A dedicated department is needed for geospatial policy

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Dr. Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Hong Kong

From searching for the shortest road to destinations, helping co-ordinate search and rescue operations, locating lost children or elderly absquatulaters, to tracking the real-time location of buses and facilitating the future autonomous vehicles, geospatial data or location-based service now plays an essential role in our daily life, businesses and the society as a whole.

Show me the money

But what economic value does the data deliver? The Australian government estimated the geospatial data will generate up to AUD$73 billion (approx. HK$430 billion) of value to the country by 2030. Improvements in precision navigation (down to 2–5 cm accuracy) can enable innovation and efficiency across a range of activities, including agriculture, transportation, emergency management, mining, engineering and logistics.

British consulting firm Oxera tried to quantify the industry’s impact on consumer welfare and the economy worldwide in 2013. Ranging from lifesaving effects of faster emergency response, the billions of dollars and hours saved on travel, far-reaching impact on jobs and business efficiencies, including digital maps and satellite imagery per year, the agency estimated that geospatial data generates up to US$270 billion (about HK$2,119 billion) in global revenue each year. The figure was expected to grow by 30 percent annually.

The latest estimates went up to US$400 billion (about HK3,139 billion), according to a research conducted by an Australian firm AlphaBeta last year. The study was based on consumer surveys across 22 countries of six regions and big data analysis of online job postings and other analytics. The report also mentioned that the total economic contribution of geospatial data should be several times higher, “as geospatial services have a myriad of other positive effects for society and the environment.”

Estimating global value by combining data from multiple sources is not a precise science. But the above figures clearly show that geospatial data is expected to greatly enable the advancement of the economy and improve our living.

Big value from active policy

In fact, many countries like the United States, Japan, Australia, India and Canada appreciate the strategic value of geospatial data, and have well-developed policies, laws, standards, and dedicated department to manage this invisible asset, from collecting, disseminating to sharing with the public. They make the best use of the potential and value of this resource.

The Federal Geographic Data Committee of the U.S. provides executive, managerial, and advisory direction and oversight for geospatial decisions and initiatives across the Federal government since 1990s.

In Australia, Geoscience Australia, a government organization founded in 2001, is responsible for coordinating various departments responsible for location information in all cities to ensure that information is properly collected and used. They believe that accurate spatial data (with an accuracy of 2-5 centimetre) can enable a range of innovative applications, including productivity improvements for agriculture, mining, engineering, logistics, transportation and location-based services.

Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority passed the Basic Act on the Advancement of Utilizing Geospatial Information in 2007, ensuring that the state and all local governments follow a same set of standards, and allowing citizens to enjoy the information for free.

In Canada, the national geospatial policy was introduced in 2009, including a broad range of practical instruments such as guidelines, best practices, procedures and manuals, covering the whole cycle of data collection, management, release, and usage. In 2013, the government of Canada launched an open data portal (data.gc.ca) which houses over 200,000 datasets of which 97% are geospatial datasets. The aim is to ensure easy and consistent access to the government data and information to accelerate innovation for prosperity.

Two years ago, India’s national geospatial information agency was set up to promote the National Geospatial Policy to unify and manage the data from over a dozen departments.

Meanwhile, back at home…

Hong Kong has many renowned infrastructure systems developed and managed by advanced technology entities and dedicated government departments. For example, the Hong Kong Observatory collects weather data, the Environmental Protection Department carries out air pollution analysis, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department is responsible for electrical installation while the Highways Department for road works. A dedicated department for the territory’s geospatial data and positioning information, responsible for formulating policies and regulations for the implementation of relevant bureaux and departments and sharing the relevant data with the public,would enhance efficient application of spatial technology in Hong Kong, and also create opportunities for innovation in industries.

We must seize the opportunity to materialize this concept. Before a dedicated government department is formed, which can take some time, we should start by including the function of transceiving accurate positioning information in the smart lamppost project which is a major smart city pilot program. With this, a strong foundation will be laid for future use.


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