Interview: Head of Government for Esri UK

“Whether it's responding to climate change, building new homes, providing healthcare or responding to emergencies, decisions made up and down the country are almost always informed by location,” says Paul Clarke, Head of Government for Esri UK.

Listen to 'Interview: Head of Government for Esri UK'


Bringing to life the use cases of geospatial in the UK and internationally, Clarke shared his views on geospatial data's potential, conquering the barriers to entry and connecting incompatible systems with the power of location. 

Where do you see pockets of excellence within the UK central and local government's use of GIS?

Our geospatial system plays a critical role in central and local government, particularly in understanding spatial patterns in demand for services and targeting resources. Our mapping applications and dashboards allow our customers to analyse and directly share data with their stakeholders.

Take Oxfordshire County Council. They used our geospatial approach to deliver care packages in the community more efficiently, helping people live safely and independently at home. Our technology did that by matching elderly and disabled people more quickly with care providers in their localities, while young adults with learning disabilities can be allocated appropriate accommodation near their families.

Citizens in Thanet District Council in Kent can view the locations of newly created wildflower meadows and get directly involved by suggesting locations for new ones; using GIS to engage the community and identify new sites for increasing biodiversity and for ecologists and environmentalists use the GIS to prioritise projects in these areas.

What are some international examples of public sector GIS use that you think are noteworthy for the UK government?

Portugal wildfiresEsri’s GIS has been powerful in offering a unifying technology to make system information available in real time. To show how important this is, we can look at what we did in Matosinhos, Portugal on emergency response. Having experienced extreme weather including serious forest fires, the challenge for them was harmonising 40 organisations each with their own incompatible systems. Our GIS allowed them to unify those systems for all of those responders instantaneously. This protects the city, physical assets most importantly, people's lives.

SingaporeIn light of these climate-related pressures, managing land use is extremely significant in making impactful mitigations to a changing environment. Singapore has used our GIS to identify buildings that can be used for vertical gardens. That’s a clever way of using our technology to manage land constraints and increase biodiversity.

For councils in low-lying areas of the UK, they can turn to what we've been able to do in Boston, MA. They’ve used GIS technology to model developments in their city in 3D and it has been a powerful mitigation and land planning tool. 

The Geospatial Commissioner recently said maintaining uniformity in data hosting may be undesirable. What's your view?

I agree with Steve that the best place to hold data will be the systems designed to manage that sort of information. The one thing that they all have in common though, is that they have a location. If you want one unifying technology that can bring data together from different places then location is that framework. You can create a map of where the roads, assets and people are- it's that key bit of data that ties it all together and visualises it for critical decision-making.

I'd also say that more and more systems can publish their data on some type of web service. That's great because you can then simply consume them from where they are.

The ONS Open Geography Portal, for instance, publishes their geographical statistics into this portal and supplies it as a consumable service, including to local and central government as just one part of their information puzzle. They consume geography and their population statistics from the ONS and combine them with mapping from the Ordnance Survey. They then bring in climate data from the Environment Agency or Met Office, for example. This is all very straightforward and a fraction of GIS’s potential.

What role does GIS play in making public services more accessible and responsive to citizen needs?

One example is the work we’ve done with the NHS South Central and West Commissioning Support Unit (SCW). The Department of Health and Social Care wanted to analyse data to help determine which pharmacies in remote locations would be eligible for extra funding to ensure equitable access to pharmacies across England. 

SCW conducted a national GIS analysis of the availability of pharmacies to identify whether there were gaps in provision. This is particularly prevalent in rural areas where older communities don't have as easy access to pharmacies. Why would you do that? So you can understand where you put the next pharmacy, or whether there are mobile services that can be placed in those areas to improve coverage for where people don't have access.

SCW was able to geocode the locations of all 11,600 pharmacies in England. It then used the network analysis capabilities together with Ordnance Survey’s highways network data to calculate walking distances from each pharmacy to the five closest pharmacies. This information was then used as part of the department’s funding criteria.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, SCW also used new geospatial modelling techniques to create optimised routes for GPs and nurses, so they could give vaccinations to vulnerable housebound patients in their homes, more efficiently.

