The Spatial Miscellany


A weblog. A website. A geospatial miscellany…

The Value of GIS

Last month the National Audit Office (NAO) shared their findings from a review of value for money delivered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) £40 Million investment in GIS. For every £4 spent on GIS, Defra delivers a £1 return on investment – ouch.


It’s worth casting an eye on the findings from the NAO, especially if you are in the process of drafting or updating your Geo Information strategy. The review suggests the existing strategy is technology heavy, and it’s hard to pass further comment with no exposure to the strategy or its implementation.

The key ‘finding’ in the report is familiar to all who work with GI – how do you quantify the value of GIS? It’s not tangible, it supports better decision-making, it’s a platform supporting the work of other departments, all of this is true, but frustratingly it doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to establishing return on investment.

Executive Summary (PDF)
Full Report (PDF)
Methodology (PDF)

Moving Beyond INSPIRE…

Inspire Edinburgh

Moving Beyond INSPIRE…

So finally it looks like the penny may have dropped, INSPIRE is an out of date, complex, mess, that’s destined to fail in its overarching goal to provide a European platform for geospatial powered decision making. Of course, nobody actually said as much during the recent Edinburgh based INSPIRE 2011 conference, but watching the videos and PowerPoints the message was clear…”go beyond INSPIRE”, because if you don’t, your wasting your time. Well, Maybe.

INSPIRE and Politics

INSPIRE is first and foremost a political project, and for this it should be recognised as a massive success, by hook or by crook, European government agencies will (eventually) provide some sort of access to their treasured data. But those involved in delivering INSPIRE must now draw a line under the politics (that job has now been done), we have a mandate – the first question of the open floor panel session questioned if capitalism is the real issue? Now, there may be a topic for discussion here – over a beer, but lets first focus on addressing the short comings of what’s in our control, our politicians have granted the GI community a mandate to share our information, but unless we start to tackle the short comings of INSPIRE, our failure will be of our own accord.

Open Data, Open Source and Open Standards – they aren’t the same things, you can have one without the other, unfortunately this is often forgotten by those driving INSPIRE, it appears to be all or nothing. INSPIRE is about Open Data – forget about the rest, if it works for you as an organisation to use open source software, do so, like wise if you feel open standards mean you can provide access to more data and with more convenience for the consumer, then do so, but if using expensive open source software and overly complex open standards means you are attempting to deliver open access to data with your hands tied behind your back, recognise that.

INSPIRE the technical Implementation

All that snazzy new technology that gave us Web 2.0? Slippy maps and tile caches, web Mercator, KML and network links streaming gigabytes of data, user centric system design, human and machine understandable REST API’s, GeoRSS and a number of other simple data formats. The stuff that actually allowed us (the enlightened GI people) to reach out beyond our own community for the first time – forget about it, we’ve still got our 20th century open standards designed by committee.

INSPIRE and the User

This is where INSPIRE really falls short. It may be just an innocent consequence of technology and society moving faster than the system, rather than a complete oversight of the fact that systems actually have users. Perhaps once upon a time, somebody really did want to know where the library was, that contained the index, that located the book, that might just answer their question – but for better or worse I came of age post Internet, and ignorantly I just want to know the answer to my goddamn question…and now.

It looks like several INSPIRE Geo Portals where demonstrated during the conference in Edinburgh, many of the published PowerPoints contain screen shots and links to implementations. Perhaps one of the most successful portal implementations I’ve seen is that developed by CEH which appears to be an ArcGIS Server GeoPortal Server implementation, available here. Now lets consider the user approaching the portal for a ’simple’ search

A Simple GeoPortal Search

Now, lets imagine a non GI user approaching the portal to find the pollution indicators for the River Mersey and River Dee? Where would they start? With a search for ‘other’? Or a search for a ’service’? To a non GI user, that probably means a consulting service? Or do they search for an application (apparently not the one they are using)? Or another catalog (again, not the one they are using)? It’s an excellent implementation of a metadata driven GeoPortal, but its not intuitive, its not designed with the user in mind.

Here we must ‘move beyond’ view and download services, towards an infrastructure that provide real access to the data, to the features. People don’t want to search metadata records, they want to search data. Moreover, people don’t want to maintain metadata records, they want to maintain the data. Sure there will always be a place for metadata (especially metadata intrinsic to the data itself), but we must shift the focus of INSPIRE from being a metadata driven infrastructure, to being a data driven infrastructure. To help us with this we can look towards recent developments in web search technology and successful API implementations (of which there are plenty).

In this post I’ve vented some long held frustrations (if it wasn’t obvious ;) ), and the intention isn’t to dismiss all of the hard and admirable work undertaken by those involved with INSPIRE to date, it’s good work, good progress, but we really do need to look up from the map and check our bearing (and perhaps pick up a TomTom) if we wish to celebrate an SDI people will use come 2020.

Further web commentary on the conference can be found here:

Ed Parsons, Google
Ian Painter, Snowflake

The Power of Information…

Last week the Power of Information (POI) Task Force published a draft report that they plan to hand over to the government, advising how government can deliver benefit to the public from new developments in digital media and the use of state generated information. Their coverage of Trading Funds, and their suitability as a model for running organisations such as Ordnance Survey is a worthy read.

Over the last nine months the POI task force have blogged and discussed pertinent issues openly, ran a competition (Show Us a Betterway) to engage with the public and subsequently canvassed opinion from entrants, and they’ve also spoken with several organisations in related industries. A marked contrast to the ‘we know better’ approach taken by the GI Panel and their Place Matters report, and the work of the Shareholder Executive in their role assessing the suitability of Trading Funds.

Hopefully – it would make sense – the findings of the POI taskforce feed into the review of trading funds and OS business model by the Shareholder Executive? I guess we’ll have to wait for the budget to see if it’s a case of ‘joined up government’, or left-arm right-arm. The POI task force report, in its current form, gives the Shareholder Executive a clear alternative to an ‘off the shelf’ Ordnance Survey privatisation.

Given the potential impact this interest from the cabinet office could have on the UK GI Industry, I’m surprised at the lack of discussion among stakeholders? The AGI have just posted a response to the UK Location Strategy…it would be interesting to learn of their input into the work of the cabinet office and Shareholder Executive, or their take on the draft report from the Power Of Information task force?


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