Mapping the future

Innovation is at the centre of Chris Parker’s work for Ordnance Survey. He tells Stuart Nathan how he is exploring our ever-increasing technological advances to exploit the uses of geographical data.


For most of us, Ordnance Survey is not a name readily associated with high technology. Although we’re familiar with its iconic maps from school geography classes and, if we’re outdoor types, from planning walks and other expeditions, OS is, literally, a part of the landscape.

But the landscape, as any geographer will tell you, is far from static. And just as the landscape changes, so OS has to change too. Always at the forefront of the technologies used to survey the land in all of its forms, from rugged mountains to coastal plains and man-made town- and cityscapes, it is also now deeply involved in the development of pervasive computing, which promises to bring about enormous changes in our lifestyles.

OS is a venerable institution, founded in 1791 to help George III’s government plan the defence against a possible French invasion. Ever since, the organisation has prided itself on using the best available technologies for surveying and mapping. And although it’s the paper maps which are best known, OS’s flagship product is the MasterMap, a digital map of the UK containing over 450 million geographic features, which can show topography, transport links, locations of individual postal addresses and the aerial imagery from which it is derived.

But although geographical information (GI) is at the core of OS’s activities, it is increasingly just the start of what the organisation does. The question that OS has to answer is: what can be done with it?

Addressing this question is the responsibility of Chris Parker, OS’s director of research and innovation. It’s an unusual job title, which Parker believes gives a clue to the organisation’s ethos. ‘We wanted something different from the usual “research and development” or “research and technology”,’ he said. ‘Having “innovation” in the job title suggests that successful research is about innovation — creativity, designing and prototyping — and having the imagination required to tackle challenges.’

In OS’s case, innovation often springs from its collaboration with other organisations. ‘What we’ve done is utilise networks well beyond our own domain,’ Parker said. ‘The idea is that things tend to happen at the edges of your own domain, where it impinges into others. That’s where you tend to find ideas that may apply in completely different ways to your own situation.’

Parker’s background stands him in good stead for his work at OS, whose main concern is how people interact with the landscape. A geographer by training, his speciality is the interaction between land and water, and how people can gain access to water resources. Before joining OS, he managed water resources and geographical information projects in areas as diverse as Oman, Pakistan and Zambia. With his focus now on his native UK, Parker’s role encompasses these types of interactions and more.

This is a particularly interesting time for Parker’s department, and the reason for this can be found in your pocket. In the past five years, advances in microprocessing speed and associated technology have seen mobile phones, palmtop computers and similar devices become ever smaller, and able to handle far larger amounts of data. The effects of this trend are seen with in-car GPS systems starting to supplant paper maps as the main method of navigation.

For Parker, this is just the beginning. ‘We’re seeing a convergence of distributed computing and the internet, with both fixed and mobile communication, and positioning and location systems, all starting to come together,’ he said.

This has been accompanied by the entry of several new players into the GI marketplace — notably, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, all of whom have launched mapping applications into the general marketplace. ‘This has given us a lot more opportunity for innovation, because now we have to tackle the problem of ease of use,’ he said.

‘We have this idea that users don’t want GI per se; what they want is to carry out their work tasks or leisure activity with more efficiency and pleasure. GI is an element in helping them to do this. So a lot of our research is concentrated on users and their tasks, and having understood that, we feed that back into the development of the technology itself.’

This has led to a change in the character of the data that Parker’s team handles. ‘Whereas, in the past, what we’ve dealt with is mainly location information — so people can find out where they are — increasingly we’re talking about the idea of “where-ness”,’ he said. ‘That’s not just location information, but it’s the combination of positioning and what you can do with that, what services you can provide.’

But it still all starts with the GI itself: the raw material of mapping. Here, OS is looking at new ways of collecting the information. Last year, it started using Intergraph Digital Mapping Cameras in aerial photography, which receive and process information in five ‘bands’ — panchromatic, red, blue, green and near-infrared (IR). The extra information, especially the IR that gives surface temperature information, allows the cameras to tell the difference between coniferous and deciduous woodland; to distinguish asphalt road surface from bitumen roofs; and to locate the edges of water bodies accurately.

It is also looking at light detection and ranging (LiDAR), which bounces lasers off geographical features and buildings, to determine their 3D coordinates. ‘We’re using video vans equipped with a CCTV camera and LiDAR sensors to pick up information on the move,’ said Parker. ‘With these laser scanners, you’re registering millions of points of information which you then establish in geographic space, and locate in relation to the information we already have.’

These technologies are helping OS move from its traditional 2D mapping role into 3D imaging of the world around us — but it doesn’t stop there. The demand for ‘where-ness’ information means that the fourth dimension — time, in the form of what’s happening when the GI user wants to access the information — is now also important.

This, Parker thinks, represents the biggest change to GI and our interaction with it. ‘In the past, the map was the database. Now it’s an expression of a database query. In the near future, we should be able to see different users able to receive map information in the way that best suits them.’

Satnav systems are a good example of how technology is changing, and how it could change. Currently, satnav systems receive information about traffic conditions — the fourth-dimensional time-dependent data — but they aren’t very good at using it. They tend to direct everyone on to the same alternative route, which just shifts the bottleneck somewhere else.

But with radio frequency identification (RFID) detecting the location of each car, and that data sent back to the satnav processing systems, a richer stew of positioning data, current conditions and geographical information on the available roads could send people along a multiplicity of routes. The chosen route for each driver could depend on data they themselves supply — how much time they have, their own preferences for a type of road. Ideally, this could keep the traffic flowing and keep all the drivers happy as well.

One development which Parker sees approaching rapidly is electronic paper. ‘You’ll just be able to download the information you need at a particular time.’ For example, a cyclist setting out on a trip might want to see information about altitudes and gradients, where refreshment stops might be available, and overlay that with weather forecasts giving wind speeds and directions and whether — and where — it is likely to rain.

The question of ‘where-ness’ does raise questions of privacy, however. If it’s vital for your mapping system, whether it’s satnav, electronic paper or mobile phone, to know where you are, then that information could conceivably be used by third parties to track your movements.

Parker thinks that society is likely to accept this risk. ‘In terms of the success of services to an individual, I need to be prepared to sacrifice some of my privacy to get the service customised to myself, but I need to consciously make that decision and I don’t want it as my default option.’

He pointed out that most people have already taken that decision in one area of their lives; ‘If you look at mobile phones, how many of us would have been happy to have those sort of private conversations in the middle of the street? We’d have gone into a phone box to make sure it was private. But technology has changed our behaviours, so what were taboos in the past become almost by-the-ways.’