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The Value of Geospatial Data for Government

The Esri ArcGIS technology ecosystem is radically changing what “The Geographic Approach” means for government by bringing spatial data to Enterprise IT. In a series of blogs, I will expand on what this means for the success of the Federal Government and the communities it serves. 

Geographic thought is likely as ancient as human thought. At its most fundamental, it is about acknowledging that the world cannot be understood without studying the relationship between people and place.  

This philosophy is central to Esri’s adoption of the Geographic Approach” as a strategic concept. By bringing together the data of our world in a way that incorporates this geospatial relationship, Esri helps its clients be informed and make impactful decisions for communities.  

How much data is spatial data? 

As Esri Canada’s director of management consulting Matthew Lewin explains, between 60 to 80 percent of all data held by government organizations has a spatial component. In many cases, such as Statistics Canada, Canada Post or the Canadian Armed Forces, spatial data is central to nearly all the services they provide to Canadians.  

The size of the world’s data holdings – and by default the government’s data holdings – is also exploding. A recent study by Forbes showed that 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last 2 years, and we are adding another 2.5 quintillion bytes each day. With more data comes more spatial data, and therefore more potential ways for the government to use this data to improve services and gain efficiencies.  

Why does spatial data matter in decision-making?  

To understand why spatial data is critical, we first need to reflect about how we think. We humans tend to visualize in order to understand the “where” of things. Maps allow us to declutter and to focus on the details that drive understanding and in turn decision-making.  

During the Afghanistan war in 2008, my military teams in Kandahar used 3D imagery “fly-throughs” to communicate with local informants about targets of interest. Many of the Afghans we spoke to had never seen a top-down map or satellite imagery and struggled with the perspective. Viewing it in 3D was a much more familiar point of view.  

I spent many years of my military career exploring how visualization could be used for solving complex problems. By Fostering a Shared Spatial Understanding, we realize we are dependent on our geographies, constantly biased by the “where” we know or perceive. It is almost impossible to dissociate complex ideas from their geography. Instead of ignoring this bias, the map-maker in all of us needs to pay heed to it. Maps are intuitive enablers and accelerators to solving complex problems.  

This notion is therefore particularly critical in government because decisions have the potential to impact thousands or millions of lives. After having a conversation with Chris DeJager, General Manager, Business Intelligence, Data Management and Analytics at Canada Post, he shared his philosophy which is “I don’t want access to the data to answer questions, I want the data to tell the story”.  

Decision makers have limited time to spend on understanding the variety of problems brought to them each day. They want this data to tell a story that can be understood intuitively and effortlessly. And given that complex problems tend to work their way up through bureaucracies, the more important the map becomes in understanding complexity.  

In my military career, I also found that most senior leaders expect a quick explanation of a problem before deciding whether to dive deeper or delegate, and nothing does that better than a map. As Military Advisor to the Deputy Minister of National Defense, I certainly never saw a decision be taken purely out of looking at a map, but very few deep dives into topics of value to the organization occurred without some sort of visualization. And if the problem had a spatial component, a map was sought. This was true of operations, geospatial intelligence, business and operational analytics, human resources, recruitment, etc. In other words, in a world flooded with data, strategic-level decisions are made through information fed in increments.  The first is the visual – the story told by the spatial data. Only then will our busy officials generally “deep dive” to tackle a problem. 

Why does spatial data matter for Canadians? 

As taxpayers, on matters affecting us and our communities, we want to know the “why”, but also the “where”. Understanding what government does or doesn’t do for our communities allows us to participate more actively. Unless spatial data and related analytics are available to the public, such agency is much more difficult. 

By providing spatial data to the public, government services are more transparent and accountable. It’s important to consider how social issues are often hyper-localized, and therefore require a unique combination of data to truly understand systemic factors. This applies particularly to issues like inequality, safety, and security. By sharing the data they use for decision making, the government can build trust.  

Given the explosion of spatial data and the complex systems, decision-makers must both make and communicate decisions using spatial data. Government depends on the effective use of spatial data across the entirety of its “system of service” – or Enterprise – to successfully serve the communities we all care about.   

To address these challenges, Esri provides an ecosystem of ArcGIS tools that connect spatial data across an Enterprise IT architecture to serve all its connected users. This is the result of decades of investments in what is the largest research and development effort in the industry. It certainly reaches well beyond the archetype of ArcGIS for (only) Spatial Analysis. As our partner from Microsoft Derek Dobson describes: “it will depend on government reorienting itself to common digital infrastructure platforms upon which “badgeless” collaboration can be conducted […] and address those pesky data policy barriers.” This will be the topic of the next blog post in this series.

About the Author

Mathieu Primeau is Esri Canada’s Senior Customer Success Manager for the Canadian Federal Government in the National Capital Region. He brings 20 years of experience in GIS and expertise in design-thinking facilitation and event moderation. Mathieu has helped numerous defence organizations around the world learn and develop strategic skills. Prior to joining Esri Canada, Mathieu served as Commanding Officer of the Mapping and Charting Establishment and Special Advisor to the Deputy Minister of National Defence.

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