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How do you enable smart government using a geospatial infrastructure?

The United Kingdom has created a Geospatial Commission within the Cabinet Office, which has the mandate to implement and maintain a geospatial infrastructure. Its purpose is to improve productivity across the UK by using geospatial data, collaboration, process improvement and policy enhancements. Read this blog post to see why Canada should take a similar approach to creating smart governments by improving policy and decision-making using a geospatial infrastructure.

I recently attended the Esri Federal GIS Conference and one of the keynote speakers who caught my attention was the head of the Geospatial Commission in the UK government, William Priest. Having spent many years initiating, promoting and implementing geospatial infrastructures in the Canadian federal government, foreign governments and the private sector, it was nice to see that the UK is now visioning, planning and taking action on this important issue.

Watch William Priest’s presentation on the UK Government’s Geospatial Commission initiative.

One of the difficulties in getting senior executive support for a geospatial infrastructure at a federal, provincial or municipal level of government in Canada is selling the concept to those officials who probably have little or no knowledge of GIS, geographic data or especially geospatial infrastructures. It’s relatively easy to explain geospatial technology, SDIs and quality geographic data in general terms, but it requires quite a different skill set to speak to senior executives about why their government needs a geospatial infrastructure as part of delivering their smart government initiatives. What I particularly found interesting in this keynote presentation was the speaker’s approach to explaining the benefits of a geospatial infrastructure at a macro level for senior bureaucrats.

Mr. Priest made reference to reducing friction, removing barriers, unlocking value, driving productivity gains and closing the technology divide within government processes. He provided concrete improvements such as reducing the time required to do land conveyance from 90 days to several hours by using a digital geospatial workflow. He mentioned that a common database of the location of underground infrastructure would save enormous time, money and resources within the utility, construction and telecommunications sectors, thus making the UK much more efficient. He mentioned that improved transportation policies developed using geospatial technology would significantly improve the movement of goods, services and people throughout the UK.

A single authoritative source of geospatial truth is vitally important to so many of Canada’s citizens, governments and business sectors.

While the challenges and opportunities mentioned in the presentation are not unlike the ones currently facing the federal government in Canada, provincial governments and local governments across the nation also face similar conundrums. These challenges and opportunities include: economic uncertainty, economic productivity, public sector efficiency, aging population and environmental sustainability. For example, the Ontario government is currently looking to improve the efficiency of their public sector processes, and the use of a geospatial infrastructure could be an important element in helping meet that goal.

The speaker indicated that by digitally automating the way governments and others do their work, this can have enormous productivity gains. In fact, you have already been part of this digital transformation; what if all your mail still came via “snail” mail and not email, or if you only had access to hardcopy maps and not a GIS. Communication and business workflow automation have not only changed the way we work, but how productive we are (or could be) as a society.

Some of the application areas in the UK where the public service adds significant value which can be improved by developing a geospatial infrastructure are: environment, emergency services, transportation, housing and planning. The UK will be focusing their efforts in these areas. Even small efforts such as making the workflows fully digital, creating and providing one consistent view of authoritative geospatial data, reducing workflow friction and removing barriers bring value.

Mr. Priest talked about some of the elements within the geospatial ecosystem that can be easily improved. These include improving data assets in terms of quality, usability, interoperability, discoverability and access. He also mentioned that more can be done in driving the adoption of geospatial technology and applications within government and elsewhere. The improvement of skills, capabilities and resources is a good step to take to increasing efficiency. One area that Mr. Priest indicated that makes a big difference is the joining of the data production and the data user communities so that each side understands the requirements of the other.

In summary, Mr. Priest indicated that he will be focused on maintaining a single source of geospatial truth, creating a collaborative geospatial infrastructure and allowing geospatial to scale across the public and private sectors. He has many tools at his disposal to make the UK geospatial infrastructure a success – including instruments such as legislation, regulations, being a customer, leading initiatives and funding opportunities.

While Canada may not have all the instruments available that the UK Geospatial Commission has, Canada should begin the process of building on the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI) at the highest levels of government to improve productivity across all sectors. Even though Canada is currently doing relatively well in terms of productivity, it doesn’t take long to fall far behind and then it becomes difficult to catch up. The time is now for governments to start the wheels in motion for a comprehensive geospatial infrastructure in Canada.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

Profile Photo of Gordon Plunkett