Look around you (closely!)

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James Cutler, CEO at eMapSite explores how the explosion in the ability to capture, store and mine all kinds of data digitally allows CAD and GIS practitioners to play an ever more valuable role.

ItÝs a real shot in the arm when real time traffic services get us home without sitting in horrendous traffic jams.

This article, about pervasive data networks and what they mean to GIS and CAD practitioners in the context of the business they work in, has been handily interrupted late in its preparation by the Information CommissionerÝs ýReport on the Surveillance Society¯1 . In it much is made of the ubiquity of the active and passive data capture and utilisation technologies that impact every aspect of everyoneÝs life. This article explores how the explosion in the ability capture, store and mine all kinds of data digitally allows CAD and GIS practitioners to play an ever more valuable role.

So, what do we mean – what is being ýcaptured¯?

And what does it mean? Perhaps it is this that is best illustrated initially:

  • we grumble (as the British are wont to do) about CCTV (4.2m cameras), speed cameras (6,000), junk mail (billions).
  • we wonder (or perhaps we donÝt) at personally targeted advertising on iTunes or Amazon or in our mail as a consequence of our loyalty card membership (an incredible 50% of the population are in the Nectar card private data network).
  • we are glad to create customised RSS feeds to sift out the daily detritus of our online worlds.
  • we are grateful that number plate recognition allows for pay as you drive in Central London.
  • we reluctantly undergo biometric, psychometric and psychological testing in or for the workplace.
  • we marvel at the supply chain that keeps the shelves of our shops stocked with just what we like (and our roads replete with just in time delivery vehicles of every shape and size).
  • we watch awestruck as the Thames Barrier glides into operation as a consequence of river, rain, lunar and tidal monitoring.
  • geofencing of goods and people makes us safe.
  • we shiver at the thought that 1/6th of the former East German population were informants on their fellow citizens.
  • we pay more for houses in reportedly low crime, high educational attainment areas.
  • we wonder who carries out chemical or radiation sensing (and how).
  • intelligent housing / domestic robotics (domotics anyone?) ± automated energy conservation, sound and lighting control, security management, garden maintenance (no smirking please).
  • we rarely remember that Google reserves the right to store all your web activity to search it at a later date.
  • we relax knowing that an elderly relativeÝs drug regimen will be administered exactly according to prescription (medical sensing).
  • we worry that we might be wrongly delayed, detained, arrested or otherwise inconvenienced online, at the checkout, at border controls or on the road due to some clerical error or historic folly (and trust that the right ones are apprehended and that we wonÝt become a credit risk).
  • we read that despite the investment in CCTV, many types of particularly public nuisance type crime have barely diminished.
  • we are delighted to gloat to colleagues about the latest real time traffic service that got us home without running into any jams at all on a Friday evening.
The NLPG includes separate units of properties in multiple occupation such as these blocks of council flats in Leeds.

WhereÝs this taking us, whyÝs it relevant to us, whatÝs involved?

Apart from recommending the report to you, it is very relevant to us as the cadre of professionals whose task it is to design and build BritainÝs infrastructure. Any activity in any sector (transport, communications, health, education, residential and commercial development, utilities, leisure and entertainment et al) has for in some cases many years either required or included or both the use or integration of technologies that allow them to function. The technologies themselves are beyond our scope other that to list some of them by broad technological area for your further research should you be interested (but some are of course already integral to our activities):

  • tagging and tracking technologies (GPS, RFID, ANPR , transponders, mobile phone triangulation, SiRF location enhancement)
  • audiovisual recording (CCTV, webcam, traffic cam, camera phone etc)
  • telecommunications (from cell phones to Bluetooth, Zigbee and much more)
  • digital computer technologies (databases especially)

Much of this should be no surprise to us at all as professionals ± we do after all depend on data, and the tools that translate that data into information that supports the decision making process. We are glad of that data and of the people (statisticians, analysts, actuaries) and technologies that collect and crunch the raw material into useful nuggets.

So, we can agree, these technologies are necessary, desirable even ± improving entitlement and access to public and private services, enhancing healthcare, fighting the bogeymen (terrorism and serious crime) – and certainly useful in context. As professionals we have more data at our fingertips as we seek to design and build infrastructure that will directly influence the lives of those using it. Surveillance is not a conspiracy theory made real and is unlikely to diminish; the technologies with us now and due to arrive over the next decade are large scale, woven into the fabric of our lives, almost or actually invisible and we need to understand and use them intelligently.


