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ImageI had the opportunity to interview three prominent people in the UK geoinformation community while at the Association for Geographic Information (AGi) conference in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Vanessa Lawrence is Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the British Ordnance Survey,  Andy Coote is Consultancy Services Director for ESRI (UK) and  Ed Parsons is Geospatial Technologist for Google. I asked each of them similar questions.

37 Minutes with Vanessa Lawrence
I interviewed Vanessa Lawrence, Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the British Ordnance Survey while at the AGI conference in Stratford-Upon-Avon recently. It was my first interview with her and she had delivered a keynote address earlier in the day. “We have many great geospatial technologies in our community, but for some reason we do not express their value readily,” she had said earlier in her presentation.

Picking up on her point I asked her why that was happening. Lawrence pointed to an experience she had in Switzerland. An investor and creator of new technologies wanted to develop a new technology, but could not seem to get geospatial folks to understand user needs, as compared to what they seemed interested in. He eventually walked away from the project, unable to gain different viewpoints from those involved.

{sidebar id=7} How many times have we heard about our community being too techno-centric and not listening enough? Too many I’m afraid. As Lawrence spoke, the range of users that are using Ordnance Survey data became more apparent. “We serve a wide and varied number of users with different needs,” she said. The point is well taken, especially given that the role of national mapping agencies is changing and expanding under the demands of a growing spatially aware population.

Lawrence understands the importance of spatial information, and she understands that its value needs to be explained to many people. A good deal of her time is spent informing the British government and its agencies about geoinformation and how it can add value to existing operations and solve problems. For example, the recent foot and mouth disease outbreak was viewed primarily as a disease related problem. When Ordnance Survey got involved, they brought spatial awareness to the table and analytical tools for managing resources spatially and understanding the problem in a spatial context.

“A key advantage to Ordnance Survey data is that utility company’s and businesses are building and operating within a similar data framework,” she says. There is little doubt that a common framework for spatial information is the goal. The Ordnance Survey has invested nearly 140 million pounds in data capture over the last few years to enable this framework.”

As an outsider (living in Germany) I sometimes wonder if some of the people in the British geospatial community realise just how valuable that framework is. The Ordnance Survey captures data at nationally consistent scales of up to 1:1250 in urban areas, 1:2500 in rural areas and 1:10 000 in mountain and moorland. It is the envy of the world when it comes to national mapping, having up-to-date data that is continually being updated daily. Like Lawrence says, “we ensure quality information for everyone.”

It is on the quality point that I make the observation and query her on the need for high quality data in the future, that we are moving steadily toward applications that will demand high resolution and continually updated geo-data for modelling and spatial analysis. “Absolutely!” she indicates. Silently I listen as she describe’s why, providing example after example.

I ask about the neogeography movement and the growing number of people interested in mashups and data sharing and collecting information on their own. “We strive to meet their needs too,” and outlined several initiatives designed to meet the needs of consumer-leisure oriented groups and individuals. By now I am thinking about the 4 million people who use paper maps in the UK each year, a remarkable example of hardcopy mapping still going strong. I think to myself, how is it that so many people use paper while others are so digitally oriented, finally realising that it is an example of the diversity Lawrence is talking about.

In numbers the Ordnance Survey has between 450-500 partners who are contributing about 350-400 million pounds of value to the UK coffers, she says. Interestingly, Ordnance Survey is not pursuing mobile applications. “We view that industry as separate and competitive in its own right,” she says.

When I shift discussion to infrastructure, Lawrence is on the same page right away, describing several infrastructure(s), including the topographic infrastructure, basemap infrastructure, address infrastructure and others. Clearly an integrated train of thought emerges, outlining the integration of the pieces and how they build upon each other to enable more geo-processes. Lawrence is about to release a long awaited report to the UK government. She has titled it, “Place Matters” so that it means something to everyone. Sustainable community agencies in the government understand the importance of place well, she says.

At the same time, the Ordnance Survey is conducting research to understand what a ‘community’ actually is – how it is structured, what is included and defined. On the topic of European Spatial Data Infrastructure (INSPIRE), Lawrence is intrigued about how it will be implemented, since, much work needs to be done on an implementation strategy. “There are quite a few differences between countries, on how their business models work,” she indicates. This fact led to considerable discussion during the approval process of the current Directive.

Lastly, I ask about challenges. “For me, Ordnance Survey or the world?” she inquires. I laugh as I then realise she is up for discussion on all of them. “The challenge is to embed spatial information at the decision making level and, to ensure we serve our users.”


