Accurate data key to mapping services

With more people relying on technology like Google Maps in their everyday lives, governments are increasingly expected to step up, a conference has heard.

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ABU DHABI // With more people relying on technology such as Google Maps in their everyday lives, governments are increasingly expected to move with the times.

Demand is growing for public services that utilise reliable location data from geographic information systems (GIS), experts said at a conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

This data is increasingly being used in Abu Dhabi in sectors including public health, local government, security, urban planning and education.

A survey found that 20 per cent more people were using these location-based services than when they were first introduced in Abu Dhabi, said Khawla Al Fahim, executive manager of the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Centre (Adsic) spatial data division.

The centre coordinates the use of these systems and applications for geospatial data among government entities in the emirate.

Sixty-five per cent of the emirate’s population benefits from geographic information services, said Omar Al Shaiba, director of spatial data and property at the Abu Dhabi Department of Municipal Affairs.

One of the uses has been mapping tourism sites in Al Ain, he said.

Another example is Adsic's City-Guard smartphone app, through which people can take a picture and report a problem such as a broken bench or pothole. More than 84,000 people have downloaded the app, the centre says, and 90 per cent of cases have been closed.

“Now, people – the public – are wearing that hat of the inspector,” Ms Al Fahim said.

The picture and location data are reported to the government call centre and transferred to the relevant authorities, such as food inspectors or the municipality.

“So this is one of the ways we are moving forward, having people participate more in the government’s work,” said Ms Al Fahim.

She said the centre has policies to protect people’s privacy.

“We do have policies on information technology and information security standards that we follow when it comes to privacy. We have different layers of information.”

Basic information may be publicly available – if someone is looking for a hotel, or instance, they may find its location, name, number of rooms and rating, she said.

“The next layer of security that we have is just another layer of information,” said Ms Al Fahim. “That’s one way that we control privacy.”

Geospatial technology tends to help people rather than affect their privacy, said Vanessa Lawrence, secretary general of Ordnance Survey International, which advises governments on mapping and location data services.

“Around the world there is a constant debate about privacy, but the data that our industry uses is about place and location, not about people,” she said.

“What we have very much recognised is that as long as you don’t collect information about people, which we don’t and nor do we advise anyone does, then privacy issues are not an issue at all.”

The technology allows basic functions such as rubbish collection and traffic management to be carried out more cheaply and efficiently.

“More often, I think, if our technology allows that to happen, then that’s great,” she said.

“If it just means that because you understand the flows of traffic through a particular junction, then that’s a real economic benefit.

“So what I am seeing around the world is that this is assisting people, not affecting their privacy. Constantly we think about these things, but it has not been an issue to date.”

Governments need to rely, however, on authoritative data rather than data that is “just good enough” that may be available elsewhere, Ms Lawrence said. Her company has advised Bahrain on using geospatial information.

“What is happening in Bahrain and in many countries across the road is they need to build authoritative data, where everyone can trust the data and knows that the data is the exact representation of what’s happening on the ground, so a road is exactly where it says it is,” she said. “Just good enough data is not for the future.”