If we want to be powered by place, what can geospatial data tell us about rural areas?

Location shapes the way we live, work and socialise. Geospatial data, also known as location-based data, is commonly seen as a foundation upon which a wide range of services can be developed and delivered. Geospatial data has been used to respond to COVID-19, from modelling the transmission of the virus, through to predicting populations more vulnerable to its spread and their nearest healthcare facility. In July 2020 the Geospatial Commission, part of the Cabinet Office, published a Geospatial Strategy. The Commission is calling for a coherent national location data network by 2025. If location data is going to connect people to things, systems and places; what might this mean for rural areas? Jessica Sellick investigates.


What is geospatial data? According to the Geospatial Commission, location data or geospatial data is a ‘record of what we do, and where we do it. It tells us where people and objects are in relation to a particular geographic location, whether in the air, on the ground, at sea or under our feet.’ Geospatial data can provide information on specific places (such as a building or railway line); or larger geographic areas including towns, counties, or countries. It offers information about a location that can be static in the short-term (e.g. an earthquake) or dynamic (e.g. a pandemic). It brings together location information (coordinates on earth) with attribute information (the characteristics of the phenomena), and temporal information (its life span). 

Commentators have increasingly recognised the value of geospatial data, often using it to build models of what is, or is likely, to happen in a given location(s) and/or over time. For example, the ambulance service turning up quickly at the right place, avoiding traffic congestion, and knowing which hospital to transport a patient to. For Local Authorities geospatial data can be used to deliver more effective public services and ensures resources are deployed in the right places. For central Government it supports policy design, implementation, and evaluation – and responding to emergencies. 

Geospatial data can come from private businesses, public sector bodies, or voluntary and community sector organisations. The Geospatial Commission divides geospatial data into four categories: (1) foundational – information where location is key and the purpose of its use; (2) positional – datasets describing activities or objects grounded in a particular place; (3) identifiers –linking different datasets using location as a common reference point; and (4) services – higher level insights involving layers of various location data.  

What is the Geospatial Commission?  The Autumn Budget 2017 referred to the establishment of a Geospatial Commission to ‘maximise the growth of the digital economy and consolidate the UK’s position as the best place to start and grow a digital business.’ The Commission would provide strategic oversight to the various public bodies that hold such data. The Geospatial Commission itself was established in 2018 as ‘an independent, expert committee responsible for setting the UK’s geospatial strategy and coordinating public sector geospatial activity.’ It aims to unlock the economic, social and environmental opportunities offered by location data and to boost the UK’s global geospatial expertise. Sitting within the Cabinet Office, the Commission provides (i) strategic oversight of the geospatial ecosystem in the UK, setting geospatial strategy, policy and standards; (ii) holds a budget for public sector investment in geospatial data; and (iii) makes targeted investments in data projects that accelerate innovation and adoption of geospatial data applications.

The Commission has a formal relationship with six core partners (known as the Geo6). They are: The British Geological Survey; The Coal AuthorityHM Land RegistryOrdnance SurveyUK Hydrographic Office and The Valuation Office Agency. Each of these partners is charged with supporting the delivery of the UK’s Geospatial Strategy – both through the geospatial data they hold and the expertise they have. 

Since 2019, the Commission has completed two pilots in the North East of England and London to test a National Underground Asset Register (NUAR); negotiated a Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PSGA) worth £1 billion over 10 years; worked with Ordnance Survey to make MasterMap open data; released a set of Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) and Unique Street Reference Numbers (USRN); funded 10 projects through a crowdsourcing competition; and worked with the Geo6 to invest £5 million into a data improvement programme for public sector geospatial datasets. 

The Geo6 are currently working with the Commission on a ‘data discoverability’ project; developing a geospatial glossary, a framework for assessing authoritativeness, a data sharing risk assessment and updating the geospatial catalogue. The Commission is also working with Frontier Economics to better understand the geospatial data market. 

