How Geospatial Information has empowered public services across the UK

Ireland’s National Mapping Agreement (NMA) is about to be launched, giving Irish public sector bodies free access to most of Ordnance Survey Ireland’s (OSi) geospatial data.

Under similar agreements, national mapping agencies in Northern Ireland and Great Britain have been making mapping data freely available to public bodies for years.

To understand the value and potential that the NMA has for Irish public bodies, we’ve brought together some real world examples of how mapping agreements have empowered public sector bodies in the United Kingdom (UK).

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Why is spatial data important to public bodies?

Spatial data, or GI (geospatial information) as it’s known within the industry, has numerous applications in the public sector, from route planning for emergency services, identifying trends for crime prevention, and assessing the needs of schools. Mapping agreements encourage public bodies to access GI and interpret it using specialised mapping software, known as GIS (Geographic Information System). GIS not only allows users to display complex information in a more visual, easy-to-digest format, it’s also a powerful analytical tool used to identify trends and model potential scenarios.

Types of GI made available by mapping agreements

Mapping agreements give public bodies access to maps and aerial photography, in both up-to-date and archival versions. The data is made available in ‘layers’ and shows features such as administrative boundaries, residential addresses, vegetation, power lines, monuments, transport networks, drainage, elevation, placenames, buildings, walking tracks, cliffs, historical maps and more.

An example of a data layer is Britain’s Transport Layer, which shows the entire British road network including road restriction information, banned turns, one-way streets, time or vehicle-based restrictions, private roads and man-made paths. This layer is used by British emergency services when planning their routes.

Another example of a data layer is the British Water Network Layer, which shows information about river width, flow and gradient, and shows underground features such as aqueducts and tunnels. This layer is often used to assist with flood management.

A list of OSi data layers available under NMA will be released in the coming weeks.

The impact of the Northern Ireland Mapping Agreement

The Northern Ireland Mapping Agreement (NIMA) was launched in 2006. Under NIMA, the body that oversees Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland (OSNI), known as Land & Property Services (LPS), gives every member of civil service staff access to its mapping products. LPS also provides a free GI consultancy service to the public sector.

NIMA has thoroughly embedded the use of GI across the public sector because it’s free for the user. Before NIMA, every organisation within the public sector, both central and local, had to pay for mapping products. Usage was sporadic because some organisations could gather a business case for purchasing the products and others could not. When NIMA was launched in 2006, suddenly every public servant, which equates to approximately 30,000 people, had access to LPS products.

One of the biggest benefits seen from the implementation of NIMA is the saving on administration. Before NIMA, invoicing individual organisations and processing individual payments was labour intensive for both LPS and for the user. Now, because NIMA is paid for centrally, time is no longer spent administering these transactions.

NIMA makes it possible for every organisation to access the same, consistent datasets, which are kept accurate and up-to-date. Using the same datasets encourages collaboration – for example those responsible for planning can easily send data over to those responsible for agriculture and vice versa.

NIMA gets upgraded every few years and for 2017-2022 every member of the civil service board passed it unanimously. The fact that decision makers are undisputedly extending NIMA’s lifespan indicates the value of this agreement for the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

3 case studies showing NIMA in action

  1. Finding homes for 1000 Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland

LPS and the Department for Communities used GI, made available by NIMA, to identify suitable locations for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland. Using GIS, they plotted variables that affect integration such as location of suitable dwellings, the presence and frequency of race-related hate crimes, the capacity of local schools for children, and the availability of healthcare. Based on these variables, they graded every 1km2 grid cell on the map with a resettlement score. This model, first set up in 2014, is being used over a four year period to assist in determining the optimum areas to resettle 1000 refugees. This is an example of how GI can be used for deeper analysis, because it doesn’t just locate suitable housing – it also considers important social factors, which maximises the likelihood of the refugees’ successful integration. The value of the spatial datasets and consultancy services provided for this project is estimated at over £222,000.

