12 November 2020

The Evolving Role of National Mapping and Cadastral Agencies

As former EuroGeographics Secretary General and Executive Director, Mick Cory retires from a lifetime career working in National and International Geospatial Agencies, he reflects on their history and evolution. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of EuroGeographics or its members.

Mick CoryMost European National Mapping and Cadastral Agencies (NMCAs) have roots in the military or land administration.  Lantmäteriet in Sweden dates from 1628, and the Ordnance Survey in Ireland from 1824.  In both these cases official standardised maps were required as a basis for the equitable taxation of land.  Others, such as Ordnance Survey in Great Britain or IGN in France, have some form of historical connection to the military and they were originally established to support National security.  Some NMCAs still have organisational connections to the Military, such as the NGI Belgium and the Italian and Latvian mapping agencies, but the majority are civilian and their role has evolved significantly. 

In all cases the State has determined that it is in the national interest to mandate a public authority to produce maps in support of a public purpose.  The maps thus created have a wider purpose as well; for example, they form the basis of determining administrative, democratic, judicial or property boundaries, and over time these maps have grown to play an important role in our increasingly sophisticated societies to aid planning and development, and to help improve the delivery of public services.

Over the last 40 years, technology has had a profound impact on the way in which maps are created, and more recently in the way in which the data is held and is being used.  Even the concept of the map itself has evolved, and they are increasingly embedded in systems that are essential for our daily lives.  The increased availability of data from multiple sources and the ability to combine such data to visualise and analyse the information derived has been significantly enhanced and continues to evolve.  This has required NMCAs to fundamentally re-evaluate their roles in government and society and this re-evaluation is still underway.  Whilst we cannot yet predict the outcome from such change, it is possible to discern some trends.

The first trend relates to the changing nature of the map itself.  The traditional two-dimensional paper map has evolved into three-dimensional model of the real world.  We are now going beyond that to encompass not only the geometric description of the real-world, which is effectively a digital map, but a full digital model of the  real world – so called “digital twins” – in which information about a real-world object such as a house, a river or a road, can be determined along with  its chronological evolution, other information associated with that object as well as its relationship with other objects.  Some of this information may be held in cadastral databases but also by other agencies, as well as from other sources such as Earth observation data and volunteer geographic information.  This is geospatial information in its broadest sense, and we can clearly see that it is no longer just about maps.  NMCAs are having to consider what their role is in this complex data landscape – where they add value, and how they can help others deliver on the effective use of their data in support of a wider range of business and public service applications.

It will be no surprise that the second key trend we can discern is that of technological disruption.  NMCAs have always experienced technical disruption to their activities – it is part and parcel of their operational landscape.  They have been very successful at introducing and effectively using new technologies in their map making activities.  For example, over the 200-300 years of their existence we can see the introduction of triangulation; the use of aerial photography, and more recently digital technologies, satellite positioning systems, drones and earth observation data.  Technological developments continue to astound us, and NMCAs continue to apply them to their business, often in advance of other established government agencies, with many having a well-deserved reputation for technical innovation.  Nevertheless, a word of warning is appropriate here.  It is very easy to get excited about technological developments, and new concepts and new buzz words, enticed by the glamour of the technology.  But we must remember that state bodies require stability and certainty, and many in less mature or economically successful societies still struggle with small budgets, changing political priorities and a fundamental lack of capacity to deliver their basic role and purpose.  An increasing digital divide is a worrying aspect of this trend and must remain a concern.       

The third trend we may discern is the increasing number of other forms of disruption that affect the role and mandate of NMCAs.  Some of these may be as a result of other actors using new technology to disrupt the traditional function of official state actors (and geospatial agencies are not alone in being affected by this); but we can also find plenty of examples of political, geo-political, policy or legislative disruption that has the potential to more fundamentally change the role and function of NMCAs.  For example, the creation and expansion of the European Union which now sets policies and legislation that impact on NMCA business models through policy and legislative interventions such as the Open Data Directive, the INSPIRE Directive and the European Strategy for Data.  Historically we also see that NMCAs are affected by major geo-political disruptions, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has seen the increased awareness and focus on fundamental land rights and the resultant land-reforms, which many countries (even in Europe) are still struggling with. 

