Jordi Estrada, GIS Analyst, Farrpoint
Thanks to the exponential uptake of the smartphone vast amounts of data are being created with every swipe and click. Our behaviour as both consumer and citizen is captured and recorded. But our handheld computers are also creating spatial data.
The continuous deluge of new information is further bolstered by the data coming from the growing number of IoT devices that we are adopting in our everyday lives. When this is combined with robust digital connectivity plans, we have the fundamental building block of smart cities and towns. Wifi and 3G/4G mobile connectivity are essential to remain connected through our portable devices, whilst Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN, e.g. LoRa, Sigfox or LTE Cat-0) will prove essential for infrastructure related IoT needs.
Informed decisions can now be made using real time information from all walks of life. For example, a number of local authorities, such as Nottingham city, have deployed smart bins, which report back when they are full, allowing the pick-up teams to improve their efficiency and resource allocation. This allowed Nottingham city to reduce the number of weekly collections by 60 per-cent.
Other cities have developed their own platforms for citizens to report problems they come across and to better connect with residents. The MyGlasgow app, developed by Glasgow city council enables people to report potholes, broken street lights, graffiti and other problems they may come across, identifying the position using their mobile location data and allowing the council to act and provide feedback on the reported incident.
Another example is the ubiquitous Google Maps app that most of us refer to on occasion to find the quickest and quietest routes to our destinations. What enables Google Maps to provide this service with a high degree of accuracy is the large number of end users, who may not be aware, are all contributing their own data as they use the service. The mobile application continually sends location and journey information to Google, enabling then to not only identify and map out traffic hot spots, but to use historic data to predict future traffic for a given date or time. This includes predicting the effect of roadworks or incidents on traffic flows.
Geographical data also can also be derived from interactions with social media sites. Trending topics across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can reflect the public mood in a more accurate and faster way than traditional survey methods ever could. Each and every time an individual posts or checks a social media app there is a geotag associated with the action. This means it can be allocated and aggregated spatially and then analysed with the results potentially reused in other applications.
From designing political campaigns, reporting news, highlighting potential commercial opportunities and identifying potential problem hotspots, social media information can be used in real time to allows for a more proactive approach to take action on these insights. The predictive analytics field is on the rise, with current methods being able to classify and segment the population of each constituency very accurately, which can be then utilised for political purposes.
Companies such as Cambridge Analytica are said to have played an important role in the recent American election campaign, gathering data from multiple sources and applying advanced data modelling methods and psychometrics to identify the target audience in each state. The resulting communication strategy, derived from the geospatial analysis of this profile data, often focused on the identified undecided voters of each area. By pushing a tailored message that ticks the boxes of that particular psychological profile group, candidates tried to get an edge on the race for presidency.
But it’s not only for electoral purposes that geographical data is currently being used. Our devices can also contribute towards causes for the public good. Initiatives such as the Humanitarian Open Street Maps Team have played a key role in natural disaster emergency situations in the past. The availability of accurate, reliable and current cartographic information is crucial for the emergency response teams but in some areas of the world this is just not easily available. The HOTOSM project enlists a huge network of volunteers who digitise using satellite imagery and update the vital basic infrastructure that the teams on the ground can then access. These crowdsourced maps have helped to save lives in events such as the earthquakes in Nepal 2015, West Africa Ebola epidemic in 2014 or Haiti earthquake of 2011.
The vast amount of data we generate can be difficult to process. The complexity of getting specific insights from these huge swathes of information has been likened to trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose. The term Big Data was coined to describe and frame these large volumes of digital information, both structured and unstructured, which can be very hard to analyse using traditional statistical methods and tools.
It’s not only the sheer volume that represents a challenge, but also the speed at which this constant stream of information is coming into organisations. This makes it particularly challenging to process and integrate within corporate systems. Businesses and public bodies are trying to adapt and integrate data analysis into their decision-making processes.
Summarising and visualising patterns and insights from datasets is critical. Most of us are much more comfortable reading a map than we are deciphering a spreadsheet. Geographical information system applications play a key role in processing this spatial data into maps that we can then interact with to make informed personal and commercial decisions.
There are multiple initiatives to make more datasets open and available to public and businesses alike. There are many benefits to be had from sharing information, from informing customer choices to keeping residents up to date with local news. Companies can more easily see consumer patterns and trends, allowing them to target their services and products better.
There are numerous commercial uses of real time mapping data for businesses. Shopping centres can produce heat maps of their customer flow; companies can see the areas that are more attractive to customers and, just as importantly, sections that are being avoided. This can be used when selecting the best location for a particular kind of shop. Using technology such as Bluetooth beacons within premises, mapping can be taken down to a more granular level, even as far as recording which shelves in a shop are popular and the typical routes taken through a shop by customers
The mobile data we generate as consumers and as residents of towns and cities is already having an impact on how our surroundings are shaped commercially. Our spatial behaviour is analysed by business planners when they are looking to open new restaurants, hotels or shopping centres. Data generated maps showing high footfall and the geodemographics of an area are used to identify profit opportunities. When combined with other consumer-generated data it can provide powerful insight as to where businesses hubs should be located.
These kind of datasets also encourage citizens to engage with urban planning and local authority initiatives. If we are given access to information in a form we understand, such as a map, we are much more likely to interact and give informed opinions on what is happening, or indeed should happen, and keep us involved with the development of our towns and cities. If local authorities continue to make information available through open data initiatives, then it is only a matter of time before the public sees the benefit of it, uses it and keeps adding to it.
The information we are sharing can also be captured and used for malicious purposes. Each mobile phone has a unique identifier which can be traced to the data being collected, regardless of the network being used, so there is potential for data breaches. Hence why data privacy concerns are increasingly important so it is essential that the right policies are in place to protect us from misuse of data. All released information should be aggregated to protect individual identities. However, following good digital best practice is still the way forward.
We are all producing cartography without even realising it. Whenever we use a mobile telephone or a wearable device we are helping to create a map. If this is used wisely, our data could improve our experience as customers and our quality of life as citizens.