  1. Assessing student eligibility for free school bus travel

The Education Authority (EA) of Northern Ireland provides free transport to students who live more than a stipulated walking distance from their school. Over 90,000 children are eligible for free school bus travel and every year approximately 25,000 new applications are made. Determining the students’ eligibility was previously a paper-based and labour-intensive process. Together, EA and LPS built a ‘Walking Network Dataset’ by enhancing the existing OSNI Road Network layer and used it to create an online application. This ‘Home to School Transport App’ allows parents to find out in real time if their child is eligible for transport assistance. The app replaces the paper-based system, which previously took 6 weeks. Following a pilot scheme, they have decided to expanding the app so that it covers all post-primary and primary schools. The app has minimised the need for manual field measurements by EA staff because it’s more accurate for calculating distances. Without NIMA, the cost of creating the walking network for schools would have been £28,600.

  1. Allocating resources in Northern Ireland’s most disadvantaged areas

The Sure Start Programme provides support services for parents with children under 4 years old in Northern Ireland’s most disadvantaged areas. Sure Start needed to be able to identify deprived areas accurately but their existing, time-consuming method depended on printed postcode lists, hardcopy maps and commercial addressing tools. LPS helped Sure Start to develop a bespoke web-based mapping application that could identify areas of highest need. They also used the GI to draw up definitive boundaries for different Sure Start projects, which allowed each project to focus their resources within a designated catchment area. Sure Start now spends less time on determining eligibility and more time on service provision. They saved in excess of £280,000 by forgoing contracted consultancy services, data licenses and the external procurement of a web-based mapping application.

The impact of the Public Sector Mapping Agreement (England and Wales)

The Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA) is a 10 year agreement, launched in 2011 by Ordnance Survey Great Britain (OSGB), to provide detailed, accurate GI to public service bodies in England and Wales.

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The enormous success of PSMA can be seen by taking a look at its uptake – over 3000 organisations have joined it. Some of the most popular applications of the data are seen in emergency services response, fraud prevention, highway maintenance, local transport services, waste collection, recycling, environmental protection and conservation. From determining the location of winter grit bins right through to informing national security, GI is now thoroughly ingrained into decision-making processes across England and Wales.

English and Welsh public services are being delivered more efficiently as a direct result of OS data, which in turn is delivering greater value to the taxpayer. Local authorities, police forces and fire services are already saving over £125 million every year. But it’s not just about efficiencies and savings – the accuracy of the GI being made available under PSMA is aiding critical services and helping to save lives, to preserve property, and to avert threats to public safety.

3 case studies showing PSMA in action

  1. Minimising disruption during roadworks in London

Every year in London city there are 400 road closures, over 3,000 utility excavations and, at any one time, over 70 building sites in operation. Organisation officers need to plan all of these works with great precision so as to minimise disruption to both commuter travel and the city’s economic output. Originally, it was a challenge to determine the extent and projected impact of the works. Decisions were being guided by local knowledge and experience, rather than hard data. Using GI made available by PSMA, a works planning tool was developed to manage all jobs digitally. The tool enables staff to analyse the impact area that will be affected by a job, and identify potential conflicts arising from other works that are also planned for the area. The various teams involved in managing works can now cooperate more effectively, e.g. resurfacing schemes can be cancelled on roads where major utility works are planned for a later date. The works planning tool also makes it easier to brief senior staff and politicians about the issues, and to get new recruits up to speed with the complexities of managing the city’s road network.

  1. Redesigning waste collection routes and saving £400k per year

England’s Bolton Council needed to establish more efficient waste collection rounds to reduce costs, while continuing to deliver an efficient service to 123,000 residential properties. They used transport and topography data, made available by PSMA, and combined it with other council datasets such as tip locations and pick rates (number of containers picked up during a given time period). Using the GI, they were able to develop optimum routes for rounds, estimate mileages, plot fuel stations, and track the best fuel prices. They also combined the GI with their tracking technology, thus enabling the control room to track a vehicle’s position in real time and determine how much of a route has been completed. Using the NIMA-based GI to redesign their collection rounds resulted in cost savings of £400k per year.

