Sense of place: shaping the future of the public sector

geospatial analysisData almost always has some geographical element tied to it, whether it’s polling figures, or population or crime statistics. So surely geospatial analysis should be transforming public services? A new report by Deloitte, X no longer marks the spot, suggests that there is so much data available that organisations are struggling to mine its full potential, and that more sophisticated analysis is required.

The report suggests that geographical data can be used to improve public services by generating insights that focus on efficiency, and deliver cost savings, improve service quality and effectiveness, engage the public, and enable collaboration with other organisations. Adding context about place can show relationships between customers, services and businesses.

Historical perspective

As far back as the 5th century BC, and possibly further, people have been fascinated by visual representations of their location in the form of maps. From the Babylonians through the medieval ‘Here be Dragons’, we have now reached a point where maps can be created of almost anything, whether it’s physically present or not. What’s more, such maps give insights which raw data cannot.

For example, one of the earliest recorded instances of geospatial insight was during the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. A physician called John Snow used a map to show the location of all the cases of the disease, which clustered around water pumps. His focus was the pump in Broad Street, and he added a line to his map, showing the loose boundary of use of the Broad Street pump: the people for whom Broad Street was the nearest public pump. It was largely thanks to Snow’s work that the waterborne nature of cholera was accepted, and the infrastructure put in place to prevent future outbreaks.

Nowadays, it is estimated that nearly 95% of data has some kind of geographical reference attached. This ought to allow for unprecedented insight into consumer needs, but it seems that it’s just too complicated for most public services. Deloitte’s report argues that a ‘perfect storm’ of changes in technology means that public services are better equipped than ever to obtain and use geospatial insights. These include:

  • improved, and cheaper hardware;
  • more accessible software with better analytic capabilities;
  • more usable data in greater quantities;
  • increased familiarity with maps because of apps such as Google Maps, which mean that employees and services users are better equipped to interpret mapped data; and
  • better procedures to incorporate geospatial insights into decision-making at every level.

Using visual data

There are theories that processing pictures uses a different part of your brain from words, but whatever the reason, there’s no question that using visual data often provides insights. A map can show a situation more clearly than hundreds of words. Gloucestershire County Council, for example, used bus route data mapped together with usage, community and essential service information. They were then able to see which routes were under-used, and replan those, without removing access to essential services.

Geospatial data can also be used to provide predictions about future behaviour and needs, based on historical data. For example, by looking at patterns of population age over time, public services can be planned to meet the future needs of the population, such as changes in social care requirements. Chicago Police Department even has a predictive analytics team that studies historical patterns of crime. By adding data about street lighting, population density and building types, the team attempts to identify where crimes are most likely to happen, so that the police can take pre-emptive action.

Public engagement is also a vital element in use of geospatial data. Whether it’s providing earthquake warnings via personal mobiles to citizens in Japan, or allowing people to report problems with their local streets using FixMyStreet in the UK, engaged citizens are vital. Release of public travel access information, in the form of maps of bus stops and train station locations, even resulted in the inadvertent application of crowdsourcing, as people flooded online to update the information by pointing out disused bus stops.

The way ahead

Public services may be hesitant about the investment required to use geospatial data. But other organisations are embracing the opportunity, often in partnership with several others locally to reduce costs. And the investment is likely to pay off in better-targeted services, where they’re needed, reducing the costs of provision. Geospatial data has huge potential to increase efficiency, and in a cash-strapped world, no public service can ignore it.

Image credit: Geospatial analysis by Nirmal Audichya

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