The Science of Where is solving new problems every week, from insurance risk to tracking the Zika virus
In the 21st century the world still faces many geographical challenges including climate change, disease outbreaks, natural disasters and a growing scarcity of vital resources such as water, food and land. Overcoming these problems is dependent on our ability to chart these issues and analyse them spatially.
This comes at a time when we’re increasingly able to produce millions of data points from connected devices – the internet of things (IoT) – such as mobiles, drones, satellites, vehicles and social media, combined with more affordable, powerful cloud computing and machine-learning. Technologists realise the potential for smart mapping has never been greater.
“If you think about it, there isn’t an area that isn’t touched by location, from responses to hurricanes and typhoons, wars, international health scares or utility outages,” explains Stuart Bonthrone, managing director of Esri UK, a world leader in mapping and spatial analytics software.
“Every sector of humanity is now using this technology. It’s not the map itself that matters, as much as the overlaying of charts with spatial analysis tools that help organisations understand more.”
Online spatial analytics can integrate all types of data – 2D and 3D images, real-time analyses, IoT and big data – into interactive maps and apps. Even demographics, elevation, weather and environmental information can be layered and customised.
Esri’s software is now deployed by more than 350,000 organisations including the world’s largest cities, many governments globally, 75 per cent of Fortune 500 companies and more than 7,000 higher education establishments around the world.
150 million new maps are created every day
The data-mapping powerhouse has nearly 50 per cent of the global geographical information systems (GIS) market. Some 150 million new maps are created every day by organisations, charities and businesses implementing Esri’s software.
In September 2017 Esri’s ArcGIS mapping platform, which leverages big data, web technologies and integrated apps, was used to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Maria and its catastrophic path through Puerto Rico. Complex GIS monitored the storm and helped inform co-ordinated rescue efforts. Electrical outages and damage to property were also mapped.
“Our work can be described as the ‘science of where’. Location-based data needs to be easy to use, accessible and collaborative. It can be a way to communicate science in a geographical context, as well as help people understand big questions and make critical decisions,” says Mr Bonthrone.
Combined mapping and data was also used for US storms Harvey and Irma (the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record), which brought traumatic flooding and storm surges. This included real-time traffic data, road closures, shelter locations, rain forecasts and crowd-sourced photos, all superimposed on charts of affected areas. The company has even created the Esri Disaster Response Program to help organisations benefit from their state-of-the-art software.
Geospatial systems and expertise will be essential for our planet’s future
“Geospatial systems and expertise will be essential for our planet’s future,” explains Clint Brown, director of product engineering at Esri. “Location intelligence is about forming a dynamic ‘digital twin’ of the things we depend on, giving organisations a higher level of understanding with which to measure and monitor critical areas and take action.”
Esri has now distributed its software virtually free to over 11,000 charities globally and 2,000 schools in the UK, as well as providing $1 billion-worth of its products to academic institutions. It’s also in the process of helping the United Nations with a data hub that allows countries to measure, monitor and report on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within a geographical context.
The SDGs are a set of global targets that include poverty eradication, access to safe water, eliminating hunger and action on climate change, as well as achieving peace. They are key pillars of the preventative economy. If we meet these goals we will go a long way to tackling future humanitarian crises.
Smart Mapping is being used to track the movement of deadly diseases
Another example of how smart maps have been used is the tracking of the Zika virus on a global scale, less than two years ago. Cartographic intelligence made it easier for health services to understand a region’s vulnerability to this terrible disease. Hospital densities, rain and vector programmes were all mapped
“This technology specifically allowed us to characterise the outbreak and contextualise it for decision makers,” says Dr Joseph Green, a health risk specialist at the Pacific Disaster Centre. “Our maps described the distribution of suspected cases at national levels throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
Esri’s UK base is in Aylesbury, although it employs over 3,000 globally and has revenues of more than $1 billion, allowing it to offer services to many economies around the world that need powerful spatial and analytics software.
British utility companies work smarter using apps in the field to collect data
Certainly, mapping the preventative economy isn’t just focused on the humanitarian sector. British utility companies also find that spatial tech works well for power, broadband or water supply issues including outages and service losses. National Grid, Scottish Power, Thames Water, Wessex Water, Scottish Power and telecoms provider EE are all clients of Esri.
In the case of the National Grid, Esri’s ArcGIS mapping technology was made available to most of its 5,000 UK employees, including customer call centre staff and mobile engineers as part of its transformation programme to save £35 million a year.
“Most of our activities are location-based, so we could see we needed to get more of our processes on digital maps and make GIS capabilities accessible to employees right across the business,” says Pete Massey, previously director of gas distribution transformation programme, National Grid.
Previously, National Grid created network replacements on paper and then manually generated the related work orders. Now, engineers design new networks directly on maps in ArcGIS and the work orders are produced automatically from digital designs. “The whole process is much slicker and a lot more efficient,” says Mr Massey.
Mapping technology enables insurers’ to accurately calculate risk exposure
The insurance industry is also increasingly using complex mapping techniques and big data to evaluate risk. Climate change and extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, creating new threats in new locations. The challenge is to evaluate the risks companies are taking on, manage their exposure and price them accordingly.
XL Catlin, Willis Towers Watson and Sompo Canopius all now use ArcGIS to map natural hazards, where their clients are located and insurance details. “It helps us understand what risks exist at a property and informs our underwriting of risks in an area,” states Alan Milroy, head of geospatial underwriting at XL Catlin.
Companies can also access accumulated insurance data by location and minimise their overexposure. By smart mapping, firms are also finding they can now make incisive underwriting decisions and better understand the impact of major catastrophes, which can hit profitability hard.
Certainly, advanced mapping has a future. Combined with new developments in artificial intelligence, spatial analysis could become even more powerful with the ability to offer increasingly accurate predictive GIS services as historical and real-time data becomes more prolific.
There’s no doubt that “the science of where” is making a smarter world.