What is the Geospatial Strategy? Back in 2008, the then Department of Communities and Local Government [now MHCLG] published ‘place matters’, a Location Strategy for the UK. This document sought to maximise the value to the public, Government and UK businesses of geographic information. Against a backdrop of too few Government-owned datasets incorporating location able to be easily assembled and reliably analysed; the strategy was intended to provide a consistent framework for greater sharing and reuse of information across the public sector and beyond.  In so doing, the strategy built upon the Local Government White Paper and other reports including the Office of Fair Trading market study on the commercial use of public information. The framework focused on five principal areas: (1) knowing what data we have; (2) using common reference data so we know we are all talking about the same places; (3) sharing common data through a common infrastructure of standards; (4) having the appropriate skills to use location data; and (5) strong leadership and governance to drive change. 

In 2010 the data.gov.uk portal was launched to help people find and use open government data. The site was redesigned in 2018 and the find open data service launched. In June 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published an Open Data Strategy (updated in 2013) and set up a transparency panel to oversee delivery. In June 2015 the then Secretary of State Liz Truss urged Defra and the agencies and public bodies within its network to release at least 8,000 datasets within one year – the organisations made 10,000+ datasets available under an open licence and has created a Data Services Platform. While Government was committed to location data, not every department made such a commitment and some government organisations were reluctant to do so because it would reduce their opportunities to generate revenue. Historically geospatial data has been fragmented across Government.     

‘Unlocking the power of potential’, the UK’s Geospatial Strategy 2020-2025, was published in June 2020. The strategy contains a vision that by 2025, the UK will have ‘a coherent national location data framework. Future technologies will be underpinned by data about events occurring at a time and place. Location data will be the unifying connection between things, systems, people and the environment.’ The strategy highlights trends around the proliferation of cheap location sensors, increased connectivity, cloud computing and the rise of artificial intelligence as well as the key challenges that need to be overcome (i.e., a fractured location data policy landscape). The strategy contains four strategic missions to address these challenges:  

  1. Promoting and safeguarding the use of location data to provide an evidenced view of the market value of location data, set clear guidelines on data access, privacy, ethics and security, and promote better use of location data. 
  2. Improving access to better location data to streamline, test and scale the development of new and existing location data ensuring it is findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable and of high quality.
  3. Enhancing skills, capabilities and awareness to develop more people with the right skills and tools to work with location data – across organisations and sectors – to meet the UK’s future needs and support global development.
  4. Enabling innovation to maximise the commercial opportunities for innovation and promote market-wide adoption of high-value emerging location technologies.

The strategy contains location data opportunities across these missions, including those around: infrastructure, transport, housing, environment, public health, emergency response, ocean economy, retail and finance.  The Commission intends to monitor how the strategy generates economic, social and environmental value to inform its next steps. The strategy was developed alongside the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF) and took account of similar work undertaken in the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands, Singapore, New Zealand and Ireland. 

How are public, private and community sector organisations using geospatial data? In local government circles, GeoPlace is a joint venture between the Local Government Association (LGA) and Ordnance Survey. This provides a single, definitive address database that holds millions of pieces of information based upon the National Street Gazetteer. In industry Hummingbird, a remote sensing and artificial intelligence business, is gathering imagery of arable fields and using machine learning techniques to provide targeted information so farmers can detect crop issues at an individual plant level and make decisions such as when to apply chemical inputs to increase yields and profit margins.  UbiPOS is designing a location platform to integrate different sensors for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV).   

More recently, geospatial data has played a key role in responding to COVID-19.  Ordnance Survey, for example, has been supporting public bodies to respond to the pandemic as part of its Mapping for Emergencies (MfE) service. Hackney Council has joined together Council and external data at a property level using UPRN to identify the most vulnerable residents in the borough.  Newport City Council used UPRN and NHS Wales data to identify and provide additional support to people in their area – and also distributed enhanced data to 22 other Local Authorities in Wales.  ESRI uses data from John Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard to map COVID-19 cases and deaths across the world. Maploom also uses John Hopkins University data to create an interactive map that allows you to interrogate the pandemic in a number of different ways (e.g. to select specific countries and compare the progression of the virus). 