  1. Improving ambulance dispatch on the Isle of Wight

The population on England’s Isle of Wight is 140,000, rising to 200,000 in the summer months when holidaymakers arrive. A large proportion of this population is comprised of retirees with complex health needs. The NHS (National Health Service) Trust, who manage the ambulance service on the island, were finding it difficult to locate some patients due to the island’s rural geography. They were working with out-of-date, inaccurate information regarding the location of addresses and landscape features. Using OSGB mapping and address data, made available via PSMA, they were able to start using more accurate, up-to-date location information. The control centre staff can now quickly locate a patient on the map, identify the nearest address or address feature, and then dispatch the ambulance to these coordinates. Additional information about the address, e.g. ‘gas present’ or ‘dangerous dogs at property’ is also now available to staff. As a result of the new data, the ambulance service are able to meet their target of an eight minute response time, and they are experiencing reduced overheads through no longer needing to manually update their address database.

The impact of the One Scotland Mapping Agreement

The One Scotland Mapping Agreement (OSMA), launched by OSGB, came into effect in 2009 and dramatically increased the use of spatial data within the Scottish public sector. The initial agreement was so successful that a revised, 10-year agreement was signed in 2013. Approximately 100 organisations are members of OSMA. Similar to NIMA, the reported benefits of OSMA include savings in administration and the ease at which members can share data with one another. Seamless data sharing has encouraged successful partnerships, for example councils, schools and the NHS are collaboratively working together to tackle issues such as childhood obesity. Like PSMA, the high quality of the data made available via OSMA is helping to save lives, for example emergency responders are using it to determine the optimum routes to incidents.

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3 case studies showing OSMA in action

  1. PastMap

Multiple partners were collaborating to develop PastMap, an interactive website where users can access information about architectural, archaeological, industrial, maritime and other protected heritage sites. GI made available through OSMA enabled the developers to create a functionality where users can plot listed buildings, marine protected areas, monuments, conservation areas, inventory battlefields, world heritage sites and more. The result is a rich, user-friendly resource for anyone interested in historic environment data.

  1. Guiding wind farm development in Moray Council

Scotland’s Moray Council were considering the development of onshore wind farms and needed to take into account various environmental and social factors, such as disruption to areas of scenic beauty, and characteristics of the landscape that would affect site suitability. All of these variables needed to be presented to non GI expert stakeholders and to the public in such a way that they would be able to easily visualise and interpret the data. Using detailed spatial datasets, made available through OSMA, Moray Council presented all of the relevant geographic variables on a map. This map enabled non experts to easily visualise the information and consider the impact the wind farms would have on the area.

  1. Analysing school bus entitlement in South Ayrshire Council

Scotland’s South Ayrshire Council used GIS to analyse catchment areas and to calculate which pupils were eligible for bus travel. They first combined their own path network data with a transport layer available through OSMA and created a definitive road and path network dataset. They then added other information to the dataset, such as sections of the road that were deemed unsafe, cycle routes, manned school crossings, and pedestrian crossings. The dataset can be queried using a bespoke, web-based GIS tool that was developed especially for the staff. With this tool, staff can identify a safe route from a specific address to a particular school, generate written directions and distances, and point out safe crossing points and hazards. This tool has been so successful that the council decided to provide a simplified version on their website for residents.

What’s next for national mapping agreements?

Plans are in motion to move towards a ‘triOS’ agreement, a collaborative agreement between OSi (Ireland), LPS (Northern Ireland) and OSGB (Great Britain) enabling public sector bodies in all three regions to access each other’s spatial data. This will enable cross-regional collaborations and encourage further innovative applications of GI for the improved delivery of public services.

Join the Irish National Mapping Agreement

Observing our neighbours’ national mapping agreements in Northern Ireland and Great Britain shows us that there is enormous potential for Irish public bodies who embrace the upcoming National Mapping Agreement. To apply to access OSi data under the National Mapping Agreement, fill out the form here: National Mapping Agreement application form

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