29 Minutes with Andy Coote
Andy Coote is Consultancy Services Director for ESRI (UK).  He was on the panel of the debate I chaired “Will Neogeography Crush GIS?” I begin on that note asking him for his thoughts. “You know, the debate about neogeography is timely and probably a good thing, although not new by any means.” Curious, I ask for further clarification. “GIS has had challenges time and time again, different paradigms and thoughts, different approaches, but it is still here,” Coote points out. I ask why he thinks that is. {sidebar id=8}

“Because GIS are unique and many of the things a GIS does, neogeography will not do or is not interested in – some very basic but important tasks.” Coote is referring to the ongoing debate between neogeography, represented by the Web 2.0 folks today; those who closely align with the social aspects of spatial information data gathering and sharing as compared to the business aspects and, probably, less attractive types of tasks GIS professionals perform.

“Neogeography has created more democratization,” he says. “Some of the information may even be useful for more valued spatial analysis and professional use.” In this respect, Coote sees the Ordnance Survey as performing a valuable role, maintaining data quality while ensuring consistency across the country. “Remember, data has legal liability associated with it, and in times of important decision making, people want assurance,” Coote pointing to the fact that disease, flood victims, health services and utility corridors, for example, depend on high quality geospatial information.

Interestingly, I had asked in the debate – to the audience, “why does there seem to be so much tension between neogeography and GIS?” And, it will please readers to know that the audience disagreed. Like Coote says, “we need to figure out how to work together for the benefit of all.”  Admittedly, I was surprised by the audience answer, but in retrospect not. The goal is to live and work together and understand different needs.

Coote ‘gets it’ and knows that cost and quality spatial data are tied together. He knows that medium scale data may be useful for consumer applications, but he also knows that scientific, mission critical and important decision making situations depend upon valuable, high quality spatial information. “You won’t get the type of data needed for high-end spatial analysis of critical nature from weekend mapping, or part-time data gathering,” Coote says. “We are going to be using high quality data for spatial analysis of higher and higher importance.”

Finally, I ask Coote about surveyors in the UK, curiously wondering if they get along with their GIS counterparts, or, are there differences like in other parts of the world? “I’m a geomatics surveyor by training and I think the two work well together in the UK. “The Ordnance Survey has historically brought the two domains together, something few people recognise.”

Asking Coote what the challenges are, he responds, “we need to ensure that we maintain the high quality spatial data of the Ordnance Survey. It is unique, but moreover, it is extremely valuable and its use will be critical in the future.”


25 Minutes with Ed Parsons
Ed Parsons is Geospatial Technologist for Google. He smiles as we begin the interview and I inquire about that. “The culture change is interesting,” he says. But I can tell he is enjoying it and learning many new things. “Maps and geography are the key,” Parsons says. They always have been and always will be in his view. Ed speaks from experience, having been employed at Autodesk then later as the first CTO for the Ordnance Survey. {sidebar id=9}

“What is changing, is how people use maps and spatial information, and how they collect and share it,” he adds. “The neogeography community moves quickly, it collects information fast, then processes and distributes it quickly.” An observation many of us have made when viewing data in Google Maps and Google Earth.

Parsons points out that Google is about organizing the worlds information.  The company uses Google Maps and Earth to achieve this by building upon a common web based application that everyone understands easily. “We struggle to build the API for the application and expand it, but also must work to ensure that previous functionality is not upset.” Parsons says that Google Earth and Google Maps are relatively immature when it comes to GIS applications and functionality.

But, he is quick to point out that each of these users is different with different needs. “Some Google Earth users have never ever heard of a GIS, for example,” he says. Many of the applications for Google products are young. “Nestoria, exhibiting [at the AGI conference] is an example.” The company uses Google to build a business around real estate in the UK. “Our view is to provide a way to get data together and distribute it,” he adds while pointing out that success is highly related to the individual. “It is important for users to see their own creations and data,” Parsons says. “People want to see their impact.” He goes on to explain how people are close to the data they are using, often participating in its collection. Therefore, they bring a sense of knowledge to many of the data sets that not only adds value to them, but helps others to understand what they mean.

I ask Parsons about the neogeography vs. GIS debate and how he see’s the challenges. “There will always be a need for high quality, consistent and different types of data, like GIS provide for,” he indicates. “But the issue is about creating and sharing the information between people, that is where the challenges lie, but Google has lowered the barrier to participation.”

In Parsons view, the traditional geography community is undergoing massive change. While he indicates the change is needed and exists, Parsons is quick to note that what GIS is and what it does, is needed and will continue. Like the audience earlier, he also points out that the goal is to work together.

Before leaving he relates the story of a fellow in London who lost his car, he had parked it somehwere but forgot. Using Google Earth he found his car parked on a street. But, later, he lost his car again and could not find it. So he opened up Google Earth to locate his car again. As it turns out, the fellows car was parked in the same place during two different  satellite passes of the location, thus his car showed up on the images. “This is how these stories about Google owning satellites and always having a satellite overhead get started!” Parsons exclaimed.

by Jeff Thurston, editor, V1 Magazine

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