we do and the value that we bring to major projects across the UK. Whatever happens, we need to think about opening our industry at all levels, so that geospatial specialists can truly thrive to deliver on the most innovative projects, smart infrastructure and ultimately create wider social value.

Profile of By Damien McCloud
By Damien McCloud
Associate Director, Advanced Digital Engineering, ArupDamien leads a team of data, analytics and GIS specialists within Arup’s Advanced Digital Engineering group. Previously he worked for Transport for London, the Environment Agency, KBR and BT. Damien is also a Chartership assessor for the Royal Geographic Society and an Honorary Professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London.