Critically, the solution minimised the wastage of the vaccine and allowed PCNs to plan thoroughly and communicate better with patients in advance. Patients knew when to expect their visits and vaccinators called patients to confirm an accurate time. The model also built in contingency time for unexplained delays, which maximised the vaccination programme success rate.

The geospatial solution saved the PCNs time and money, as previously, the travel planning was not often optimised. This resulted in increased journey times so the programme was not only taking longer but fewer doses were being given each day. It's a really interesting challenge because a vaccine can only be used for a limited period. GIS helped make sure that housebound patients had access to a vaccine. 

What can the government do to address resource and skill shortages required to use geospatial data effectively?

Historically, the cost of technology, software and the skills required for spatial analysis were prohibitive for many. But the accessibility of geospatial technology is developing rapidly, thanks to software-as-a-service and cloud platforms and more recently, the emerging potential of AI to further democratise access.

More than anything, the remaining hurdle is fully understanding the power of GIS. Every day we engage with the government to try and build an understanding of GIS and ensure customers achieve the greatest possible investment they can from their GIS to help achieve their objectives. The industry and the Geospatial Commission has an important role to play in that too. 

Although skills shortages are a challenge here in the UK, it's nothing like what they have in other parts of the world. Our response to that has been to invest in the geographers and geospatial experts of tomorrow through our school, university and graduate programmes. Nurturing and supporting the next generation of geographers and GIS experts is essential and the education sector is of huge importance to Esri UK.

Nature_Park_nature_investigationWe’re worked with the Department for Education on its National Education Nature Park project. The project is created to teach children about climate and to improve biodiversity across the country.

As the Nature Park’s geospatial partner, we created apps and dashboards for schoolchildren to map and record the natural features of their school estate and design implementations to improve biodiversity, connecting young people with nature and enriching their education. This helps children develop a wide range of ‘green’ skills, including mapping, numeracy, spatial awareness, data visualisation and analysis, which encourages analytical thinking and problem solving.

The geospatial sector is currently crying out for new people – particularly with the growth of sustainability, environmental and climate-related industries. Learning geography and GIS skills can help students find fulfilling careers, empowering them to make the world a better place.

Teach_with_GIS_make_your_own_mapsOur Education Programme provides free access to ArcGIS software, teaching resources and training for all UK schools and heavily discounted rates for universities and is currently used by over 3,000 schools and 135 universities. Last year alone, Esri UK trained 500 teachers to teach GIS more effectively.

As for what users can do internally within their organisations, they can market themselves. It's like that adage, right? Start small and aim big – show senior management what's possible, and spreads across the organisation based on its success.

You've got to take the plunge. The geospatial community is a special one – people want to help each other learn, improve and share so networking is also invaluable. The entry level is a few hundred pounds now and the speed to value is fast and you can start producing outputs, results and analysis very quickly.

Can you give examples of productivity growth through GIS roll-outs in the UK public sector? What are some of the common determinants of achieving this kind of results?

Every year, the Environment Agency responds to between 20,000 and 50,000 incidents, such as floods, drought or water pollution, including 40 major incidents. In conjunction with Esri UK, they built an incident management portal which supports over 2,500 field workers in collecting data digitally and making it instantly accessible to control centres, data analysts, staff, stakeholders and the public via standardised processes. 

It's dramatically changed the way the Environment Agency and central government can respond to challenges, including flooding or chemical incidents.

Then you have the smaller projects. There are a lot of government organisations that collect data in the field. Typically, they build a workflow, collect it on paper, bring it back to the office and then input it into a computer. Now, using our field data collection software this can be done on their mobile phone. As soon as they have a mobile data connection it is then uploaded into their corporate systems and accessible across the whole organisation. It's reducing staff time in the field by about 20% and it's repeatable.

Also Read