Where we as professionals must be vigilant is in our participation in the design of the data capture systems and of the systems that store and analyse this information and especially in how we then pick up the results of those analyses in the development of solutions to them. OS MasterMap affords a geographical framework into which we can connect this data, over which we can display our analyses and with which we can create new (local) worlds. There is of course an extensive series of identifiers in the geospatial world:

  • OS MasterMap feature, address or transport network TOID (Ordnance Survey)
  • Postcode Address File now including Multi-Residences Without Postal Address (Royal Mail)
  • Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN) from the National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG) ± see below
  • Unique Address Reference Number (UARN) ± from the Valuation Office Agency
  • Land Title reference
  • Administrative units – Enumeration District, Ward, Parish
  • Sampling Units – Census Output Areas
  • Media boundaries (phone, internet, cable, TV, news, radio – used to determine what you receive in terms of advertising, media content and market research)
  • Postcode sector (underpins most expenditure, lifestyle and neighbourhood classification and segmentation tools for profiling, catchment area and site location analysis including ACORN, CAMEO and PERSONICX GEO)
  • Geographic position – latitude and longitude, OSGB grid coordinates

This list excludes all reference to the other systems that might identify us but does serve to demonstrate both the diverse operational context for planning and decision making and the basis for the news-friendly sound-bite of the ýpostcode lottery¯.

It also illustrates that there are multiple and in some cases competing (owing to commercial interests), conflicting or even complementary mechanisms by which we (and those that watch over us) can reference us in the landscape.

As local authorities retain significant powers in the planning and development framework, it is worth looking a little closer at the tools they use to help govern decisions that involve our industry extensively.

The National Land and Property Gazetteer (NLPG)

The NLPG covers the whole of England and Wales and contains more than 30 million residential, business and non-mailing addresses. It is a comprehensive and continually updated database, created by each local authority, the body with legal responsibility for street naming and numbering of property. The NLPG uses the BS7666 standard (Parts 1 and 2) to ensure data format consistency across the country. Each record includes a unique property reference number (UPRN) which provides a reference key to join related address records across different datasets.

Local authorities are the creators of address data (obtained through their activities such as planning applications, building and environmental control, licensing, the electoral roll, council tax and non-domestic rates) and manage the address throughout the Ùproperty lifecycleÝ. The NLPG includes separate units of properties in multiple occupation (like flats, retail units or office blocks), land, buildings within complexes (such as hospitals, schools or universities) and other structures (such as churches, scout huts and war memorials) and the history of all changes to those properties. There are currently more than 4 million such objects in what is as yet a far from complete NLPG.

Beyond the Local Authority

Many local authorities are under considerable pressures for planning and development ± from limited resources, from central government, from lobbyists, from e-government targets and more. Plentiful information and research, well presented in support of a particular proposal or policy direction might well be considered helpful. Inevitably perhaps the ability to harness and wield that information can skew the development process. For example, automated systems of classification or segmentation ± ýprofiling¯ ± can result in or support a particular view or preference.

Profiling is dependent upon the collection, aggregation and mining of vast databases of individual data, often held by private enterprise and its analysis can be determined by the user. The results may meet a narrow even opportunistic agenda but they may also blur the bigger picture, particularly in an increasingly risk-averse culture where social stratification provides its own answers (as Disraeli would have it, ýlies, damned lies and statistics¯).

So instead of visionary planning of for example traffic free city centres or focused health and education interventions the case may be made for more CCTV or failing public services ± it is all a matter of perspective.

We are smarter than that and we should seek to ensure that we are part of the system. ýEverything happens somewhere¯, and it is the inevitable outcome of all these real time data collection systems that they will be viewed in their geographic context (be it demographics, psychographics or behaviour). This is ideal when extending or removing flood control infrastructure certainly, but is ideal also in identifying the nature of new health or education interventions (programmes, plans, projects), and ideal too in ensuring that holistic approaches are taken to planning residential and commercial development.

Part of the irony of these hugely rich information streams is that they do allow for the creation of an incredibly well planned society. As pivotal participants in both the upward assimilation of data and in the downward translation of the resulting decisions into the landscape we must not be passive, but constructive, contextual and visionary.

There are many ýIT¯ words – ambient, immersive, pervasive ± for the digital surveilled world around us. We do not need to be distracted by these but rather ensure that our tools (for data collection, aggregation, assimilation, management, analysis and critically, presentation) enable us to interpret the consequences of these systems in order to ensure that we construct a world that we are proud of (think of positives in the initial list).


This article was written by James Cutler, CEO at eMapSite, a platinum partner of Ordnance Survey and online mapping service to professional users


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