Five drivers of change in geospatial information

By on 20 December, 2021

© iStockphoto/hxdyl

The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) has published the third edition of its ‘Future trends in geospatial information: the five to ten year vision’.

The report highlights the increasing role that geospatial information and technology will play as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The pandemic has accelerated many of the trends highlighted in the report, with the global response to COVID-19 reinforcing the greater need for human and physical geographies to work alongside one another in the geospatial sector.

The impact of the last year has also underlined how geospatial infrastructures have become an essential component of disease prediction, prevention and response:

  • analysis of spatial big data to trace people’s movements
  • contextualised data, digital maps and technologies to predict behaviour
  • visualisations that make data easily accessible
  • machine learning techniques that use aerial and satellite data to assess how environmental changes may impact infectious disease transmission.

In addition, areas such as data interoperability, real-time information and connectivity have gained in momentum, reinforcing how interconnected our world is and improving the global understanding of the interactions between people and places.

“During the last year, COVID-19 accelerated the application of many of the trends in the report in ways that could not have previously been imagined — from the temporary halt in on-the-ground data collection which required the rapid identification and use of alternative data sources, to the need to integrate data from multiple sources whist maintaining its provenance and trust,” said David Henderson, the UK Ordnance Survey’s Chief Geospatial Officer.

“In the post-pandemic future, it is likely that a number of trends will be accelerated to an even higher status of both ‘high impact’ and ‘high predictability’ sooner than expected.”

The report aims to establish clarity as the diverse influences on geospatial information management continue to grow. Based on a high-level analysis, the report has identified the top drivers and trends that are likely to affect geospatial information management over the upcoming decade.

Recognising that disruption and change in the geospatial community are likely to occur as a result of the linking up of multiple trends, the report explores a diverse set of emerging and developing themes. These include data privacy and ethics, digital twins, artificial intelligence, data analytics and capacity building.

All countries and all sectors need geospatial information and enabling technologies for making decisions on national policy, strategic priorities and sustainable development. However, many countries still need to bridge the geospatial digital divide.

Thus, the report is strongly aligned to the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF) and its nine strategic pathways, helping to ensure that the IGIF integrates and takes advantage of the latest innovations and trends identified in the Future Trends report.

“The report has already proven to be a valuable resource for many countries in highlighting the importance of geospatial information, and reflecting a wide set of emerging and developing trends that could be harnessed by all Member States to increase the use of geospatial information for societal, technological and economic welfare,” said Greg Scott, Inter-regional advisor, UN-GGIM at the United Nations.

“Recognising that continual disruption and change in the geospatial community are likely to occur as a result of the linking of multiple trends, the report explores a diverse set of emerging and developing trends.”

What’s driving the change?

The report has identified five drivers for change in the geospatial sector over the coming decade, and “provides a consensus view for the professional geospatial community with the aim to forecast how these drivers are expected to evolve over the next five to ten years”.

The first driver is technological progress. The report notes that “disruption in geospatial information management is driven by automation, Artificial Intelligence, sensor technology, and the Internet of Things. In addition, advances in technology such as high-performance cloud computing, ubiquitous high-speed connectivity, new sensor networks and sensor platforms, geospatial analytics, and autonomous smart machines have created a shift towards a more machine-centric world. This machine-to-machine world is about location-based computing and outcomes in an essentially ‘mapless’ environment.”

“With new developments in intelligent transport systems (ITS) and the growth of Big Data and Big Data mining, there has been a significant increase in the demand for geospatial information, particularly highly detailed, (near) real-time data.” In addition, “developments in BIM enable urban planners to monitor the building information, facilities, infrastructure, and indoor environment to enable seamless indoor-outdoor mapping, modelling, and data handling”.

The ‘Future trends in geospatial information management: the five to ten year vision’ report provides expert opinion on the mid to long term-developments in geospatial information.

The second driver is the rise of new data sources and analytical methods. The report says that it is “anticipated that mobile data collection, crowdsourcing, and social media are likely to have the greatest impact over the coming decade. These forms of data collection will enable accurate, (near) real-time applications that are increasingly demanded by various users of geospatial data.”

“The availability of low-cost, high-quality, high-frequency Earth observation satellite data has contributed to the ever-increasing volumes of data,” it says. “Combined with Artificial Intelligence and computational capabilities, developed and developing nations will witness productivity increases in the processes of data obtaining, maintenance, and management.”

But this range of data represents “a real barrier to interoperability and solution development based on different data sources,” the report says. “Integrating different datasets when the terms of the licences differ remains a significant challenge. Over the next decade, the industry anticipates the developments in licensing harmonisations towards a set of simple, standard and concise licences.”

The third driver comprises what the report’s authors describe as “industry structural shift”. They note that geospatial information management has “undergone significant disruptive change in terms of map generation technologies, use cases, business models and user requirements”. This means that expertise in “consolidating large numbers of data sources, understanding of mapping requirements, and new toolsets developed to automate map creation will be critical for the future”.

An example given is that of intelligent transport systems, driven by the automotive and telecommunication industries. “Developments show that GPS-assisted tracking systems may be used for car tracking, traffic control and monitoring for alternative road selection on demand. This technology can assist moving object modelling and mitigate the number or severity of car accident and fatalities,” the report says.

The fourth driver is the evolution of user requirements. The report says that demand for near real-time data is “driven by the expectation of instant and frictionless access to information on mobile devices”.

For example, city municipalities “have emerged as a highly engaged user of geospatial information, particularly since the rise of smart city solutions and Digital Twin technology have become available. Early examples of digital representations of city infrastructure have enabled municipalities to monitor and simulate scenarios related to climate change and flooding events while mitigating risks  and increasing infrastructure resilience.”

The fifth driver is the legislative environment. The report notes that the “increasing number of connected devices and data volumes have also started to raise questions around data privacy and cybersecurity which may lead to calls for changes to the legislative or regulatory environment to be addressed in some way”.

The report cites the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data scandal of 2018, which “led to calls for tighter data privacy regulations and data ethics frameworks,” and notes that “governments and international institutions alike have created guidelines on ethical considerations when using geospatial data and technologies”.

Crucially, the report’s authors say that “There is evidence that the immediate reaction to disruption is often to introduce legislation to address perceived risk before the potential benefits are understood and a balanced approach to the legislation can be developed”.

Finally, the report makes it clear that there are other trends that “highlight the wider impact on society, business, and policy. Nonetheless, in terms of impact and predictability, no one single geospatial driver is advancing change in the global geospatial information management landscape”.

“It is the combination of all the trends across the five industry drivers that are shaping the transformation of the industry over the next five to ten years.”

Information courtesy of the Ordnance Survey and United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management. The report can be downloaded from https://bit.ly/3lL7UNM.

This article was first published in issue 115 of Position magazine.

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