Mapping out transformative public services with a geospatial data hub

Written by Idriss Mekrez on 17 January 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Idriss Mekrez, chief technology officer for the public sector at MarkLogic, sets out the potential geospatial mapping has for the public sector.

A map of the world with city lights

Geospatial mapping has big potential for the global public sector - Photo credit: Pixabay

Back in 1854, John Snow used what we now call geospatial data to prove his theory that cholera was not an airborne disease, but resulted from coming into contact with sewage-contaminated water.

He plotted each cholera death in London’s Soho on a map and was soon able to isolate a specific water pump as the source of the disease. After the water pump’s handle was removed, the local cases of cholera all but dried up.

Fast forward more than 150 years and geospatial data is now used by local government for everything from mapping hospital property assets and improving refuse collection routes through route optimisation to cross-referencing council tax addresses ahead of elections.

While these applications have probably improved efficiencies, they are the mapping equivalent of reaching base camp. The impending geospatial revolution will bring us much closer to the summit, delivering new public service applications that may prove to be as transformative as Snow’s ground-breaking work.

Underpinning this is the ability to tie seemingly disparate data points together by location to reveal patterns and insights that can be used to transform information delivery and citizen engagement.


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Getting there involves linking static GIS maps to the wealth of rapidly changing information from sources, including news media outlets, drone video feeds, social media, open data, IoT sensor data, citizen journalism videos and even military intelligence.

With a flexible underlying database it is possible to integrate these diverse types of data and build a new generation of geospatial applications to help shape and deliver planning, housing, employment, transport, environmental protection, health and social care, policing and emergency services.

As an example, imagine you are a first responder at a major explosion in a London office block. Today your typical mapping software may only have the address and perhaps the footprint of the building.

But imagine how much more powerful this application would be if it displayed not only satellite imagery, but also an up-to-date list of all the building’s tenants and their employees, the exact location of each office, and even those tenants’ latest social media posts.

Go one step further and it could also integrate real-time information from the social news feeds of members of the public who reached the scene before you arrived, as well as linking in video footage from security cameras both inside and outside the building.

Displaying all of these extra data points in one unified, 360-degree view can help firemen and paramedics to make more informed decisions on the best course of action in the heat of the moment.

They will have a better understanding of possible victims, their locations and the quickest route to reach each person safely. And if there is conflicting information, they can quickly check the data source to determine which source is more credible.

Policing can also benefit from this approach to catch thieves faster, enhance child protection services and improve crisis management during a terrorist attack.

Take crime pattern analysis for car key burglaries, for instance. UK police forces typically have to sift through ten or so databases – 999 call logs, traffic incidents, crime databases, heat maps and so on – to piece together a complete picture of car key burglaries in their area.

Today roughly 70% of analysts’ time is spent on the data collection – including plotting data manually on a map - and only 30% on the analysis. By automating the time-consuming data collection phase, analysts can save time, and detect crime patterns much faster.

‘Tough terrain to traverse’

Making quicker and more informed decisions with a full, 360-degree view of all the information available will help to improve efficiencies and outcomes – and ultimately reduce costs.

But there are a few patches of tough terrain to traverse first. These technology challenges can best be navigated by building new geospatial applications on an enterprise-grade NoSQL database technology, rather than a traditional relational database.

For example, old-world relational databases can’t easily handle unstructured information such as email, text messages, photos, videos, and social media.

Instead users rely on Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and PDFs to hold this dynamic data. In a crisis such as a flood, explosion or war zone, the inability to capture a fast-changing reality and act on it makes the relational model unworkable.

By contrast, a NoSQL database enables all types of data, from any source, to be indexed and stored in a single digital hub, instantly removing the need to manually integrate, and search geospatial features and institutional knowledge residing in hundreds or even thousands of different digital locations.

Another requirement is for an integrated Google-like search that supports any type of data, from any data source.

Current mapping/GIS applications only offer the ability to perform geospatial and temporal searches on highly structured geospatial information. In the future, searching a single 360-view of geospatial data will make it easy to find patterns and insights that can transform information delivery and citizen engagement.

At the moment, any information loaded into mapping or GIS software tends to result in the loss of the data’s pedigree, provenance and historical context – and this can lead to poor decision-making.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, governments around the world received reliable updates from NGOs on the ground, which could be displayed on a map to show the exact location and status of the problem areas.

But a lot of local news outlets in Africa peddled inaccurate information, and some made it into GIS systems. Using a NoSQL database makes it possible to view the source of all information - as well as current and historical data - in one unified view.

And, while relational databases have robust security credentials, the security options in today’s GIS tools are not granular enough.

With most government departments operating at multiple security levels, any staff member has to log into multiple systems to access different data points.

Using the security features in an enterprise NoSQL database, users can instead access different security levels within the geospatial platform to simplify information access.

As the cost pressures on the UK public sector mount and the demands placed on public services continue to rise, the time is right to build a new generation of 360-degree view geospatial applications that create value from the wealth of unexploited data piling up on government and public-domain servers.

These emerging applications can help our public servants – and any future John Snows – work smarter, resulting in better insights and more informed decision making.

About the author

Idriss Mekrez is chief technology officer for the public sector at MarkLogic.

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