Digital Government - Having the space to expand
Press Release : 27/05/2023
- From planning to provision of services, spatial information is key to decision-making.
- ‘Geopolicy’, the study and analysis of factors such as location, natural resources, and physical features of the landscape and how it influences behaviour is a key need in planning future service provision.
- Government departments as well as semi-state agencies work with spatial data to inform decisions.
- Spatial data was key to understanding people’s ability to access services.
Michael Byrne, head of customer engagement at Esri Ireland: ‘The word geopolicy is interesting. Everything happens somewhere. It’s about the science of space and place and the consumers of it, which are the citizens, ultimately.’
The recognition that we all live, work and act somewhere may seem a basic insight, but when you think about it, place can be deeply contentious. From planning to provision of services, spatial information is key to decision-making.
Known as ‘geopolicy’, the study and analysis of factors such as location, natural resources, and physical features of the landscape and how it influences behaviour is a key need in planning future service provision. Indeed, place and space are where the rubber hits the road, or perhaps where the steel hits the rail, in terms of politics.
Asked why geopolicy matters and has it been taken up by Irish government agencies and authorities, Michael Byrne, head of customer engagement at Esri Ireland, said that the term was perhaps a little unclear.
“The word ‘geopolicy’ is interesting. What matters is that geospatial is included in policy. Everything happens somewhere. It’s about the science of space and place and the consumers of it, which are the citizens, ultimately,” he said.
In Ireland, a number of government departments as well as semi-state agencies work with spatial data to inform decisions both at policy level in the macro and at ground level in the micro.
“The Department of Housing has a long history of geospatial knowledge. We're working with them at the moment around very specific housing questions. Of course, housing is very human and very linked to the geospatial,” said Byrne.
“The national broadband plan has also been good, and that would be the Department of Communications,” he said.
And yet, we have a tendency to think of digital as having no physical place or space. This is a natural error, Byrne said, but it is still an error.
Indeed, it is one whose importance is underscored both by the deployment of ever more services via the internet and the fraught issue of data centres.
“All of that digital data is somewhere. If you want to make decisions then you have to ask: ‘What's the thing that's happening and where is it happening’,” Byrne said.
In the context of digital government, which is subject to a national plan, Byrne said that having appropriate spatial data ensured that human factors were considered.
“Digital government has two words in it and, yes, digital is one, but government is the other. Government is about people and they are in places,” he said.
Similarly, and in relation as much to the private as the public sector, Byrne said that the ability of users to engage with digital service provision required consideration of spatial factors.
“People think about the digital a lot and about transformation, in fact, but there is a human capital side. People have to make digital systems and people have to have capacity to consume those systems,” he said.
As both business and government move toward digital by default the question arises: does this mean digital only? Byrne said that it should not, and spatial data was key to understanding, for instance, people’s ability to access services both digitally as well as through traditional means and, indeed, plan for their roll-out.
“A great danger with digital is exclusion, which is when people can't get access or can't afford it. When you are providing a service, you have to think about how people are going to interact with it,” he said.
Byrne said that Esri Ireland works with its clients to ensure that they not only consider spatial data, but that it is put to use in a meaningful way as well as kept within the relevant regulatory framework.
“What we try to do is work with our customers to set a vision. You must have a value proposition and, then, a strategy. Probably what people forget about most of the time is governance: how are you governing it,” he said.
Overall, though it may not be obvious to those working outside the field, Ireland has a strong ranking among its peers for geospatial.
“There is a geospatial readiness index produced by the UN Geospatial Network think tank. They do an appraisal of 50 countries, of which we are one, and we’re ninth out of those 50, so we’re judged as a leader. Denmark and Finland are doing well, the US and Britain are numbers one and two.
“We have reasonably good national mapping and our open data strategy is good,” Byrne said.
Beyond informing policy, intelligent engagement with spatial data can also make a contribution to knowledge, including scientific knowledge. One example, Byrne said, is Inland Fisheries Ireland, which has added to its knowledge by crowd-sourcing from people fishing. This not only creates engagement with a group of people, it helps researchers understand fish populations, numbers and behaviour.
“They've done an anglers’ diary app, so sea anglers are able to upload information about what they've caught, and that captures data about fish populations, which is important environmental data,” he said.
Therefore, this innovative approach not only fosters engagement with the anglers but also reveals important information. By involving citizens in data collection, researchers gain insights into fish populations, enabling more effective conservation and management strategies.
Such examples demonstrate the potential of spatial data to bridge the gap between policy and scientific research, fostering collaboration and understanding across different stakeholders. With more work like that of Inland Fisheries Ireland, Byrne said, Ireland could not only advance its position as a leader in the field but also create a positive feedback loop between the public and the government.
“That’s an excellent community engagement,” he said.