Democratising the use of location
I live near a small patch of urban woodland and on one walk in late April, the low sun and crisp clean air broke through the tree canopy and beautifully lit a woodland floor carpeted with bluebells. It was a beautiful sight. I did what many of us do and whipped out my phone and took a photo. Back home later, I edited the photo in an app - cropping out the house in the background, adjusting exposure, brilliance, contrast, saturation. As I did this, I mused that not long ago only professional photographers would have been able to do this. Either by using their patience, skills and specialist equipment to capture the perfect shot or by using costly and complex desktop photo-editing software. Either way, it was the preserve of experts.
In many ways, this experience mirrors the geospatial sector. GIS really took off in the 1990s and has not looked back, but geospatial analysis is largely the preserve of experts. Costly and complex software only accessible or usable by a few experts; data published in difficult to use formats; impenetrable terminology; few options for non-experts to see and analyse their own business data on a map. It’s no wonder geospatial is not more widely understood or used.
Yet there is a different way. A new breed of geo-tech start-ups are doing for geospatial what smartphones did for photography and democratising the use of location, by making it accessible and usable by all. These companies are taking powerful geospatial analysis functions and distilling them into easy to use solutions, built with an eye on UX and devoid of frippery. They are designed for people and organisations that know location is important to their function or operations but haven’t been able to scratch this itch before.
And with the Covid-19 emergency, more and more organisations are waking up to how critical location data is to what they do and reaching out for help. All of which makes the recent announcement of the PSGA between Ordnance Survey and the Geospatial Commission both timely and welcome.
Reducing obstacles to accessing Ordnance Survey’s vast wealth of geospatial data is undoubtedly a good thing and the PSGA furthers that goal. Licensing costs are reducing while ease-of-use is increasing through the new APIs. Open identifiers promise to improve further the sharing of location data while new open data offers scope for new product innovation. All these steps should be welcomed.
Reflecting on my woodland bluebells, capturing the perfect moment was only possible thanks to the coupling of sensor technology with the software and vision to make the image-capture capability accessible and usable by anyone. And it’s the same with geospatial.
Ordnance Survey is the digital lens on the world around us, observing and capturing a digital facsimile of the built and natural environment. That can only be bought to life in all its vivid colours through the vision and ingenuity of its partners. There will always be a place for the GIS experts in this value chain – just as professional photographers haven’t been made extinct by smartphones – but many will increasingly look to solutions focused on delivering powerful location insight simply. And that will be quite a picture to behold.