The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Martin Whitworth, Deputy Director of Data, Mapping, Modelling and Information at the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency. Whitworth discussed the agency’s recent Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) mapping of the English countryside and outlined the impact this work will have on core agency functions as well as unexpected areas such as the development of virtual worlds for online gaming.
This interview has been edited.
Paul MacDonnell: You have been using lasers to map the English countryside, and you now have over 70 percent of the land area covered. What does this data reveal? Have you added new information to that which you traditionally gathered?
Martin Whitworth: We started in 1998 using lasers—Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR)—deployed from aircraft to create a digital version of the natural terrain. Our basic objective is to get information that will enable us to understand the suitability of land for human use. That will include flood mapping—a fundamental objective of the agency—but the data can also help identify optimal sites for telecommunications masts, solar panels, and wind turbines. So we’re not getting any new category of data, it’s just that we’re getting much more of it, much more quickly. For example over the 18 years since we started the technology has improved enormously, enabling us to map at much finer granularity. This means we get more data more quickly and the terrain models can be created more quickly.
MacDonnell: Last September this project became a flagship open data initiative when you made the information free to the public. Who will benefit and in what way?
Whitworth: The data is very helpful to a wide number of interests. For example, archaeologists are using it to detect ancient land-use patterns; computer game developers are using it to build virtual 3D worlds; hillwalkers use it to create slope maps; companies in the transport and energy sector use it when considering where to site infrastructure; and the Forestry Commission uses it to count trees. Also, because it can accurately identify areas of sunlight and shade—as well as elevation—it has been useful for identifying the best places to site solar panels. It’s even been used to help choose the optimum places for vineyards.
MacDonnell: Do you see a future for Internet of Things in identifying and tracking land use and, of course, pollution?
Whitworth: Yes, I do. As well as flood risk, we are charged with collecting information on both the quality and the rate of flow of water. There will be a role for sensors within a system that will be able to make information, such as the threat of imminent flooding, available in real time to the general public, probably via the web. The key issue for us is that the technology will need to be both reliant and cheap enough for large scale deployment.
This will add new and better information that will enhance our overall work, particularly our contribution to water management, land-use, planning and flood-defence programs.
MacDonnell: Are you working directly with other government departments or agencies?
Whitworth: We are in regular contact with other government bodies. We talk regularly to the Ordnance Survey (OS) and have been in contact with the National Soil Research Institute and the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, which researches land and water-based eco-systems.
For example, we have an arrangement with the OS wherby we contribute to the creation of the OS water network layer. Like your car’s GPS navigation system will show you petrol stations or hospitals, this is a Geographic Information System (GIS) layer—a layer of information relating to a specific feature. In this case it shows all of the rivers and tributaries in the UK, combining Environment Agency and Ordnance Survey data together with information from Scottish and Welsh agencies. This kind of detailed knowledge of the UK’s river systems enhances our services to planners and developers.
MacDonnell: What do you think will be the long-term impact of making all of this information available?
Whitworth: I believe that there are two basic trends that both big data and the Internet of Things are driving in the UK. First, it is making government more transparent. And, I should add, making government more open and transparent is a priority for the UK government. Second, it will make doing business and, in particular, doing business with government, more efficient and effective.