The fourth area of change we may discern is the changing use in society and within government itself of geospatial data produced by government agencies.  This use of geospatial data has been revolutionised by technology and we can of course see this in our daily lives, with in-car navigation technology and mobile mapping in our pockets.  Such tools are fantastic and very useful, but can very easily make us take for granted the availability and use of geospatial data.  Behind the widespread consumer based uses we do see the increasing trend in very sophisticated analysis and use of data from a very wide range of source – some of known but more often of uncertain quality.  It is in this area we see the greatest excitement and often exaggeration of the potential of artificial intelligence, big-data, as well as still unproven claims about autonomous vehicles.  All of these developments will require data of known quality and from reliable sources; to be effective they will rely on fundamental data that can underpin an uncertain and very rich data world. 

This is where we see the interesting and important development of fundamental data themes as identified by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Geospatial Information Management, and the concept of key registers in many European countries.  There is increasing recognition that such fundamental data plays a critical role in achieving National priorities as part of a National Data Infrastructure.  Geospatial data, together with other key registers of data, form part of an integrated framework on which government can leverage benefits for their citizens and on which societies rely.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights and emphasises these trends.  Covid-19 has had significant and ongoing impact on the world; it is still uncertain what the long-term implications will be of the pandemic and unfortunately it is still not over.    However, we can see how geospatial data is being used to track, analyse and visualise the impact of the pandemic.  The use of mapping to help analyse health emergencies is not new: there is the well-known case of John Snow’s mapping of cholera outbreaks in London, where he plotted cholera deaths on a map and noted that they clustered around a water pump, which enabled the source of infections to be established, and action taken to stop its spread. 

Today, NMCAs are helping map the impact of COVID-19.  They support the tracking and monitoring as well as informing the response to the Covid-19 outbreak.  Many NMCAs are supporting National health authorities in the provision of mapping to visualise its impact and plan the response by combining health data, demographic data, statistics and mapping.  In all of these applications geospatial data is being used to highlight the importance of people and place; and this emphasises the necessity of understanding the role and importance of NMCAs in such times.

It is here we must note, with a sense of humility, how important NMCAs are.  The reality is that national geospatial agencies play an important role, but it is a supporting role for other key government agencies.  We can see this important support role in the case of Covid-19, where mapping supports the health agencies in order to help them manage the crises more effectively.  Covid-19 underlines and emphasises how well they support the delivery of government priorities, and it gives us a clue as to how NMCAs must evolve in the future in order to remain relevant and continue to add value.

The important role of the future will be to support others in delivering on government policy and operational objectives, whether this is security, tax, property rights, public health or building a digital economy.  The biggest challenge to achieving the effective integration of geospatial data into all parts of public administration is the proactive partnering with others in government.  This requires two key attributes: leadership and facilitation.  NMCAs must play a core role in contributing to their National priorities by actively seeking out and contributing to priorities set by their government.  Leadership requires courage, perseverance and adaptability, particularly during times of political uncertainty.  No one else will champion the use of geospatial data within government, and so this responsibility falls to the NMCA.  The development of the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (IGIF) is an important tool to allow NMCAs to evaluate how they can add further value in this regard.  The second key attribute, of facilitation, refers to the most important element of the NMCAs role, that is data content.  NMCAs must today embrace new sources of data, helping users to get the data they need for the government’s task recognising that some data is better than no data, and that if the NMCA does not provide the data that the user wants then the user will obtain the data from other sources themselves

Successful NMCAs are beginning to proactively seek out and partner other government agencies, to seek out and enable the use of their data in support of the public good. This is a clearly how they must evolve in the future, if they are not already doing so, rather than to continue their historic role as a passive provider or supplier of mapping data.   And if we look to the future and beyond the current pandemic, the big issue remains that of climate change.  How NMCAs support our collective response to this critical global issue will determine their future relevance and their future value.

So, in conclusion, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the evolving role of NMCAs over many years, from the development of topographic and cadastral maps, to using technology to make this task more efficient and more effective, to obtaining data that is part of a national data infrastructure, and in particular a geospatial information framework.  The role of NMCAs has changed, and will continue to change, from being a passive provider or supplier of map data, to one in which they proactively partner others as an integrated part of public administration, supporting the delivery of public services and government policy priorities, and delivering value for the wider public good.