The Keys to the Warehouse

By Scott Sinclair

The Keys to the Warehouse

The Keys to the Warehouse
UK government offered free access to Britain's most detailed digital map data
Scott Sinclair, Ordnance Survey

An historic, multimillion-pound agreement offers hundreds of government departments and agencies a year's free access to Britain's most detailed digital map data.They now have more power to exploit geographical information in their day-to-day activities, including posting maps on websites and in other public information services.Here, we look more closely at the deal and the opportunities it opens up.

The mobile phone bleeps with a text message as you leave for work.It's the police - not your preferred start to the day.But wait, this is a timely warning about a pair of cashpoint thieves operating in the area.At the bank on the corner, you are doubly careful to shield your PIN from the customer behind, and you go on your way cash in hand.

Safety advice built on first-hand crime intelligence is an obvious benefit of successful community policing backed by technologies such as email, voicemail, text or fax.By passing on their contact details, participants can receive targeted and time-critical information relevant to their age group, lifestyle, or neighbourhood.The same system can be used for witness appeals and publicising traffic restrictions during large public events.It can also help with planning for the strategic response to major incidents such as civil emergencies, bomb threats, and serious crime and disorder.

Such an initiative typically involves a computerised geographical information system (GIS), which in Britain would use highly detailed Ordnance Survey digital map data.Linking the screen map with people's contact details, officers could draw a radius around an affected area or route and immediately send out alerts.The benefit for the police is clear - a quick, targeted, and effective way to free up officers who might otherwise have to call door-to-door.

Similar GIS technology used by other public agencies could help ensure people were up to date with local healthcare services, an emerging flood risk, an unexpected school closure, and a host of other community issues.Satellite positioning in your hand-held PDA or mobile phone could advise you when the next bus will arrive, how close you are to a high crime neighbourhood, or the location of the nearest recycling centre.You might not even be aware that Ordnance Survey mapping is involved, but it is a crucial component - just as in the in-cab route directions for the ambulance that arrives at your door in an emergency.

The potential for coupling all kinds of corporate information with digital map data has led to a new pilot scheme to increase government use of Ordnance Survey products.
The mapping agency has secured funding from its existing government users, and in particular an extra £1.9 million from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), allowing it to offer more than 500 departments and agencies free access to its map data over the next year.

For those 50 departments already on board with Ordnance Survey, the benefits include access to a wider range of map data than ever before and more freedom with how they use it.The portfolio includes large-scale detailed mapping and sophisticated data locating addresses, roads and electoral and administrative boundaries.

It is hoped that the deal will evolve into a permanent agreement supporting both the drive towards joined up government and the 2005 e-delivery target of more online information across the public sector.

Departments can take advantage of map data for all their day-to-day internal business dealings, and also to publish information vital to the citizen on websites and in emails and reports.It builds on a similar agreement already up and running for all local authorities which allows them to use mapping for non-commercial activities.

Paving the way for closer co-operation among different parts of government should have many benefits.There would, for example, be greater scope for the sharing of desktop information on criminal investigations between the police and the Forensic Science Service. Details gathered by other departments on everything from housing trends to transport links, and from services for rough sleepers to the progress of a planning application, could all be shared using digital map data as the base.

To ensure that even non-GIS literate departments can have the "key to the Ordnance Survey warehouse", an information campaign is under way with seminars, workshops and a dedicated website. Interested parties need to speak to software and systems suppliers to ensure they have the right IT infrastructure.

The move to widen take up of digital map data reflects growing recognition of the importance of location in the development, implementation and monitoring of public policy.A recent report by the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit* stresses the role of geographical information as a key link between different types of government data.It says that geographical analysis is an ideal way to understand issues at a local or community level and co-ordinate action. Effective use of GIS can also help users save money as well as deliver more targeted services.

The new scheme follows the recent launch of OS MasterMap, the most detailed and flexible digital map data Ordnance Survey has ever produced.Users can share and merge different sets of information through unique code numbers identifying 416 million landscape features, including every building and piece of land.These topographic identifiers, or TOIDs, are ideally suited to the exchange and delivery of information both across government and to the citizen.

One of the key advantages of OS MasterMap over other large-scale datasets such as Land-Line is the ease of accessing the most up-to-date map data.Ordnance Survey now offers a "change-only" update, cutting dramatically the size of update files and the overall costs of data handling.Depending on your area of interest, you can have immediate access to any or all of the changes uploaded by surveyors across Britain and entered electronically on the agency's national database.This runs to some 5,000 changes every day.

The potential of GIS technology to boost efficiency is already well known to major users of Ordnance Survey data such as HM Land Registry (HMLR), which records 500,000 new registrations of property in England and Wales every year.It has pioneered the desktop referencing of ownership information to mapping, cutting out a lot of processes on the way.Staff are now increasingly using both legal and mapping skills in a single update process.

"We can process information much more skillfully now thanks to the introduction of GI," says the HMLR's GIS director Bob Ashwin."GI is also very important to our future plans and we are encouraged by the way that things are developing with the Ordnance Survey agreement."

As the success of the pilot scheme depends on the level of interest over the next year, Ordnance Survey is keen to encourage government departments and agencies to come on board as soon as possible.

"This agreement can help people in the public sector change the way they do business," says Ordnance Survey's Director General and Chief Executive, Vanessa Lawrence."It offers a complete geographical framework to support activities and open up links with other departments, citizens and the private sector.Our data already underpins a huge range of vital work including crime prevention, emergency services, transport planning and land management.We have made it available to every single local authority in Britain, and we want to spread access throughout central government in the same way."

Ordnance Survey data is a "fantastic national resource", says Peter Capell, chairman of the IntraGovernmental Group on Geographic Information (IGGI), which aims to promote the use of GI in the public sector."We have superb mapping in Great Britain, but it is underused and under-exploited.Eighty per cent of government datasets have a geographical component to them, and our priorities now must be to turn this pilot scheme into a continuing permanent agreement for the benefit of all."

* Performance and Innovation Unit, "Privacy and Data Sharing in Government" - April 2002

For more information from Ordnance Survey, visit Phone: (+44) 023 80792265

Published Wednesday, May 15th, 2002

Written by Scott Sinclair

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