As the impact of social distancing and self-isolation measures present both economic and practical challenges to a wide range of businesses and services; Innovate UK is currently investing up to £20 million in business projects to address the needs of society or industry resulting from COVID-19. 

What does geospatial data mean for rural places? Given the growing importance of, and focus on, geospatial information and the rapid expansion of data technologies and users, it is all-the-more-important that geospatial knowledge and information is available about rural areas. In an international context, for example, geospatial data is being used to map population distribution as part of attempts to address issues such as health epidemics, coordinate natural disaster responses, track environmental conservation and more. Some academics suggest that while advances have been made in urban population mapping, large gaps still exist for rural and remote populations. Back in the UK, datasets that cover rural areas are wide ranging, from air quality (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs/Northern Ireland) and field boundaries (Rural Payments Agency/England), through to countryside stewardship scheme agreements (Natural England/England) and housing and planning (Geospatial Commission/England). Defra also regularly publishes a Statistical Digest of Rural England.  

Yet much data remains scattered across different platforms, in different formats, with different indicators. If we want to use geospatial data to understand rural places, then firstly we first need to know what data we already have (i.e., foundational, positional, identifiers and services data), how it can be interrogated, and where the gaps are. Secondly, data is often collected by (or on behalf of) an organisation for a specific purpose without thinking through its wider applicability and significance, therefore we need to consider how these different strands can be brought together and tagged and structured in a way that makes it easier to interpret through a rural lens. Thirdly, we need to use data in a far more holistic way (rather than a silo or single-dimensional way) to better develop a picture of what it is like to live and work in different rural places. For example, how could we bring together information on housing stock, condition and affordability; broadband and mobile connectivity, speed and cost; level of poverty (for individuals, children, people of working age and older people); access to transport (car ownership, public transport, community transport schemes); demographic profile (while the proportion of older people living in rural areas is higher than in urban areas, does it become more difficult to live in a rural place when you are no longer able to drive / need to access health and care services?); stock of jobs, sectors, pay, employment levels, economic inactivity; and/or access to public services (e.g. primary care, secondary care, social care, ambulance, primary school, secondary school, FE college, post office, library, Jobcentre etc.) to start to build this picture? How could this be developed so we develop a better understanding of how rural places cluster together (around facilities and services),  who delivers services, how much money is spent and what resources have been deployed (or are needed), and how rural places are changing – and therefore what some of the opportunities, issues and challenges might be? 

Importantly, this is not always about collecting more data but rather looking at what data we already gather and how we can apply a rural lens. For example, the way statistical information on health outcomes is collected can mask deprivation and poorer health outcomes in rural areas. With support from Public Health England, academics at the University of East Anglia (UEA) developed a Rural Deprivation Index (RDI) using Norfolk as a case study. The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC) is currently developing a dashboard with the Nuffield Trust to track COVID-19 and the pressures it brings to rural areas. This also means looking at what devices we already use in rural areas – such as mobile phones or google maps – and how these might be utilised in how we share and use data. 

Maps are perhaps one of the most recognised visualisations of how we use geospatial data to understand the environment. But as the Geospatial Strategy reminds us, ‘you can’t use an old map to explore a new world.’ The need for geospatial data and analysis has never been greater – and this is not just about monitoring COVID-19 but in planning for a post-COVID world too. Will the work of the Commission and its Geospatial Strategy reduce fragmentation and deliver for rural places? Watch this space. 


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration and a senior research fellow at The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC). Her current work includes supporting health commissioners and providers to measure their response to COVID-19 and with future planning; working with 8 farm support groups across England on a Defra funded resilience programme; and helping Local Authorities to measure social value. Jessica also sits on the board of a Housing Association that supports older and vulnerable people.

She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk, Telephone 01522 521211, Website -  http://roseregeneration.co.uk / https://www.ncrhc.org/, Blog - http://ruralwords.co.uk, Twitter - @RoseRegen

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